Macrobe, Commentaire au songe du Scipion, texte établi, traduit et commenté par M. Armisen-Marchetti, 2 voll., Paris 2001-2003 (Collection des Universités de France)
Macrobius’ commentary on the Somnium Scipionis from the sixth book of Cicero’s Republic is transmitted to us by more than 230 codices, the most ancient six date to the 9th c. (on the manuscript tradition, see Armisen-Marchetti). It is the only work of Macrobius to survive intact. Wissowa was the first to propose that the Commentarii pre-dates the Saturnalia (so also N. Marinone), but more recent scholars tend to consider it a later work (e.g. Armisen-Marchetti, Neri, Regali).
The Commentarii begin with a lengthy introduction consisting of five well-structured chapters in which the author sets forth the scope of his work, its subject and genre, its chief characters, and its circumstances. The first three of these discuss preliminary matters related to the subject: a comparison between the Republic of Cicero an that of Plato, a refutation of Epicurean criticism towards the use of myth, and a discussion of the significance and typology of dreams. The fourth chapter presents the work’s propositum, circumstances, and characters; this leads to a fifth chapter serving as a transition to the commentary itself. The exegesis, set forth in two books, presents itself as a philosophical commentary, in which - thanks to the greater freedom that the genre of philosophical explanatio enjoys in comparison with grammatical commentaries - Cicero’s text is not examined as a whole, but only in those parts that warrant interest; at times, however, a few lines of Cicero’s text receive large chapters of commentary. Taken together, the Commentarii are six or seven times longer than the Somnium Scipionis, in a relationship between the text of departure and the commentary of nearly one to thirty (Flamant, Regali). It is certain that Macrobius had a complete text of the Somnium at his disposal; indeed, the comments proceed with regularity, drawing inspiration from Ciceronian phrases and respecting their order. This latter fact shows that Macrobius had some impulse towards originality in composing his commentary, for it implicitly rejects the tendency of Greek neo-Platonists to disregard the arrangement of the texts on which they commented.
The core of the treatise consists of arguments about the relevance of rational and ethical philosophy (e.g. problems related to the origin, nature, and immortality of the soul and to the classification of virtues), but it is clear that a pedagogical purpose drives the work, which is dedicated to the author’s son Eustatius, since it attempts to bring together diverse treatises on the disciplines of the quadrivium. This universalizing tendency allows Macrobius, in the conclusion to his work, to position himself as someone who has embraced philosophy in its totality (universa philosophiae integritas). Such a claim to completeness, however, already existed in the Somnium Scipionis itself: indeed, as Macrobius makes clear in his initial comparison between Plato and Cicero, his objective is to demonstrate how all ancient thought (above all neo-Platonic doctrine) is present in Cicero’s text.
As in the case of the Saturnalia, it is hard to identify all the sources that Macrobius utilized in composing the Commentarii; even so, we may exclude with high degree of probability the notion that Macrobius read the works of Plato directly and in their entirety, since, on the contrary, he is familiar with these works through the commentaries of Greek neo-Platonists. Some scholars have identified Porphyrius as a favored source (L. Petit, H. Linke), but his name is only mentioned twice in the Commentarii. Although it is undeniable that Plotinus’ Enneades had some influence, even if that text was greatly reworked (P. Courcelle, W. H. Stahl), the majority of critics reject the thesis that Macrobius employed a single source in favor of the theory that he drew from many (K. Mras, P. Henry).
The fact that the revision of the Commentarii undertaken by Memmius Symmachus and Macrobius’ grandson Plotinus Eudoxius was based on a private copy suggests that the text was at first only distributed among a limited circle of friends (J. Flamant). The first citation of the Commentarii is found in Boethius (6th c.), and it is subsequently mentioned by Cassiodorus and appears as a source for Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae. This marks the beginning of the text’s popularity, which extended throughout the entire medieval period, ending only with the rise of Humanism. [R. Piastri; tr. C. L. Caterine].