Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.09.07

Barbara Ferré (ed.), Martianus Capella. Les noces de Philologie et de Mercure. Tome VI. Livre VI. La géométrie. Collection des Universités de France.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2007.  Pp. cxxii, 211.  ISBN 978-2-251-01449-4.  €39.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Félix Racine, Yale University (
Word count: 1659 words

The rehabilitation of Martianus Capella's De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii has been announced repeatedly over the past two decades.1 We now have tangible proof in the form of new editions and translations in the major research languages, which should help make Martianus better known and appreciated. William Stahl's and Richard Johnson's useful but occasionally faulty English translation is unfortunately not aging gracefully, due in part to J. Willis' 1983 Teubner edition, which provides a much better text than previously available.2 The serious scholar will want to consult editions and commentaries in other languages: Ilaria Ramelli's 2001 Italian translation is good and her commentary is solid; Hans Zekl published more recently a serviceable German translation, sadly with only a skeletal commentary;3 finally, the heavyweight Budé collection is also stepping in, and is currently publishing each book of the De Nuptiis as a separate volume. If the volumes already published are any indication of the series as a whole, by the time it is complete scholars will have access to an edition that surpasses previous ones both in quality and detail.

Martianus' De Nuptiis is a compendium of ancient culture and science presented as an allegorical depiction of the wedding of Philology and the god Mercury (books I-II), followed by speeches from Philology's maidservants, the encyclopedic Artes (Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Harmony [Music]). Three volumes of the Budé edition have been edited so far: book VII on arithmetic by Jean-Yves Guillaumin (2003), book IV on dialectic by Michel Ferré (2007) and the work under review here, book VI on geometry. Each volume is conceived to stand on its own, a sensible decision considering that very few scholars are bound to read the De Nuptiis in its entirety, and most will instead pick the section relevant to their own interests. Those looking for a general introduction to Martianus and his opus will find it only in Guillaumin's volume, the first published, but this may change when book I comes out. Arguing against recent attempts to date Martianus to the later fifth century, or even slightly later, Guillaumin reaffirms the orthodox view that he was active between the fall of Rome in 410 and the Vandal invasion of Africa in 429.4 Martianus would thus be a contemporary of Macrobius and Rutilius Namatianus, two authors whose works are at times pointedly anti-Christian, a characteristic of the first two books of the De Nuptiis. I see no indication that either B. Ferré or M. Ferré disagrees with this dating. Guillaumin also provides a valuable overview of the De Nuptiis, its purpose, its place in the history of ancient education, and its influence from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. There is much worthwhile analysis in these pages; those who are not reading Martianus merely to gather data will want to look at them.

Book VI of the De Nuptiis marks the transition between the liberal arts, covered in books III-V, and the mathematical disciplines, the subject of books VI-IX. These are introduced by Martianus' hymn to Athena, invoking her help to describe Greek disciplines in Latin (6.567-574). A major crux of this book is that what seems at first sight a handbook of geometry is in fact a geographic survey of the world, with a geometric appendix added for good measure. In her introduction, Barbara Ferré (hereafter F.) discusses the rather fanciful justifications put forward by Martianus for this unusual choice and proposes a simple explanation herself: Martianus had at his disposal only a very brief geometrical tract, not enough to fill an entire book; he instead had recourse to geographic material and rationalized his choice by playing on the etymology of geometria, "the measure of the earth". This squares with Martianus' scholarly sense of humor, but there may be more at play here. Although geography was never formalized as a discipline the way geometry and astronomy were, some geographic texts such as Marcian's Epitome of Menippus betray Platonizing tendencies and may have been required reading for advanced students embarking on philosophical studies. If so, Martianus' decision to write a book on geography would not have appeared as strange to late Romans as it is to modern scholars who have Varro's canonical disciplinae in mind.

Following the double nature of book VI, F.'s introduction is divided into two sections: one on geometry and one on geography. Each aims at situating Martianus within the history of Greco-Roman geometric thought and within Greco-Roman geographic literature respectively. Some readers may be put off by the format of these introductions, which read like a Who's Who in Ancient Science, but they provide the necessary background to understanding Martianus' available sources and the ways geometrical and geographic knowledge was transmitted in late antiquity. The geographical section is especially useful in this respect and explores not only the great names of ancient geography, from Hecataeus of Miletus to Ptolemy but also late Latin authors whose works have geographical content of some consequence, such as Ausonius and Servius.

More interesting is F.'s analysis of Martianus' composition techniques and sources. Contrary to the view expressed by Stahl and upheld by Ramelli that Martianus drew on summaries of Pliny and Solinus for most of his geographical narrative, F. suggests that he relied instead on a single intermediary source, "le Compilateur", who is held responsible for most of the mistakes and oddities usually attributed to Martianus himself (although F. makes room for the possibility that there were two compilations: one for mathematical and one for descriptive geography). I am convinced by F.'s demonstration but worry that it may have been carried a bit far and strips Martianus of too much editorial responsibility. Regarding the geometrical section of book VI, which presents elements of Euclid, F. rightly rejects Stahl's supposition that Martianus relied on an epitome of Varro's De geometria. In her view, Martianus' source would rather be an unidentified Latin translator of Euclid, who is to be held once again responsible for the editorial choices usually ascribed to Martianus himself.

