Fabius Planciades Fulgentius

Fabius Planciades Fulgentius

Fabius Planciades Fulgentius ("fl." late 5th – early 6th century) was a late-antique period writer. Four extant works are commonly attributed to him, as well as a possible fifth which some scholars include in compilations with much reservation. His mythographic work was greatly admired and highly influential throughout much of the medieval period.


Very little is known about the life of Fulgentius other than the few references he makes to himself in his own works. His style of Latin, knowledge of Greek, and his view on classical authors and cults suggests that he was likely educated in colonial North Africa. [Whitbread, p. 3] Other references to African culture in his work support placing him in this region, clearly before the Mohammedan invasions of the 7th century. Traditionally Fulgentius has been thought to have a professional career as a "grammaticus" or "rhetor" (teacher of rhetoric). [Whitbread, p. 6] However, this belief is based solely on small incidental clues Fulgentius leaves behind in the "The Exposition of the Content of Virgil" and has been contested by some scholars. [Hays, Date and Identity, p. 211] It remains possible that he was simply an amateur writer.In his prologue to Book 1 of the "Mythologies", Fulgentius mentions a wife, though it is unclear whether this is a genuine autobiographical detail or part of his fictional persona in the story. [Hays, Date and Identity, p. 212]

Identity with Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe

There is a continuing debate as to whether or not Fabius Planciades Fulgentius, and a contemporary, Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe (a bishop of the Catholic Church) were in fact the same person. The identification of the two Fulgentii was first made by medieval scholars and scribes as far back as the Carolingian period. [Hays, Date and Identity, p. 185]

There is some overlap in the influences of the two authors (as could be expected from writers working in the same time period and location), such as a common interest in thinkers like Augustine of Hippo. However, the primary focus and concern of each writer seems to set them apart. For example, most of the works attributed to Fulgentius the bishop deal with his opposition to heretical factions such as Arianism, a topic for which Fabius Fulgentius seems to have no concern. [Whitbread, p. 4] Topics on which the bishop seemed to have been strongly opinionated (Arianism, free-will, etc.) are never discussed in the mythographer’s work, even when a discussion of such things would seem to fit perfectly within the discourse. [Hays, Date and Identity, p. 214] From a linguistic standpoint, the mythographer’s unique style and inclusion of otherwise unused words and idioms is not replicated in the work of the bishop, further suggesting a negative identification. [Hays, Date and Identity, p. 221]

It has been suggested that Fulgentius, traditionally thought to have been writing in the same period as the bishop, (late 5th - early 6th century) may have borrowed a line from Corippus’ Iohannis in his Mythologies, indicating he was writing after 550. [Hays, Vandal Renaissance, p. 102] This discovery has called into serious doubt the possibility of identifying the bishop and the mythographer, as Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe is known to have died in 533.

While the identification debate has not yet been settled, the case to identify the two authors appears to rest on weak evidence. Most of the evidence is based on linguistic comparisons as well as biographical details of marginal relevance. [Hays, Date and Identity, p. 210] Though the tradition of conflating the two writers is an old one, it most likely originated as a result of Carolingian scribal error. [Hays, Date and Identity, p. 186]


The four extant works attributed to Fulgentius include (listed in what is believed to be chronological order):
#"Mythologiae (Mythologies)"
#"Expositio continentiae Virgilianae secundum philosophos moralis (The Exposition of the Content of Virgil According to Moral Philosophy)"
#"Expositio sermonum antiquorum (The Explanation of Obsolete Words)"
#"De aetatibus mundi et hominis (On the Ages of the World and of Man)"

A fifth work, which in the past has been attributed to Fulgentius is the "Super Thebaiden" (On the Thebaid). The manuscript ascribes the work to “S. Fulgencius Episcopus”, whom Rudolf Helm (the first modern publisher of Fulgentius’ work) considered to be the mythographer. This work was not included in the Carolingian manuscripts (possibly because it did not exist at this time), but was included in Helm’s 1897 edition of the works of Fulgentius, albeit with strong reservations. [Whitbread, p. 235] While there is no consensus on the authenticity of the treatise, there is strong evidence to assume the work as a product of the twelfth-century, by a writer imitating the allegorical style of Fulgentius. This is not to say that the work was a forgery, but more likely that it was mistakenly attributed to Fulgentius as a result of scribal error. [Hays, Pseudo-Fulgentian, p. 218]

