Sources returnpage

Macrobius

Category: Writer

Macrobius presenting his work to his son
Eustachius. From an 1100 copy of Macrobius'
Dream of Scipio.  Both of his major works are
dedicated to his son

Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, commonly referred to as Macrobius, was a Roman who flourished during the early fifth century.  He is primarily known for his writings, which include:

  • the Saturnalia, a compendium of ancient Roman religious and antiquarian lore,

  • the Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis ("Commentary on the Dream of Scipio"), and

  • De differentiis et societatibus graeci latinique verbi ("On the differences and similarities of the Greek and Latin verb") which is now lost.

 The correct order of his names is "Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius", which is how it appears in the earliest manuscripts of the Saturnalia, and how he is addressed in the excerpts from his lost De differentiis. Only in later manuscripts were his names reversed as "Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius".  Cassiodorus and Boethius both refer to him as "Macrobius Theodosius", while he was known during his lifetime as "Theodosius": the dedication to the De differentiis is addressed Theodosius Symmacho suo ("Theodosius to his Symmachus"), and by the dedicatory epistle to Avianus's Fables, where he is addressed as Theodosi optime.

Initial E shaped in the form of a writing man

Although some of his writing appears to simply reflect that of other people, there is evidence that Macrobius did have personal experience of the spiritual world.  In his Saturnalia [16.18 ], although he quotes Varro, he says of these days that:

 Mundus cum patet, deorum tristium atque inferum quasi ianua patet.
("When the mundus is open, it is as if a door stands open for the sorrowful gods of the underworld.")

Even if Macrobius is not talking of first-hand experience, his descriptions are an extremely useful record of the beliefs of that time - what happened to other people.  It is worth adding that Meister Eckhart uses and quotes from the Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis  - "Commentary on the Dream of Scipio", which was an important source for Platonism in the Latin West during the Middle Ages. 

Little is known for certain about Macrobius, but there are many theories about him and a great deal of speculation. He states at the beginning of his Saturnalia that he was "born under a foreign sky" (sub alio ortos caelo). 

 

Which "foreign sky" Macrobius was born under has been the subject of considerable speculation. T. R. Glover “considers that Macrobius was born in one of the Greek-speaking parts of the Roman Empire, such as Egypt, due to his intimate knowledge of Greek literature”. However other experts have pointed out that despite his familiarity with Greek literature Macrobius was far more familiar with Latin than Greek—as evidenced by his enthusiasm for Vergil and Cicero.  But this too may favour a North African birthplace.  Given that Macrobius never converted to Christianity, he may have been one of the last to benefit from what was left of the Egyptian Mysteries.

But we may never know.  What is fascinating, is that he was on the cusp of the slide that took place from the wisdom gained through the Mysteries to the materialistic knowledge espoused under later, strongly institutionalised, religious influence.

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.