The Dream of Scipio (Somnium Scipionis) is a famous section, only a few pages long, from Cicero’s massive six-volume On the Republic. It was rightly seen as a condensation of important ideas from ancient philosophy and cosmology by scholars in the middle ages; an extensive commentary was written about it by Macrobius that ensured its continuing influence for over a thousand years. Scholars now recognise it as a superb example of a popular meditation technique widely practiced in different schools of classical philosophy, and known today as the “View from Above.” Cicero’s account is fictional and draws on a variety of philosophical influences. Cicero was a follower of Platonism, although like many Platonists of his time, he drew freely on ideas from Aristotelian, Stoic and Pythagorean philosophy as well.
The story goes as follows: It is the start of the Third Punic War (149-146BC BC). Both by land and by sea, the mighty armies of Rome lay siege to the ancient city of Carthage in North Africa. Upon his arrival, the Roman tribune Scipio Aemilianus (185-129BC), later known as Scipio Africanus the Younger, seeks the hospitality of King Masinissa of Numidia. The King was an old friend of Scipio’s adoptive grandfather the famous warrior after whom he is named, Scipio Africanus the Elder (236-183 BC). The two men speak at great length about the deceased Roman general. Scipio the Elder was believed by many Romans to have attained a godlike status upon his death, in reward for his legendary victory over Hannibal at Carthage many years before, in the Second Punic War. Ennius of Rudiae composed the epitaph for him: “From the place where the sun rises above the Maeotian marsh to farthest west, there is no man on earth who can match my deeds.”
In Cicero’s account, Scipio Aemilianus describes how, exhausted from feasting, drinking, and talking late into the night, “I fell into a deeper sleep than usual.” As he sleeps, he dreams, and in his dreams he experiences a mystical revelation, a vision of his mighty forebear. In the dream, Aemilianus encounters his grandfather’s spirit in the outer rim of the heavens, where the ancients supposed pure souls to dwell, near to the gods. Hence, together they look down upon the stars, the earth, and the many different lands and nations dispersed across the surface of the globe. Aemilianus exclaims:
These starry spheres were much larger than the earth. Indeed the earth now seemed to me so small that I began to think less of this empire of ours, which only amounts to a pinpoint on its surface.
The spirit of Scipio Africanus the Elder, assuming the role of mentor, proceeds to point out the overwhelming beauty and harmony of the cosmos to his grandson, who exclaims:
The scene filled me with awe and delight. And yet all the time I still could not help riveting my eyes upon our own world there below.
Africanus the Elder rebukes him:
I see that your gaze is still fastened, even now, upon the places where mortals dwell upon the earth. But can you not understand that the earth is totally insignificant? […] Scorn what is mortal! For the lips of mankind can grant you no fame nor glory worth seeking.
Note how few and minute are the inhabited portions of the earth, and look upon the vast deserts that divide each one of these patches [in Africa] from the next.
He then points out the homeland of Aemilianus:
…you will realise, if you look, what a miniscule section of this region can really be regarded as your own property. For the land which you occupy is no more than a tiny island. […] And I must disabuse you of any idea that your own fame, or the fame of any one of us, could ever be great enough to extend beyond these known and settled lands.
He thereby forces the younger man to confront the fact that even those people who hear of his reputation will soon die, moreover the legends passed down to their children will also fade and be lost in due time. Hence not only is the extent of mortal fame small in the grand scheme of things, but its duration is but a brief moment in the vast river of time. Scipio Africanus the Elder encourages his descendant to see beyond the opinions of other people, for good or for bad, and to be true to his soul, his “real self”, and to his own moral principles. “Strive on!”, the old general advises, “Understand that you are a god.” The rule of reason and freewill over your mind and body, Africanus points out, is like the rule of God himself over the physical universe.
Use this eternal force, therefore, for the most splendid deeds it is in you to achieve! […] A soul devoted to such pursuits will find it easiest of all to soar upwards to this place [in the Heavens], which is its proper habitation and home. And its flight will be all the more rapid if already during the period of its confinement within the body it has ranged freely abroad, and by visualising and meditating upon what lies outside itself [as you have just done], has worked to dissociate itself from the body to the greatest possible degree.
As prophesised in the dream, Scipio Aemilianus scales the political and military ranks at an extraordinary pace. Within a year he was made Roman consul and then general, and placed in command of the legions in Africa. In 146 BC the city of Carthage finally falls to the Roman troops under his generalship. After six days of fierce hand-to-hand fighting in the surrounding streets the citadel was captured and Carthage was “torn apart, stone by stone”, securing Rome’s position as an ancient superpower for centuries to come. The historian Polybius, present at the scene, reported that Scipio the Younger surveyed the wreckage of the once mighty city and wept. As he cried he prophesised, “It is glorious, but I have a dread foreboding that some day the same doom will be pronounced upon my own country.”