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Bill Thayer

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Macrobius: The Saturnalia

[image ALT: A piece of drawn-work, loosely speaking that's embroidery, depicting an old man in full stride and carrying a baby. The composition, surrounded by vine tendrils, also includes a scythe and a flaming pot on the ground: it is a representation of Saturn.]
Saturn: Italian drawn work,
from an embroidery pattern book of 1587.

The Text on LacusCurtius

The Latin text is that of the critical edition by Ludwig von Jan, published by Gottfried Bass, Quedlinburg and Leipzig, 1852. It is Volume II of his 2‑volume set of the complete works of Macrobius; the first volume, containing the Commentaries and the other works of that author, appeared in 1848.

I have not yet so much as looked at any English or French translations, let alone put any online. I may.

As almost always, I retyped the text by hand rather than scanning it — not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise which I heartily recommend: Qui scribit, bis legit. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if successful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.)

The transcription has been minutely proofread, and I like to believe that the text is errorfree; in view of all that Greek, it's unlikely. So wherever you spot an error, please do report it.

Background material on Macrobius may appear here in the fullness of time, but as usual I'm not about to let that delay anything: I'm getting the texts online first.

The work can be simply described, though, as a potpourri of topics antiquarian, religious, literary, philological, and medical, presented as a transcript of conversations held by a group of friends over several days during the end-of‑the-year holidays: before, during and after dinner. The work is fragmentary so in fact we only have 2 days.

There is an added dimension of interest to the work in that the group of friends is a literary and political circle of real people, chief of whom was Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, in whose house the conversations take place. In an increasingly Christian Rome, they had remained pagan; Macrobius, writing several decades later, presents them in an ideal light.

Book Highlights

Matters calendrical: the civil day, the months, dies fasti and profesti etc. A section approaching comparative religion: the Saturnalia festival, the worship of Saturn, or more properly the Sun to which he is equated, in his various guises and in various countries.

A fragmentary book: a lot of jokes in Latin; some jokes in Greek, too. On wine and pleasures according to Plato, Aristotle, and Hippocrates.

Most of the book is taken up by a commentary on Vergil viewed as an expert in astrology, augury, and philosophy. After dinner conversation relaxes and the guests talk about luxury and sumptuary laws, the price of fish, and fruit cultivars.

Much of this Book is missing. What we have is a discussion of affect and rhetorical devices in the works of Vergil.

More Vergil criticism — lots of it. What Vergil cribbed from every author under the sun, sometimes changing it, sometimes not. When I typed this, it was all new to me, and I was amazed how very much Vergil owes to Homer, Ennius, Lucretius and others. This literature course somewhat relieved by digressions on who the Palici might have been, where Gargara is and why it matters, etc.

Servius, one of the supposed guests, couldn't have been more than a child at the time of Praetextatus' dinner parties; but after Book 5's barrage of accusations of Vergilian plagiarism, Macrobius puts the famous commentator of Vergil there as an adult, defending that poet by showing just how much he added to what he took from his sources.

After dinner on the second day of the Saturnalia, we get a very little bit of philosophy, a brief discussion of insults and to what point they can be funny; but with more logic than nicety of manners, providing the bulk of the Book, so to speak, is a monologue then a question-and‑answer session which never strays too far from the mechanics of digestion, although it includes a few hoary chestnuts of ancient physiology, including the answers (sort of) to Why is the fourth digit of the human hand referred to as the "ring finger"? and Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The end of the Book, and the rest of the work, are missing.

Chapter and Section Numbering, Local Links

I followed von Jan's divisions and numbering of the Latin text. Once I have one or more translations online, section numbers will also serve as links to the Latin text of that section, which open in another window; and the sections of the Latin text will in turn be linked back to the other languages.

Both chapters (Roman numeral headings) and sections (embedded Arabic numerals) mark local links, according to a consistent scheme; you can therefore link directly to any passage — see the sourcecode, of course.


Von Jan provides a relatively comprehensive apparatus criticus, despite his disclaimers not to master prosody enough to do so.

For now, in view of diminishing returns in terms of its slight use to the overwhelming majority of Web users, I've decided not to reproduce it.

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Site updated: 14 Jul 11