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Somnium Scipionis

Excerpts, from the 1st c. BC Volume

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Alfred P. Peabody, Translator

Winter, 2021


When I arrived in Africa, to serve, as you know, in the office of military Tribune of the fourth Legion, under Manius Manilius as consul [1], I desired nothing so much as to meet Masinissa the king [2], who for sufficient reasons [3] stood in the most friendly relation to our family. When I came to him, the old man embraced me with tears, and shortly afterward looked up to heaven and said: “I thank thee, sovereign Sun [4], and all of you lesser lights of heaven, that before I pass away from this life I behold in my kingdom and beneath this roof Publius Cornelius Scipio, whose very name renews my strength, so utterly inseparable from my thought is the memory of that best and most invincible of men who first bore it.” Then I questioned him about his kingdom, and he asked me about our republic; and with the many things that we had to communicate to each other, the day wore away.

At a later hour, after an entertainment of royal magnificence, we prolonged our conversation far into the night, while the old man talked to me about nothing else but Africanus, rehearsing not only all that he had done, but all that he had said. When we parted to go to our rest, sleep took a stronger hold on me than usual, on account both of the fatigue of my journey and of the lateness of the hour. In my sleep, I suppose in consequence of our conversation (for generally our thoughts and utterances by day have in our sleep an effect like that which Ennius describes in his own case as to Homer [5], about whom in his waking hours he was perpetually thinking and talking), Africanus appeared to me, with an aspect that reminded me more of his bust than of his real face. I shuddered when I saw him. But he said: “Preserve your presence of mind, Scipio; be not afraid, and commit to memory what I shall say to you.

“Do you see that city, which was brought through me into subjection to the Roman people, but now renews its old hostility, and cannot remain quiet,”—and he showed me Carthage from a high place full of stars, shining and splendid,—“against which you, being little more than a common soldier, are coming to fight? In two years from now you as Consul will overthrow this city, and you will obtain of your own right the surname which up to this time you hold as inherited from me. When you shall have destroyed Carthage, shall have celebrated your triumph over it, shall have been Censor, and shall have traversed, as an ambassador, Egypt, Syria, Asia, and Greece, you will be chosen a second time Consul in your absence, and will put an end to one of the greatest of wars by extirpating Numantia. But when you shall be borne to the Capitol in your triumphal chariot after this war, you will find the State disturbed by the machinations of my grandson. [6]

“In this emergency, Africanus, it will behoove you to show your country the light of your energy, genius, and wisdom. But I see at that time, as it were, a double way of destiny. For when your age shall have followed the sun for eight times seven revolutions, and these two numbers [7]—each perfect, though for different reasons—shall have completed for you in the course of nature the destined period, to you alone and to your name the whole city will turn; on you the Senate will look, on you all good citizens, on you the allies, on you the Latini. You will be the one man on whom the safety of the city will rest; and, to say no more, you, as Dictator, must re-establish the State, if you escape the impious hands of your kindred.” [8] Here, when Laelius had cried out, and the rest of the company had breathed deep sighs, Scipio, smiling pleasantly upon them, said, “I beg you not to rouse me from sleep and break up my vision. Hear the remainder of it.”

“But that you, Africanus, may be the more prompt in the defense of the State, know that for all who shall have preserved, succored, enlarged their country, there is a certain and determined place in heaven where they enjoy eternal happiness; for to the Supreme God who governs this whole universe nothing is more pleasing than those companies and unions of men that are called cities. Of these the rulers and preservers, going hence, return hither.”

Here I, although I had been alarmed, not indeed so much by the fear of death as by that of the treachery of my own kindred, yet asked whether Paulus, my father, and others whom we supposed to be dead were living. “Yes, indeed,” he replied, “those who have fled from the bonds of the body, like runners from the goal, live; while what is called your life is death. But do you see your father Paulus coming to you?” When I saw him, I shed a flood of tears; but he, embracing and kissing me, forbade my weeping.

