Priscian Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Priscian’s Institutiones grammaticae preserved and abridged several earlier works of classical Latin grammar in a form so useful that it was copied and annotated and became the standard work in its genre until the end of the Middle Ages.

Early Life

Few details of Priscian’s life are known. He was a native of the Vandal kingdom in North Africa and at some time before 503 c.e. moved his residence to Constantinople, capital of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. His presence in Constantinople is attested by Cassiodorus (c. 490-c. 585), who asserts that in his own time Priscian was a teacher of Latin grammar there. From Priscian’s words in his De laude imperatoris Anastasii (panegyric to Emperor Anastasius) it is clear that he disliked barbarians, such as the Ostrogoths, who ruled Italy from about 489 to 568: “My hope is that both Romes may be obedient to you [Anastasius] alone.”

It is possible that the Symmachus to whom Priscian dedicated three minor works was the same man who was put to death with his son-in-law Boethius for plotting against Theodoric the Ostrogoth in 524; if so, that would provide additional motivation for Priscian’s political leanings and distaste for the Goths. Judging from the fact that in his panegyric Priscian makes no mention of Anastasius’ war against the Persians from 503 to 505, it is likely that he wrote it before the war. In addition, since his chief book on grammar was revised or copied by his pupil, Theodorus, “in the consulship of Olybrius” in 526, it is possible that Priscian was dead by that year. Theodorus’ copy is the original of all the extant manuscripts of Priscian’s Institutiones grammaticae (526; grammatical foundations), in eighteen books.

Life’s Work

Eleven writings are attributed to Priscian. Their order of composition is not known and only estimates of their dates can be made. Priscian’s most important work is clearly his Institutiones grammaticae. He certainly completed this large work, formatted in two volumes today, before 526, when it was copied by Theodorus. In its dedication, to one “Julianus, consul and patrician,” Prician states that he has translated from the Greek treatises of Apollonius Dyscolus and his son Herodian (Aelius Herodianus). Priscian chose his sources well, for Apollonius has been called “the father of scientific grammar,” and Herodian continued his father’s work. They lived in Alexandria and Rome serving the emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, respectively. Priscian follows Apollonius closely in his treatment of pronouns, adverbs, conjunctions, and syntax, as can be determined from the extant parts of the latter’s work. Apollonius’ most original contribution to grammatical studies was in the area of syntax. Nevertheless, Priscian believed his own book to be brief compared to the “spacious scrolls” of Apollonius or the “sea” of Herodian. Indeed, the success of Priscian’s Institutiones grammaticae may derive from its relative brevity.

A valuable feature in Priscian’s grammatical work is his inclusion of copious quotations from both Greek and Latin authors to exemplify particular grammatical principles. Thus he preserved much that would otherwise have been lost: precious passages of Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius, Lucius Accius, Cato the Censor, and Marcus Terentius Varro. Most often quoted are Cicero and Sallust, but other Latin writers such as Plautus, Terence, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Statius, Persius, and Juvenal also appear. Priscian’s Greek examples come chiefly from Homer, Plato, Isocrates, and Demosthenes. In the first sixteen books of the Institutiones grammaticae, often called Priscianus major (the great Priscian), he concentrates on grammar itself; the last the last two books, Priscianus minor (the little Priscian), are devoted to syntax. Here Priscian was more original because there existed fewer works on syntax from which to borrow. In one manuscript, the last two books are referred to as a distinct book called De constructione (on constructions). A table of contents would include book 1, on the letters and their sounds; book 2, on syllables, words, sentences, and nouns; book 3, on comparatives, superlatives, and diminutives; book 4, on interrelated forms such as verbals and participles used as nouns; book 5, on the gender, number, and case of nouns; book 6, on the endings of the nominative case and the formation of the genitive case; book 7, on the remaining cases—dative, accusative, and ablative; books 8, 9, and 10, on verbs—the general rules for their conjugations and especially the formation of the perfect tense of the four conjugations; books 11 through 16, each devoted to one of the parts of speech—participles, pronouns, prepositions, adverbs, interjections, and conjunctions; and books 17 and 18, on syntax (word order, construction of sentences).

During the Middle Ages, each branch of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) had its own “classic” textbook. For grammar, two treatises of Aelius Donatus (mid-fourth century) known as the Ars minor and Ars maior (elementary...

(The entire section is 2167 words.)