Praetextatus – Saeculum Praetextati: The treatise on the Sun (Ch. 5.3)


Maijastina Kahlos, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus – A Senatorial Life in Between. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae no. 26, Roma 2002.


Solar theology

In Macr. Sat. 1.17.1 Avienus asks Praetextatus why the sun is worshipped as Apollo, Liber and many different deities. It is Praetextatus who is addressed on religious issues because, as Avienus asserts, he is the leading authority on all matters that have to do with religion, sacrorum omnium praesulem esse te, Vetti Praetextate, divina voluerunt. Consequently, he gives a long speech on solar theology, that is, he is the mouthpiece for Macrobius’ theology according to which all divinities were manifestations of One Supreme Being.

Praetextatus shares his unique knowledge of mysteries, explaining that all the divinities can be interpreted as one god, the Sun, nam quod omnes paene deos, dumtaxat qui sub caelo sunt, ad solem referunt, non vana superstitio sed ratio divina commendat.[1] The numerous divinities of Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology constitute aspects of the Sun’s activity and arguments for this are drawn from the etymologies of their names, their role in myths and the character of their visual representations.[2] This late antique natural science describes the solar system or the cosmic theory of the origins of religion and offers ‘natural explanations’ for myths and rites. The different aspects of the Sun give gods their names, et hinc sunt natae appellationes deorum ceterorum qui ad solem certa et arcana ratione referuntur.[3]

The birth of Apollo and Diana, for example, is interpreted as the birth of the sun and the moon. Minerva as well as Hercules is the power, virtus, of the Sun while Apollo is regarded as the mythical manifestation of the Sun’s three virtus, iactus radiorum, claritudo and ortus solis and Mercury is represented with winged sandals because his wings are a symbol of the swift movement of the sun.[4] Praetextatus asserts that the various activities of a single supreme deity should be regarded as equivalent to as many various deities, thus the diverse powers of the Sun have given names to as many gods.[5]

Praetextatus’ treatise in Macrobius’ Saturnalia is a good example of the solar monotheistic and syncretistic tendencies in late pagan religiosity which – as Liebeschuetz points out – is much closer to Christian ideas than many views of the so-called classical paganism.[6] The Sun had been the symbol of the supreme deity in ancient philosophy for centuries before Praetextatus as well as Macrobius.[7] Plato had already described the Sun as the image of the Good, eikòn toû agathoû and Plotinus had compared the radiation of the One with the light of the Sun.[8] In his solar theology Macrobius places the Sun above other deities who are manifestations of the supreme divinity and whose powers represent the multiple power of the Sun.[9] Furthermore, the Sun is called the Intellect of the Universe, mens mundi.[10] As we have seen in ch. 2.5, the conception of the universal divinity appears also in Praetextatus’ funerary poem (CIL VI 1779) as numen multiplex.

Macrobius’ sources

The ideas that Macrobius attributes to Praetextatus probably represent his opinions only very approximately. However, Bloch, for instance, believed that the discourse assigned to Praetextatus in the Saturnalia 1.17-1.23 represents Praetextatus’ real religious views. Alan Cameron is sceptical, arguing that Macrobius has used Porphyry’s treatise Perì theíon onomáton.[11]

Previous research assumed that Macrobius used one of either Porphyry’s or Iamblichus’ writings as his principal source for the treatise on solar theology, e.g. Iamblichus’ Perì theôn, Porphyry’s Perì agalmáton, Perì theíon onomáton or Perì Helíou.[12] Porphyry’s treatise on the Sun, Perì Helíou, has been detected as the common source used by both Macrobius and the Vergil commentator Servius which is verified by the numerous parallels between Macrobius and Servius.[13] Various intermediary sources have also been suggested, e.g. Marius Victorinus and Cornelius Labeo.[14]

The German Quellenforschung regarded Macrobius merely as a plagiarist of one source but later his originality in the use of his varied and numerous sources has been recognized. Consequently, he is a creative compiler rather than a plagiarist and it seems that Praetextatus’ speech in the Saturnalia is a compilation of the thoughts of several authors, both Greek and Roman. It is evident that Macrobius exploited many sources, not any single main source.[15]

