Praetextatus – Saeculum Praetextati: Macrobius’ Saturnalia (Ch. 5.1)


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




The identification of Macrobius and the dating of the Saturnalia. Macrobius’ Saturnalia depicts a literary circle of erudite Roman aristocrats in which Praetextatus, Symmachus, Nicomachus Flavianus and others have gathered together to celebrate the saturnalia festival and to discuss literature, philosophy and religion. Praetextatus appears as the main speaker and one of the main characters in the imaginary conversations of the Saturnalia.

The identification of Macrobius and the dating of his works have been a much discussed problem in the scholarly literature but since 1966 the identification proposed by Alan Cameron has been accepted by most scholars. He identifies the writer of the Saturnalia with a Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, the praetorian prefect of Italy in 430, and dates the work after 431.[1] Earlier the writer had been identified with a Macrobius mentioned three times in the Theodosian Code, a vicarius of Hispania in 399-400 (CTh 16.10.15), a proconsul of Africa in 410 (CTh 11.28.6) and a praepositus sacri cubiculi in 422 (CTh 6.8.1)[2] and therefore it was widely held that Macrobius was Praetextatus’ contemporary and belonged to the literary circle of Praetextatus and Symmachus.[3] Cameron rejects these identifications because the writer of the Saturnalia was known as Theodosius, not as Macrobius, for most of the manuscripts of Saturnalia, De differentiis and Somnium Scipionis call him either Macrobius Theodosius or Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius; a man was usually known by his last name in late Roman nomenclature.[4]

When Macrobius wrote his Saturnalia in the 430s, all the characters in the work were dead; he thus followed the example of Cicero’s De re publica where the characters were all already deceased by the time Cicero wrote his work. The terminus post quem, the last date an interlocutor of the Saturnalia is known to have lived until, is 416. Macrobius himself implies that he has written his Saturnalia one generation later than the main speaker Praetextatus, for in the beginning of the work he apologizes for the anachronisms that he has created: he has included among the characters one or two who gained maturity a generation later than Praetextatus, matura aetas posterior saeculo Praetextati fuit.[5] Two interlocutors, Servius and Avienus, who belong to the next generation, are anachronisms whose matura aetas fell after the saeculum of Praetextatus. As Macrobius wrote his Saturnalia one generation after Praetextatus’ death, Servius and Avienus were already established figures in the scholarly world; Servius is identified with the Vergil commentator Servius who published his commentary probably after 410, before Macrobius’ Saturnalia, and Avienus with the fabulist Avianus from the early fifth century.[6]

The dramatic date of the Saturnalia. In describing Praetextatus’ circle, Macrobius followed the model of Cicero who in his De re publica had introduced the literary circle around Scipio Africanus the Younger and set the scene of his dialogue only a couple of days before the death of Scipio, the main speaker, in 129 B.C.E.[7] Since Cicero had chosen the nearest feast day, i.e. the feriae Latinae, before Scipio’s death as the dramatic date of his Republic, Macrobius might have decided to imitate him when he chose the festival of saturnalia, Dec. 17-19, 384 as the dramatic date of his work.[8] Thus, Praetextatus should have died soon after the celebration of saturnalia. However, if we follow the dating for Praetextatus’ death set in ch. 4.1, between Dec 8 and Dec 10, 384, the date given by Macrobius must be wrong. As I have shown, Praetextatus’ death had been such an important incident that the succeeding generation of Macrobius probably knew and remembered that he had passed away at the end of 384 because Praetextatus died as consul designatus for the following year. Nevertheless, was the exact date of Praetextatus’ death known as late as in the 430s? It is possible that Macrobius did not know exactly when Praetextatus died or he did not bother to note exact dates for literary reasons. He intended to follow the model of Cicero’s Republic in setting the scene right before Praetextatus’ death but he was not precise enough. The festival of saturnalia fitted perfectly as the dramatic scene for his work as the festival of feriae Latinae had been the scene of Cicero’s De re publica.

The genre of the Saturnalia. Macrobius’ Saturnalia belongs to the genre of symposium and compiles several different subjects together, mixing serious and non-serious subjects. The model of symposium literature, where interlocutors really have existed and their memory is still alive in an author’s time, is Plato’s Symposium. It is, however, probable that Macrobius did not use Plato directly but rather used the Greek and Latin literary tradition.[9]

In his Saturnalia Macrobius follows quite faithfully the traditions of symposium literature in which characters represent various professions and generations. There are twelve characters in the symposium:[10] first, the three aristocratic hosts during the three days represent various fields, Praetextatus religious science, Flavianus literary scholarship and Symmachus eloquency. Rufius Albinus and Caecina Albinus are erudite Roman senators.[11] Eustathius is a Greek philosopher, Eusebius a rhetorician, Dysarius a physician, and Horus an Egyptian philosopher and a cynic.[12] Servius and Avienus are grammarians, and finally, Euangelus is the uninvited guest and troublemaker, according to the genre of symposium. There are three generations[13] in the Saturnalia: the aged represented by Praetextatus, the middle-aged by Symmachus, Nicomachus Flavianus, Caecina Albinus and Rufius Albinus (about forty years), the young by Servius and Avienus.