In addition to these, Fulgentius mentions other works that have not survived to this day. In the first prologue to the "Mythologies" he mentions earlier satirical poems, and in the "Content of Virgil" he makes reference to his work on physiology. [Whitbread, p. 5]


Generally known as his chief work, the "Mythologies" is a series of legends told in three books, all three of which are introduced by their own prologue. There are a total of 50 chapters, each briefly explaining a classical myth and imposing on it an allegorical interpretation. These interpretations include etymologies of the names of certain characters, as well as conclusions as to the purpose of the story in terms of morality. In his opening prologue, Fulgentius claims that the purpose in writing the "Mythologies" was to strip the classic Greek stories of all their fictitious and meaningless details in order to reveal the obscured truths they contain. He also suggests a Christian motive, [Whitbread, p. 16] though it would be inaccurate to define the "Mythologies" or any of Fulgentius' allegorical works as 'Christian allegories'. [Hays, Vandal Renaissance, p. 129 Hays argues the traditional description of Fulgentius' work as 'Christian allegories' is quite inaccurate. The morals Fulgentius extracted from the classical myths were fairly generic, and would have been acceptable to any audience.]

Fulgentius’ etymologies (while typical of his age) have been recently criticized as being wildly extravagant, arbitrary, and often simply incorrect. [Whitbread, p.23] While few have had anything positive to say about such etymological methods within the last two hundred years, the tradition dates back to the work of Plato and was common practice for such philosophic traditions as the Stoics and Neoplatonists. His use of such arbitrary etymologies to substantiate his allegorical claims is typical of his relentless tendency to stretch interpretations and search for truths that are not readily evident. [Whitbread, p. 18, 23]

Several manuscripts of "Mythologies" are addressed to an unidentified Catus, Presbyter of Carthage. [Whitbread, p. 106]

The Exposition of the Content of Virgil According to Moral Philosophy

In this exposition, Virgil is summoned (with the help of the Muses) to expose the truth of his "Aeneid", in a way similar to how Fulgentius interprets the classical myths in "Mythologies" . The shade of Virgil assumes a sage-like status, and addresses the author in a very pretentious and condescending way, often calling him a "“homunculus”", or ‘boy’. [Whitbread, p. 107]

While Fulgentius claims to explain the "Aeneid" as an allegory for the full range of human life, the work seems to end rather abruptly, and the telling only goes as far as manhood. There is no evidence to suggest, however, that any part of the original text was lost. His hurried finish was likely the result of nothing more than a loss of interest in its completion. [Whitbread, p. 107]

By the time of the "Content of Virgil"’s writing, the tradition of allegorizing Virgil was by no means a new one. Aelius Donatus had already completed an allegorical exposition of passages of the "Aeneid" which closely resembles Fulgentius’ ideas, indicating that they were likely not unique to the mythographer. [Gardner, Beowulf, p. 228] Furthermore, Fulgentius appears to have taken the idea of Virgil as a wise and infallible sage from the earlier writer Macrobius. [Whitbread, p. 110] However, it seems Fulgentius was original in his attempt to systematically interpret the entire "Aeneid". He also seems to be the first to attempt to explain the text in a way at least partly acceptable to Christian readers. [Whitbread, p. 110]

The Explanation of Obsolete Words

This text, addressed to a certain Calcidium in some manuscripts, is an explanation of 62 antique Latin words, such as may be found in Roman literature. In his Prologue to the work, Fulgentius states that he compiled the list of words in order to fulfill the commissions assigned by his master (who remains unidentified). His stated aim is to make clear the meaning of these words, not to revive them. However, beginning in the Carolingian period, writers did in fact make use of these rarities, with this text as their source. [Whitbread, p. 157]

With nearly every explanation, Fulgentius provides the reader with a small quotation as an example of the word’s practical use, often with citations to the author and the work it was taken from. However, many of these quotes are under strong suspicion of being faked. Some works may be entirely made-up, while others have been liberally edited by Fulgentius. As was common with writers of this period, Fulgentius does not cite his immediate sources, perhaps in an attempt to obscure the fact that he had access to very few to draw from. The entire work was likely an attempt to improve his reputation as a scholar in hopes the reader would not take a critical look into his methods. [Whitbread, p. 158]

