BMCR 2005.01.29

Aulus Gellius. An Antonine Scholar and his Achievement. Revised edition

, Aulus Gellius : an Antonine scholar and his achievement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. xxiii, 436 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199263191. £74.00.

This new, revised edition of the author’s (henceforth H.-S.) classic ‘Aulus Gellius’ comes at a time when Aulus Gellius is beginning to claim a more and more prominent place in examinations of the intellectual world of the Second Sophistic. The first conference dedicated to him was held recently (Aulus Gellius and his Worlds, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, 2003), and a publication of a collection of articles (edited by H.-S. and A. Vardi) based on its proceedings is underway.1

The new edition incorporates most of the work that has been published on Gellius since 1988 (date of the first edition), and applies better divisions of its contents into sections and sub-sections. Two appendices follow, one on the transmission and publication of the ‘Attic Nights’, and a second on archaism and Atticism. An index of the main passages discussed in the book has been added. The main perspective of the old edition is retained, however, which means that older scholarly lines can be discerned in some evaluations of Gellius and the literary taste of his time. The new edition retains the original character of the book as a comprehensive presentation of Gellius and the content of his ‘Noctes Atticae’. H.-S. rightly leaves the scholarly detail for the footnotes, which are a treasury of information, often of extreme value for the more specialist reader.

Now to a description of the book’s content: I raise points of discussion or criticism where necessary.

The ‘Introduction’ to the book (pp. 1-8) offers an overview of the historical and intellectual milieu in which Gellius wrote. Some of its evaluations, however, may not please the modern scholar. H.-S. (still) sees the themes of the literary production of the Second Sophistic as escapist, functioning for the Roman side as retreats from the traumatic memories of the early Principate (see p. 2) and resolving, for the Greek side, the ‘contradiction between the reviving fortunes of the Greek √©lite and its constant awareness of subjection’ (p. 6).2 H.-S. also (still) seems to regard the Second Sophistic as an age in which ‘the collection of existing knowledge engaged more zeal than the pursuit of new’ (p. 8, cf. pp. 1-2). Recent approaches, which offer more dynamic models of interpretation both regarding issues of escapism, and issues of originality (albeit focusing on Greek literature), seem not to have been considered for this revised introduction.3

The first section (‘Life and Date’, pp. 11-26) of the first part of the book (‘The Man and his Book’) offers an account of the known facts of Gellius’ life, and examines probable dates of composition for the ‘Noctes Atticae’. The chronological and literary evidence for his acquaintance and literary relationship with Apuleius now comprises an organised excursus (pp. 22-26). The second section (‘Composition and Purpose’, pp. 27-47) discusses the genre and literary character of the ‘Noctes Atticae’, examines the structure and layout of its contents, and addresses questions of utility or purpose of composition. Through the particular features of the ‘Noctes Atticae’, and its relationship with other compilations of similar kind, the reader forms a more general view of the miscellany, a genre (?) that, judging from its proliferation, was extremely popular throughout antiquity.

The third section (‘Language and Style’, pp. 48-64), rich in examples, demonstrates Gellius’ taste for archaic diction, without disregarding issues of contemporaneity in his style and vocabulary. Finally, the fourth section (‘Presentation and Sources’, pp. 65-80) distinguishes the different framing devices that the work employs for the presentation of its material. It also tackles crucial questions of fictionality and historicity by discussing ‘typical’ (hence borrowed, or adapted from literary sources) versus authentic (describing or based on true events) scenes. H.-S. rightly disengages himself from source-criticism (whose fruitless polarities he criticizes from the beginning, in his ‘Preface to the Revised Edition’, p. xi) and instead opts for the scenario of creative imitation.

The second part of the book (‘Preceptors and Acquaintances’, pp. 83-154) is a series of portraits of teachers and contemporary intellectuals who influenced Gellius. H.-S. nicely sketches their personalities and intellectual profile through summaries of chapters in the ‘Noctes Atticae’ where they feature or are quoted, and through useful background information that offers valuable insights into the intellectual debates of the time. Where necessary, issues of fictionality are touched upon. The first section (pp. 83-97) opens with Gellius’ teachers (Sulpicius Apollinaris, Antonius Julianus – Titus Castricius, Calvenus Taurus, representing, for Gellius, the ancient educational triptych of grammar-rhetoric-philosophy).

Next, the central and most seriously revised section in the book, on the philosopher-sophist Favorinus (pp. 98-130), brings together the most recent material that has contributed to our knowledge of the man and his work (including the invective of Polemo preserved in Arabic, p. 99-100, with n. 8, 15), as well as some of the most up-to-date treatments of this multi-faceted persona who, in many ways, embodies the era itself.4 An objection may be brought to the absolutism with which ‘Favorinus the Latinist’ (pp. 118-129) is approached. H.-S. argues that, in most cases in the ‘Noctes Atticae’ where Favorinus uses or discusses Latin (language, customs, or grammar), we are dealing either with Gellian adaptations or translations of the original Greek content or examples or with Gellius’ ascription of views found in other sources to Favorinus. This, however, leaves no room for the uniquely versatile nature of this sophist-philosopher that makes him slip between identities, fields, and (why not?) languages.

The part closes with the ‘honoured orators’ Fronto, whose career is seen in the light of new chronological data,5 and Herodes Atticus (pp. 131-144); other ‘miscellaneous contemporaries’ who feature in the work and have been some sort of intellectual influence for Gellius are mentioned next (pp. 145-154).