In his treatise on the Sun Praetextatus explains the various epithets of the gods and shows their fundamental unity in the same allegorical way as Porphyry, Proclus and other Neoplatonic writers have interpreted deities.[16] In fact, Macrobius refers a couple of times to the authority of Plotinus (probably through Porphyry) and of Porphyry in Praetextatus’ speech.[17] However, it must be noted that the allegorical interpretation was also used by other philosophers, for example, by Stoics, who regarded the gods as natural forces. In Macrobius’ commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, the most important authority is the Neoplatonic Porphyry, whose cosmology, philosophy and beliefs Macrobius connects with Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis and Vergil.[18] However, in the Saturnalia and in Praetextatus’ treatise on the Sun, Macrobius does not use manifestly Neoplatonic metaphysics (e.g. the hierarchy of the hypostaseis) in his argumentation. Liebeschuetz suggests quite convincingly that Macrobius’ Saturnalia and commentary on Somnium Scipionis probably were meant to be complementary antiquarian works, one dealing with Roman antiquities and the other with the soul and the universe. Consequently, the author wanted to avoid discussing the same themes twice which would explain why the Neoplatonic aspects are missing in the Saturnalia.[19]

Macrobius cites Cornelius Labeo several times, either directly or indirectly; moreover, in his speech Praetextatus refers to Labeo’s book De oraculo Apollinis Clarii. Varro has influenced either directly or indirectly Macrobius’ treatises on the origin of Roman deities and Roman festivals; in fact, much of his material is Roman. He may also have used Plutarch, Apuleius and Aulus Gellius but he does not always refer to his Greek and Latin sources explicitly.[20]

Furthermore, there are conspicuous similarities between Julian’s oration to Helios and Praetextatus’ oration in Macrobius’ Saturnalia since they have similar tendencies to regard other deities as subordinated to the Sun. Julian’s speech to Helios reveals his Neoplatonic doctrine in which the Sun is the visible form of King Helios, noûs in the thinkable world, but above the thinkable world there is still noetòs kósmos, the higher world of ideas where Helios has its supreme form as the idea of the Good, the highest principle, King of All, tòn pánton basilèa. In the intermediary thinkable world Helios is the king over all other gods, like the sun is the king over all other visible gods, stars. Other gods, Apollo, Dionysus, Hermes, Asclepius, Hercules, Attis, Osiris and Sarapis join the substance of Helios.[21] The similarities have made many scholars to surmise that the writers might have used the same or similar sources, for example, Porphyry’s lost treatise on the Sun, Perì Helíou and/or Iamblichus’ lost work Perì theôn. Julian himself mentions that he has used Iamblichus.[22] Nevertheless, there are also several differences between the speeches; Julian’s oration to Helios is fundamentally based on Neoplatonic metaphysics.[23] Both speeches are based on a widely accepted heliolatric doctrine but there does not have to be any textual dependence between them. There was a special genre of tractates on solar theology, as Porphyry’s and Iamblichus’ works show, and both Julian and Macrobius may have gathered material from the genre.[24] In fact, this genre continued in the fifth century in a hymn to Helios written by the Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus, in a passage addressed to the Sun in Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii as well as in a passage of Dionysiaca composed by Nonnus of Panopolis.[25]

Macrobius and Vergil

Macrobius translated, adapted and simplified Greek Platonism for the Latin West though his philosophy was by no means original or individual. S. Gersh calls him “a Neoplatonist in the fullest sense of the word”. As a synthesis of Roman Stoic and Greek Platonic traditions his Neoplatonism was Western in character; therefore, his antiquarian interests in Roman history, gods and festivals had a practical aspect that would have been strange to Eastern Neoplatonism.[26] The works of Vergil and Cicero were also interpreted in a Platonic way in the West during the third and fourth centuries (e.g. by Macrobius and Servius). Vergil had been honoured as an expert on religious issues for centuries, and also during the fourth and fifth centuries by Western Neoplatonists.

Macrobius devotes most of the discussions in his Saturnalia to Vergil and since his interest in Vergil is antiquarian, the interlocutors – Praetextatus and Symmachus among them – discuss Vergil’s views of the old Roman religion. Vergil also appears as an important figure in Macrobius’ other treatise, Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis, and the grammarian Servius also wrote a commentary on Vergil.

In his Saturnalia Macrobius calls Vergil pontifex maximus: Vergilius noster pontifex maximus.[27] Some scholars have regarded Vergil’s works as a sort of pagan bible and interpreted the adoration of Vergil as pontifex maximus in Macrobius’ Saturnalia as a protest against Gratian’s repudiation of the title of pontifex maximus in 383, one year before the dramatic date of the work.[28] The figure of Vergil has a certain religious aura but he should still not be considered an anti-Christian symbol because his works were highly esteemed by pagans and Christians alike.[29]

Praetextatus as Macrobius’ spokesman

As I have shown above, most of the views Macrobius attributes to Praetextatus derive from various Greek and Latin sources; therefore, at best, the speech probably conveys Praetextatus’ real views only very roughly.

Bloch regarded Praetextatus’ speech as “at least ideally true of the man”, suggesting that Macrobius could have used some lost work of Praetextatus himself, a work inspired by Porphyry and that the imaginary speech represents Praetextatus’ and his followers’ theology. (Who were Praetextatus’ followers?)[30] Praetextatus’ words ego autem quod mihi magistra lectione compertum est publicabo in Macr. Sat. 3.11.5 certainly refer to the conversation in the Saturnalia but I wonder if the words could also refer to a writing or writings published by Praetextatus himself. Unfortunately, as far as we know, none of Praetextatus’ works are extant.

It is true that the manifold power of the Sun in Praetextatus’ imaginary speech has certain resemblances with the numen multiplex in Praetextatus’ funerary poem and that Praetextatus’ many high priesthoods and initiations in various cults have something to do with the syncretistic solar theology of Macrobius’ Praetextatus. However, we do not know if Macrobius had really studied Praetextatus’ theological views. It seems to me that it was not so important to attribute ‘real’ views to an historical person in the symposium genre. It is possible that there was a treatise or treatises written by Praetextatus that Macrobius may have used. Furthermore, he may have interviewed persons who had known or listened to Praetextatus, or he may have read what others had written of Praetextatus but since there is not enough evidence, these suggestions remain highly hypothetical.

Flamant suggests that Macrobius let Praetextatus expound Neoplatonic theology because Macrobius himself belonged to the Orientalist pagans; nevertheless, his view is based on the old division according to which the Roman pagan aristocrats were divided into two competing sections at the end of the fourth century, Orientalists and Traditionalists.[31] This hypothesis has several flaws: first, this simplifying division has been seriously challenged by Matthews (already discussed in ch. 2.3); second, in Macrobius’ time, in the 430s, the religious situation differed completely from the atmosphere in Praetextatus’ time, at the end of the fourth century. The religious disputes among the Roman pagans in the fourth century, if there were any, were not relevant in Macrobius’ time. Finally, as we have seen above, Macrobius did not represent Praetextatus as explaining his solar theology in terms of Neoplatonic metaphysics.

Why, then, did Macrobius choose Praetextatus as his spokesman? We know something of Praetextatus’ religious activities, priesthoods, initiations into cults and restoration policy but we know virtually nothing of his religious thought. As I have suggested in ch. 2.5, his religious views probably followed the general monotheistic tendencies of the third and fourth centuries rather than particularly represented Neoplatonic theology or any other philosophical doctrine. Monotheistic and syncretistic views were part of the theological koine of the period. In my opinion, Macrobius depicts Praetextatus expounding solar theology simply because Praetextatus was well-known for his practical cultic activities and still remembered for his religious ideas in Macrobius’ time. Moreover, he was a figure authoritative and influential enough to be used to manifest solar theology.


[1] Macr. Sat. 1.17.2.

[2] Etymological arguments: Macr. Sat. 1.18.15: The name of Dionysus is interpreted as the intellect of Jupiter, i.e. the intellect of the world or the heaven. Physici , quia solem mundi mentem esse dixerunt. Mundus autem vocatur caelum, quod appellant Iovem. Macr. Sat. 1.22.2-6: The god is called Pan because he is the ruler of all material substance, universae substantiae materialis dominator. Mythological arguments: Macr. Sat. 1.17.54: the interpretation of the myth of Juno’s hostility to Latona. Visual representations: Macr. Sat. 1.17.70: the explanation of Minerva’s Gorgonea vestis; Macr. Sat. 1.19.7-9: Mercury’s winged sandals.

[3] Macr. Sat. 1.17.6.

[4] Macr. Sat. 1.17.52-56: Apollo and Diana; Macr. Sat. 1.17.70: Minerva; Macr. Sat. 1.20.6: Hercules; Macr. Sat. 1.17.9-30: Apollo iactus radiorum; Macr. Sat. 1.17.31-1.17.49: Apollo claritudo; Macr. Sat. 1.17.50-1.17.63 Apollo ortus solis; Macr. Sat. 1.19.7-11: Mercury.

[5] Macr. Sat. 1.17.4: unius dei effectus varios pro variis censendos esse numinibus, ita diversae virtutes solis nomina dis dederunt.

[6] Liebeschuetz 185.

[7] Praetextatus’ priesthood of Sol and the cult of Sol is discussed in ch. 2.3. For the history of solar theology in Graeco-Roman antiquity, see Liebeschuetz 187-192.

