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An Early Modern Reader Dreams with Scipio

Somnium, annotated incipit

By Neil Weijer |

This week’s post is by Dr. Neil Weijer, the Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Premodern and Early Modern Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. The Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins is one of our Preserving the World’s Rarest Books partners.

A small pamphlet edition of the Somnium Scipionis, now in the Johns Hopkins University library, has been part of a survival story since the moment of its printing. Its full title is M.T. Ciceronis, Scipionis somnium, eius operis quod de R.P. conscripsit, reliquiae (USTC 674361). As its title states, it was one of the small remains of a larger Ciceronian work. The De Rei Publica, a Socratic dialogue which Cicero wrote around 54 BC, was one of the most well-known “lost texts” of the premodern era. It remains incomplete to this day, although a large portion of the text was recovered from a palimpsest of the works of St. Augustine in 1819, now Bibliotheca Apostalica Vaticana Vat Lat 5757, making it the first in a series of dramatic recoveries of classical works, of which the Archimedes palimpsest is perhaps the most well-known.

Somnium, title page
The pamphlet’s title page, with its hand-colored border and purchase note.

In the final book of the De Rei Publica, Cicero presented an imagined conversation between Scipio the Younger and his adoptive grandfather, Scipio Africanus, on the rewards of just citizenship. Those who set aside their worldly desires and attuned their inner virtue towards the service of their state, the famous Elder statesman instructed his listener, would achieve everlasting happiness afforded to all true—and, in Cicero’s mind, divinely-inspired—civic servants.

The dialogue laid out Cicero’s views on the form and function of the universe, but likely his discussion of the conflict between mind and body proved too good an example of contemptu mundi for early Christian writers to ignore. While the rest of Cicero’s final book remains lost, the Somnium was incorporated into a commentary by the fifth-century Platonist Macrobius, and thereafter became one of Cicero’s most widely referenced works throughout the Middle Ages. Geoffrey Chaucer, composing over a millennium later than the original, could refer to “Tullius of the dream of Scipioun” before composing his own homage to the work in the Parliament of Fowls.

Somnium, Alantsee device
Alantsee printer’s device

The Somnium was widely and variously printed in the first half of the sixteenth century, both with and without Macrobius’ commentary, accompanied by other works by Cicero or, in the case of this edition, in a small six-leaf booklet published by Leonard (d. 1518) and Lucas (d.1521) Alantsee in Vienna. While the Alantsee bothers contracted with printers all across Europe for their work, the colophon identifies the local collaborator simply as “Hieronymus.” The device at the foot of the title page hints, this was Hieronymus Vietor, who had been operating in Vienna from 1510 and would go on to become one of the pioneers of printing in his native Poland.

Somnium, Hieronymus vietor device detail
Detail of the title page, showing the stylized “HV” inscribed within the woodcut border.

The copy now in the Johns Hopkins library (PA6304.S7 1515) also records clear evidence of its use by a sixteenth-century reader, who recorded his original purchase of the book in 1518. Interlinear glosses offer comment on the text’s vocabulary, marginal notes provide comparison with other sources, including Macrobius’ commentary, and three handwritten “argumenta” summarize the principal contents of the dialogue and its use. Word for word, the unnamed annotator has added almost as much to this small book as the team in the print shop.

Somnium, Argumentum
The annotator’s argumenta, or summaries of the dialogue, written on the verso of the title page.

The range of the Somnium Scipionis (spanning astrological and political thought) was in inverse proportion to the dialogue’s small size. Editions like this could be bought readily, engaged with intensely, and ultimately used to death if they were not incorporated into larger groups of texts. Another of the three recorded copies of this edition, in the Austrian National Library (Ser.n.4265) in Vienna, survives as part of an astrological sämmelband with 37 different print and manuscript works. Small remnants such as this one offer a fleeting glimpse into how much a reader could learn from a short, but essential text.

 

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Neil Weijer is the Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Premodern and Early Modern Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. His research focuses on the use and re-use of print and manuscript histories in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England, as well as the broader book culture of Europe at this time. He is a contributor to the Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe, which examines two prolific annotators in sixteenth-century England.


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