(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”