Macrobius fl. c. 430-
(Full name Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius) Roman prose writer and grammarian.
Macrobius is the author of the Saturnalia (c. 431) and Commentarii in somnium Scipionis (c. 430; Commentary on the Dream of Scipio). The Saturnalia is invaluable to historians for its coverage of a wide range of subject matter—including Roman views of religion, history, and science—that would otherwise be lost. Commentary on the Dream of Scipio preserves a portion of Cicero's Republic, which in turn influenced many philosophers in the Middle Ages. Macrobius's excerpts remained the only source for the Republic until new manuscript discoveries in the nineteenth century.
Virtually nothing is known about Macrobius except that he was probably born in Africa. He was thought to be the Macrobius who was a vicar of Spain in 399, or possibly the Macrobius who was the proconsul of Africa of 410, or maybe the Macrobius who was imperial grand chamberlain of 422; historians could not be certain if these positions reflected two or three persons of that name. Not until 1966, with the publication of Alan Cameron's important work on the date and identity of Macrobius, were these tentative identifications rejected. Cameron argued that Macrobius was known in his time by his last name, Theodosius, and the only Theodosius he could find from the relevant period was the praetorian prefect of Italy in 430. No more is known of his life except for what can be gleaned from the pages of his books.
Cameron also analyzed the arguments concerning the most likely date for the Commentary and suggested it be moved to sometime around 430, decades later than had been the accepted date. Many critics have hailed this work as a key text that was highly influential on many writers and philosophers of the Middle Ages. Saturnalia is comprised of seven books. Its events occur during the Roman feast of Saturnalia, a three-day celebration and festival that took place each December. The fictional dialogues take place at a dinner given by a wealthy Roman, Vettius Praetextatus; his guests include celebrated authors, philosophers, and an obnoxious boor as their foil. What transpires is conversation of encyclopedic breadth, covering history, science, philosophy, religion, and poetics. Perhaps no other work has given historians such insight into Roman views on these subjects. Cameron moved its likely date to around 431, decades later than had previously been thought appropriate. While traditionally it had been assumed that the characters Macrobius included in his work were flourishing when it first circulated, Cameron argues that all of them were dead at the time of publication. Macrobius was also a grammarian, but only fragments exist of his sole surviving work. It is unknown when De differentiis et societatibus Graeci Latinique verbi (On the Differences and Similarities of the Greek and Latin Verb) was written.
Much of the scholarly interest surrounding Macrobius concerns his sources and influences. Terrot Reaveley Glover, John Rauk, and Philip Levine explain the importance of studying his works to students of Vergil. Other critics have examined his influence on Dante Alighieri, Chrestien de Troyes, and Miguel de Cervantes. Samuel Dill is one of many scholars to analyze the Saturnalia for what it offers to students of Roman history. He notes that in the work we have a description of Roman society untouched by either Christian or pagan censors. William Harris Stahl writes of Macrobius's other major work: “It is not difficult to account for the great popularity of Macrobius' Commentary in the Middle Ages. Perhaps no other book of comparably small size contained so many subjects of interest and doctrines that are repeatedly found in medieval literature.”
Commentarii in somnium Scipionis (commentary) c. 430
Saturnalia (fictional dialogues) c. 431
De differentiis et societatibus Graeci Latinique verbi [On the Differences and Similarities of the Greek and Latin Verb] (grammar) 5th century
Commentary on the Dream of Scipio (translated by William Harris Stahl) 1952
The Saturnalia (translated by Percival Vaughan Davies) 1969
(The entire section is 49 words.)
SOURCE: Dill, Samuel. “The Society of Q. Aurelius Symmachus.” In Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire, pp. 143-66. Reprint. New York: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1925.
[In the following excerpt from a work first published in 1899, Dill examines the Saturnalia and the letters of Symmachus for what they reveal about upper-class Roman society.]
In the preceding chapter we have reviewed the adverse judgments of some contemporary moralists on the state of society in the fourth and fifth centuries. But we fortunately possess, in the other literary remains of that age, materials for forming an estimate independent of either Christian or pagan censors. The letters of Q. Aurelius Symmachus,1 the poems of Ausonius, and the Saturnalia of Macrobius reveal to us the life of the cultivated upper class, both in the capital and the provinces, in the years immediately preceding the first shock of the great invasions. The poems and voluminous correspondence of Apollinaris Sidonius form an invaluable storehouse of information as to the tone and habits of Gallo-Roman society, in the years when the last shadowy emperors were appearing and disappearing like puppets in rapid succession at the beck of a German master of the forces, and when a Visigothic government had been organised in Aquitaine. Symmachus and Macrobius, although they witnessed the final triumph of the Church,...
(The entire section is 8186 words.)
SOURCE: Glover, Terrot Reaveley. “Macrobius.” In Life and Letters in the Fourth Century, pp. 171-93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1901.
[In the following excerpt, Glover presents an overview of Macrobius's works and explains their usefulness to students of Rome and of Virgil.]
Vetustas quidem nobis semper, si sapimus, adoranda est.