The Saturnalia as a source. There has been dispute among scholars whether Macrobius can be relied upon as a historical source, as a primary or secondary source. His Saturnalia is a description of an imaginative symposium that reveals ideas and ideals of his own generation rather than the pursuits of Praetextatus’ generation. Macrobius did not belong to the circle of Praetextatus and Symmachus but he probably based his information on Praetextatus and other characters on Symmachus’ posthumously published letters or on other, no longer extant sources.[14] Nevertheless, many scholars have been convinced that Macrobius’ Saturnalia is a faithful description of the Roman pagan cultured nobility. Though Courcelle remarked that the characters in the Saturnalia do not act in lively manner and that Macrobius, following the tradition of learned compilations, borrowed the discussions from literary sources, he still insisted that Macrobius portrayed the principal features of the personalities faithfully. Flamant also believes that the characters represent real persons for each character has his own personality.[15] I am, however, inclined to think that Macrobius clearly has followed the rules of the genre and created types, not real personalities; Praetextatus is the host, Euangelus the rude guest, etc.

With reservations (see my views in the Introduction, p. 4-6) the Saturnalia can be called a ‘pagan’ work, and Macrobius may have himself been a pagan or pagan-minded but the pagan element in the Saturnalia should not be over-emphasized for it was not ‘pagan’ propaganda aimed against Christianity as some scholars have considered it to be. Flamant, for example, detects ‘pagan’ attacks against Christianity hidden behind the vast scholarship and antiquarianism of the work. Thus, the polemic would always be implicit because Macrobius could not enter into open controversy against Christians in the Christianized society.[16] Euangelus has been used as an example of the hidden insinuations against Christianity: Courcelle proposed that Euangelus’ name might refer to his adherence to the Christian religion and Macrobius might have presented him in an unfavourable light because he was a Christian. Euangelus reprimands Vergil and Cicero (Macr. Sat. 5.2.1; 1.24.2-4) and threatens to leave if the discussion turns to pagan religious secrets whereas Praetextatus answers that the pagans have nothing to hide on the nature of gods (Macr. Sat. 1.7.4-6). Later Euangelus accuses Praetextatus of superstition (Macr. Sat. 1.11.1-2) and after Praetextatus’ speech on solar theology, he makes ironical remarks (Macr. Sat. 1.24.2-4; 1.24.6-7).[17] Nevertheless, as Flamant points out, Euangelus does not act as a Christian in the Saturnalia but rather as a sceptic.[18] Furthermore, he acts in the role of an uninvited and uncouth guest in the symposium.

Instead of being ‘pagan’ propaganda or polemic against Christians, Macrobius’ Saturnalia is rather an encyclopedia or an antiquarian compilation of the Roman traditions that I reluctantly call ‘pagan’. Alan Cameron regards the work as an idealization of the saeculum Praetextati while P. Chuvin criticizes him for simplification and exaggeration since the work is not only an idealized and nostalgic portrait of the pagan past but it could also be regarded as a theological meditation.[19] I regard the Saturnalia as a meditation on the past because what Macrobius cherishes in it is not the Graeco-Roman pantheon but the cultural heritage of the past (of which the Graeco-Roman gods inevitably formed a part). As W. Liebeschuetz has recently remarked, Macrobius wished to demonstrate the great value of the cultural heritage of the ‘pagan’ past to his contemporaries but also simultanously to avoid conflict with Christianity.[20] Macrobius, in addition to Martianus Capella and some other writers, succeeded in reconciling the Graeco-Roman heritage of the past with the Christian culture, since his writings, particularly his Somnium Scipionis, were among the most popular works in the Middle Ages.

It seems that Macrobius chose Praetextatus and others as his interlocutors not for their manifest paganism but for their erudition since even one or two generations after their death they were still remembered as learned Roman aristocrats who lived according to the Ciceronian ideal of viri clarissimi et sapientissimi. Macrobius’ Saturnalia reflects sentimental antiquarianism, nostalgic idealization of the past and desire to assert continuity between the present 430s and the saeculum Praetextati, thus voicing the cultural aspirations of the fifth-century aristocrats rather than of the fourth-century senators.[21]


[1] Alan Cameron 1966; followed by Gersh 496-497; De Paolis 1986-1987, xv; Cracco Ruggini 1985a, 146; Cracco Ruggini 1985b, 296. CTh 12.6.33 (Febr. 3, 430) addressed to Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius; this identification was already suggested by Mazzarino 1937-1938, 255-256. Flamant 134 dates the Saturnalia between 420 and 430, probably 425-428, Chuvin 130 shortly after 431 or between 425 and 428 and Gersh 497-498 argues for a date as early as soon after 410.

[2] E.g. Courcelle 1943, 3; Stahl 6-9; Lambrechts 33; Marinone 10; Bloch 1945, 206; later Döpp 619-632; Flamant 102-123; Thrams 167. For the discussion on Macrobius and different ways of dating, see Döpp 619-632.

