Seasonal Servius: Zones and the Zodiac in a Virgil Manuscript

by Amanda Gerber

Twelfth-century Vatican manuscript Vaticanus Latinus 1575 proves to have been read by a fellow list-aficionado at some point during its medieval circulation. In fact, this aficionado deemed the list such a superior form of annotation for this copy of Virgil’s[1] Georgics that he crossed out a more verbose expository note alongside it. The list in question neighbors a zonal diagram within an oft-copied Servius commentary.[2] In general, the Georgics commentary circulates both as an independent (or catena) commentary and as a collection of paratexts added to the margins of the poem itself, with the latter being the format for Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. Lat. 1575. This manuscript accumulated Servian and other paratexts during the twelfth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries.[3] On folio 18r, various paratextual formats converge to expound on Virgil’s own lines about Spring being the best time for harvesting, a time characterized by the Bull (Taurus) ushering in the year as the dog star sets and other celestial patterns shift (I.208–30). The poem follows this description of seasonal flux to identify that the sky has five zones, two of which were yielded by a god in service to feeble mortals (“Quinque tenant caelum zonae, […] duae mortalibus aegris munere concessae divom”) (I.232, 237). Between Virgil’s lines about agricultural cultivation and zonal division, the original scribe inserted into the body of the text a zonal diagram depicting the zones to which Virgil alludes.[4] The diagram itself only labels the first three zones as intemperate, temperate, and torrid, but the last two zones omit their temperate and intemperate labels to identify more specific directions and climates instead, such as australis (or southern) and glacialis (or icy) in the fifth zone. The scribe inserts many such directional and climatic features in and around all five zones, including an identification of the equinox (which was often used for calendrical calculations), the septentrional (for orienting the north), and the solstice (for differentiating the seasons).

The diagram originally had an introductory note, which one reader or annotator struck through in red ink, leaving a vertical list alongside the diagram as its only framework. Inserted in the right margin beside the diagram is a list of seasons and the zodiacal signs pertaining to them:


Aries Taurus Gemini


Cancer Leo Virgo


Libra Sco[r]pio Sagipta[r]ius [sic]


Cap[ri]co[r]n[us] Aq[ua]rius Piscis (f. 18r)

The list provides the seasonal headings of Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter with their three affiliated zodiacal houses below. The list itself is unremarkable, considering that other classical commentaries contain similar additions, but its relationship to the zonal diagram proves noteworthy. Zonal diagrams divide the earth into habitable and uninhabitable regions according to their association with the fixed celestial spheres, unlike the movable spheres that cause changeable seasons. Medieval versions of zonal diagrams likely derived from Macrobius manuscripts (see Macrobian zonal diagrams), yet the diagrams, like the Servius commentary into which some such diagrams were added, proved open to correction.

For example, the aforementioned reader who crossed out the introductory note that explained Virgil’s presentation of the five zones and identified one form of their variant labels: namely, spetentrionalis (northern), solstitialis (solstitial), equinoctialis (equinoctial), brumalis (of winter solstice), and australis (southern). This reader also used his red ink to cross out the two labels in the diagram’s fourth zone, brumalis and te[m]p[er]ata (temperate). The only portion of these zonal paratexts untouched by the red-inked reader’s cross outs was the vertical list of seasons. On one hand, the reader seems to have considered this list a more organized presentation than the numerous labels of the zonal diagram and the extraneous language of its introductory note. On the other hand, the list placed the static divisions of the earth in a changeable, seasonal context.

 The addition of the diagram, list, their introductory note, and the red-inked reader’s emendations indicate multiple cycles of readership, despite the manuscript tending to be associated with the authoritative tradition of Servius scholarship. Maurus Servius Honoratus, a grammarian of the late fourth and early fifth century, produced what became the most authoritative commentary on Virgil’s works.[5] In fact, his commentaries were so revered that they influenced commentaries on other classical authors, especially commentaries on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which lacked its own ancient commentary tradition.[6] As the paramount authority on Virgil’s works, Servian commentaries circulated from late antiquity to the Renaissance, garnering Servius’ name “billing” alongside Virgil’s in catalogue lists. This remarkable longevity has inspired modern scholars to disseminate his work further than is usual for a grammarian, resulting in digital projects, such as a standard edition of the commentaries digitized by the Perseus Project at Tufts University and the Vergil Project at the University of Pennsylvania. The combination of digitized editions and a general perception that commentary copyists mechanically reproduced authoritative scholarship has perhaps lulled modern audiences into a false sense of security, inspiring few scholars to continue examining marginal manuscript interventions. Nevertheless, as Sinéad O’Sullivan recently pointed out, some of the earliest medieval copies of Servius’ commentaries, such as the Carolingian Oxford Virgil (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. F. 2. 8) tend to collate readings from a multitude of sources, rather than faithfully reproduce Servius alone.[7]

As the aforementioned list, diagram, and red strikes reveal, some of these collations even derived from non-authoritative readers seeking the best means for rendering Virgil’s poem legible and even applicable for quotidian life, that is, a life governed by the seasons that the Georgics describes. In the end, these annotating interventions, none of which were native to the standard Servius commentary, demonstrated that Servius may have been the authority on Virgil, yet an authority who prompted audiences to continue both reading and amending Virgil’s poetry for centuries. Thus, even when a manuscript catalogue identifies Servius’ authoritative commentary, additional study can sometimes prove fruitful, because medieval readings of Virgil may have begun with Servius, but they rarely ended with him. As the correcting readers and the list composer demonstrate, even the most authoritative commentaries have different seasons.

[1] I opt to use the medieval spelling of Virgil’s name because I am referring to medieval sources, who especially preferred this spelling for its etymological connection to virga, a wand or staff.

[2] Zonal diagrams include five zones with the top labeled intemperate, then temperate, torrid, temperate, and intemperate again at the bottom. A few examples present this same order from left to right.

[3] Élisabeth Pellegrin and her team of codicologists place the manuscript’s origins in either Italy or Germany, a region that I am unable to narrow any further. See Élisabeth Pellegrin et al., eds., Les manuscrits classiques latins de la Bibliothèque: catalogue, vol. 3 (Paris: Éditions du Centre national de la recherché scientifique, 1975).

[4] Regarding the insertion of geographical diagrams into the body of Virgil’s text, see Alfred Hiatt, Terra Incognita: Mapping the Antipodes before 1600 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[5] See especially, Christopher Baswell, Virgil in Medieval England: Figuring the Aeneid from the Twelfth Century to Chaucer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and Jan M. Ziolkowski and Michael C. J. Putnam, eds., The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

[6] Ziolkowski and Putnam, The Virgilian Tradition, xxxiv and 623–26; and Ralph J. Hexter, Ovid and Medieval Schooling: Studies in Medieval School Commentaries on Ovid’s Ars amatoria, Epistulae ex Ponto, and Epistulae heroidum (München: Arbeo-Gesellschaft, 1986) , 7.

[7] Sinéad O’Sullivan, “Glossing Vergil and Pagan Learning in the Carolingian Age,” Speculum 93.1 (2018): 132–65.

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