Then as soon as my tears would suffer me to speak, I began by saying, “Most sacred and excellent father, since this is life, as Africanus tells me, why do I remain on the earth, and not rather hasten to come to you?” “Not so,” said he; “for unless the God who has for his temple all that you now behold, shall have freed you from this prison of the body, there can be no entrance for you hither. Men have indeed been brought into being on this condition, that they should guard the globe which you see in the midst of this temple, which is called the earth; and a soul has been given to them from those eternal fires which you call constellations and stars, which, globed and round, animated with god-derived minds, complete their courses and move through their orbits with amazing speed. You, therefore, Publius, and all rightly disposed men are bound to retain the soul in the body’s keeping, nor without the command of him who gave it to you to depart from the life appointed for man, lest you may seem to have taken flight from human duty as assigned by God. But, Scipio, like this your grandfather [9], like me, your father, cherish justice and that sacred observance of duty to your kind, which, while of great worth toward parents and family, is of supreme value toward your country. Such a life is the way to heaven, and to this assembly of those who have already lived, and, released from the body, inhabit the place which you now see,”—it was that circle that shines forth among the stars in the most dazzling white,—”which you have learned from the Greeks to call the Milky Way.” And as I looked on every side I saw other things transcendently glorious and wonderful. There were stars which we never see from here below, and all the stars were vast far beyond what we have ever imagined. The least of them was that which, farthest from heaven, nearest to the earth, shone with a borrowed light. But the starry globes very far surpassed the earth in magnitude. The earth itself indeed looked to me so small as to make me ashamed of our empire, which was a mere point on its surface.

While I was gazing more intently on the earth, Africanus said: “How long, I pray you, will your mind be fastened on the ground? Do you not see into the midst of what temples you have come? In your sight are nine orbs, or rather globes, by which all things are held together. One is the celestial, the outermost, embracing all the rest,—the Supreme God himself [10], who governs and keeps in their places the other spheres. In this are fixed those stars which ever roll in an unchanging course. Beneath this are seven spheres which have a retrograde movement, opposite to that of the heavens. One of these is the domain of the star which on earth they call Saturn. Next is the luminary which bears the name of Jupiter, of prosperous and healthful omen to the human race; then, the star of fiery red which you call Mars, and which men regard with terror. Beneath, the Sun holds nearly the midway space [11], leader, prince, and ruler of the other lights, the mind and regulating power of the universe, so vast as to illuminate and flood all things with his light. Him, as his companions, Venus and Mercury follow on their different courses; and in a sphere still lower the moon revolves, lighted by the rays of the sun. Beneath this there is nothing that is not mortal and perishable, except the souls bestowed upon the human race by the gift of the gods. Above the moon all things are eternal. The earth, which is the central and ninth sphere, has no motion, and
is the lowest [12] of all, and all heavy bodies gravitate spontaneously toward it.”

When I had recovered from my amazement at these things I asked, “What is this sound so strong and so sweet that fills my ears?” “This,” he replied, “is the melody which, at intervals unequal, yet differing in exact proportions, is made by the impulse and motion of the spheres themselves, which, softening shriller by deeper tones, produce a diversity of regular harmonies. Nor can such vast movements be urged on in silence; and by the order of nature the shriller notes sound from one extreme of the universe, the deeper from the other. Thus yonder supreme celestial sphere with its clustered stars, as it revolves more rapidly, moves with a shrill and quick strain; this lower sphere of the moon sends forth deeper notes; while the earth, the ninth sphere, remaining motionless [13], always stands fixed in the lowest place, occupying the centre of the universe. But these eight revolutions, of which two, those of Mercury and Venus, are in unison, make seven distinct tones, with measured intervals between, and almost all things are arranged in sevens [14]. Skilled men, copying this harmony with strings and voice, have opened for themselves a way back to this place, as have others who with excelling genius have cultivated divine sciences in human life. But the ears of men are deafened by being filled with this melody; nor is there in you mortals a duller sense than that of hearing. As where the Nile at the Falls of Catadupa pours down from the loftiest mountains, the people who live hard by lack the sense of hearing because of the loudness of the cataract, so this harmony of the whole universe in its intensely rapid movement is so loud that men’s ears cannot take it in, even as you cannot look directly at the sun, and the keenness and visual power of the eye are overwhelmed by its rays.” While I marvelled at these things, I ever and anon cast my eyes again upon the earth.

