Life

(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.