MACROBIUS, Ambrosius Theodosius


In somnium Scipionis expositio. Saturnalia


Brescia, Boninus de Boninis,




Folio (300 x 200 mm.), 191 leaves (without the initial blank); seven diagrams and a map; capital spaces blank; a few wormholes and a little light staining; a handsome copy with large margins in eighteenth-century dark calf, gilt arms on sides; very well rebacked to style.

The first appearance in print of the famous Macrobian world map. Arguably the most influential of all pre-Renaissance views of the world, the map presents an antipodean, southern continent.

This is the first edition of Macrobius's Commentary on the Dream of Scipio to print the scientific diagrams and the world map. Since these had not been included in the only earlier printing of the text (Venice 1472, an edition which was therefore less than complete, as the map and diagrams are specifically referred to by Macrobius to illustrate ideas discussed in the text), this is the preferred early edition.

Macrobius, writing in the early fifth century, was one of the select band of encyclopaedists who preserved and transmitted classical philosophy and science to the medieval world and whose works were 'to hold a central position in the intellectual development of the West for nearly a millennium. To the medievalist, Macrobius's Commentary is an intensely interesting document because it was… one of the basic source books of the scholastic movement and of medieval science' (W. H. Stahl, Macrobius: commentary on the Dream of Scipio, 1952). 'To the mere persistence, through a few compendia, of the knowledge that the earth is a globe, Europe owed the discovery of the New World. The astronomical and geographical science in Macrobius alone was sufficient to furnish a basis for Columbus when the passion for exploration had been reawakened, as it was in the fifteenth century' (Thomas Whittaker, Macrobius, 1923, p. 83).

Macrobius's famous map figures a massive antipodal southern continent. One of the very earliest of all maps of the world, this woodcut shows a globe split into two - Europe and the balancing Antipodes - and surrounded by ocean at the edges. This remarkable image, which survived by manuscript transmission from the fifth century into the age of printing, had a strong and lingering effect on post-Renaissance and pre-discovery geography. It is also the first printed map to show the currents of the oceans. Its large southern continent carries the legend 'Pervsta / Temperata, antipodum / nobis incognita'. For a thousand years the Macrobian world map formed the basis of world geography, until Renaissance exploration replaced it with discovered fact, and all pre-discovery mapping was to some extent based on it, as were all ideas of a southern hemisphere, a southern continent, or an antipodes.

There is an immense literature on the Macrobian world view: Carlos Sanz (El primer mapa del mundo…, Real Sociedad Geográfica, B 455, Madrid, 1966) has studied the significance of the maps with regard to Quiros and subsequent voyages of discovery into the southern hemisphere, while Beaglehole in his great edition of the journals of Cook has neatly written of 'the circular maps of another cycle, that of Macrobius… [who] goes rather further than Cicero or St. Isidore; for whereas Cicero thought the southern zone habitable, and St. Isidore noted that there 'the Antipodes are fabulously said to dwell', Macrobius considered that the heat of the torrid zone would forever keep men from providing any proof. There however is the neatly balanced round of the Macrobian map: in the middle the broad Bath of Ocean, bounded on either side by the wavy coastline of an insular continent, northern and southern, snugly fitted into the waters of its half-circle. Each is divided into three bands: the first, rather narrow, facing on the Alveus Oceani and labelled Perusta - 'burnt up'.

'Beyond these are the broader temperate bands: on the north, Aphrica, Europa, India, with the four cardinal cities of Carthage, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Babylon; on the south, Temperata Antipodum Nobis Incognita. Beyond these again are the final bands labelled Frigida; containing on the north Britain, Thule, and the Rhiphei montes, on the south naturally nothing beyond the simply frigid. So seductive, in the field of science, was harmony, symmetry, balance, the fitness of things; so difficult has it been for the geographer, as for other men, to wait on facts. So little, one is tempted cynically to add, has it mattered in the long run…' (J.C. Beaglehole, The Journals of Captain James Cook, Vol. I, The Voyage of the Endeavour, pp. xxv-vi ).

Beaglehole, 'Journals of Captain James Cook' I, p. xxv (and fig. 2); BMC, VII 968; Goff , M9; Hain, *10427; Sander, Le Livre A Figures Italien, #4072; Shirley, 13 (and plate 21); Stahl, p. 61. Campbell, Earliest Printed Maps, 87 (and fig. 20); Wroth, 'Early Cartography of the Pacific', 16 (and plate III).