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Macrobius’ Misreadings: Exploring Plato’s Symposium in the Late Antique Latin West

Katherine Krauss

University of Oxford

Macrobius’ Late Antique Saturnalia is widely considered to be one of the latest sympotic texts, but one of the few examples surviving in Latin (König 2012). Despite Macrobius’ heavy use of Greek literary symposia from Plato to Plutarch, scholars have been reluctant to posit any meaningful relationship between Macrobius and his Greek forerunners. They have instead deemed the Saturnalia to be full of errors when translating passages from Greek into Latin, and consequently have focused only on looser, generic affiliations between the Saturnalia and its Greek predecessors (Flamant 1977, Goldlust 2010).

This paper challenges both of these scholarly assumptions. It will take as its focus a discussion about the merits of Plato’s Symposium held by the banqueters Praetextatus and Avienus at the beginning of Book 2 of the Saturnalia. In the course of this exchange, Plato’s text functions not only as a model or paradigm, but also lies at the heart of a meditation on the relationship between the Greek and Roman, the classical and the Late Antique symposium.

Tracing this multifaceted engagement with Plato sheds light in turn on Macrobius’ knowledge of Greek. At Saturnalia 2.1.5, Avienus compares the relative sobriety of his friends’ gathering with Agathon’s symposium, where, according to him, one of the guests invites a flute girl to entertain Agathon and his companions. As no such invitation is extended in the Symposium, scholarship has focussed on detailing how this error came to be produced, questioning Macrobius’ access to Plato or his comprehension of Greek.

When subjected to fuller literary analysis, however, Avienus’ ‘miscomprehension’ of Plato does not reveal Macrobius’ scholarly shortcomings but rather his methods of reading earlier sympotic works. Unlike his imperial predecessors, who turned to Xenopohon when revelling in the material and spontaneous pleasures of the symposium itself (LaValle Norman 2017), Macrobius imagines Xenophon and Plato along a continuum. At Saturnalia 2.1.5, Macrobius purposefully manipulates Avienus’ memory of the Symposium in order to create a multi-layered intertext which resonates with both Plato’s and Xenophon’s Symposium. In so doing, Macrobius introduces an emulative approach towards Plato’s text which complicates its exemplarity for the Saturnalia.

By arguing for the literary significance of Macrobius’ ‘mistranslations’, I hope to advocate a rereading of the Saturnalia which illuminates the important role played by Greek literary traditions, both classical and imperial, in shaping Late Antique culture in the Roman West.

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Literary Banquets of the Imperial Era

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