Symphosius (sometimes, in older scholarship and less properly, Symposius) was the author of the Aenigmata, an influential collection of 100 Latin riddles, probably from the late antique period. They have been transmitted along with their solutions.
Nothing more is known of Symphosius's life than what can be gleaned from the riddles themselves: even his name is clearly 'a joking pseudonym, meaning "party boy" or the like'. Proposed dates of composition have ranged from the third century to the sixth. The prevailing view today is that they were probably composed in the late fourth or early fifth century. A range of circumstantial evidence in the content of the riddles suggests that Symphosius was writing in Roman North Africa.
The riddles themselves, written in tercets of dactylic hexameters, are of elegant Latinity. The author's brief preface states that they were written to form part of the entertainment at the Saturnalia. This could be a literary convention, and the passage may not even have been original, but the riddles do 'copy their form(and some of their content) from Martial's Xenia, a collection of enigmatic descriptions of xenia (Saturnalian gifts)'.
According to Sebo, the preface to Symphosius's riddles 'reveals that within Symphosius' milieu there is still a conception of riddles as oral and agonistic' going back to Antique traditions of the symposium. However, the riddles themselves are highly literary: 'in thus removing the Riddle form from its popular context as a guessing game, so to speak, and endowing it with a new autonomy and intertextual sophistication Symphosius "invents" what was later termed the Literary Riddle'. Sebo also argues that the collection is carefully structured as a literary whole, proceeding from the more light-hearted to the more sombre, and drawing together material similar in subject (such as whether the solutions are plants, animals or artefacts), metaphorical themes, or aural similarity of lemmata. She argues that, since the solutions are transmitted with the riddles in the manuscript, they too are to be read as part of the sophisticated literary form of Symphosius's work; and she claims that overall the work meditates on the material world, giving voices to creatures and objects whose perspectives on the world were not ordinarily heard.
Symphosius's collection opens with riddles about writing; these riddles about the act of writing stand as a meta-comment on Symphosius's own literary act in writing the riddles: Thus the second riddle is Harundo ('reed'):
- Dulcis amica ripae, semper uicina profundis,
- Suaue cano Musis; nigro perfusa colore,
- Nuntia sum linguae digitis signata magistris.
- Sweet darling of the banks, always close to the depths, sweetly I
- sing for the Muses; when drenched with black, I am the tongue's
- messenger by guiding fingers pressed.
- Virgo modesta nimis legem bene seruo pudoris;
- Ore procax non sum, nec sum temeraria linguae;
- Vltro nolo loqui, sed do responsa loquenti.
- A modest maid, too well I observe the law of modesty;
- I am not pert in speech nor rash of tongue;
- of my own accord I will not speak, but I answer him who speaks.
The Aenigmata were influential on later Latin riddle-writers, inspiring the Bern Riddles, those of Aldhelm, Tatwine, and others. Ten of them appear in the riddle-contest in Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri. They had some popularity as school-texts among Renaissance humanists: some appear in the anonymous Aenigmata et griphi veterum et recentium (Douai 1604), which Joachim Camerarius translated seventeen into Greek for his Elementa rhetoricae of 1545.
The Aenigmata come down to us in more than thirty manuscripts. The most notable of these is the famous Codex Salmasianus (Paris, 10318).
The editio princeps was by Joachimus Perionius, Paris, 1533; the most recent editions are: