Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.22

Gigliola Maggiulli, et al., Tradizione enciclopedica e divulgazione in età imperiale. Serta Antiqua et Mediaevalia, II.   Roma:  Giorgio Bretschneider, 2000.  Pp. 222.  ISBN 88-7689-168-4.  

Reviewed by Caroline Macé, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (
Word count: 814 words

This second volume of Serta Antiqua et Mediaevalia is again dedicated to Latin authors of the Imperial period: Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia, Gellius' Noctes Atticae, Sulpicius Severus' Chronica and pseudo-Apuleius' Herbarius. This volume is devoted to some (very) specific aspects Latin encyclopedism, covering fields of knowledge as different as biology, history and linguistics, between the first and the fifth centuries. One should not expect to find in the book a synthetic engagement with the topic since there is no introduction to provide a much needed context to the issues. Moreover, there is no index and bibliography. Although the last contribution (Buffa Giolito) provides by way of a short précis a few remarks on what encyclopedism is about, there is nothing in the volume that addresses more general issues of methodological and theoretical interest. Seen thus, the volume fails to provide the reader with much needed survey of Latin encyclopedism.

All contributions are in Italian:

(1) Gigliola Maggiulli: Natura, violazione e difesa dell'ambiente: l'eredità di Plinio ol Vecchio fra scienza e divulgazione

(2) Eleonora Salomone Gaggero: Voci liguri in un'enciclopedia antica. A proposito di alcuni passi della Naturalis Historia di Plinio

(3) Leonardo Paganelli: Nicia secondo Plutarco. Una proiezione dell'antico in età imperiale

(4) Sergio Ingallina: Teoria e prassi gelliane nel labirinto del deprecari

(5) Maria Teresa Vitale: Gellio esegeta di Ennio (Ann. XIV 377-378 Sk.)

(6) Mariarosaria Pugliarello: Dibattito a distanza: Cesare grammatico nel contubernium di Frontone (Gell. XIX 8)

(7) Sandra Isetta: Un tascabile del V secolo. La compendiosa lectio della stori in Sulpicio Severo

(8) M. Franca Buffa Giolito: Lettura retorica della praefatio di pseudo Apuleio Platonico

The third article (Paganelli) strays from the Latin world and develops a different reading of the issues. Paganelli examines various historical interpretations and depictions of Nicias, from Aristotle to the twentieth century (I. Montanelli, Storia dei Greci, Milan, 1958), passing through Machiavelli and Plutarch. Paganelli addresses the issue of the "projection" of the past, which he defines as "revision of a character or an event from the past within a modern view".

All contributions focus on philological or historical scholarship and less on science. Even the first article, by Maggiulli, about "nature" is more concerned with poetical or mystical than scientific implications, and the last article, about pseudo-Apuleius' Herbarius, examines questions of style. The essays are replete with detail, abundant footnotes and erudition. In a way, they are a continuation of the Imperial tradition of encyclopedism, of reception and interpretation of the past and of curiositas. The second part of the title of this volume is somewhat misleading, for nothing is said about the popularisation of knowledge. Indeed, there is enormous distance between ancient scholarship and what we now consider to be scholarly or scientific research: most papers give a more precise measure of this distance. Does that mean that at that time and, generally speaking, throughout Antiquity and then Middle Ages, scientific knowledge was not very different from popular knowledge, at least less different than now? It might be more or less true as far as it concerns technical or natural sciences, but not historical or linguistic knowledge, where between scholars and the masses, the distance must have been insuperable.

Maggiulli gives a thorough account on Pliny the Elder's conceptions about cosmology (mostly inherited from Plato's Timaeus -- through Cicero's translation -- but philosophically eclectical), mineralogy, pharmacy and botany. On the same author and from the same viewpoint, the second article examines the reliability of Pliny as an historian. The author confronts systematically what Pliny mentions about the Ligurians with evidence gathered by modern historians. She concludes that, in spite of several mistakes or imprecisions (quite natural according to the nature and the length of the work), Pliny, who is also our most important source, is quite reliable. Some other articles focus on minuscule points, like Ingallina's, about the verb deprecor in Aulus Gellius. This is an addition (of 35 pages length) to another article on the very same word (published in Serta Antiqua et Mediaevalia I). Vitale's article is about the adjectives caeruleus et flavus in the same Aulus Gellius. There is a third article on the same author, and finally, quite outside the period, an article on Sulpicius Severus.

Although the second volume of Serta Antiqua et Mediaevalia addresses topics of salient interest and provides numerous interpretative insights, this book is more like an issue of a journal of Latin studies than a cohesive and coherent scholarly monograph. Also, most of the bibliographical items are in Italian and there are several important omissions. For example, in the first article, on Pliny the Elder, the important study by M. Beagon, Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder, Oxford, 1992, is not quoted. There are a few misspellings, mostly in French titles or quotations (for example p. 28 n. 87, p. 34 n. 99, p. 164 n. 93, p. 208 n. 13).

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