Sat. [Saturnalia] iii. 14, 2
The work of a commentator may be of interest in either or both of two ways. He may win attention for what he contributes to the explanation and interpretation of the author with whom he deals, or he may be interesting for what he reveals of himself or his age. In the case of a great commentator it is sometimes hard to say for which reason he is read. Do the majority of his readers study Calvin for the sake of St Paul or for Calvin's own sake? But there are men of far less note, men who cannot claim genius, originality or even insight, whose commentaries are of value for the light they throw upon the feelings and the tastes of their day. Among these we may place Macrobius. He preserves, no doubt, a great deal of matter, of which the student of Virgil would be sorry to be deprived, though it certainly could not be called indispensable, but it is mainly as an exponent of the mind of Roman society at the end of the fourth century that he merits...
(The entire section is 10305 words.)
SOURCE: Whittaker, Thomas. “The Saturnalia. In Macrobius; or, Philosophy, Science and Letters in the Year 400, pp. 15-56. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923.
[In the following excerpt, Whittaker offers an explication and discussion of the Saturnalia.]
In a dedication of the Saturnalia to his son Eustachius, the author states his purpose with a candour that ought to have disarmed fault-finders. The composition is to be a medley taken from writers of all ages, Greek and Latin. The very words of the ancient authors will sometimes be carried over, yet a certain new quality will be given to them because they have been, as it were, digested and assimilated by one mind. Nothing could be more fairly said; and he is equally candid in telling us of the licence he has taken in bringing together the friends who are supposed to meet at the house of Vettius Praetextatus on the occasion of the Saturnalia. In this licence, he claims to follow Plato; who, he says, made Parmenides and Socrates discuss abstruse subjects together, though Socrates can scarcely have reached boyhood when Parmenides was an old man1. Therefore he will leave the age of the persons at the time of the dialogue a little vague. In reality, some were too young to have met Praetextatus as grown men.
For general understanding, it will suffice to say that the chiefs of the Roman nobility, with some...
(The entire section is 12093 words.)
SOURCE: Stahl, William Harris. “Introduction.” In Macrobius: “Commentary on the Dream of Scipio,” pp. 3-65. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952.
[In the following excerpt, Stahl provides an overview of the Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, discussing its structure, assumptions, sources, influence, style, and some important editions.]
In the oldest manuscripts of the Commentary the author is called Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius v[ir] c[larissimus] et in[lustris]. In other manuscripts of his works the order of the names varies, and sometimes Ambrosius or Theodosius is omitted; but since the beginning of the Middle Ages, with perhaps the single exception of Boethius' citation of him as Macrobius Theodosius, he has been referred to simply as Macrobius.
Hardly anything is known for a certainty about his life. He is the author of three works that have been wholly or partially preserved: the Commentary on Scipio's Dream has come down to us intact; the Saturnalia, as it now stands more than twice as long as the Commentary, is incomplete, the missing portions being the end of Book ii, the opening of Book iii, the second half of Book iv, and the end of the closing Book vii; a treatise On the Differences and Similarities of the Greek and Latin Verb has been lost,...
(The entire section is 22897 words.)
SOURCE: Cameron, Allan. “The Date and Identity of Macrobius.” Journal of Roman Studies 56 (1966): 25-38.
[In the following essay, Cameron provides evidence for his argument that scholars have erred in linking the Macrobius found in certain records with the author Macrobius; that the author was known to his contemporaries as Theodosius; and that the Saturnalia probably dates from about 431.]
It has long been recognized that Macrobius' Saturnalia and Commentary on Cicero's Somnium Scipionis are no less important as social documents of their times than for the precious antiquarian and neoplatonic lore they preserve. But which times? And who was Macrobius?
In view of our relatively abundant prosopographical material from the late fourth and early fifth centuries, there should be a fair chance of identifying a man whose full name and rank stand on record: Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius,1vir clarissimus et insulstris.
The Theodosian Code can show three Macrobii holding office during our period: a vicar of the Spains in 399-400,2 a proconsul of Africa in 410,3 and a praepositus sacri cubiculi in 422.4 It is customary to assimilate these three and identify the result with our Macrobius.5 A nicely documented career, it might seem. The composition of the Saturnalia is...
(The entire section is 10701 words.)
SOURCE: Raby, F. J. E. “Some Notes on Dante and Macrobius.” Medium Aevum 35, no. 2 (1966): 117-21.
[In the following essay, Raby examines Dante's use of Macrobius's Commentary on the Dream of Scipio in his Purgatorio.]
When Dante, with Virgil as his guide, came out from Hell ‘to return unto the bright world’ by a ‘hidden path’ leading to an opening through which they saw ‘the lovely things that the heaven brings forth’, they found themselves in that mysterious and beautiful part of the earth, the island in the encircling sea, from which Mount Purgatory rose to the heavens. There, in the sky, were the Four Stars, which were never seen save by our first parents. The heavens seemed to rejoice in their flames:
O settentrional vedovo sito, poichè privato sei di mirar quelle!
