He himself states that he was not a Roman, but there is no certain evidence whether he was of Greek or perhaps African descent. He may be identical with a Macrobius who is mentioned in the Codex Theodosianus as a praetorian praefect in Spain in 399-400, proconsul of Africa in 410, and lord chamberlain in 422. But the tenure of high office at that date was limited to Christians, and there is no evidence in the writings of Macrobius that he was a Christian. Hence the identification is more than doubtful, unless it be assumed that his conversion to Christianity was subsequent to the composition of his books. It is also possible that he was the Theodosius to whom Avianus dedicates his fables.
The most important of his works is the Saturnalia, containing an account of the discussions held at the house of Vettius Praetextatus (c. 325-385) during the holiday of the Saturnalia. It was written by the author for the benefit of his son Eustathius (or Eustachius), and contains a great variety of curious historical, mythological, critical and grammatical discussions. There is but little attempt to give any dramatic character to the dialogue; in each book some one of the personages takes the leading part, and the remarks of the others serve only as occasions for calling forth fresh displays of erudition.
The first book is devoted to an inquiry as to the origin of the Saturnalia and the festivals of Janus, which leads to a history and discussion of the Roman calendar, and to an attempt to derive all forms of worship from that of the sun. The second book begins with a collection of bons mots, to which all present make their contributions, many of them being ascribed to Cicero and Augustus; a discussion of various pleasures, especially of the senses, then seems to have taken place, but almost the whole of this 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 (with a comparison of the art of the two) and to other Greek writers, and the nature and extent of his borrowings from the earlier Latin poets. The latter part of the third book is taken up with a dissertation upon luxury and the sumptuary laws intended to check it, which is probably a dislocated portion of the second book. The seventh book consists largely of the discussion of various physiological questions.
The primary value of the work lies in the facts and opinions quoted from earlier writers. The form of the Saturnalia is copied from Plato's Symposium and Gellius's Nodes atticae; the chief authorities (whose names, however, are not quoted) are Gellius, Seneca the philosopher, Plutarch (Quaestiones conviviales), Athenaeus and the commentaries of Servius (excluded by some) and others on Virgil.
Macrobius is also the author of a commentary in two books on the Somnium Scipionis narrated by Cicero at the end of his De re publica. The nature of the dream, in which the elder Scipio appears to his (adopted) grandson, and describes the life of the good after death and the constitution of the universe from the Stoic point of view, gives occasion for Macrobius to discourse upon many points of physics in a series of essays interesting as showing the astronomical notions then current. The moral elevation of the fragment of Cicero thus preserved to us gave the work a popularity in the middle ages to which its own merits have little claim. Of a third work De differentiis et societatibus graeci latinique verbi, we only possess an abstract by a certain Johannes, identified with Johannes Scotus Erigena (9th century).
See editions by L von Jan (1848-1852, with bibliog. of previous editions, and commentary) and F Eyssenhardt (1893, Teubner text); on the sources of the Saturnalia see H Linke (1880) and G Wissowa (1880). The grammatical treatise will be found in Jan's edition and H Neil's Grammatici latini, v.; see also GF Schömann, Commentatio macrobiana (1871).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.