In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Macrobius

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Life
  • Bibliographies
  • Textual Transmission and Criticism

Classics Macrobius
Benjamin Goldlust
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0377


Macrobius Ambrosius Thedosius is a Latin author of provincial origin (possibly from North Africa, but southern Italy and Spain have also been considered) who probably wrote in the 5th century CE. Despite several plausible, or even probable, identification attempts, his identity has not been established with certainty. Macrobius composed three books that are quite different from one another. The Saturnalia is a dialogue that takes place in the fictitious setting of a literary banquet. There were in fact seven books of the Saturnalia, which have not been transmitted to us in full. In this banquet, some members of the high senatorial aristocracy (and, first and foremost, Praetextatus, Symmachus, and Nicomachus Flavianus) meet for the Saturnalia in December to present learned talks on many erudite questions, but especially on religion (paganism, pontifical law, Etrusca disciplina, solar theology, etc.), on rhetoric and poetic theory (as part of a commentary on Virgil’s work, which is considered by the characters as a model to be imitated), but also on many other subjects (republican history, medicine, law, conuiuiales quaestiones, etc.). The Commentary on Scipio’s Dream is a commentary, divided into two books, on paragraphs 9 to 29 of Book 6 of Cicero’s De re publica. Macrobius quotes in it various Ciceronian passages, which give him the opportunity to offer a series of presentations, sometimes even small treatises, on various questions relating to an encyclopedic project: philosophical considerations, in particular on the destiny of the soul, from a Neoplatonic perspective (Macrobius, who puts Plato and Plotinus on the same plane, was mainly inspired by Porphyry), but also arithmetical, astronomical, musical, and geographical problems. The treatise De Differentiis verborum latini et graeci is a grammatical work on the verb in Latin and Greek. Macrobius, who himself largely imitated his predecessors, so that the practitioners of Quellenforschung studied his work very actively and accused him, in some cases, of plagiarism, has himself been read and imitated a lot. He had considerable influence in the Middle Ages, during which his encyclopedic program, based on both the sciences of the quadrivium and those of the trivium, directly influenced the concept of liberal arts, as well as during the Renaissance.

General Overviews

Macrobius is generally treated briefly in all histories of Roman literature, and studies that are devoted to the whole of his work are not numerous. While Whittacker 1923 is now outdated and Bevilacqua 1973 seems to make various highly questionable points on different points, the best general overviews—albeit quite different—are Flamant 1977, Marinone 1987, Fuentes Gonzalez 2005, and Bruggisser 2010.

  • Bevilacqua, Michele. 1973. Introduzione a Macrobio. Lecce, Italy: Milella.

    Defends the thesis that Macrobius would have been a lukewarm Christian.

  • Bruggisser, Philippe. 2010. Macrobius. In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum 23:831–856.

    An excellent synthesis.

  • Flamant, Jacques. 1977. Macrobe et le néoplatonisme latin à la fin du IVe siècle. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004295308

    The only existing monograph dedicated to Macrobius and to all his works. A necessary reference, though on some points questionable.

  • Fuentes Gonzalez, Pedro Pablo. 2005. Macrobe. In Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques. Vol. 4. Edited by Richard Goulet, 227–242. Paris: CNRS Editions.

    A remarkable synthesis, with an annotated bibliography, summarizing in fifteen pages everything it is necessary to know about Macrobius.

  • Marinone, Nino. 1987. Macrobio. In Enciclopedia Virgiliana. Vol. 3. Edited by Francesco Della Corte, 299–304. Rome: Instituto della Enciclopedia Italiana.

    A useful article, presented from a Virgilian point of view and providing much information about Virgil’s reception in Macrobius’s work.

  • Whittacker, Thomas. 1923. Macrobius, or philosophy, science and letters in the year 400. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A now outdated study, which is nevertheless interesting in order to discover what scholars used to think about Macrobius a century ago.

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