On the Ages of the World and of Man

This compendium of biblical and classical history is told in fourteen books, each lacking a particular letter of the alphabet ('A' in book i, 'B' in book ii., etc). The deliberate omission of each letter often means the writer cannot use any word containing that letter for the entirety of that section. However, he varies this avoidance of words with his second technique of swapping omitted letters for other arbitrarily selected letters. These techniques further obscure his already bombastic language, making it very difficult for the reader to understand his meaning. [Whitbread, p. 179] Just as in the "Content of Virgil", Fulgentius claims the work was completed as a result of the request of his unnamed patron. [Whitbread, p. 179]

The increasingly rapid rate of historical retelling occurring near the end of the work raises the question as to whether or not the work was completed. Some manuscripts include in their prologues an introduction of the text as running ‘from a to z’, and others end book fourteen with the statement, “Here begins the fifteenth book, lacking P” [Whitbread, p. 181] . However, book 13 includes a line about ending the series with a history of the Roman emperors, which indeed is the case. It is possible that the last books have been lost over time, though it is also likely that Fulgentius simply lost interest in the work and gave it a hurried anticlimactic finish, as he did with other works such as the "Content of Virgil". [Whitbread, p. 182]

Throughout his retelling of history, Fulgentius adds his characteristic moral interpretations of events. He seems to go to great lengths to justify God’s ways, and in consistency with past works, stretches allegories to fit his ethical interpretations. [Whitbread, p. 184]

Unlike Fulgentius’ other works, "Ages of the World" did not seem to attract much attention or admiration in the medieval period, likely due to its confusing literary techniques and style. [Whitbread, p. 180]

There has been some doubt as to whether or not this work was actually that of Fabius Fulgentius, though similarities in language and writing style convincingly demonstrate the attribution of this work to the same author as the first three. [Hays, Date and Identity, p. 183] Among the arguments for a different author is that of attributing this work to the bishop Fulgentius. This theory is largely based on the fact that the manuscripts of the "Ages of the World" attribute the work to “Fabius Claudius Gordianus Fulgentius” (Claudius and Gordianus both being names known to belong to members of the bishop’s immediate family). However, the inclusion of these names in manuscripts was most likely the mistake of some eighth or ninth century scribe who assumed ‘Fulgentius’ to be the well-known theologian. It is also possible that Fabius Fulgentius had multiple names (very popular for aristocrats of the time) which included Claudius and Gordianus. [Hays, Date and Identity, p. 182]

Historiographical contribution

Fulgentius’ work demonstrates a clear continuation of the antique Roman compendium tradition. This concise encyclopaedic style of compiling information was common for such Roman writers as Cato the Elder and Cicero. [Whitbread, p. 21] His work is also consistent with the Stoic and Neoplatonic traditions which interpreted myth as a representation of deeper spiritual processes. His allegorical approach to mythography may have originated in the no-longer-extant Virgil commentary of Aelius Donatus, and was certainly evident in the later moralising Virgil commentaries of Servius. Fulgentius’ treatment of Virgil as a sage seems to have been borrowed from the encyclopaedic work of Macrobius, the first to elevate the Roman poet to such an authoritative status. However, Fulgentius’ tendency to strip classical myth of all its manifest detail and replace it with ethical interpretations appears to have more in common with the late fifth-century writer Martianus Capella. Capella’s work brought the theme of life as a spiritual journey to the forefront of Classical literature, a trend which Fulgentius seemed to carry a step further. [Wetherbee, p. 103-106]

The Tradition of invoking the aid of questionable etymologies in order to support mythological allegories dates back to Plato, and carried on through Aristotle, the Stoics, and into the Middle Ages. Though Fulgentius was later criticized for such methods, they were not uncommon for writers of the time period (including Martianus Capella). [Whitbread, p. 23] Fulgentius’ summarizing of classical myths has traditionally been compared to his predecessor, Hyginus the mythographer, of the second century CE. While both deal with many of the same legends, and some commonalities between their summaries suggests a common source, their work differs greatly in purpose and interest. Hyginus appears to have been dedicated to producing a comprehensive reference book for the myths, while Fulgentius was more concerned with allegorically dissecting the material, something Hyginus rarely attempts. [Whitbread, p. 22]

