Who Symphosius was, we simply do not know. Although there has been much debate about when he lived and wrote, most scholars now accept a late 4th- or early 5th-century date. He may have been from North Africa, and certainly lived within a late Roman cultural context.

Symphosius’ name plays upon the Latin word symposium (drinking party) and was likely either a joke or at least a source of fun for this poet. Indeed, the preface to the riddle collection describes its composition for the Saturnalia — the feast of the Roman god Saturn — and refers to the drunkenness of the poet. It ends with the plea: Da veniam, lector, quod non sapit ebria Musa (Be kind, reader, because the tipsy Muse was not discerning).

Following the preface are one hundred Latin poems, each three lines in length. Topics cover an enormous range from everyday objects to winter weather, from animals and plants to the Elements, and from food and wine to the tombstone that survives the dead it memorializes.

The 7th-/8th-century English poet Aldhelm was the first to make direct reference to Symphosius’ riddle collection, in his prose treatise on metre. Symphosius’ riddles were clearly the source of inspiration for Aldhelm’s own collection — and, therefore, for the entire early medieval riddle tradition. The riddles of these two poets can be found in some of the same manuscripts, which probably would’ve made Aldhelm very happy!

Editions and Translations

  • Glorie, Fr., ed. Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968, pages 620–723.
  • Leary, T. J., ed. Symphosius: The Aenigmata, An Introduction, Text and Commentary. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
  • Ohl, Raymond T., ed. The Enigmas of Symphosius. PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1928.
  • Orchard, Andy, ed. and trans. The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021, pages 444-99; and A Commentary on The Old English and Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021, pages 509-73.

Studies of Symphosius’ Riddles

  • Kwapisz, Jan, David Petrain and Mikolaj Szymanski, eds. The Muse at Play: Riddles and Wordplay in Ancient Greek and Latin Poetry. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013.
  • Leary, T. J. “Symphosius: A North African Martial?” Akroterion, volume 66, issue 1 (2021), pages tba.
  • Lockhart, Jessica. Everyday Wonders and Enigmatic Structures: Riddles from Symphosius to Chaucer. PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2017.
  • Ohl, Raymond T. “Symphosius and the Latin Riddle.” The Classical Weekly, volume 25, issue 25 (May 1932), pages 209-12.
  • Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown, West Virginia University Press, 2015. Especially chapters 1 and 3.2.
  • Sebo, Erin. In Enigmate: The History of a Riddle, 400-1500. Dublin: Four Courts, 2018.
  • Sebo, Erin. “Was Symphosius an African? A Contextualizing Note on Two Textual Clues in the Aenigmata Symphosii.” Notes and Queries, volume 56 (2009), pages 323-4.


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