These stars are none other than the Four Cardinal Virtues, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. Dante was to meet them again in the Earthly Paradise at the summit of the Mount in the divine pageant, and afterwards by the side of Beatrice, where they appear as her hand-maidens in an eternal heavenly dance—‘here we are nymphs, and in the sky are stars’.
The thought of what mysterious lands might lie in the southern hemisphere beyond the ocean had a fascination for Dante as well as for generations of mediæval men. This appears with a wonderful...
(The entire section is 2427 words.)
SOURCE: Levine, Philip. “The Continuity and Preservation of the Latin Tradition.” In The Transformation of the Roman World: Gibbon's Problem after Two Centuries, edited by Lynn White, Jr., pp. 206-31. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
[In the following excerpt, Levine discusses the importance of Vergil and other Latin writers in fourth-century Rome as evidenced by Macrobius and others.]
The long and notorious struggle of early Christianity for official recognition and ultimate ascendancy over traditional Roman paganism culminated during the fourth century in a series of momentous events. Historians of the period have carefully traced the course of this movement from the proclamation of the so-called Edict of Milan by Constantine in 312 or 313 on behalf of the Christians through the sequence of repressive measures instituted against the old religion by Constans and Constantius to the fatal thrust against the ancient state cult by Gratian in 382. It was in that year that the emperor, probably at the instigation of Pope Damasus, symbolically and financially obstructed the performance and maintenance of the public rites of worship in Rome. By his action, the altar that had stood in the Curia before the statue of Victory and received an offering of incense from the senators before each meeting was removed; at the same time, the Vestals and the Roman priests were deprived of their...
(The entire section is 7952 words.)
SOURCE: McGaha, Michael D. “The Influence of Macrobius on Cervantes.” Revue de Littérature Comparee 53, no. 4 (October-December 1979): 462-69.
[In the following essay, McGaha explores the indebtedness of Cervantes to Macrobius's Commentary on the Dream of Scipio.]
Don Quixote, the first modern novel, is surely one of the most original books ever written, yet paradoxically, it is hard to conceive of a book more firmly rooted in the literary tradition. Modern scholarship has destroyed forever the myth of Cervantes the untutored genius who managed to compose his masterpiece by a stroke of miraculous inspiration and who was ultimately incapable of understanding what he had accomplished. Don Quixote abounds in allusions—some obvious and others oblique—to literary works of all periods and genres. Cervantes, a man who was in his own words “extremely fond of reading anything, even though it be but scraps of paper in the streets,”1 was so steeped in literature that he was hardly capable of formulating a thought without immediately thinking of an analogue from his reading. The superimposition of many of these analogues on the images of his own fantasy helped to create the multiple levels of meaning in Don Quixote which have made the book one of the most fascinating and enigmatic works of Western literature.
The search for the sources which provided...
(The entire section is 3320 words.)
SOURCE: Peden, Alison M. “Macrobius and Mediaeval Dream Literature.” Medium Aevum 54, no. 1 (1985): 59-73.
[In the following essay, Peden discusses the reception of Macrobius's dream theory and warns against overestimating its influence on later dream literature.]
Chaucer's references to Macrobius come as a surprise to one studying the reception of the Commentary on the Dream of Scipio.1 First, the MS evidence suggests that the xiii and xiv centuries saw a sharp fall in both copies of and comment upon Macrobius, the peak of interest being in the xi and xii centuries. Secondly, it is arguable that Macrobius had never exercised profound influence on the form, structure and content of mediaeval dream and vision literature. It is necessary to examine carefully how far authorities were revered rather than used, if literary originality is to be evaluated accurately.
The sources of mediaeval dream and vision literature may be divided into two basic types: those which discuss and classify dreams and visions according to their origin and significance, sometimes with reference to the soul and its powers; and ‘oneirocritical’ sources, that is, dream handbooks which provide interpretations of specific dreams, often arranged subject by subject. Antiquity abounded in the latter,2 of which the classic is the Oneirocritica of Artemidorus of Daldis, which...
(The entire section is 7634 words.)
Armas, Frederick A. de. “Cicero / Macrobius: Intimations of Immortality.” In Cervantes, Raphael and the Classics, pp. 174-90. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Discusses the influence of Commentary on the Dream of Scipio on later interpreters of Cicero.
Carton, Mary Josepha. “Vat. Lat. 3417 and Its Relationship to the Text of Macrobius's Saturnalia 7.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 96 (1965): 25-30.
Itemizes differences between two manuscripts of Book 7 of the Saturnalia.
Hart, Thomas Elwood. “Chrestien, Macrobius, and Chartrean Science: The Allegorical Robe as Symbol of Textual Design in the Old French Erec..” Mediaeval Studies 43 (1981): 250-96.
Explores Macrobius's writings on the concept of “fourness” and their influence on Chrestien.
Horst, P. W. van der. Macrobius and the New Testament: A Contribution to the Corpus Hellenisticum. In Novum Testamentum 15, no. 3 (July 1973): 220-32.
Lists textual parallels between Macrobius's works and the New Testament.
Kaster, Robert. “Macrobius and Servius: Verecundia and the Grammarian's Function.”Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 84 (1980): 219-62.
(The entire section is 240 words.)