Martianus Capella Analysis


Martianus Capella (mahr-shee-AY-nuhs kuh-PEHL-uh) was a Roman after the Fall of Rome and a pagan in a world officially Christian. He wrote at the end of the fifth century c.e. in Carthage, North Africa, then under the control of Vandals. Capella’s surviving work, De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (n.d.; Philologia, 1971), begins with two books (or chapters) devoted to an allegory of the marriage of Philology (“literary study”) with the god Mercury and their ascent to heaven. This allegory implicitly promises divine rewards to scholars who similarly devote themselves to study. There follow seven books that treat each of the seven liberal arts: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric (the three subjects of the medieval trivium) together with geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music (the four subjects of the medieval quadrivium). The work is written in a mixture of prose and verse (the ancient genre of Menippean satire) and contains much curious and arcane lore from earlier authors, many of whose works were later lost.


Despite Capella’s nostalgia for the pagan past, his encyclopedic compendium of ancient learning was destined to become part of the standard curriculum of the Christian Middle Ages.

Additional Resources

Shanzer, D. A Philosophical and Literary Commentary on Martianus Capella’s “De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii.” Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Stahl, W. H., and R. W. Johnson. Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971-1977.

Westra, Haijo, and Tanja Kopke, eds. The Berlin Commentary on Martianus Capella’s “De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii.” New York: E. J. Brill, 1998.