Annually resolved June–July–August (JJA) temperatures from ca. 570 BC to AD 120 (±100 a; approximately 690 varve years) were quantified from biogenic silica and chironomids (Type II regression; Standard Major Axis calibration-in-time) preserved in the varved sediments of Lake Silvaplana, Switzerland. Using 30 a (climatology) moving averages and detrended standard deviations (mean–variability change, MVC), moving linear trends, change points and wavelets, reconstructed temperatures were partitioned into a warmer (+0.3°C; ca. 570–351 BC), cooler (−0.2°C; ca. 350–16 BC) and moderate period (+0.1°C; ca. 15 BC to AD 120) relative to the reconstruction average (10.9°C; reference AD 1950–2000 = 9.8°C). Warm and variable JJA temperatures at the Late Iron Age–Roman Period transition (approximately 50 BC to AD 100 in this region) and a cold anomaly around 470 BC (Early–Late Iron Age) were inferred. Inter-annual and decadal temperature variability was greater from ca. 570 BC to AD 120 than the last millennium, whereas multi-decadal and lower-frequency temperature variability were comparable, as evident in wavelet plots. Using MVC plots of reconstructed JJA temperatures from ca. 570 BC to AD 120, we verified current trends and European climate model outputs for the 21st century, which suggest increased inter-annual summer temperature variability and extremes in a generally warmer climate (heteroscedasticity; hotspot of variability). We compared these results to MVC plots of instrumental and reconstructed temperatures (from the same sediment core and proxies but a different study) from AD 1177 to AD 2000. Our reconstructed JJA temperatures from ca. 570 BC to AD 120 showed that inter-annual JJA temperature variability increased rapidly above a threshold of ∼10°C mean JJA temperature. This increase accelerated with continued warming up to >11.5°C. We suggest that the Roman Period serves with respect to inter-annual variability as an analogue for warmer 21st-century JJA temperatures in the Alps. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.