Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.01.09


Holford-Strevens, Leofranc, Aulus Gellius. London: Duckworth, 1988. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Pp. xxviii + 284. ISBN 0-8156-1971-3.


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

Aulus Gellius is an author read with pleasure by most scholars. Some of us think of him as our forerunner, others as our alter ego and almost all recognize him as a colleague: a gentleman amateur, to be sure, but clearly one of us. Few of us have devoted systematic study to the Attic Nights, but few of us have not rummaged in it, quoted it, or picked up a reference in it that has led on to something else. And it is easy to linger over his pages, savoring the atmosphere of cultured life under the Antonines.

But he is, for the same reasons, an author who tends to get short shrift in another way. Critical editions are relatively few and slow coming, translations fewer and slower, and concerted scholarly studies rarest of all -- and when they do come, they often come from the hands of lightweights looking for an easy mark, thinking to pick up the leavings at the banquet of philology. Holford-Strevens's appendix on "Editions and Translations" demonstrates the truth of these generalizations; and his book at whole makes successful amends for the failings of past generations.

For in Oxonian Holford-Strevens, Aulus Gellius has not only found an aficionado who will dedicate the book "D.M. Auli Gelli" with half a dozen tastefully restrained elegiac couplets, he has found a scholar who is capable of matching him, however far A.G. ranges, subject by subject. This is no easy thing in our time, when the degree of professional competence required to write of any of A.G.'s subjects is high, and the range required to write on many of them is something far beyond the grasp of most of us. H.-S. is not daunted. The book is not exhaustive, but it is comprehensive, and I do not detect a subject where H.-S. is not on firm ground. One section of the book pursues the persona and appearance of A.G. himself, with discussion of language and sources; a second section pays attention to the personalities who appear in the Nights, especially the teachers and orators whose learning and skill A.G. admired so; and the third, longest section covers the waterfront of A.G.'s subjects, not omitting a final chapter on "Weak Spots and Blind Spots." The erudition brought to bear is dizzyingly detailed and exact. Aulus Gellius nods and H.-S. is there to catch him; but I cannot say that I have caught H.-S. in any moment of similar weakness . By and large, H.-S. defends A.G.'s intelligence, learning, and integrity against frivolous criticism and presents him to us as a serious student and an honorable companion.

Most users of the book will have one mild complaint, and I have a faint regret to add. The complaint will be that there is no index of passages discussed from A.G. Almost twenty pages of index supplement the lack somewhat, but require the reader to use some imagination in guessing which subject on the particular page of interest is likely to be reflected in the index, and then perhaps to pursue several page references until the right one turns up.

By comparison, my regret may seem frivolous, but is perhaps worth stating. The one trait of A.G. that attracts and retains the affection of his readers is just his charm, his air of easy learning, of learning pursued among polished and interesting friends in cultured and comfortable surroundings. I could only wish that in his presentation of A.G., Holford-Strevens had tried to match at least some of that ease and geniality. I would have accepted some small disarrangement of the schematic and didactic structure of the work in return for an approach that could have been at once more easy-going and, if possible, more learned: even pedantry can be charming, and charm can leave room for displays of learning that might seem pedantic elsewhere. The Bodley Nights of Holford-Strevens is perhaps the book I wanted to be reading while I was reading this one.

But perhaps the force of convention is too strong. The ascetic streak in our intellectual life perhaps forbids us to offer anything but a minimalist, unprepossessing, and austere facade. Alas. This book is so good that a large helping of self-indulgence and whimsy would have been welcome.


A note on publishers. The classical productions of Duckworth have increased in recent years, with no diminution in interest or quality. Colin Haycraft's house is now certainly on a par with Oxford or Cambridge in quality and range of scholarship, though he has abstained from branching into editions and reference works for the most part. We find that by the anfractuosities of copyright law and the publishing business, we will in future be obliged to review Duckworth's books for the most part in disguise, treating them as the products of the various American presses (here UNC, otherwise sometimes Hopkins, often Cornell) that handle them on this side of the whale-road. BMCR will readily comply with these standards, but with regret that doing so may mask the range, variety, and accomplishment of the Duckworth enterprise. Where possible, we will note the Duckworth parentage, but inevitably some titles will slip through without full credit being given.