In Somnium Scipionis Lib. II. Saturnaliorum, Lib. VII.

Lyon, Seb. Gryphium, 1556.


8vo. pp. 567 (lxxiii). Italic letter, some Greek, woodcut printer’s device on title, attractive historiated woodcut initials, famous ½ page woodcut world map and several astronomical diagrams, title fractionally dusty, ’50 40′ in early hand at head. A very good, clean copy in late C17 cat’s paw calf, covers double ruled in blind, spine with raised bands gilt in compartments, red morocco title label gilt, all edges speckled blue.

A beautifully printed copy of Macrobius’ two surviving works, most of what has come down to us from this Roman grammarian and philosopher; an abstract remains of a third piece on grammar. Macrobius was of African descent. He may be the Macrobius mentioned in the Codex Theodosianus as a praetorian prefect of Spain in 399-400, proconsul of Africa in 410, and lord chamberlain in 422. Macrobius’ Saturnalia, with its idolisation of Rome’s pagan past, has been described as a pagan “machine de guerre”. It recounts the discussions held at the house of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus (c. 325-385) during the Saturnalia holiday and was written for the benefit of Macrobius’ son Eustachius.

The first book inquires into the origin of the Saturnalia and the festivals of Janus, leading to a history of the Roman calendar, and an attempt to derive all forms of worship from that of the Sun. The second begins with a collection of ‘bons mots’, many ascribed to Cicero and Augustus, and a discussion of various pleasures, especially of the senses, but most is lost. The third, fourth, fifth and sixth books are devoted to Virgil, dwelling respectively on his learning in religious matters, his rhetorical skill, his debt to Homer and other Greek writers, and the earlier Latin poets. The latter part of the third book is a dissertation upon luxury and the sumptuary laws. The primary value of the work lies in quotations from earlier writers, many now lost. The form of the Saturnalia is copied from Plato’s Symposium and Gellius’s Noctes Atticae; the chief authorities are listed at the end of this edition.

The second work is a commentary on the Dream of Scipio narrated by Cicero at the end of his Republic in which the elder Scipio appears to his grandson, and describes the life of the good after death and the constitution of the universe from a Stoic and Neo-Platonic point of view; from this Macrobius discourses upon the nature of the cosmos, transmitting much classical philosophy to the later Middle Ages. Cicero’s ‘Dream’ described the Earth as a globe of insignificant size in comparison to the remainder of the cosmos. Certain medieval manuscripts of Macrobius included maps of the Earth, including the antipodes, zonal maps showing the Ptolemaic climates derived from the concept of a spherical Earth and a diagram showing the Earth labeled as globus terrae, at the center of the hierarchically ordered planetary spheres; these are reproduced in the woodcuts in this edition.

The world map is important in that it shows a symmetry, in land and climate, between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Europe, Africa and Asia are shown in the upper hemisphere, with a vast southern continent (Antipodum Nobis Incognita) in the lower hemisphere. They are separated by an intervening great ocean (Alveus Oceani). Macrobius further labels his map with climatic zones according to the theory of Parmenides: two zones close to the poles are subject to frigid air (frigida), either side of the equator a torrid zone (perusta) and between these two moderate or temperate zones (temperate). His view of a large southern land mass was an early and important part of the long tradition of unknown south lands that influenced Pacific exploration and charting.

Adams M 68. Baudrier VIII 284. Dibdin II p. 220. Gultlingen V 1365. Not in BM STC Fr. C16 or Brunet.


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