Gellius in Antonine Society

Leofranc Holford-Strevens

Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights, a miscellany from the 2nd century AD consisting of mostly brief chapters on a great variety of topics, is filled with nuggets of fact such as the day and month of the Roman defeat at Cannae (2 August) and fragments of literature both Greek and Latin not found elsewhere. It has in addition a charm that has delighted readers well beyond the world of professional scholarship, who can say with Macaulay “Aulus is a favourite of mine”. There were numerous miscellanies both Latin and Greek in Gellius’ day, but of those in Latin it is his that has survived. His success lies in not merely instructing his readers or intriguing them into further study, but in offering relief from the pressure of everyday business with agreeable anecdotes: Socrates explains to Alcibiades why he put up with his shrewish wife Xanthippe; the young Papirius protects a state secret from his inquisitive mother; the actor Polus weeps in character over Orestes’ ashes but in person over his son’s, an early example of Method acting often discussed in theatre studies.

Many chapters are dramatized as scenes of contemporary life. When the philosopher Favorinus learns that a pupil has become the father of a son, he takes his pupils, among them Gellius, on a congratulatory visit; on hearing that the boy is to be wet-nursed, he argues at length that the mother should breast-feed him herself. In another chapter, Favorinus delivers a tirade against astrology. Both chapters present Greek declamations in Latin summaries with flashes of the rhetorical brilliance Gellius claims he cannot reproduce. Other chapters are cast as dialogues; in some Gellius merely listens as greater men debate, in others either he or a teacher puts a charlatan to shame.

Gellius hard at work: frontispiece to the edition of Jakob Gronovius (Leiden, 1706), engraved by Pieter Sluyter after Jan Goeree.

Gellius was born at some point in the middle years of Hadrian’s reign (AD 117–38); he received the regular education of the Roman élite in Greek and Latin grammar, which included the study of poets, and rhetoric, which included that of prose authors, culminating in philosophy, which was commonly studied in Greek. Gellius was fluent in that language, but also capable of schoolboy errors. He belonged to the class that did not work for a living, though unlike the personnel of Plato’s dialogues it had little time left over from public and private obligations to spend on intellectual activities. Within that class, he was an accepted but lesser member, always the guest of greater men and never the host; he seems to have owned only one property outside Rome.

Probably in 147, he completed his education with a trip to Greece; in Athens he studied with the Platonist Lucius Calvenus Taurus, who was still being read in the 6th century. He heard discourses by the renowned orator Herodes Atticus and the latter’s enemy the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus, both of whom he managed to admire just as he admired both the elder Scipio and his nemesis the elder Cato – or just as I was brought up to admire those bitter enemies Gladstone and Disraeli. It was also in Athens, so he says, that he conceived the idea of copying extracts from the books he read, which he then worked up into miniature expositions, called in remembrance of the long winter nights in Athens Noctes Atticae (Attic Nights).

Since excerpting was standard practice for students (as attested by Marcus Aurelius in his letters to Fronto), this seems to be as much of a literary fiction as his personal reminiscences. Also fictional is Gellius’ claim that the disorder of his chapters reproduces the sequence of his original notes, for similar assertions were made by other miscellanists, and by the younger Pliny in publishing his letters “as each came to hand” (ut quaeque (epistula) in manus venerat, Epistles 1.1.1). No more to be taken seriously is his assertion that his title cannot match the elegance of those bestowed on other miscellanies, of which he lists a great many, some strikingly dull; Gellius is a master of false modesty.

The opening of Attic Nights in the first printed edition of the work (ed. Joannes Andreae de Buxiis; C. Sweynheym & A. Pannartz, Rome, 1469; this copy sold by Christie’s London from Linley Hall, Shropshire, in 2016.

A few years after his return to Rome, Gellius was added to the roster of judges entitled to hear civil cases, a post for which legal training was not required; he did indeed take an interest in law, but mainly in the the law of the past. He mentions only two cases that he heard, concentrating not on a point of law or acutely uncovered facts, but on dissatisfaction with legal doctrine: whether he really had to find for a known scoundrel against an honourable man’s bare word not supported by evidence; and whether intra Kalendas (“within the Kalends”) properly included the Kalends themselves (as at law it did, like English “by the first”). In the first case he consulted Favorinus; it was not unusual to seek advice on moral questions from a philosopher, but since in Roman matters Greek speculations were out of place, Favorinus is made to cite that repository of tradition the elder Cato in favour of believing the better man. In the latter, Gellius is told by the eminent grammarian Sulpicius Apollinaris that intra ought to allow the day itself only. Neither consultation is conclusive: Gellius lacks the confidence to follow Favorinus’ advice, instead evading a decision by swearing that the case is unclear, but he has both the confidence and the competence to dispute with Sulpicius.

Marble bust of Antoninus Pius (reigned AD 138–61), c. 140 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain).

Gellius, a dabbler in many other disciplines, is fully at home in grammar, and though he treats Sulpicius as an equal, he feels both socially and intellectually superior to most professional grammarians – elementary schoolmasters who had to teach for money. He demonstrates his superiority to various deceased practitioners, but also to nameless empty-vessel charlatans whose boasts are found to be mere noise. Such folk must have existed, since in the ancient world grammarians, having no system of certification, had to create a reputation by self-advertisement, just like cooks and doctors.

