Three works are attached to the name Macrobius Ambrogius Theodosius: a grammatical treatise called De differentiis et societatibus Graeci Latinique verbi (‘On the differences and similarities between Greek and Latin verbs’); the Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis, a commentary on the ‘Dream of Scipio’ from the sixth book of Cicero’s Republic; and an encyclopedic work entitled Saturnaliorum convivia. Identification of this author poses serious prosopographical problems that have not been resolved. The most important manuscripts of the Commentarii and Saturnalia attest the author’s high birth through the identification of him as a vir clarissimus et illustris: the first of these titles was reserved for members of the Senatorial order, while the second one was given to those who held high political offices. The identification of Macrobius with the Theodosius to whom Avianus (4th-5th cc.) addresses his Fabulae also seems plausible. His name is not otherwise cited until the start of the 6th c., when Boethius cites him as the author of the commentary on the Somnium Scipionis. Further evidence for Macrobius' dating can be found in the historical period that frames the dialogue of the Saturnalia: this must be imagined to have occurred before AD 384, since this was the year in which Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, a prominent figure in 4th c. Rome and one of Macrobius’ interlocutors, passed away.
The work of A. Cameron deserves special mention among the attempts to reconstruct Macrobius’ biography. Starting from the assumption that Macrobius’ contemporaries called him ‘Theodosius’, Cameron identifies him - as S. Mazzarino had already done - with a certain Theodosius praefectus praetorio Italiae, who served at Ravenna in AD 430 and is mentioned in the Codex Theodosianus. Although this thesis has been accepted by a majority of scholars (including N. Marinone and M. Armisen-Marchetti), there have nevertheless been alternatives. The theory of J. Flamant, for example, argues that the author of the Commentarii and the Saturnalia is to be identified with a certain Macrobius proconsul Africae in AD 410, who is likewise mentioned in the Codex Theodosianus. It seems unlikely, however, that he was a contemporary of the interlocutors of the Saturnalia: indeed, one finds no references to any ‘Macrobius Theodosius’ in the vast epistolary corpus of Symmachus, one of the guests at the feast in the Saturnalia, nor does one observe at any place in the work the polemical attitude towards Christianity that is characteristic of the pagan circle of the fourth century.
We can determine that Macrobius was not from Italy on the basis of a passage in the Saturnalia in which he begs pardon for lacking the “native purity and elegance” of a Roman writer (Sat. 1.12: in nostro sermone nativa Romani oris elegantia desideretur). Yet he was probably not Greek (despite his name), for if this were the case it seems most likely that he would have written an encyclopedic work like the Saturnalia in that language; moreover, scholars have noted that his translations of Greek sources are sometimes imprecise. The most accepted hypothesis is that he was of African origin and received an early education at Rome, but it has also been postulated that he was a Spaniard (Flamant). Macrobius’ relationship with Christianity is also much discussed, since his conversion - probably in the 5th c. - has no considerable influence on his writings.
Such uncertainty on the author’s dates also makes it difficult to date his works. The majority of scholars (Cameron, Marinone, Flamant) place the writing of the De differentis in AD 420-5, and the composition of the Commentarii and Saturnalia in the years AD 430-40. There is no consensus, however, on the relative chronology of the two chief works: indeed, some have argued for the priority of the Commentarii relative to the Saturnalia in consideration of that work’s greater doctrinal complexity, which is better suited to an addressee - his son Eustatius - who was already an adult (Armisen-Marchetti, Regali, Neri). [R. Piastri; tr. C. L. Caterine].