A gift of ancient wisdom

The Birthday Book
April 6, 2007

Among birthday gifts, even of the quirkily unique kind, the treatise De die natali by the 3rd-century AD writer Censorinus still must be among the top ten for both idiosyncrasy and learning - a feat that even landed its author a place on the moon, where a crater is named after him.

In this first English translation, Holt Parker smartly sets the tone by translating the title not as "On the Birthday" but rather as The Birthday Book . For Censorinus, praised for his learning in (late) antiquity, uses the occasion of the dedicatee's birthday for a stream-of-consciousness disquisition about all sorts of topics. Sure, he charmingly offers a soupcon of a guiding principle: since his friend, a paragon of virtue, is beyond all need for moral exhortation, Censorinus is presenting him with a collection, enough to fill a scroll, of "small questions" ( quaestiunculas ) from "learned ( philologis ) commentaries". Parker renders this last phrase with "the works of the natural philosophers" because of their preponderance in the tractate and its traditional, main value as a small treasure trove of citations from otherwise lost treatises of authors such as the polymath Varro (1st century BC), the Pythagoreans and others. But there is also a fair sprinkling of references to various historians, such as Roman annalists and poets such as Horace.

What, then, of the resulting medley? Reflection on the nature of birthdays leads to a discussion of a man's genius and to issues relating to conception, pregnancy and birth; inter alia, Censorinus doggedly adheres to the widespread creed, which continued into the Renaissance, that childbirth in the eighth month is abnormal and produces doomed offspring. There follows a lengthy chapter on astrology and "aspect" and the mention of Pythagoras launches an array of titbits about numerology and musical harmony (which turns out to be related to harmony in the womb), including in the universe. From there, it's on to various topics connected with time: length of life and crisis years to watch out for; eternity; the Roman Secular (from saeculum , a span of 100 years or more) Games (Censorinus is one of the most informed sources about this tricky subject); the periods of the world; and months, days and hours.

And there the manuscripts stop, a little short of the end of the original treatise; for good scholarly reasons, Parker does not proceed to the so-called Fragment of Censorinus, a mini-encyclopaedia that follows in most manuscripts.

This is the perfect present, one might think, for someone who has everything, and not just a surfeit of moral virtue, which Censorinus cannot refrain from detailing in his friend at a point two-thirds through the treatise. After all, the range of topics and their constellation offers something for everybody, whether in quaint "Ripley's Believe or Not" fashion or truly useful information that is not simply esoteric.

Parker and the University of Chicago Press have entered into the spirit of this enterprise nicely. The book is produced handsomely in small format, and the text is interspersed with some helpful diagrams and illustrations.

In addition, there is a useful glossary and notes that do not smother. Most important, Parker well catches the various moods of this booklet. His translation is neither pedantic nor calls attention to itself, but he manages to make even some of the more boring passages (a value judgment, alas - Scaliger and others praised De die natali to the sky, if not the moon) less dull. Besides, quaintness, particularly when it's from the learned past and deals with timeless conundrums such as the priority of the chicken or the egg, can have a special, abiding appeal.

Karl Galinsky is Centennial professor of classics, University of Texas at Austin.

The Birthday Book

Author - Censorinus
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 120
Price - £12.00
ISSN - 0 226 09974 1
Translator - Holt N. Parker

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