Influence on later Mythography

Fulgentius’ work is said to mark the transition from late-antique to Medieval literary study. [Wetherbee, p. 107] After a period of decreased interest in the literature, the practice of mythography was picked up again in what is thought to be the seventh century by the so-called Vatican Mythographers. All three writers borrow Fulgentius’ methods in order to search the classical myths for obscured meaning. [Whitbread, p. 24] However, it was during the Carolingian period, from the eighth through to the tenth centuries, that Fulgentius’ work reached the height of its popularity. He came to be admired as one of the founding fathers of mythographic writing, as well as being praised for bringing classical pagan literature in line with Christian teachings. [Whitbread, p. 25] Along with this renewed admiration of his writings came a series of Fulgentian-inspired literary commentaries. The practice of differentiating between the author’s intention and the deeper meaning of a piece of literature as carried to the extreme by Fulgentius seemed to provide the framework for the commentaries of this period. The "Mythologies" in particular proved to be an essential storehouse of resources for the Medieval commentators who carried on his tradition of discussing classical poetry in moral terms. Furthermore, his exotic language and use of rare words seemed to influence the writing style of a number of poets throughout the Aiddle Ages. [Whitbread, p. 24]

Fulgentius’ manuscripts date as far back as the early eighth century. As a testament to his popularity, a copy of "Mythologies" may have been available in England as early as the ninth century. Fulgentius remained a standard part of collections of antique mythology up until the nineteenth century, at which time his work began to come under popular criticism as being absurd and factually unreliable. [Whitbread, p. 30]

It has been suggested that Fulgentius’ work, which is thought to have been commonly known throughout most of the Middle Ages, may have been a source for the structure of the famous seventh- or eighth-century epic "Beowulf". [Gardner, Beowulf, p. 229]


While Fulgentius’ works remained popular during and well after the Carolingian period, his factual inaccuracies and questionable interpretations came under harsh criticism in the nineteenth century. His work has been overwhelmingly dismissed as trivial and mislead ever since. [Whitbread, p.30] Historically, Fulgentius’ work has been criticized as being bombastic and foolish. [Hays, Date and Identity, p. 210, Hays, Varia Fulgentia, p. 135] His Latin prose is obscure and often corrupt, making it very difficult to decipher his meaning. [Hays, Varia Fulgentiana, p. 127] He is known for unnecessarily long and wordy prose, along with highly obscure allusions. [Whitbread, p. 15]

Fulgentius is also known to make significant mistakes in his retelling of history, like his conflation of Augustus with Julius Caesar in "On the Ages of the World and of Man". [Hays, Date and Identity, p. 220] In addition, many of his facts, as well as his etymologies, have fallen under suspicion of being based on second-hand sources or completely fabricated. [Whitbread, p. 18, 23]



econdary Sources

*Whitbread, Leslie George, tr. Fulgentius the Mythographer. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971.

*Hays, Gregory. “Romuleis Libicisque Litteris: Fulgentius and the “Vandal Renaissance”.” Vandals, Romans and Berbers: New Perspectives on Late Antique North Africa (2004): 101-132.

*Hays, Gregory. “The date and identity of the mythographer Fulgentius.” Journal of Medieval Latin 13, (2003): 163-252.

*Hays, Gregory. “The Pseudo-Fulgentian Super Thebaiden.” Vertis in Usum: Studies in Honor of Edward Courtney, (2002): 200-218.

*Hays, Gregory. “Varia Fulgentiana.” Illinois Classical Studies 23, (1998): 127-137.

*Wetherbee, Winthrop. “The study of classical cuthors: from late Antiquity to the twelfth century.” In The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, II: The Middle Ages. Ed. Alastair Minnis and Ian Johnson, 99-144. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 2005.

*Gardner, John. “Fulgentius’ Expositio Vergiliana Continentia and the plan of Beowulf: another approach to the poem’s style and structure.” Papers on Lanquage and Literature 6, No. 3 (1970): 227-262.

ee Also

*Aelius Donatus
*Martianus Capella

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