Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Julieta Cardigni, El comentario como género tardoantiguo: Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis de Macrobio. Colección Saberes​. Buenos Aires: Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Universidad de Buenos Aires​, 2013. Pp. 476. ISBN 9789871785957. (pb).

Reviewed by David J. White, Baylor University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Macrobius' commentary on the Somnium Scipionis is perhaps of interest to classicists primarily as the vehicle by which the Somnium episode of Cicero's De re publica was preserved and transmitted in its entirety. However, while ostensibly a commentary, Macrobius' work is also a late-antique compendium of ideas from ancient philosophy and science that uses Cicero's text as a prompt and framework for presenting this material. William Stahl remarks, "Macrobius belongs to a small but important group of polymaths and encyclopedists who, in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries attempted to epitomize and present in readily acceptable form the classical liberal arts and the more attractive teachings of classical philosophy."1 For later generations it became an important repository of these ancient ideas and is thus a valuable document for the study of Western intellectual history. Stahl further notes, "These rudimentary compendia were to hold a central position in the intellectual development of the West for nearly a millennium. To the medievalist, Macrobius' Commentary is … one of the basic source books of the scholastic movement and medieval science."2 Cardigni herself observes elsewhere that in a period like late antiquity, full of transformations of all sorts – historical, cultural, religious – the understanding and transmission of the past was important for creating a means of understanding the new reality, and that the commentary developed as an important vehicle for doing this.3

In this book, a revision of her doctoral thesis at the University of Buenos Aires, Cardigni proposes to consider Macrobius' commentary in light of three fundamental elements: the historical context of late antiquity, the text of Macrobius' commentary itself, and, in the intersection between them, the idea of literary genre, understood in a general way as a cultural convention tied to the context of literary production (15). After an introduction outlining her project, Cardigni then organizes her analysis into four large chapters: Macrobius within the map of late antiquity; Macrobius' commentary and the commentary genre; Macrobius' commentary and generic transgression; and Toward a narrative-fictional commentary. She ends with a short conclusion.

In the first chapter she begins by situating Macrobius and his work in the context of the intellectual life of late antiquity, understood as a period comprising approximately the 3rd-8th centuries. Macrobius, dating to the 5th century, falls squarely in the center. This was a time when internal and external threats to the Roman world, as well as Christianization, prompted people to consider the real possibility of the end, or at least transformation, of Roman civilization, and to consider how best to develop a type of education that would preserve and transmit the thought of antiquity (82). Cardigni points out that education had long played an important role in constructing a sense of Roman cultural and political identity, or romanitas, among the educated classes (115); she outlines the ways in which study of grammar developed into the study of literary texts, and how this helped create, by late antiquity, a canon of literary texts that were preserved, handed down, studied in schools, and the subject of studies and commentaries (125-127). This was in support of goals established for education before late antiquity, namely, the production of good citizens and the maintenance of social equilibrium (137). However, the increasing centrifugal tendencies of late-antique society, along with Christianization, led people to rethink the purpose and means of education. Macrobius, she suggests, is looking to draw the emphasis away from a traditional education focused on grammar and the quadrivium (118-119) to one more focused on summarizing and passing on the knowledge of antiquity.

In her second chapter, Cardigni argues that the idea of literary genre – rooted in Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Poetics – is more fundamental to an understanding of late-antique literary and intellectual life than has often been previously acknowledged, and is a basic principle around which texts were classified in their relation to one another and, in particular, to their predecessors (139-142). She points out that as education gave greater emphasis to preserving the works and thought of the past, one popular genre to emerge was the compilation, such as Aulus Gellius' Attic Nights or Macrobius' own Saturnalia (151). At the same time the commentary, although having its roots in earlier Greek and Roman literary history, also became more common, as a way of passing on and interpreting the great literary works of the past. The shift in educational focus gave greater emphasis and importance to such didactic genres and helped confer auctoritas on the works of the past and on the intellectual and educational tradition (153).

In the third chapter Cardigni examines Macrobius' commentary in light of her notions of genre, and, in particular, contrasts it with two contemporary commentaries also written in Latin: Servius' commentary on the Aeneid(as an example of a scholarly commentary) and Calcidius' commentary on the Timaeus (as an example of a philosophical commentary). She states that her goal is to demonstrate that, despite the many similarities among these three commentaries, Macrobius' differs primarily in what she calls the "textual component", or the "symbolic organization of the information" (225-226). She begins by examining a sample passage from Servius, looking in detail at what she calls the "lexical-grammatical analysis", complete with tables mapping out the function of words and phrases in Servius' exegesis (229ff). She suggests that the main goal of the detailed grammatical analysis by Servius, a grammarian, was to serve the purposes of the schools and of grammatical education. Macrobius, by contrast, was engaging in a critique of the scholarly establishment and its purposes, based on Neoplatonist ideas. Rather than engaging in careful study of the language and its function, he is more concerned with summarizing and transmitting the ideas of an era that, for him, is already "the past" (244-245). She performs a similar comparative analysis between Calcidius and Macrobius, in which Macrobius' numerological emphasis and the character of Scipio as a figure of auctoritas emerge as distinctive features of his commentary (269ff.). She concludes that the three commentaries she has examined represent three levels of reading: the superficial, focusing on the specific words of the text commented on, is exemplified by Servius; the "allegorical-referential", focusing on what the words of the text symbolize, which is embodied in Calcidius; and what she calls the "intertextual interpretative", is illustrated by Macrobius. This focuses neither on the words of the text nor on their symbolic references, but rather on the literary content, or fabula, of the text being commented on. This leads to what Cardigni describes as a "narrative-fictional" commentary, in which Macrobius uses Cicero's text as a basis to construct a narrative in which the figure of Scipio emerges as the exemplar of romanitas. In doing so, she argues, Macrobius has written a work that, while ostensibly a commentary, actually transcends that genre by becoming a narrative in its own right (371-374).

The fourth chapter is largely a restatement and elaboration of these ideas as well as a discussion of Macrobius' purpose in using the commentary form to create a symbolic fabula and the portrayal of Scipio as an exemplary reader and interpreter of the past (443-446).

Cardigni's book is argued in great detail and is densely written but in a fluid style. Her analysis, particularly in chapter three, sometimes feels overwhelmed by minutiae – perhaps not surprising in a reworking of a dissertation – but she seems equally at home with philology, history, and literary theory. She shows great familiarity not only with the primary texts she discusses but also with a wide variety of literature and scholarship in several languages. She includes an extensive bibliography, organized by topic. In many ways her work seems less concerned with Macrobius and his commentary or the Somnium in particular, than with the literary and intellectual climate of late antiquity. She appears to have chosen Macrobius' work as a touchstone because it embodies many of the qualities she discusses: it illustrates both the way in which late antique thinkers hearkened back to the "classics" of the past (and, in doing so, helped create the Western literary canon) and the role they played in summarizing and transmitting ancient literature and thought to the later medieval world. While of interest and use mainly to specialists, this is a valuable contribution to the study of the intellectual culture of late antiquity, the codification and transmission of classical literature and thought, and the development of the Western medieval intellectual tradition.


1.   Stahl, William Harris. Macrobius: Commentary on the Dream of Scipio. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952, p. 9.
2.   Stahl, p. 10.
3.   Cardigni, Julieta. "El comentario como género de la memoria: Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis de Macrobio (1. 2. 17-20)." Habis 39 (2008), 275-283, p. 276. ​

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