Macrobii Ambrosii Theodosii Saturnalia, recognovit brevique adnotatione critica instruxit R.A.Kaster, Oxford 2011.
This work is transmitted to us by numerous codices, a testament to its popularity in the medieval period. La Penna undertook a systematic study of the manuscript tradition, dividing it into three families (P, B, and V). In producing a collation for his Teubner edition of the text, however, J. A. Willis subsequently demonstrated that these families can be reduced to two (α and β), since P and V are actually two subgroups of the same family.
The six books of the Saturnalia have been transmitted to us in incomplete form, owing to series of lacunas; the work constitutes a learned compilation that is dedicated - like the Commentarii - to the author’s son Eustatius. The title is derived from the narrative frame: a feast celebrating the Saturnalia, an annual festival celebrated at Rome from 17-19 December. It is impossible to specify the dramatic date, but the festival in question must have occurred in the second half of the 4th c., and surely prior to AD 384, the year in which Praetextatus, one of the protagonists, died; the conversation lasts three days and occurs, respectively, at the houses of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus (first day), Virius Nicomachus Flavianus (second day), and Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (third day). Using the symposium as an occasion for transmitting scholarly content is a topos in learned literature (cf. Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists, a text of the 2nd-3rd c. AD), but the Saturnalia organizes its narrative progression step-by-step in a manner that tries to look back, in particular, to the Ur-text of this type, Plato’s Symposium: during the month of January, a certain Decius asks the character Postumianus to report the conversation that was held a few weeks earlier at a feast for the Saturnalia; Postumianus was not present on that occasion, but received a detailed account of it from Eusebius, who was one of the guests.
The use of dialogue in the course of the work gives way to very long monologues that the various interlocutors dedicate to learned questions; these follow a scheme that offers discussion of the most challenging arguments in the morning hours and the discussion of lighter themes in the afternoon. There are twelve interlocutors in all (the sum of the Muses and the Graces), and among them are figures who were important in politics and pagan culture during the 4th c. The chief of these are as follows. 1) Vettius Agorius Praetextatus (AD 310-84), a famous member of the Roman senatorial nobility. He had a brilliant career that started under Constantius II, continued under Julian, and finally culminated in his holding the title of prefect of Rome from AD 367-368. He was an obstinate supporter of paganism, studying philosophy and theology, as well as translating many works by Aristotle. He functions as the greatest expert on theology and pagan cults at the feast of the Saturnalia. 2) Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (AD 340-402), a man of politics and culture. He served as proconsul in Africa, as prefect at Rome, and even as consul. He was known as both a great orator - most famous is his discourse urging that the altar of Victory be restored to the Senate House - and as the author of an extensive collection of letters. Also credited to him in the course of the Saturnalia is a survey on the eloquence of Vergil. 3) Nicomachus Flavianus (AD 334-c. 394), who followed the cursus honorum until he was named consul-designate for the year 394. He defected from Theodosius in favor of Eugenius, however, and was betrayed by his troops after the battle of Frigidus; he killed himself that same year. Macrobius presents him as an expert in the laws of augury and the art of divination. 4) Servius, the great commentator on Vergil. The inclusion of him among the interlocutors is actually an anachronism, since he must have been extremely young during the period in which the Saturnalia is presumed to have taken place. This can probably be explained as Macrobius’ attempt to perform an act of homage in his treatment of a contemporary. It has also been noted that the views attributed to Servius do not correspond to those expressed in his own work; the composition of the Saturnalia thus presumably took place during the same years in which Servius was working on his commentary on Vergil.
The discussion begins with the origin of the Saturnalia festival (including, inter alia, the use of the genitive saturnaliorum), then turns to a treatment of the calendar and the oldest Italian cults, such as that of Janus. This is followed by a section dedicated to explain the adages and bons mots used by the ancients. At the end of the first morning, they establish their plans for the subsequent two days: in particular, they decide that their main focus will be Vergil, considering him first as a scholar and expert in every field of learning (philosophy, religion, law, eloquence, astronomy, the art of war), and then as a poet. We have lost a large section of the second day (at the house of Nicomachus Flavianus), which was dedicated to three Vergilian themes: the only piece to survive is the final part of Praetextatus’ discussion of Vergil’s use of pontifical law. The third day (at the house of Symmachus), however, is better preserved; here the discussion focuses, in particular, on Vergil’s models - archaic Latin epicists (especially Ennius), Homer, and the Greek poets - and on the interpretation of his poetic work. Here, as is natural, Servius is enlisted to explain certain complex passages.
It is impossible to identify all the sources on which Macrobius drew, although in some cases he must have availed himself of compilations and anthologies; without a doubt, however, his most privileged sources were the vast and erudite production of Varro, Aulus Gellius’ Noctes Atticae, Seneca’s Epistles, Plutarch’s Quaestiones Convivales, and - for the treatment of the Roman calendar - Suetonius’ lost De anno Romanorum. In this mélange of material, we are able to credit Macrobius for having known how to give life to a unified work, in which a veritable harvest of references is well-integrated into a single whole - the very accomplishment towards which the author claims to strive in the preface to this work (Flamant, Marinone). [R. Piastri; tr. C. L. Caterine].