[3] E.g. Alföldi 1952, 39-41; Thrams 141. Courcelle 1956, 220-239 even put forward a strange hypothesis of a date earlier than 386 because he believed Ambrose had used the Saturnalia but his hypothesis was rejected by Fuhrmann 1963, 301-308.

[4] Alan Cameron 1966, 25; Alan Cameron 1982, 380.

[5] Macr. Sat. 1.1.5. Alan Cameron 1966, 28-37. However, Flamant 58, n.218 points out that the interlocutors Brutus and Atticus in Cicero’s Brutus were alive in Cicero’s time and Döpp 628 remarks that in Plato’s dialogues which Macrobius mentions as his models (Macr. Sat. 1.1.5-6), the main speaker Socrates was already dead when the dialogues were written but other speakers were alive; furthermore, Wytzes 344 believes that many of Symmachus’ contemporaries were still alive in 431 or at least during the preparation of the Saturnalia.

[6] Servius is mentioned as inter grammaticos doctorem recens professus: Macr. Sat. 1.2.15. Avianus dedicated his work to a Theodosius whom Alan Cameron 1967b, 385-399 identifies with the writer of the Saturnalia. Marinone 10-11, 44 insists that Servius must have published his work after Macrobius since Macrobius could not have read Servius’ work because he puts in Servius’ mouth views that contrast with Servius’ commentary. According to Alan Cameron 1966, 29-33 Macrobius simply did not bother to check that the imaginary Servius’ opinions in the Saturnalia accorded with Servius’ own views.

[7] Macr. Sat. 1.1.4. In Cicero’s De Oratore the scene also is set a few days before the death of the main speaker, Crassus, in 91 B.C.E. Cf. Athenaeus’ 15.686c where the host of the symposium died a few days after the banquet.

[8] Alan Cameron 1966, 28-29. Flamant 27 n.41 sets the dramatic date at the end of 383.

[9] Lucian’s , Plutarch’s µ , Athenaeus’ , Julian’s µ (known also as Caesares), Petronius’ Cena Trimalchionis and Hor. sat. 2.8 belong to the genre of symposium. Flamant 174-183; Courcelle 1943, 9-12.

[10] Twelve is not a randomly chosen number: 12=9+3 is the number of Muses and Graces. Macr. Sat. 1.7.12-13.

[11] Caeionius Rufius Albinus was still alive in 416; PLRE I, Albinus 15, 37-38. Publilius Caeionius Caecina Albinus: Hier. epist. 107 (in 403) refers to him as senex; PLRE I, Albinus 8, 34-35.

[12] Horus had been a boxer, an Olympic victor in 364 before he turned to philosophy (as a cynic): Liban. epist. 1278; 1279. Symm. epist. 2.39 recommends a Horus to Nicomachus Flavianus. Eustathius is depicted as a close friend of Nicomachus Flavianus (Macr. Sat. 1.6.4) and an expert in philosophy, representing three different sects, Stoic, Academic and Peripathetic: Macr. Sat. 1.5.13-16. Eusebius is a Greek rhetor, Dysarius a Greek physician. A Dysarius mentioned by Symmachus, epist. 3.37; 9.44. Symm. epist. 6.7 mentions an unpleasant Euangelus.

[13] There are also three generations in Cicero’s Republic (rep. 1.12.18).

[14] Neither a Macrobius nor a suitable Theodosius appears in Symmachus’ extensive correspondence. Alan Cameron 1966, 33-34; Mazzarino 1938, 250.

[15] Courcelle 1943, 4; Flamant 86. For Bloch 1945, 206 Macrobius “offers deepest insight into the life and thought of Rome’s pagan nobility”; Döpp 631 is convinced that Macrobius was Praetextatus’ contemporary and as an eye witness gives authentic information on Praetextatus’ circle.

[16] E.g. Bloch 1945; Flamant 135-139, 676. Flamant believes that Macrobius published the Saturnalia before Nicomachus Flavianus’ rehabilitation because it was written precisely to campaign for his rehabilitation. DePaolis 1987, 296 believes that Macrobius must have been converted to Christianity but his work was “fortement pénétrée d’esprit païen”.

[17] Courcelle 1943, 8 n.3. The name Euangelus is pagan as well as Christian.

[18] Flamant 74-75.

[19] Alan Cameron 1966, 35-38 and Liebeschuetz 200-202 for the antiquarian purposes of the Saturnalia. Chuvin 130-131.

[20] Liebeschuetz 202.

[21] Alan Cameron 1966, 35-36. Flamant 196-197, however, claims that Macrobius deliberately chose Praetextatus, Symmachus and Nicomachus Flavianus because they were regarded as the last major figures of paganism. For the aristocratic culture in Italy and the Western provinces in the fifth century, see Matthews 1975, 352-376, 386 where he emphasizes the continuity of the aristocratic way of life in the fifth century.


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