MACROBIUS AND THE “PAGAN”
CULTURE OF HIS AGE
Macrobius’s Saturnalia is a keytext for any evaluation of the intellectual interests of the elite of late fourth- and early fifth-century Rome. Some of the most distinguished “nobles and other learned men” of the age gather to devote the holiday from which the dialogue takes its name to literary conversation. In the first category we have Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, Q. Aurelius Symmachus, (Virius) Nicomachus Flavianus, (Publilius Caeionius) Caecina Albinus, (Ceionius) Rufius Albinus, Euangelus, and a young man called Avienus. In the second, the philosopher Eustathius, the rhetorician Eusebius, the doctor Dysarius, the Egyptian Cynic Horus, and Servius, who had recently set up school as a grammarian. A nice mix of amateurs and professionals, age and inexperience, Romans and foreigners, allowing different perspectives in the discussions that follow.1
The principal interlocutors are cultivated men, enthusiasts of the old learning, anxious to keep alive the old traditions. The function of those who are represented as challenging their elders and betters (Avienus, Dysarius, and Euangelus) is to force them to formulate (for the reader’s benefit) views they would otherwise have taken for granted in such company. And all are pagans, Praetextatus, Symmachus, and Flavianus the most prominent pagans of the age. The dramatic date (as we shall see) is 382, the eve of the withdrawal of state subsidies from the traditional cults. And there is much discussion of pagan sacrifice and priestly practice. It is not surprising that modern readers have assumed the Saturnalia to be a showcase for pagan culture, according to some nothing less than a work of pagan propaganda. Indeed, study of the Saturnalia has overlapped with study of what has become known as the “pagan revival” of the late fourth century. Those gathered in Macrobius’s pages have been identified as the circle of Symmachus—or (as some prefer) the circle of Praetextatus. It was long taken for granted that Macrobius was himself a member of this circle. But was he even a contemporary? When did he live? And what was the purpose of his work?
The writer’s full name and rank—Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, vir clarissimus et inlustris—are attested in the titles and explicits to most books of both Saturnalia
1. With twelve guests, Macrobius is obviously ignoring Varro’s upper limit of nine (Gellius 13. 11); there are twenty-one named guests at Athenaeus’s banquet, not to mention various unnamed extras: Baldwin 1976, 38–39.