[8] Plat. rep. 6.508A-509B; also 7.516-517; Plot. Enn. 5.1.6.

[9] Macr. Sat. 1.22.1: solis multiplicem potestatem; 1.17.7: multiplici interpretatione ad solem refertur. For Macrobius’ theological and philosophical system, see Syska 210-218 and Gersh 531-540.

[10] Macr. Sat. 1.19.9: Sol mundi mens est; 1.18.17: mundi autem mentem solem esse opinantur auctores; also 1.18.15: mens mundi; 1.17.4: diversae eius virtutes nomina dis dederunt; 1.17.66: omnes solis effectus atque virtutes ad unius simulacri speciem redigunt; 1.17.2.

[11] Bloch 1945, 207; Alan Cameron 1966, 32.

[12] F. Altheim, ‘Porphyrios’ Schrift über den Sonnengott’, Aus Spätantike und Christentum, Tübingen 1951, 1-25, 139-152 (referred to by Flamant 657-661) reconstructed Porphyry’s treatise on the Sun, on the basis of Praetextatus’ speech. Previous research is surveyed in Courcelle 1943, 18-32 and Flamant 655-668; e.g. Whittaker 18-19, 41; Bloch 1945, 207-208.

[13] Macr. Sat. 1.18.8; 1.17.9; 1.17.70; cf. Serv. in Buc. 5.66; Serv. in Aen. 4.201. Flamant 298-299 n.197. Courcelle 1943, 18-20 believes that the work is identical with the µ mentioned by Suidas in the list of Porphyry’s works.

[14] Syska 233; Alan Cameron 1966, 32 n.56; Courcelle 1943, 17-20; Fauth 163; Flamant 281. According to Mastandrea 38, 172-177, 202 Macrobius used Porphyry through Cornelius Labeo.

[15] Macrobius’ originality and wide reading emphasized e.g. by Syska 214-218 and Liebeschuetz 197-199; Liebeschuetz 199 surmises that the outline of Praetextatus’ speech might be Macrobius’ own.

[16] E.g. Hephaestus is explained as the power of fire and : Porph. in Tim. fr. 16 (Procl. in Tim. 1.45D). Athena is interpreted as the mind of god, and as the moon: Porph. antr. nymph. 32; Porph. in Tim. fr. 22 (Procl. in Tim. 1.51B).

[17] Macr. Sat. 1.17.3: ut Plotino constat placuisse; 1.17.70: sicut et Porphyrius testatur.

[18] Gersh 495-496, 508-509, 519-520. In his Somnium Scipionis Macrobius used Porphyry’s commentaries on Plato’s Republic and Timaeus.

[19] Liebeschuetz 192, 198, 200-201.

[20] Macr. Sat. 1.18.21; Labeo cited elsewhere in Macr. Sat. 1.12.20-21; 1.16.29; 3.4.6. Flamant 295-296; Courcelle 1943, 18; Gersh 513-515; Syska 233.

[21] Iul. or. 4. While staying in Antioch Julian composed an oration to Helios for the festivities of Sol in Rome, Dec. 25, 362. For the syncretistic elements in Julian’s speech, see Raeder 209-210 and Fauth 147-162.

[22] Iul. or. 4.146A; 150D; 157D-158A. Courcelle 1943, 18; Whittaker 18-19, 41.

[23] Liebeschuetz 197-198.

[24] Bouffartique 332-337, 357; DesPlaces 329-330; O’Daly 1994, 1257-1258; Mastandrea 174; Liebeschuetz 192. Bouffartique 358 argues that Julian had not necessarily read Iamblichus but his writings were based on general Neoplatonic teaching of the period.

[25] Procl. hymn. 1; Mart. Cap. 2.185-193; Nonn. Dion. 40.369-410.

[26] Gersh 493; Moreschini 94, 106-107; Mastandrea 38, 172-177, 202.

[27] Macr. Sat. 1.24.16.

[28] Döpp 632; Thrams 156.

[29] Alan Cameron 1977, 23-24. For the discussion on Vergil as a pagan Bible, see DePaolis 1987, 293-294 and Sinclair 261-263.

[30] Bloch 1945, 207-208 n.26; also Courcelle 1943, 16 believes that Praetextatus could really have given the speech composed by Marcobius whereas Alan Cameron 1966, 32 n.56 and Flamant 35-36 reject the hypothesis. O’Donnell 1979, 66-67 points out that Macrobius at least presents the views that Praetextatus was believed to stand for by the succeeding generation; Liebeschuetz 199 also regards Praetextatus’ writings as a possible source for Macrobius.

[31] Flamant 36, 44.

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