Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.09.46

Robert A. Kaster (ed.), Macrobius: Saturnalia. Volume I: Books 1-2. Loeb classical library 510.   Cambridge, MA/ London:  Harvard University Press, 2011.  Pp. lxxiii, 387.  ISBN 9780674996496.  $24.00.  

Robert A. Kaster (ed.), Macrobius: Saturnalia. Volume II: Books 3-5. Loeb classical library 511.   Cambridge, MA/ London:  Harvard University Press, 2011.  Pp. x, 475.  ISBN 9780674996717.  $24.00.  

Robert A. Kaster (ed.), Macrobius: Saturnalia. Volume III: Books 6-7. Loeb classical library 512.   Cambridge, MA/ London:  Harvard University Press, 2011.  Pp. x, 454.  ISBN 9780674996724.  $24.00.  

Reviewed by Sander M. Goldberg, UCLA (

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‘Humiliation,’ as described by David Lodge, is a game academics play by naming in turn the well-known books they have not read. The overly competitive hotshot of Changing Places wins his round with Hamlet—and then unaccountably fails in his bid for tenure. No Latinist will run that sort of risk with the Saturnalia of Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius.1 It is not so prominent in the curriculum, though it has much to say about works that are. As a repository of antiquarian lore, an anthology of lost authors, and a reflection of ancient attitudes toward literature, science and much in between, it has long provided grist for our scholarly mills along with recipes for its use. It is by its very nature derivative. Original research was not Macrobius’ aim, but even when immediate sources like Gellius and Plutarch survive, his work remains important in its own right as a document in the history of reception. Indeed, this new edition, distinguished in any case for its fresh Latin text, consistently readable translation, and rich annotation can also claim the less expected virtue of making Macrobius himself an interesting, perhaps even important figure. Kaster does not accomplish this singlehanded: the old stereotype of the fifth century CE as a time of pedantry and cultural decline as pagan aristocrats waged a last, losing struggle against their Christian peers has been gradually yielding to a much more nuanced and sympathetic view of that age. There is now more poignancy than pity in realizing that the ‘Rome’ of the Saturnalia, so familiar to us from its landmarks of Republic and Principate, was itself a world nearly half a millennium in Macrobius’ own past. What kind of world is this, where the censors’ nota still carries a charge although the censorship itself had been defunct for 450 years, and why would it still matter to Macrobius’ readers that nearly 700 years earlier Cato disparaged Postumius Albinus for writing Roman history in Greek? This is the world these volumes open to us, and what we learn from spending time there is worth considering.

The Loeb format is well suited to the task of providing a manageable Saturnalia. Some notable features of this edition:

Introduction. This fifty-page essay provides both preparation for tackling the work and a skeleton key to its contents that encourages us to take Macrobius’ complexities seriously, to read him continuously and not simply to pluck the fruits that attract us. The order of presentation is this:

1. Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius
2. Dramatic Date and Dramatis personae
3. The Saturnalia as Dialogue
4. The Plan of the Work and its Sources
5. Text and Translation

Some of these sections are conventionally preparatory. The biographical and cultural information in sections one and three is squarely in line with current thinking. (Typical of Kaster’s engagement with recent developments is his specific citation of Cameron’s Last Pagans, a book that must have been in press almost simultaneously with this one.) The section on text is no less contemporary in its slant. Kaster’s fresh inspection of the manuscripts has put the entire tradition on a firmer footing, leading to significant improvements over Willis’ 1963 Teubner. Full details are to be found elsewhere, but enough information is provided here to tell us where we are textually, how we got here, and why this is the place we want to be.2 Sections two and four are something more. They quickly prove their worth as continual points of reference for readers staying the full course. Macrobius’ fourteen interlocutors can be difficult to keep straight, but they are not simply names plucked at random. Their interests and personalities as represented in the text bear significant, though not always straightforward, relation to their historical selves and often shape the tenor and direction of the conversation, as Kaster’s discussion makes clear. No less valuable is the schematic plan of the work (pp. il-liii), which makes it possible to see at a glance the progression of its topics and the relation of topics to speakers and topics to sources. These sections make this first volume an essential aid to the two that follow.

