Varro came from a family of equestrian rank. He studied under the Roman philologist Lucius Aelius Stilo, and later at Athens under the Academic philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon. Politically, he supported Pompey, reaching the office of praetor, but escaped the penalties of being on the losing side in the civil war with two pardons from Julius Caesar, before and after the Battle of Pharsalus. Caesar appointed him to oversee the public library of Rome in 47 BC, but following Caesar's death Mark Antony proscribed him, resulting in the loss of much of his property, including his library. As the empire became established, he gained the favour of Augustus, under whose protection he found the security and quiet to devote himself to study and writing.
He is considered by some to be the greatest of Roman scholars, and a greater polymath than Pliny the Elder.