Priscian Analysis


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Born in North Africa, Priscian (PRIHSH-ee-uhn) made his career as a teacher of Latin grammar in Constantinople. After the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455 c.e., Constantinople became the capital of the empire and native speakers of Greek found themselves learning Latin as the official language of government. Latin was favored by the emperor Anastasius (r. 491-518 c.e.), for whom Priscian wrote a poem of praise, and by Justinian I (r. 527-565 c.e.).

In Constantinople, Priscian wrote the single most celebrated grammar of Latin, the Institutiones Grammaticae (fifth or sixth century c.e.; foundations of grammar). It consists of eighteen books, the last two of which were sometimes published separately, and totals more than a thousand pages in the modern scholarly edition. It openly acknowledges a debt to the Greek grammar of Apollonius of Alexander, the Techne Grammatike (second century c.e.; science of grammar), written nearly four hundred years earlier, and it may owe something to the shorter Greek textbook of Aelius Donatus, written approximately two hundred years earlier. Taken together, the grammars of Priscian and Donatus became the standard textbooks of the Middle Ages, from which most schoolmasters took their lessons. Hundreds of manuscripts of Priscian’s grammar have survived into modern times.

Priscian Influence

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Priscian’s methodical approach to language proved highly influential in the later Middle Ages, especially on the “speculative grammarians” who tried to explain grammar philosophically. The “speculative” approach was ridiculed by Renaissance Humanists such as François Rabelais, but the same authors treasured Priscian’s work for the numerous examples of elegant Latin from works otherwise lost to later centuries.

Priscian Bibliography

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Cameron, A. D. E. “Priscian’s De laude Anastasii.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 15 (1974). Discussion of the date and circumstances of Priscian’s panegyric to Emperor Anastasius. Concludes that the events not mentioned in the work provide evidence that it must have been written before 503.

Coyne, Patricia, trans. Priscian of Caesarea’s “De Laude Anastasii Imperatoris. Lewisburg, Pa.: Edwin Mellen, 1991.

Curtius, Ernst R. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1963. A modest treatment of Priscian himself, the volume provides excellent information on Priscian’s later influence.

Keil, Heinrich, ed. Grammatici Latini. 7 vols. Leipzig, Germany: Teubner, 1855-1860. Hard to find, but an excellent Latin text of Priscian’s Institutiones grammaticae. English translations of Priscian’s works are essentially nonexistent.

Robins, R. H. The Byzantine Grammarians: Their Place in History. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1993.

Sandys, John Edwin. A History of Classical Scholarship. Vol. 1, From the 6th Century B.C. to the End of the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903. Encyclopedic coverage of grammatical writing from Greece and Rome through Priscian to the fourteenth century. Shows Priscian’s place in the large picture essentially as summarized in this biography.

Wilson, Henry A. “Priscianus Caesariensis (Priscian of Caesarea).” In A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects, and Doctrines, edited by William Smith, vol. 4. New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1967. The most thorough and generally available treatment of Priscian and his writings. Reprinted from the original edition of 1840.