The Ancient Cosmos & The Twilight of Pagan Rome -An Annotated Copy

Macrobius, Aurelius Theodosius (approx. 370-430 C.E.)

In Somnium Scipionis expositio. Saturnalia Venice: Philippus Pincius, 29 Oct. 1500 [Bound with:] Lactantius, Lucius Coelius Firmianus (ca. 240 ca. 320 C.E.) Opera. Contents: De divinis institutionibus; De ira dei; De opificio dei vel de formatione hominis; De phoenice carmen. Epitome divinarum institutionum [cap. LVI-LXXIII]. Venantius Fortunatus: De resurrectione Christi. Tertullianus: Apologeticus adversus gentes.

Venice: Bonetus Locatellus, for Octavianus Scotus, 11 Oct. 1494


Folio: Two books bound as one: 30.8 x 21 cm. Macrobius: XXXVI, LXXXVI lvs. Collation: a-f6, A-N6, O8 = 122 leaves. Complete.

With some small geometrical diagrams and a half-page world map. Printed in Roman and Greek type. Lactantius: 90 lvs. Collation: a-k8, l10. Printed in Roman type. Ornamental initials in text, Scotus' device at end.

Bound in contemporary half calf over beveled wooden boards, with four clasps and catches. The leather has been partially restored as have the leather straps holding the clasps. New endpapers. Very nice, crisp copies. One bifolium browned, as often. Macrobius' cosmological work, "Commentary on the Dream of Scipio", has been annotated by a contemporary reader.

The works of two important authors from late Roman antiquity, the pairing of which allows us to compare and contrast two dramatically different worldviews:

Written in the late fourth or early fifth century, during the twilight years of Roman paganism, Macrobius' "Saturnalia" and "Commentary on the Dream of Scipio" are two of the last works produced in proto-Christian antiquity that present us with an intellectual and cultural vision that ignores Christianity altogether. In the "Saturnalia" we have a Neoplatonic symposium, held by a group of highly cultured interlocutors dining together during the pagan festival of year's-end. The conversations are wide-ranging, with weighty discussions of religion, philosophy, and literature (above all the works of Vergil), balanced by jokes, talk of the pleasures of wine, the price of fish, the question of how far an insult can go and still be funny, and matters of digestion. The Saturnalia itself (its origins, the worship of Saturn, etc.) is also discussed, as are other pagan religious festivals. [For a discussion of Macrobius' commentary on "Scipio's Dream", a Neoplatonic tour-de-force, see below.]

In Lactantius, by contrast, we have a writer who grapples directly with the conflict between Christianity and paganism in the late 3rd and early 4th c. C.E. Born a pagan, Lactantius served the Emperor Diocletian, and later, after converting to Christianity, Constantine, whose religious policy he helped to craft. His most important work, the "Divine Institutes", based on traditional, classical models, is a systematic treatment of Christian thought, designed to show the futility of paganism and the superiority (and truth) of Christianity. In the "Institutes", Lactantius " depended more on the testimony of classical authors than on that of sacred Scripture. It repudiated what he termed the deluding superstitions of pagan cults, proposing in their place the Christian religion as a theism, or rationalized belief in a single Supreme Being who is the source creating all else."(EB)

The Neoplatonist Cosmos: Macrobius commentary on the Dream of Scipio:

The “Somnium Scipionis” (Scipio’s Dream) originally constituted Book VI of Cicero’s “De Republica”, a discourse now mostly lost. The “Dream” was preserved and circulated separately in late antiquity, thanks in large part to Macrobius, who wrote a cosmological commentary on the “Dream.”

Cicero cast his work in the form of a Platonic dialogue, in which the main interlocutors are Scipio Aemilianus (Scipio Africanus the Younger) and the ghosts of his father, Aemilianus Paullus, and grandfather, Scipio Africanus the Elder. The ghosts foretell the young Scipio’s future, instructing him to be just and dutiful toward his country as the surest way of achieving heaven. The ghosts then take the young Scipio to “a high place full of stars, shining and splendid" where they reveal to him the organization of the cosmos, emphasizing the contrast between earthly temporality and the eternity of the cosmos.

In expounding the workings and nature of the universe, Scipio’s grandfather, “tells him that there is life after death and introduces him to the ‘perfect’ numbers seven and eight (numbers whose meanings were attributed by contemporary Greek mathematicians to Pythagoras.) He goes on to show Scipio the nine spheres that make up the universe. Eight of them, he says, revolve at extremely high speeds, emitting seven tones that form an extraordinarily harmonious musical chord. This chord is inaudible to humans, but they nevertheless try to imitate it with the seven strings of the lyre and in song. This description is the earliest known of the harmony of the spheres.”(Joost-Gaugier, “Measuring Heaven”, p. 28)

"Possessed of a finely tuned sensibility for the signifying value of Cicero's dream-text, Macrobius exploited the text's cryptic images in order to display the philosophical erudition of the Neoplatonic tradition…

"According to Macrobius, an entire Neoplatonic encyclopedia lay encoded in Cicero's 'Dream'. Because Cicero hinted at 'profound truths… with amazing brevity, concealing his deep knowledge of things beneath a concise form of expression,' Macrobius took as his task the patient unfolding of the depths of knowledge lurking in these alluring hints. He proceeded systematically by following the topics introduced in the 'Dream' in the order of their appearance. For example, Cicero's mention of the dreamer Scipio's destined age ('seven times eight recurring circuits of the sun') leads Macrobius into a lengthy recitation of Pythagorean arithmetic; a brief description of the celestial sphere issues in a very detailed presentation of astronomical theory; and so on. Macrobius covers three of the four sciences in the quadrivium, mathematics, astronomy, and music, and partially covers the fourth (geography being a part of geometry), as well as giving a passionate and lengthy disquisition on Neoplatonic views of the origin, nature, and immortality of the soul."(Miller, "Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture", p. 98)

Lactantius' "Opera":

This printing of Lactantius' "Opera" includes the "Institutes", "the Anger of God", "God's works, or the Creation of Man", and the poem "The Phoenix." In addition to the authentic works of Lactantius, the volume includes the "Lactantii Firmiani errata" of Antonius Raudensis (leaf 4r-v), Extracts from a letter of Leonardus Aretinus to Constantia Sforza on leaf 4v, "De die resurrectionis Dominicae" (leaf 77r-v), here ascribed to Lactantius, but by Venantius Fortunatus.

Macrobius: ISTC im00013000; Goff M13; HC 10430*; Pr 5326; BMC V 499; BSB-Ink M-5; GW M19705. Lactantius: ISTC il00012000; Goff L12; H 9817*; Pr 5056; BMC V 443; BSB-Ink L-11; GW M16557.