Dream theory: illuminated manuscript of Macrobius’s Commentary on The Dream of Scipio


This illumination is from a 15th-century Italian manuscript of Macrobius’s commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis (Dream of Scipio). It shows the sleeper, Scipio, and the subject of his cosmological dream.

The Dream of Scipio

Cicero (106–43 BC) was a Roman philosopher and politician. His Somnium Scipionis is a section from his famous work De re publica (On the Commonwealth). It recounts a fictional dream vision experienced by the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus. In his dream, Scipio looks down at the earth from the starry sphere and speaks with his dead grandfather, who foretells his grandson’s future conquest of Carthage, but also helps Scipio understand the fleeting nature of earthly power. The two discuss a number of metaphysical subjects, including the nature of the universe, the divine and the soul.

Macrobius and dream theory

Macrobius was a Roman scholar who wrote a lengthy commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis in c. 400 AD. Macrobius’s commentary included an exploration of the nature of dreams based on the Greek dream-theory of Artemidorus from the second century AD. Macrobius divided dreams into types, distinguishing between non-predictive dreams that result from one’s waking concerns and predictive dreams that have some prophetic function. Non-predictive dreams can take the forms of visum (apparition), where the dreamer sees spectres; or insomnium (nightmares), where the dream is related to a physical or mental stressor. Predictive dreams take the forms of visio, a prophetic dream that comes true; oraculum, a dream (like Scipio’s) where a guide reveals the future and/or gives advice; and somnium, an enigmatic dream requiring interpretation that hides its true meaning in strange shapes and ambiguities.

Macrobius’s commentary became the foundation of much early medieval dream-theory, although medieval writers were often more concerned with decoding dreams rather than classifying them.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Macrobius’s different classifications of dreams allow us different ways to think about the dreams and strange, dream-like happenings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Does Hermia’s dream of the snake reveal to the audience her anxieties of the day (perhaps sexual anxieties or fears about Lysander’s commitment to her)? Or does it offer an encoded prediction of events to come? Consider the different ways in which the characters process the dream-like experiences of the wood on their return to Athens: Theseus dismisses the tales of the lovers as ‘more strange than true’ and just the ‘airy nothing’ of the imagination (5.1.2,16). He perhaps also nods to visum and insomnium in his practical explanation of the mental processes occasioning such fantastical tales: ‘in the night, imagining some fear, / How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!’ (5.1.21–22). Bottom by contrast describes his dream as a ‘most rare vision’ (4.2.204) that is beyond his ability to describe, and that makes him lapse into a pseudo-biblical style of speech. Perhaps having access to an understanding of dreams as something that can contain meaningful truths allows for the understanding (or at least acceptance) of experiences that are fantastical yet real, things both strange and true.

Full title:
Comentum Macrobii Ambrosii in somnium Scipionis
1469, Italy
Manuscript / Image
Macrobius, unknown [scribe]
Usage terms

© MS Typ 7, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Held by
Houghton Library, Harvard University
MS Typ 007

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