Annotation. Annotating so diverse and expansive a text demands extraordinary levels of care and an extraordinary combination of skills. An ideal guide would be learned but not pedantic, meticulous but not petty, neither loquacious nor cryptic, and with an antiquary’s passion for the arcane tempered by the scholar’s commitment to clarity. Kaster’s combination of virtues comes very close to that ideal, as in this note (chosen almost at random) on Ammon (vol. 1: 286-7 n. 550 re Sat. 1.21.19):

Ammon, the chief god of Egyptian Thebes, ultimately identified with the sun god Re (cf. Mart. Cap. 2.192); the Greeks equated him with Zeus by the 5th cent. BCE, and from the same period on he is commonly represented with ram’s horns (LIMC 1,2:534-54): cf. Hdt. 2.42.1, 4.181.2, Eur. fr. 955h (TGrF 5,2:958), Diod. Sic. 3.73.1, Paus. 8.32.1, Arnob. 6.12, (D)Serv. on A. 4.196, Mart. Cap. 2.157.

The annotation is equally full (and equally unobtrusive) whether the topic is Latin etymology, pontifical lore, Vergil’s debt to Homer, the seven pairs of cranial nerves, or why female flesh is spongier than male flesh.

Translation. The translation is better than accurate. It is readable. Few will object when it is less flowery than the original; many will appreciate Kaster’s willingness to write what an English Macrobius would have written, e.g. de doctis quaestionibus ‘involving matters of scholarship’ (1.2.17), ante omnia quae a Latinis scripta sunt ‘before the Romans had a literature’ (5.20.18), Post omnia in voluptatem censura cothurnati sermonis invectus es ‘To top it all off, you launched an attack on pleasure in a censorious aria’ (7.5.28). Having worked his way into Macrobius’ head, Kaster saves us the trouble of doing so on our own. That achievement has many advantages and one rather insidious virtue: right-hand readers of this text will increasingly find their eyes straying to the left— and lingering there of their own volition for surprisingly long periods.

What, ultimately, do we gain from these enticements to sustained reading? What is Macrobius’ testimony worth to us? His content is often old news. The defense of Vergilian vocabulary at Sat. 6.7, may certainly show ancient philology working at its best, but it is copied from Gellius 2.6, who himself drew on Probus’ correction of Annaeus Cornutus for judging Vergil’s diction by Neronian usage. Yet the very foreignness of Macrobius’ perspective can be quite arresting: he more often brings significantly different values and priorities to the ostensibly familiar task of reading Latin literature. Whether an aspiring orator has more to learn from studying Cicero or Vergil, the opening question of Sat. 5, is no longer a standard pedagogical gambit, and though Macrobius is not insensitive to metrical practice (e.g. 5.14.1-4), the contributions of meter do not figure prominently in his stylistic analysis. However familiar he may be with the rhythms of Latin speech, Aen. 2.324-7, venit summa dies et ineluctabile tempus/ Dardaniae… is still no more than an example of rhetorical elaboration (copiosissime dicat, 5.1.9). He is not inclined to savor the words themselves as, say, Roland Austin does: ‘The rhythm of this line in incomparable, with venit cut off from the rest and the masterly patterns of ineluctabile; the repeated long e, each time with the ictus upon it, rings like a knell, and the effect is sustained by the run- over Dardaniae, with the heavy following pause’ (Austin 1964: 146-7). Nor is Macrobius attuned to intertextual relationships, though his collection is replete with examples of them: the famous echo of Ennius at Aen. 6.846, unus qui nobis cunctando…, thus passes without comment in a long series of Vergil’s ‘borrowings’.3 Arguments from context are not his province, which is hardly surprising since most, if not all, these quotations are again secondhand.4

