Martianus Capella

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(b. Carthage; fl. Carthage, ca. a.d. 365–440)

transmission of knowledge.

Martianus may have been a secondary school teacher or a rhetorician, and he appears to have pleaded cases as a rhetor or advocate. He was the author of De nuptiis philologiae et Mercurii, the most popular textbook in the Latin West during the early Middle Ages. Cast in the form of an allegory of a heavenly marriage, in which seven bridesmaids present a compendium of each of the liberal arts, this book became the foundation of the medieval curriculum of the trivium (books III–V) and quadrivium (VI–IX). The setting (I–II) became a model of heavenly journeys as late as Dante and contributed greatly to the popularity of the book. Although Martianus understood little more of the subject matter of the disciplines than what he presented in digest form, he was a key figure in the history of rhetoric, education, and science for a thousand years.

Owing to the disappearance in the early Middle Ages of Varro’s book on the mathematical disciplines (Disciplinae, IV–VII), Martianus’ quadrivium books, inspired by Varro’s archetypal work, provide the best means of reconstructing the ancient Roman mathematical disciplines. Book VI, De geometria, proves to be not a book on geometry but a conspectus of terra cognita, reduced from the geographical books of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (III–VI) and the Collectanea rerum memorabilium of Solinus. Martianus closes with a ten-page digest of Euclidean geometry, drawn from some Latin primer in the Varronian tradition. This digest assumes importance as a rare sample of pre-Boethian Latin geometry. Book VII, De arithmetica. Martianus’ ultimate sources were Nicomachus’ Introduction to Arithmetic and Euclid’s Elements VII–IX, but his immediate sources were Latin primers based upon these works. A. Dick cites the original passages in the apparatus of his edition. Martianus’s arithmetic proper consists of classification and definitions of the kinds of numbers (largely Nicomachean, with some Euclidean material) and Latin translations of the enunciations of thirty-six Euclidean arithmetical propositions. Euclid developed his proofs geometrically; Martianus used numerical illustrations.

Book VIII, De astronomia, is the best extant ancient Latin treatise on astronomy. Because of its systematic, proportionate, and comprehensive treatment, it is the only one that bears comparison with such popular Greek handbooks as Geminus’ Introduction to Phenomena. Its excellence indicates that Greek traditions, transmitted to the Latin world by Varro, were fairly well preserved in digest form. Martianus deals with all the conventional topics: the celestial circles; northern and southern constellations; hours of daylight at the various latitudes; anomalies of the four seasons; and a discussion of the orbits of each of the planets, including the sun and moon. Martianus was the only Latin author to give a clear exposition of Heraclides’ theory of the heliocentric motions of Venus and Mercury and was commended for this by Copernicus.

Book IX, De harmonia, largely drawn from Aristides Quintilianus’ Peri mousikes, book I, is important for its Latin definitions of musical terms that have long puzzled medieval musicologists. Next to Boethius, Martianus was the most important ancient Latin authority on music.


I. Original Works. The best ed. of De nuptiis is that of A. Dick (Leipzig, 1925). A new ed., to be published about 1976, is being prepared for the Teubner Library by J. A. Willis. A trans. of the complete work, with commentary, is W. H. Stahl, Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts (New York, 1971).

II. Secondary Literature. See W. H. Stahl, The Quadrivium of Martianus Capella; a Study of Latin Traditions in the Mathematical Sciences from 50 B.C. to A.D. 1250 (New York, 1969); and Roman Science; Origins, Development, and Influence to the Later Middle Ages (Madison, Wis., 1962), which contains a chapter on Martianus and places him in the stream of Latin scientific writings. C. Leonardi’s book-length census of Martianus’ MSS describes 243 MSS and excerpts and discusses his influence in later ages: “I codici di Marziano Capella,” in Aevum, 33 (1959), 443–489; 34 (1960),–99, 411–524.

W. H. Stahl