Podcast episode

Episode 181: Macrobius and the Commentary on Scipio’s Dream

[Corrigendum: we mistakenly attribute Virgil’s famous ‘messianic’ passage to the Georgics; it is in fact to be found in the Fourth Eclogue.]

In this episode we try to sum up a very long and complex work of Latin Platonism perched at the end of antiquity and destined to have an outsize influence on the esoteric currents of the Far West in the middle ages: Macrobius’ Commentary on Cicero’s The Dream of Scipio. The layers of tradition, text, fictionality, and hermeneutical extravagance really take the cake with this one. But we try to cover the boring basics as well, discussing the evidence for who Macrobius might have been (late fourth-century, maybe a politician, but maybe not), what he wrote, what he believed, and what he was doing with his source-text, Cicero’s Dream. Following Macrobius’ digression-laden style, we also take this opportunity to introduce some side-alleys of lore, including a brief introduction to Cicero’s text, reflections on how Christian everyone really was in the late-fourth-century Latin-speaking Roman empire, discussion of the rise of the esoteric Virgil in late antiquity, and a number of other interesting side-alleys. we finish with a brief introduction to the unparalleled importance of Macrobius’ Commentary for the Latinate traditions of astronomy, astrology, ‘Pythagorean’ number, Platonist soul-theory, and more.

Works Cited in this Episode:


Codex Theodosianus: references to various Macrobii: XVI.10.15; VIII.5.61 and XI.18.6; VI.8.1.

Libanius’s defense of the temples is Oration 30.


Saturnalia: nos sub alio ortos cælo: præf. 11.

Comm. in somn. Scip: On narratio fabulosa and ancient sages: I.2.6-11. Physics and metaphysics: I.2.13-16. Arithmology: I.5.2-6.83. The descent of souls through the spheres: I.11.10-12. Planetary garments: I.12.13-14.

Virgil. The ‘messianic’ Fourth Eclogue (not Georgic, as we mistakenly said in the episode!). The gates of horn and ivory passage: Æneid VI 893–898.


Stahl 1952 [see below].

Henry 1934 [see below].

Lynn Thorndyke. A History of Magic and Experimental Science During the First Thirteen Centuries of our Era. Macmillan, New York, NY, 1923. 8 vols. We cite vol. I, p. 544.

Recommended Reading:

For a primary text we use Willis’ Teubner edition: James Alfred Willis, editor. Ambrosii Theodosii Macrobii Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis. Teubner, Leipzig, 1970. There is also Macrobe, Commentaire au songe du Scipion, texte établi, traduit et commenté par M. Armisen-Marchetti. Collection des Universités de France, Paris, 2001-2003. For an English translation we use Stahl 1952 (see below), which remains superb.


Pierre Courcelle. Les lettres grecques en occident de Macrobe a Cassiodore. Number 159 in Bibliothèque des ecoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome. Paris, 1943.

Paul Henry. Plotin et l’occident; Firmicus Maternus, Marius Victorinus, Saint Augustin et Macrobe. Number 15 in Specilegium sacrum Lovaniense, études et documents. Louvain, 1934.

Karl Mras. Macrobius’ kommentar zu Ciceros somnium. Sitzungsberichte der preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, pages 232-86, 1933.

William Harris Stahl, editor. Commentary on the Dream of Scipio by Macrobius. Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 1952.

Occult Sciences in Macrobius, Various

Paul Capelle. De luna stellis lacteo orbe animarum sedibus. PhD thesis, Halle, 1917.

Adrian Mihai. L’Hadès céleste: Histoire du purgatoire dans l’antiquité. Classiques Garnier, Paris, 2015.

Karen ní Mheallaigh. The Moon in the Greek and Roman Imagination: Myth, Literature, Science and Philosophy. Greek Culture in the Roman World. The University Press, Cambridge, 2020, pp. 107-8, with the whole chapter.

F. E. Robbins. The Tradition of Greek Arithmology. Classical Philology, (16): 97-123, 1921.


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