Unfortunately missing from F.'s introduction is an account of the reception of book VI, which enjoyed great popularity in the Middle Ages, as did the rest of the De Nuptiis. In particular, Carolingian centers of learning such as Auxerre and Reims seem to have developed keen geographic interests and produced extensive commentaries on this portion of Martianus' text. In F.'s defense, she touches on Martianus' Nachleben in a recent article, and the topic has already been well covered by Natalia Lozovsy's analysis of glosses to book VI. Those interested in reading more can now turn to Ramelli's massive edition of commentaries on the De Nuptiis (BMCR 2007.09.39).5

The Latin text offered by F. is close to the Teubner edition of Willis but correctly sees more later interpolations in Martianus' text, which she points out, and, in addition, offers a number of welcome minor corrections. F. significantly improves upon Willis' text in two instances. First, she improves our reading of Martianus' notice on Attica (6.653), which is a textual mess. Second, and far more importantly, F. dramatically shortens Martianus' account of how Eratosthenes calculated the Earth's circumference by the use of a gnomon (6.596-598). Half of this notice (6.597) is a confused description of bowl-shaped sundials (scaphia), which F. considers to be an early medieval gloss. This emendation is highly sensible, makes Martianus' text all the more clear, and lifts suspicions of intellectual incompetence.

The French translation is good and clear, and is at times more reliable that Stahl's (I admit not comparing Ramelli's and Zekl's translations). Geometric terms quoted in Greek or in Latin transliteration by Martianus are rendered in Greek exclusively, for an Euclidian feel. Geographical terms that are only understandable to a Greek-speaker (e.g. 6.57: Ceras Chryseon, 6.659: Macaronesos), on the other hand, are given French translations ("Corne d'Or", "Île des Bienheureux").

The text is followed by a hundred pages of detailed notes, which surpass in scope and depth all previous commentaries on book VI. F.'s observations are thorough and fully documented, with somewhat more emphasis put on ancient than modern authors, a sensible decision in view of the subject matter. F. is at her best in identifying and discussing the ultimate origin of the geographical data transmitted by Martianus and in explaining the technicalities of his Euclidian geometry. Martianus' allusions to classical literature are handled with care. Parallels in other authors are well explored, although with an antiquarian bent that Martianus would approve, which brings F. to undervalue parallels with contemporary authors in favor of situating Martianus vis-à-vis his precursors (e.g. on p. 112 where Varro, Hyginus and Mela illustrate competing views on the number of continents; it would be more interesting in my view to compare Martianus with near-contemporaries, such as Orosius, who use similar material).

The commentary is at times overburdened by unnecessary thoroughness. Several entries do no more than convert Roman miles into kilometers, which is marginally useful and may be moot given that Martianus' figures are obtained second or third hand at best and therefore removed from reality. Some readers will be perplexed by F.'s use of lengthy citations where short paraphrases or simple references would suffice.

This volume is completed by a useful geographical index, featuring place-names in Latin glossed in French, as well as a partial index of Latin terms and an index of Greek terms. The table of contents is unfortunately of no use whatsoever and points the reader to the wrong pages. I note that exactly the same mistakes are to be found in book IV's table of contents. This should be corrected in a future reprinting.

These minor criticisms do no diminish the overall quality of this edition. F. does a great service to Martianus by renewing our appreciation and understanding of his composition technique, as well as by presenting a solid translation and exhaustive commentary. The same can be said of the other volumes already published in this series, and we can only hope that more are on the way.


1.   E.g. G.B. Conte, Latin Literature: A History, rev. ed. D. Fowler and G. Most (Baltimore, 1994), 701; J.C. Relihan, Ancient Menippean Satire (Baltimore, 1993), 137.
2.   W.H. Stahl, R. Johnson, E.L. Burge, eds, Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts, 2 vols (New York, 1971-77); J. Willis, ed., Martianus Capella (Stuttgart, 1983).
3.   I. Ramelli, ed., Marziano Capella. Le nozze di Filologia e Mercurio (Milan, 2001); H.G. Zekl, Martianus Capella. Die Hochzeit der Philologia mit Merkur (Würzburg, 2005). Translations and commentaries of individual books of the De Nuptiis have also been published, including, for book VI, G. Gasparotto, Marziano Capella. Geometria. De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii liber sextus (Verona, 1983).
4.   D. Shanzer, A Philosophical and Literary Commentary on Martianus Capella's De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii Book I (Berkeley, 1986), 27 proposed a dating of 470-80, while S. Grebe, Martianus Capella, De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (Stuttgart, 1999), 21 goes as far as 523. The orthodox dating of 410-429 (or sometimes 439) is put forward, inter alia, in the editions of Ramelli and Stahl (Zekl is vague on this point), and by Alan Cameron, "Martianus and His First Editor," Classical Philology 81 (1986), 328.
5.   B. Ferré, "Une paraphrase médiévale du livre VI des Noces de Philologie et de Mercure de Martianus Capella," Latomus 66 (2007) 414-427. N. Lozovsky, "The Earth is Our Book." Geographical Knowledge in the Latin West ca. 400-1000 (Ann Arbor, 2000), 113-38; I. Ramelli, ed., Tutti i commenti a Marziano Capella. Scoto Eriugena, Remigio di Auxerre, Bernardo Silvestre e Anonimi. (Milano, 2006).

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