The Late Antique Diagrams of Macrobius


Macrobius's sardonic sense of humour makes him particularly endearing among the late antique visualizers. His silly rain diagram upends the genre by poking fun at those who cannot grasp that all bodies with weight fall towards the center of the world. Bruce Eastwood elucidates this:

Anyone disagreeing with this view of the direction of fall of weighty bodies would presumably argue that the rain should simply fall ‘down,’ meaning down in perfectly parallel lines... ; any rain that falls from ‘above’ the earth and from regions on either side beyond the earth’s diameter would fall ‘down’ past the earth and to the outer, celestial sphere, which is, Macrobius says, more stupid than a bad joke.

In the stupid diagram, someone standing at B sees the rain fall from above, but someone at A would supposedly see their rain skipping past sideways like a stone skimming a pond. Sadly, many medieval readers seem to have been ill-prepared for the notion that science can employ irony. As Eastwood observes:

For Carolingian excerptors the use of a negative rather than a positive argument did not have sufficient power and may even have seemed confusing... The diagram soon encountered difficulties in its own right. It came to be reproduced incorrectly ...


The Four Mediterraneans hypothesis proposes that each quarter of the globe will turn out to have a configuration of landmass and ocean similar to the northern half of the eastern hemisphere. This diagram (which is not a mappamundi as some scholars have mistakenly claimed) shows how the area south of the Equator from Eurasia would be a mirror image of the oikumene, with a parched continent, a temperate one inhabited by people (the Antoikoi) and a frozen South Pole.

The accompanying diagram will lay everything before our eyes; the origin of our sea, one part of the whole, and the sources of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean will be evident; here, too, you will see where the Caspian Sea rises, although I am aware that there are some who deny that it has any connection with Ocean. It is certain, too, that in the temperate zone of the southern hemisphere there is a sea comparable to ours flowing in from Ocean, but we do not have the evidence for marking this off since its location continues to be unknown (Stahl translation).

The reader has to assume another similar pattern for the unseen western hemisphere. Around the edges, currents are marked as leading water from the equatorial part of the Great Ocean into the parts which separate the eastern and western hemispheres.

This reconstruction is based on Bamberg, Class. 38, 20r. A scribe appears to have added the labels Italia, Mare Caspium, Mare Rubrum and Mare Indicum and to have miscopied the extent of the Black Sea, which should go no further north than the dotted red line.