Yet the fact that the Saturnalia is a self-confessed compilation of other people’s knowledge (noscendorum congeries, Praef. 4) does not create a license to pillage it at will without considering the compiler’s own sensibilities. Macrobius evidently had enough on the ball to win Kaster’s respect, even affection, and the editor’s unselfish efforts on his author’s behalf gently prod us into acknowledging that the work lacks neither design nor intelligence. This is especially important to realize when mining it for archaic bygones, since its complex discussions require different types and uses of evidence: no single critical method or presupposition governs its selection of material. Sat. 5.13.27, for example, cites Aen. 10.360-1 (haeret pede pes…) as if it were a direct translation of Il. 16.214-15, but after the conversation shifts to Vergil’s Roman predecessors, Sat. 6.3.5 acknowledges the mediating role of Furius’ Annals (pressatur pede pes…, fr. 10 FPL3).5 The juxtaposition at Sat. 6.3.2-4 of Homer’s description of Ajax at the ships (Il. 16.102-11) with the adaptations of Ennius (391-8 Sk.) and Vergil (Aen. 9.806-14) has become a landmark in the study of early epic, but the comparison at Sat. 5.13.28-30 of Homer’s eagle and snake (Il. 12.200-7) with (Aen. 11.751-6 ignores the mediation of Cicero’s Marius. In this, Macrobius is again reflecting the wider exegetical tradition, which quickly lost sight of Cicero’s poetry. We know it today largely through his own fondness for self-quotation, but it evidently exerted considerable influence on his immediate successors.6 Clearly then, how Vergil positioned himself within the Roman epic tradition is not the kind of question to entrust exclusively to Macrobius, but only by spending time with him in Kaster’s company do we start to understand the significance of this limitation.

And so, too, with the Saturnalia’s many other subjects. This edition may be no more likely to change its place in the canon than to alter the scoring of ‘Humiliation’, but Kaster’s success in making it so accessible puts in our hands an invaluable tool that will certainly make us better at our work. We are all in his debt.


Austin, R. G. 1964. Virgil: Aeneid II. Oxford
Cameron, A. 1966. ‘The Date and Identity of Macrobius.’ JRS 56: 25-38
——. 2011. The Last Pagans of Rome. Oxford
Courtney, E. 1993. The Fragmentary Latin Poets. Oxford
Goldberg, S. M. 1995. Epic in Republican Rome. New York
Kaster, R. 2010. Studies on the Text of Macrobius’s ‘Saturnalia’. New York
Wigodsky, M. 1972. Vergil and Early Latin Poetry. Wiesbaden


1.   As Cameron 1966 showed, we have for centuries put ourselves on a first name basis with this man, who should more properly be addressed as Theodosius. See also Cameron 2011: 231-9 and Kaster 1.xiv-xvii.
2.   Details are in Kaster 2010 and the apparatus to his forthcoming OCT. For the former, see now Welsh, BMCR2011.08.09.
3.   Contrast Serv. ad Aen. 6.845, ‘sciens enim Vergilius quasi pro exemplo hunc versum posuit,’ a thought completed by Wigodsky 1972: 72, ‘It is not because of what Fabius did, but because what is said of him is said in Ennius’ words, that he becomes a symbolic figure…’
4.   So Cameron 2011: 408, ‘For all his pleas in favor of the old writers, there is no indication that Macrobius himself ever read or even consulted (say) an original text of Ennius’ Annales, a play of Accius, a speech of Cato, or even, more remarkable, given his professed enthusiasm for the minutiae of pagan cult practice, a text of Varro.’
5.   Though not, as Kaster notes, the no less significant mediation of Enn. An. 584Sk. ‘premitur pede pes atque armis arma teruntur.’ Kaster’s corresponding cross-reference at 5.13.27 mistakes Ennius for Furius, one of precious few errors in his long and necessarily complex annotation of sources, echoes, and cross-references. Occasional typos do not rise above the level of a missing ‘of’ (‘out of’, vol. 1 p. 83.6) or ‘faith’ for ‘face’ (rendering faciem, vol. 3 p. 243.22). In vol. 2 p. 105, n. 125 should read 124, while the following n. is 125, not 126. Given the complexity of the task, the editing standard throughout is very high.
6.   The Marius fragment, no. 17 in Courtney 1993, is preserved at De div. 1.106. For its mediating role, see Goldberg 1995: 141-4, and more broadly Wigodsky 1972: 109-14.

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