The third part of the book (‘Scholarship and Study’, pp. 157-328) proceeds with a presentation of the miscellaneous content of the ‘Noctes Atticae’. Grammar and language/style come first: H.-S. discusses Gellius’ knowledge of Latin scholarship (pp. 157-171), his place in the purist debates of his time (pp. 172-192), and his literary taste, represented in his preference for archaic, rather than Classical, Roman orators and poets (though there are exceptions, see pp. 193-225). H.-S. succeeds in showing not only Gellius’ alignment with contemporary tendencies, but also his originality and individuality. Finally, the section on ‘Greek: Language, Poets, Orators’ (pp. 226-240) describes and evaluates Gellius’ knowledge of Greek and also brings out one of the most fascinating aspects of the ‘Noctes Atticae’, its comparative outlook on Greek and Latin (languages, literature, cultures; cf. also pp. 195-205 on literary comparisons).

History and philosophy are examined next (pp. 241-285), with an excursus on religion (pp. 286-9). History interests Gellius primarily as anecdote and as a particular narrative style. Historical curiosities awaken the paradoxographer in him, and philosophy attracts him for its moral force. H.-S. rightly identifies the predominantly scholarly perspective in Gellius’ approach to both subjects. Yet the attribution of Gellius’ lack of a proper historical evaluation of the historiographical material to superficiality,6 and his lack of interest in the more specialist fields of philosophy, like logic or metaphysics, to a lack of comprehension (p. 261) does injustice to the author. Gellius’ approach to these topics does not necessarily indicate a lack of depth but can be interpreted as a particular literary or educational statement, especially if it is seen in relation to his emphasis on the cultural, rather than factual, aspect of the material.7

Other sciences represented in the ‘Noctes Atticae’ (Law, Rhetoric, Medicine, pp. 290-305) come next. H.-S. closes with a description of some individual themes that attract Gellius’ interest from time to time, ‘spice up’ his text, or are important because they help us to appreciate his thought (e.g. sex, women, barbarians; see pp. 306-332). This section has been significantly enriched since the previous edition, thus giving a fuller idea of the cultural horizon of the Noctes Atticae. Some of the themes, like women, punishment, or mathematics and music, do not form independent rubrics, but are sub-topics or fields within the major disciplines in the work, namely philosophy, law, or grammar. Nevertheless, their separate examination conveys a sense of the variety of Gellius’ subject-matter and the diversity of his interests, which are both important for understanding the nature of his achievement.

Of the two appendices in the end, the first, on Gellius’ transmission and publication, will interest the text critic, but also the literary historian, as it gives some very interesting evidence on the respect Gellius enjoyed in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The second, on Archaism and Atticism, is one of the most welcome additions to the book, both for its helpful summary of these complicated linguistic and stylistic phenomena, and for its considerable effort to illustrate the differences between Latin archaism and Greek Atticism, dispelling easy perceptions of them as identical phenomena. The reader will find this appendix particularly useful as he/she goes through the sections on Gellius’ language and style, and on his views on the Latin language.

All in all, the revised book is still the most sophisticated and thorough study of Gellius and his miscellany that one can have access to nowadays. As a presentation, it gives priority to Gellius’ voice over secondary interpretations, and it is thus rich in citations, examples, and summaries of chapters from the ‘Noctes Atticae’. This helps the reader to achieve familiarity with the author and the text. As a work of both historical and literary scope, it also seeks to re-construct the contexts of the ideas, scholarly interests, and literary preferences of the ‘Noctes Atticae’. It chooses to do so inductively, rather than providing extensive background information in every section. Thus the reader gains valuable insights into the wider cultural and intellectual scenery while remaining focused on Gellius. Provided that he/she approaches with some caution the instances where outdated criticism of the era’s (and Gellius’) literary style is offered, the scope, learning, and thoroughness of the book will be able both to inspire the uninitiated learner into a more serious study of Gellius, and guide the experienced reader into a deeper appreciation of the author.

There are no inaccuracies or typos that I could spot, except that the title and year of the book by Marie-Louise Lakmann on the philosopher Taurus is cited wrongly in the bibliography (though correctly in the notes, p. 90, n.37).


1. L. Holford-Strevens & A. Vardi, ‘Aulus Gellius and his Worlds’, Oxford University Press (forthcoming 2005).

2. See E. L. Bowie (1970), ‘Greeks and their Past in the Second Sophistic’ Past & Present 46, 3-41; also, S. Swain (1996), ‘Hellenism and Empire’, Oxford, pp. 66-100, both acknowledged in p. 7, n. 37.

3. T. Schmitz (1997), ‘Bildung und Macht: Zur sozialen und politischen Funktion der zweiten Sophistik in der griechischen Welt der Kaizerzeit’, Munich; T. Whitmarsh (2001), ‘Greek Literature and the Roman Empire. The Politics of Imitation’, Oxford. The latter book seems not to have been taken into account for this updated version (it is not acknowledged in the bibliography).

4. Namely by E. Amato, S. Beall, and M. Gleason (see full references in the notes to this section and bibliography).

5. His suffect consulship was in the year 142, instead of 143. See p. viii and 131.

6. E.g. his interest in historical anecdote instead of continuous history is linked with the general predominance of Suetonian biography over history, a sign, according to H.-S., that ‘the Romans … had turned against profundity’ (p. 242).

7. See Astarita (1993), ‘La cultura nelle Noctes Atticae’, Catania.