Macrobius, Ambrosius Theodosius

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(b. North Africa [?], fl. early fifth century a.d.)

Neoplatonic commentary.

Macrobius bore the title vir clarissimus et illustris, indicating that he held high government positions. It has been customary to identify him with one of three officials by that name mentioned in the Codex Theodosianus as serving in 399/400, 410, and 422. A serious objection to these identifications is that Macrobius would thus have been known by the name Theodosius, and not as Macrobius. Moreover internal evidence in the Saturnalia, his larger extant work, suggests a date of composition in the 430’s, rather than at the close of the fourth century. The only official named Theodosius recorded as holding office during this period was a prefect of Italy in 430, and this identification is therefore accordingly proposed.

The title of Macrobius’ other extant work, his commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, thinly disguises its actual contents. Macrobius uses passages of Cicero’s work as mere suggestions to construct a treatise on Neoplatonic philosophy—the most satisfactory and widely read Latin compendium on Neoplatonism that existed during the Middle Ages. Like Somnium Scipionis, Macrobius’ Commentarii is in the tradition of Plato’s Timaeus; Macrobius’ main source appears to have been Porphyry’s lost commentary on the Timaeus; and Cicero himself was probably inspired by Posidonius’ lost commentary on the Timaeus.

Macrobius’ lengthy excursuses on Pythagorean number lore, cosmography, world geography, and the harmony of the spheres established him as one of the leading popularizers of science in the Latin west. His chapters on numbers consist largely of conventional statements about the virtues of the numbers within the sacred Pythagorean decade, but include a fine explanation of the Pythagorean doctrine that numbers underlie all physical objects (Commentarii, 1.5.5–13).

Macrobius’ excursus on the heavens (1.14.21–1.22.13) presents the stock features of popular handbooks on astronomy. A spherical earth at the center of a spherical universe is encircled by seven planetary spheres and a celestial sphere which rotates diurnally from east to west. The planets have proper motions from west to east in addition to their more apparent motions from east to west, the result of their being “dragged along” by the rotation of the celestial sphere, The celestial circles are defined, with particular attention to the Milky Way, the dramatic setting of Scipio’s dream. When Macrobius discusses the order of the planets (1.19.1–10), he is purposely ambiguous because his two infallible authorities, Plato and Cicero, differ about the position of the sun. Macrobius’ vague statement about the upper and lower courses of Venus and Mercury has been misinterpreted since the Middle Ages as an exposition of Heraclides’ geoheliocentric theory.

Macrobius and Martianus Capella were largely responsible for preserving Crates of Mallos’ theory of an equatorial and meridional ocean dividing the earth into four quarters, each of which was assumed to be inhabited, and for the wide adoption of Eratosthenes’ figure of 252,000 stades for the circumference of the earth. These concepts dominated scientific thinking on world geography in the Middle Ages.


I. Original Works. See the new critical ed. of Macrobius by J. Willis, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1963; 2nd ed., 1970). W. Stahl’s Macrobius’ Commentary on the Dream of Scipio (New York, 1952; 2nd printing with supp. bibliography, New York–London, 1966) is an English trans. See also P. W. Davies’ English trans. of the Saturnalia (New York, 1968) and N. Marinone’s Italian trans. (Turin, 1967).

II. Secondary Literature. In addition to the bibliography in the 2nd printing of Stahl’s trans., the following more recent items are pertinent: A. Cameron, “The Date and Identity of Macrobius,” in Journal of Roman Studies, 56 (1966), 25–38; M. A. Elferink, La descente de l’âme d’après Macrobe (Leiden, 1968); J. Flamant, “La technique du banquet dans les Saturnales de Macrobe,” in Revue desétudes latines, 46 (1968) [1969], 303–319; H. Görgemanns, “Die Bedeutung der Traumeinkleidung in Somnium Scipionis,” in Wiener Studien,81 , n.s. 2 (1968), 46–69; and E. Jeauneau, Lectio Philosophorum (Amsterdam, 1973); M. H. de Ley, Macrobius and Numenius (Brussels, 1972); and “Le traité sur l’emplacement des enfers chez Macrobe,” in L’antiquité; classique, 36 (1967), 190–208. Also see N. Marinone, “Replica Macrobiana,” in Rivista di filologia e di istruzione classica, 99 , n.s.59 (1971), 1–4, 367–371; A. R. Sodano, “Porfirio commentatore di platone,” in Entretiens sur l’antiquitée classique, 12 (1966), 193–228, on Macrobius, 198–211; E. Tuerk, “A propos sde la bibliothèque de Macerobe,” in Latomus, 27 (1968), 433–435; “Macrobe et les Nuits Attiques,” ibid., 24 (1965), 381–406; J. Willis, “Macrobius,” in Altertum, 12 (1966), 155–161; and C. Zintzen “Römisches und neuplatonisches bei Macrobius,” in Palingenesia, 4 (1969), 357–376.

William H. Stahl