Yet these specimens appear to have been invented as stooges at whose expense Gellius or Sulpicius can parade his knowledge, in particular of the pre-Ciceronian writers: these authors were not taught in school but had recently come back into favour. The victims are characterized in most cases as ignorant of those authors, but sometimes as narrow specialists; one of them, never having cared to study philosophy, does not know what definitions are; another, consulted about a legal expression in the early epic poet Ennius, whom he professes to expound, denies that Ennius had used it, and when Gellius quotes the passage he fails to interpret it. Grammarians were expected to explain everything in their texts, and Roman poets, like Shakespeare, could count on a wider knowledge of law, even in its technicalities, than modern authors can.

Gellius holding court among fellow scholars: illumination in a Bolognese manuscript of Noctes Atticae, Guglielmo Giraldi, 1448 (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, MS Sp. 10/28, f. 90v). The image can be explored here.

There are times when taste in the arts rejects the work of recent decades and looks back to that of an earlier period; a familiar example is afforded by the Romantics who in the late 18th century turned against the Age of Reason and in turn created medievalism. By Gellius’ time this had happened both in the Greek speaking part of the Roman Empire, where writers and orators attempted, with varying degrees of commitment or success, to imitate those of Classical Athens, and in the Latin-speaking past, where the insatiable one-upmanship of the emperor Hadrian had encouraged the study of pre-Ciceronian writers. This had previously been a counter-cultural affectation, but was now mainstream.

The result of this attitude was occasionally pastiche, but more often we find archaic words and usages along with new ones that together stood out against an unremarkable background. When Gellius in his preface (with a characteristic piling-up of synonyms) calls miscellaneous erudition variam et miscellam et quasi confusaneam doctrinam, the first epithet belongs to the common stock of the language, the second is an archaic term properly meaning “hybrid”, and the third new with Gellius. The mixture might be reproduced as “varied, commingled, and as it were jumblesome learning,” but read purely as a piece of English this would be rank affectation, whereas Gellius’ display was thoroughly in accordance with literary fashion.

A palimpsest fragment of Fronto’s Gratiarum actio pro Carthaginiensibus (“Giving of Thanks for the Carthaginians”) which was discovered in the 1810s by Cardinal Angelo Mai in the Vatican Library. Fronto’s text, written in rustic capitals of the 4th or 5th century (the smaller text above), was soon covered with the Latin Vulgate text of the Book of Judith in 5th-century uncials, after the leaf had been turned upside down (Pal. Lat. 24, f. 46r). The two images show the same section of Fronto’s speech: the photograph on the left is enhanced; the drawing on the right is Mai’s (1823).

Such mixtures, in varying proportions, characterize not only Gellius, but two other preserved Latin authors of the mid-2nd century AD: the orator and courtier Fronto, who saw in the early authors a resource for unexpected words to be dropped into his own prose and criticized Cicero for not seeking them out himself; and the orator and philosopher Apuleius, a flamboyant stylist during his brief time in Rome who seems to have been on good terms with Gellius and bad terms with Fronto. Gellius portrays himself as an acolyte of Fronto’s, but some of the judgements he puts in his mouth seem rather to be his own, in particular an admiration for the historian Claudius Quadrigarius, whom Fronto in his own writings mentions only once.

For his part, Fronto complains about Gellius in a very low-spirited letter to a prominent senator (Claudius Julianus), apparently for seeking out “those things of mine” (ista mea, Ad Amicos 1.19) to publish behind his back. Gellius relishes the early writers not merely, like Fronto, as sources of striking words but for their own sake; he also admires early Roman virtues, whereas Fronto and Apuleius, both rooted in North Africa, do not. That is likelier to be a sentimental antiquarianism than a serious proposal of social reform, for which his place in society was insufficiently exalted; if he exerted any influence it was in the realm of Latin style, for he survived as an author long after he had been forgotten as a person.

Leofranc Holford-Strevens was, before his retirement in 2011, Consultant Scholar-Editor at the Oxford University Press in Oxford. Besides editing and writing about Gellius, he has written on Classical, calendrical, and musicological topics. Together with Bonnie J. Blackburn, he has compiled The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford UP, 1999) and edited Florentus de Faxolis: Book on Music (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 2010).

Further Reading

An English translation of the Attic Nights can be found in J.C. Rolfe’s Loeb edition (3 vols, rev. ed., 1946), available here or here. For a more recent Latin text, see my Oxford Classical Text (Auli Gelli Noctes Atticae, 2 vols, Oxford UP, 2020) along with Gelliana: A Textual Companion to the Noctes Atticae of Aulus Gellius (Oxford UP, 2020). For more general surveys of Gellius and his age, see:

Joseph A. Howley, Aulus Gellius and Roman Reading Culture: Text, Presence, and Imperial Knowledge in the Noctes Atticae (Cambridge UP, 2018).

Christine Heusch, Die Macht der memoria: Die “Noctes Atticae” des Aulus Gellius im Licht der Erinnerungskultur des 2. Jahrhunderts n. Chr. (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2011).

Leofranc Holford & Amiel Vardi (eds.), The Worlds of Aulus Gellius (Oxford UP, 2004).

Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Aulus Gellius: An Antonine Scholar and his Achievement (corr. ed., Oxford UP, 2005).

René Marache, La critique littéraire de langue latine et le développement du goût archaïsant au IIe siècle de notre ère (Plihon, Rennes, 1952).