Then Africanus said: “I perceive that you are now fixing your eyes on the abode and home of men, and if it seems to you small, as it really is, then look always at these heavenly things, and despise those earthly. For what reputation from the speech of men, or what fame worth seeking, can you obtain? You see that the inhabited places of the earth are scattered and of small extent, that in the spots [15]—so to speak—where men dwell there are vast solitary tracts interposed, and that those who live on the earth are not only so separated that no communication can pass from place to place, but stand, in part at an oblique angle, in part at a right angle with you, in part even in an opposite direction [16]; and from these you certainly can anticipate no fame.


“You perceive also that this same earth is girded and surrounded by belts, two of which—the farthest from each other, and each resting at one extremity on the very pole of the heavens—you see entirely frost-bound; while the middle and largest of them burns under the sun’s intensest heat. Two of them are habitable, of which the southern, whose inhabitants are your antipodes, bears no relation to your people; and see how small a part they occupy in this other northern zone, in which you dwell. For all of the earth with which you have any concern—narrow at the north and south, broader in its central portion—is a mere little island, surrounded by that sea which you on earth call the Atlantic, the Great Sea, the Ocean, while yet, with such a name, you see how small it is. To speak only of these cultivated and well-known regions, could your name even cross this Caucasus which you have in view, or swim beyond that Ganges? Who, in what other lands may lie in the extreme east or west, or under northern or southern skies, will ever hear your name? All these cut off, you surely see within what narrow bounds your fame can seek to spread. Then, too, as regards the very persons who tell of your renown, how long will they speak of it?

“But even if successive generations should desire to transmit the praise of every one of us from father to son in unbroken succession, yet because of devastations by flood and fire, which will of necessity take place at a determined time, we must fail of attaining not only eternal fame, but even that of very long duration. Now of what concern is it that those who shall be born hereafter should speak of you, when you were spoken of by none who were born before you, who were not fewer, and certainly were better men?—especially, too, when among those who might hear our names there is not one that can retain the memories of a single year. Men, indeed, ordinarily measure the year only by the return of the sun, that is, one star, to its place; but when all the stars, after long intervals, shall resume their original places in the heavens, then that completed revolution may be truly called a year. As of old the sun seemed to be eclipsed and blotted out when the soul of Romulus entered these temples, so when the sun shall be again eclipsed in the same part of his course, and at the same period of the year and day, with all the constellations and stars recalled to the point from which they started on their revolutions, then count the year as brought to a close [17]. But be assured that the twentieth part of this year has not yet come round.

“Therefore, should you renounce the hope of returning to this place in which are all things that great and excellent men can desire, of what worth is that human glory which can scarcely extend to a small part of a single year? If, then, you shall determine to look high up, and to behold continuously this dwelling and eternal home, you will neither give yourself to the flattery of the people, nor place your hope of well-being on rewards that man can bestow. Let Virtue herself by her own charms draw you to true honor. What others may say of you, regard as their concern, not yours. They will doubtless talk about you, but all that they say is confined within the narrow limits of the regions which you now see; nor did such speech as to any one ever last on into eternity,—it is buried with those who die, and lost in oblivion for those who may come afterward.”

When he had spoken thus, I said, “O Africanus, if indeed for those who have deserved well of their country there is, as it were, an open road by which they may enter heaven, though from boyhood treading in my father’s steps and yours, I have done no discredit to your fame, I yet shall now strive to that end with a more watchful diligence.” And he replied: “Strive [18] indeed, and bear this in mind, that it is not you that are mortal, but your body only. Nor is it you whom this outward form makes manifest; but every man’s mind is he,—not the bodily shape which can be pointed at by the finger. Know also that you are a god, if he indeed is a god who lives, who perceives, who remembers, who foresees, who governs and restrains and moves the body over which he is made ruler even as the Supreme God holds the universe under his sway; and in truth as the eternal God himself moves the universe which is mortal in every part, so does the everlasting soul move the corruptible body.


“That, indeed, which is in perpetual movement is eternal; but that which, while imparting motion to some other substance, derives its own movement from some other source, must of necessity cease to live when it ceases to move. Then that alone which is the cause of its own motion, because it is never deserted by itself, never has its movement suspended. But for other substances that are moved this is the source, the first cause, [19] of movement. But the first cause has no origin; for all things spring from the first cause: itself, from nothing. That indeed would not be a first cause which derived its beginning from anything else; and if it has no beginning, it never ceases to be. For the first cause, if extinct, will neither itself be born again from aught else, nor will it create aught else from itself, if indeed all things must of necessity originate from the first cause. Thus it is that the first cause of motion is derived from that which is in its nature self-moving; but this can neither be born nor die. Were it to die, the whole heaven would of necessity collapse, and all nature would stand still, nor could it find any force which could be set in movement anew from a primitive impulse. 

“Since, then, that which is the source of its own movement is manifestly eternal, who is there that can deny that this nature has been given to the soul? For whatever is moved by external impulse is soulless [20]; but whatever has a soul [21] is stirred to action by movement inward and its own; for this is the peculiar nature and virtue of the soul. Moreover, if it is this alone of all things that is the source of its own movement, it certainly did not begin to be, and is eternal. 


“This soul I bid you to exercise in the best pursuits, and the best are your cares for your country’s safety, by which if your soul be kept in constant action and exercise, it will have the more rapid flight to this its abode and home. This end it will attain the more readily, if, while it shall be shut up in the body, it shall peer forth, and, contemplating those things that are beyond, abstract itself as far as possible from the body. For the souls of those who have surrendered themselves to the pleasures of the body, have yielded themselves to their service, and, obeying them under the impulse of sensual lusts, have transgressed the laws of gods and men, when they pass out of their bodies are tossed to and fro around the earth, nor return to this place till they have wandered in banishment for many ages.”

He departed; I awoke from sleep.





1. The praenomen Marcus is given to Manilius in the manuscript of the De Republics discovered by Angelo Mai; but Manius is the reading in all previous authorities as to this special fragment.

2. King of Numidia, a country nearly identical in extent with the present province of Algeria. Its name defines its people, being derived from [Greek: nomades]

3. The elder Africanus had confirmed him in the possession of his own Numidia, and had added to it the adjoining kingdom of Cirta.

4. The Numidians worshipped the heavenly bodies

5. The first verse of the Annales of Ennius was:--“In somnis mihi visus Homerus adesse poeta.”

6. Tiberius Gracchus, whose mother, Cornelia, was the daughter of the elder Africanus.

7. The Pythagoreans regarded seven as the number representing light, and eight as representing love. Seven was also a perfect number, as corresponding to the number of celestial orbits (including the sun, the moon, and the five known planets), the number of days in the quarter of the moon's revolution, and the number of the gates of sense (so to speak), mouth, eyes, ears, and nostrils. Eight was a perfect number, as being first after unity on the list of cubes; and Plato in the Timaeus speaks of eight celestial revolutions--including that of the earth--as unequal in duration and velocity, but as forming, in some unexplained way, a cycle synchronous with the year.

8. See De Amicitia § 3, note.

9. By adoption. The younger Africanus was adopted by a son of the elder.

10. Here crops out the Pantheism--the non-detachment or semi-detachment of God from nature--which casts a penumbra around monotheism and the approaches to it, almost always, except under Hebrew and Christian auspices.

11. The middle, as the fifth of the nine spheres, enclosed by four; and enclosing four.

12. The lowest because central, and therefore farthest from the outermost or celestial sphere.

13. Therefore without sound.

14. Latin, qui numerus (that is, septem) rerum omnium fere nodus est. Literally, "which number is the knot of almost everything." The more intelligible form in which I have rendered these words seems to me to convey their true meaning, and my belief to that effect is confirmed by reading what several commentators say about the passage.

15. Latin, maculis,--a figure so bold in Cicero's time as to need an apology for its use, but now employed with no consciousness of its being otherwise than strictly literal.

16. It hardly needs to be said, that the reference here is to the convex surface of the earth, on which those remote from one another may hold all the various angles to each other that are borne by the spokes of a wheel.

17. The Stoics maintained that the visible universe would last through such a cycle as is here described, which in their conjectural astronomy comprehended many thousands of years, and then would be consumed by fire, or somehow be reduced to chaos, and a new universe take its place.

18. Or, you will strive indeed.

19. Latin, principium.

20.Latin, inanimum.

21.Latin, animal. My renderings of inanimum and animal here, if not justified by any parallel instances (and I know not whether they are), are required by the obvious meaning of the sentence.

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