Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius

Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius

:"This article is about Macrobius the author; for Macrobius the bishop of Seleucia and Calycadnum, see Macrobius of Seleucia"

Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius was a Roman grammarian and Neoplatonist philosopher who flourished during the reigns of Honorius and Arcadius (395–423).

Life and Works

Macrobius (as he himself states) was not a Roman, but there is no certain evidence whether he was of African or Greek descent. It has been noted that his works display a greater familiarity with Latin than Greek authors and that he frequently mistranslates Greek authors. [W. H. Stahl, ed. and transl., "Commentary on the Dream of Scipio", (New York: Columbia Univ. Pr., 1952), pp. 3-9] He may be identical with a Macrobius who is mentioned in the Codex Theodosianus as a praetorian prefect of Spain in 399-400, proconsul of Africa in 410, and lord chamberlain in 422, although he has also been identified with a Theodosius who served as praetorian prefect of Italy in 430. Since the tenure of high office at that date was limited to Christians, and there is no evidence in the writings of Macrobius that he was a Christian, early writers questioned both Macrobius's Christianity and his holding of high civil office. Recent scholarship sees little conflict between his writings and his Christianity, which opens the way for him to have held the position of pretorian prefect. [Alan Cameron, "The Date and Identity of Macrobius," "The Journal of Roman Studies", 56 (1966): 25-38.]


The most important of his works is the "Saturnalia", containing an account of the discussions held at the house of Vettius Praetextatus (c. 325-385) during the holiday of the Saturnalia. It was written by the author for the benefit of his son Eustathius (or Eustachius), and contains a great variety of curious historical, mythological, critical and grammatical discussions. There is but little attempt to give any dramatic character to the dialogue; in each book some one of the personages takes the leading part, and the remarks of the others serve only as occasions for calling forth fresh displays of erudition.

The first book is devoted to an inquiry as to the origin of the Saturnalia and the festivals of Janus, which leads to a history and discussion of the Roman calendar, and to an attempt to derive all forms of worship from that of the Sun. The second book begins with a collection of "bons mots", to which all present make their contributions, many of them being ascribed to Cicero and Augustus; a discussion of various pleasures, especially of the senses, then seems to have taken place, but almost the whole of this is lost. The third, fourth, fifth and sixth books are devoted to Virgil, dwelling respectively on his learning in religious matters, his rhetorical skill, his debt to Homer (with a comparison of the art of the two) and to other Greek writers, and the nature and extent of his borrowings from the earlier Latin poets. The latter part of the third book is taken up with a dissertation upon luxury and the sumptuary laws intended to check it, which is probably a dislocated portion of the second book. The seventh book consists largely of the discussion of various physiological questions.

The primary value of the work lies in the facts and opinions quoted from earlier writers. The form of the "Saturnalia" is copied from Plato's "Symposium" and Gellius's "Noctes atticae"; the chief authorities (whose names, however, are not quoted) are Gellius, Seneca the philosopher, Plutarch ("Quaestiones conviviales"), Athenaeus and the commentaries of Servius (excluded by some) and others on Virgil.

cipio's Dream

Macrobius is also the author of a commentary in two books on the "Dream of Scipio" narrated by Cicero at the end of his "Republic". The nature of the dream, in which the elder Scipio appears to his (adopted) grandson, and describes the life of the good after death and the constitution of the universe from the Stoic point of view, gave occasion for Macrobius to discourse upon the nature of the cosmos in a series of essays showing the astronomical notions then current and transmitted to the Middle Ages. The moral elevation of the fragment of Cicero thus preserved to us gave the work a popularity in the Middle Ages to which its own merits have little claim. Of a third work "On the Differences and Similarities of the Greek and Latin Verb", we only possess an abstract by a certain Johannes, doubtfully identified with Johannes Scotus Eriugena (9th century).

See editions by L. von Jan (1848-1852, with bibliog. of previous editions, and commentary) and Franz Eyssenhardt (1893, Teubner text); on the sources of the "Saturnalia" see H. Linke (1880) and G. Wissowa (1880). The grammatical treatise will be found in Jan's edition and H. Keil's "Grammatici latini", v.; see also GF Schömann, "Commentatio macrobiana" (1871).


Cicero's "Dream of Scipio" described the Earth as a globe of insignificant size in comparison to the remainder of the cosmos. [Macrobius, "Commentary on the Dream of Scipio", transl. W. H. Stahl, (New York: Columbia Univ. Pr., 1952), chaps. v-vii, (pp. 200-212).] Many early medieval manuscripts of Macrobius include maps of the Earth, including the antipodes, zonal maps showing the Ptolemaic climates derived from the concept of a spherical Earth and a diagram showing the Earth (labeled as "globus terrae", the sphere of the Earth) at the center of the hierarchically ordered planetary spheres. [B. Eastwood and G. Graßhoff, "Planetary Diagrams for Roman Astronomy in Medieval Europe, ca. 800-1500", "Transactions of the American Philosophical Society", 94, 3 (Philadelphia, 2004), pp. 49-50.] (See also: flat Earth).

Images from a 12th century manuscript of Macrobius' "Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis" (Parchment, 50 ff.; 23.9 × 14 cm; Southern France). Date: ca. 1150. Source: Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, ms. NKS 218 4°.


ee also

*Allegory in the Middle Ages
*Macrobius (crater) (named after him)

External links

* [ Macrobius: "The Saturnalia"] , the Latin text of the critical edition edited by Ludwig von Jan (Gottfried Bass; Quedlinburg and Leipzig, 1852), web edition by Bill Thayer.

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