Priscian, or the Grammar, relief from the bell tower of Florence by Luca della Robbia
Priscian, or the Grammar, relief from the bell tower of Florence by Luca della Robbia

Priscianus Caesariensis (fl. AD 500), commonly known as Priscian (/ˈprɪʃən/ or /ˈprɪʃiən/), was a Latin grammarian and the author of the Institutes of Grammar, which was the standard textbook for the study of Latin during the Middle Ages. It also provided the raw material for the field of speculative grammar.


The details of Priscian's life are largely unknown. Priscian was born and raised in the North-African city of Caesarea (modern Cherchell, Algeria), the capital of the Roman province of Mauretania Caesariensis, which during his lifetime would be under the control of the Vandalic Kingdom. He was probably of Greek descent.[1] According to Cassiodorus, he taught Latin at Constantinople[2] in the early sixth century.[3] His minor works include a panegyric to Anastasius (491—518), written about 512,[4] which helps establish his time period. In addition, the manuscripts of his Institutes contain a subscription to the effect that the work was copied (526, 527) by Flavius Theodorus, a clerk in the imperial secretariat.[5]


Institutiones Grammaticae, 1290 circa, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence
Institutiones Grammaticae, 1290 circa, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

Priscian's most famous work, the Institutes of Grammar (Latin: Institutiones Grammaticae), is a systematic exposition of Latin grammar. The dedication to Julian probably indicates the consul and patrician, not the author of a well-known epitome of Justinian's Novellae, who lived somewhat later than Priscian. The grammar is divided into eighteen books, of which the first sixteen deal mainly with sounds, word-formation and inflexions; the last two, which form from a fourth to a third of the whole work, deal with syntax.[5]

Priscian's grammar is based on the earlier works of Herodian and Apollonius. The examples it includes to illustrate the rules preserve numerous fragments from Latin authors which would otherwise have been lost, including Ennius, Pacuvius, Accius, Lucilius, Cato and Varro. But the authors whom he quotes most frequently are Virgil, and, next to him, Terence, Cicero, Plautus; then Lucan, Horace, Juvenal, Sallust, Statius, Ovid, Livy and Persius.[5]

The grammar was quoted by several writers in Britain of the 8th century - Aldhelm, Bede, Alcuin - and was abridged or largely used in the next century by Hrabanus Maurus of Fulda and Servatus Lupus of Ferrières. About a thousand manuscripts exist, all ultimately derived from the copy made by Theodorus. Most copies contain only books I—XVI; these are sometimes known as the Priscianus Major ("Greater Priscian"). Others contain only books XVII and XVIII along with the three books to Symmachus; these are known as his work On Construction (De Constructione) or the Priscianus Minor ("Lesser Priscian"). A few copies contain both parts. The earliest manuscripts are from the 9th century, though a few fragments are somewhat earlier.[5]

Priscian's minor works include:[5]


Books XVII & XVIII of the Institutes, his work On Construction, was part of the core curriculum of the University of Paris in the 13th century and Roger Bacon's lectures for the class were the probable origin of his own Overview of Grammar, one of the first expositions on the idea of a universal grammar. Dante places Priscian in Hell among sodomites in Canto XV of his Inferno.[6]

Editions and translations


German Translations

French translations


  1. ^ Wilkes, J. (2012). "Aelius Donatus (Fourth Century CE) and Priscian (Sixth Century CE)". In Thomas, Margaret (ed.). Fifty Key Thinkers on Language and Linguistics. Routledge. p. 29. ISBN 978-1-136-70750-6.
  2. ^ Keil, Gr. Lat. vii. 207
  3. ^ Jones 1964, p. 991.
  4. ^ Lejay 1911.
  5. ^ a b c d e Chisholm 1911, p. 360.
  6. ^ Dante, Inf., Canto XV, l. 109.



Further reading