Macrobius

Macrobius
(Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius)
(ca. 360–ca. 435)
   Macrobius was a late Latin grammarian, a Neoplatonic philosopher, and the author of three known late classical texts. He may also have been an important statesman of the Roman Empire. For 1,000 years, throughout the Middle Ages, Macrobius was one of the most widely read and influential of all classical writers—particularly through his enormously popular Commentary on the Dream of Scipio.
   Next to nothing is known with any certainty about Macrobius’s life. He lived during a turbulent era, in which the Roman Empire was threatened in turn by the Visigoths, the Huns, and the Vandals.Yet he was able to obtain a remarkable education. His own work reveals a knowledge of some 90 Greek writers (most prominently Plato and Homer) and an additional 115 Latin authors (Virgil and Cicero in particular, but also many of the only surviving fragments of the otherwise unknown poet Ennius). He says at one point that he hopes he may be forgiven for writing in Latin, since he was born “under a different sky.”Thus he was not born in Italy. Some scholars have suggested that he was from a Greekspeaking part of the empire (his name is Greek). Most scholars believe he must have been from northern Africa. Possibly he was from a Greekspeaking community in Egypt. It is possible that the writer was the same Macrobius who was prefect of Spain in 399–400, proconsul of Africa in 410, and ultimately grand chamberlain of the empire in 422. One argument against the writer’s identification with the statesman is that, in order to achieve the post of grand chamberlain, the statesman must have been a Christian. The writer, however (in his Saturnalia), seems to admire some of the most outspoken contemporary critics of Christianity.
   One other detail of Macrobius’s life that he discusses himself is his love for his son, Eustachius. Macrobius dedicates each of his three extant works to Eustachius, and they seem intended in part to teach the young man. What is probably Macrobius’s earliest work, On the Differences and Similarities Between Greek and Latin Verbs, is a grammar textbook that might have been intended for Eustachius’s early education. The text survives today only in a summary made sometime in the Middle Ages, once attributed, on no good evidence, to Johannes Scotus.
   Macrobius’s longest work (though missing several passages at various points in the text) is his Saturnalia, a dialogue in seven books in the manner of Plato, set during the three days of the great Roman festival of Saturn, and involving 12 different speakers. The text is a compendium of pagan lore, antiquarianism, quotations of numerous poets, and, in books 3 through 6, a long commentary of Virgil.His discussion of Virgil adds nothing to our appreciation of Virgil’s poetic skills; rather, it presents the poet as a kind of oracle whose verses, rightly understood, have the authority of infallible wisdom. It was an attitude toward Virgil that was to pervade the Middle Ages. Macrobius’s best-known work, however, is certainly his Commentary on the Dream of Scipio. The dream itself had been the conclusion of Cicero’s De republica, and was the only part of that text known in the Middle Ages, simply because it was included in Macrobius’s popular commentary. Macrobius uses Cicero’s story as a starting point for a detailed discussion of Neoplatonic philosophy, in particular Neoplatonic theories concerning arithmetic, geometry,music, and astronomy, the four subjects of the quadrivium, the scientific portion of the LIBERAL ARTS curriculum—indeed,Macrobius’s work, perhaps written again to teach his son, became a standard school text in those subjects in the later Middle Ages. But perhaps even more influential was his discussion of the nature of dreams. Known in medieval times as somniorum interpres (“interpreter of dreams”), Macrobius classified dreams into five categories. The visum, or apparition, was a kind of hallucination when one is half asleep. The insomnium, the nightmare, was a dream induced by physical or mental distress. The oraculum, or oracular dream, was a meaningful dream in which a parent or other revered person appears to us and tells us what will or will not occur. The visio, or prophetic vision, is a dream of events that actually come to pass. And finally, the somnium, or enigmatic dream, was defined as a meaningful dream that shows us symbolically or in some ambiguous way an important truth. Such dreams are most interesting because they require interpretation. And such dreams provided the inspiration for the medieval tradition of the DREAM VISION poem, which presents events in a symbolic manner that the reader must interpret.
   Macrobius influenced generations of medieval European writers. In his PARLIAMENT OF FOWLS (ca. 1381), Geoffrey CHAUCER presents his narrator as falling asleep reading the Dream of Scipio, and having his own dream vision. But in a more general sense, Macrobius’s Neoplatonism influenced medieval thought on a deep level, and his writing was one of the major vehicles through which classical culture was passed to the Middle Ages.
   Bibliography
   ■ Cameron, A. “The Date and Identity of Macrobius,” Journal of Roman Studies 56 (1966): 25–38.
   ■ Kelly, Douglas. The Conspiracy of Allusion: Description, Rewriting, and Authorship from Macrobius to Medieval Romance. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1999.
   ■ Macrobius. Commentary on the Dream of Scipio. Translated with an introduction and notes by William Harris Stahl. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952.
   ■ ———.The Saturnalia. Translated with an introduction and notes by Percival Vaughan Davies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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