BMCR 2009.09.14

The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius: An Intermediate Reader and Grammar Review

, The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius: An Intermediate Reader and Grammar Review. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009. xi, 108. ISBN 9780806139937 $19.95 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Third-semester Latin often poses a problem for today’s language instructor for two main reasons. First, it is difficult to find a good textbook that balances review of grammar and morphology with passages of Latin that will give students practice in reading real Latin without frustrating them unduly. Second, students in third-semester Latin come from a variety of backgrounds: some have just finished two semesters of Latin, some have just come from high school, some have taken Latin before but some time previously. Indeed, these reasons often cause teachers to create their own textbooks, as did my predecessor at Hope College, the late John Quinn.

Similar circumstances have led P. L. Chambers to write her new book, an intermediate Latin reader based on Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights, and she assures the teacher: “The method I employ has proved highly successful in the classroom and is popular with students” (p. xi). Unlike other standard intermediate textbooks, such as Hammond and Amory’s Aeneas to Augustus: A Beginning Latin Reader for College Students,1 which presents an array of extracts from many classical and later writers, Chambers has chosen as her main focus a mid-2nd c. CE writer, whose stature has grown in recent years along with the general interest in works of the imperial age and the Second Sophistic. Aulus Gellius has been the subject of much recent scholarship, most prominently in the newly revised edition of Holford-Strevens’ monograph Aulus Gellius: An Antonine Scholar and His Achievement,2 but Chambers has found Gellius’ miscellany of stories and extracts an untapped treasury of texts for mid-level Latin students.

For her textbook Chambers has chosen seventeen chapters from Gellius’ twenty books and made each one of Gellius’ chapters the focus of one of hers. Each chapter in her book usually consists of five sections. First, a “Grammar Review” states topics for review—a nice guideline for the instructor to consider in drawing up lesson plans—and directs students to the corresponding pages in the “Compiled Grammar Charts” at the end of the book. Second, the “New Grammar” section briefly introduces new items of grammar that will be the focus of the chapter and gives examples. Third, the “Exercises” in the next section are generally writing exercises of a more mechanical nature (e.g. the conjugation of a verb or the declension of a noun). Fourth, the “Sentences” section requires students either to translate sentences that Chambers has devised “to ease translation and reduce frustration” (p. ix) or to identify underlined grammatical constructions or both. These four sections prepare the students for the fifth section, the “Translation,” which she provides with a vocabulary list. As students progress through the book, they will find that the “Exercises” are phased out completely and the “Grammar Review” becomes much reduced, both because of the review of grammar and morphology they have already completed and so that they may put greater focus on the texts for translation.

Chambers promises in the preface that “the readings are relatively short, entertaining, cover various subjects, and (most important) are not too difficult for a third-semester Latin student to translate” (p. vii), and she largely delivers on that promise. Apart from a short Latin paragraph, composed by the author herself to introduce the reader to Gellius (chapter ἰ, all of the Latin texts for translation in the book are drawn straight from Gellius’ Attic Nights, each of them comprising an entire chapter or extract. Chambers carefully calibrates each text so that it provides students an opportunity to see in action the constructions reviewed in that chapter, and she provides extensive vocabulary for each text, as well as the usual glossary at the end of the book. Students and teachers will find that not only do the texts grow in difficulty as the book progresses, but they also grow in length as well: the longest text, which is the focus of chapter X, covers nearly three pages (pp. 45-47). The author also takes the length of the average college semester into account: teachers will be pleased to find that her slim book and its seventeen chapters fit neatly (more or less) into the academic calendar.

The “Compiled Grammar Charts” at the end of the book include charts of regular, irregular, and deponent verb conjugations (pp. 77-89), a list of major subjunctive uses (pp. 90-91), charts of noun, pronoun, and adjective declensions (pp. 92-102), and a list of major ablative uses (p. 102). These charts and lists are easy to use and provide basic reminders to students, but they seem too brief for students in their third semester who are confronting more complex Latin syntax. Chambers addresses this in “A Note to the Teacher,” where she states: “If there is no page number listed for a grammar review topic, it is because this topic cannot be listed in a table format” (p. xi). This will allow the instructor to supplement her book with worksheets and exercises and especially in-class explanations, as the needs of the students dictate. I should note that Chambers’ book expects students to have a basic understanding of the morphology and use of the subjunctive from the beginning, so instructors may find it necessary to give a précis of this mood at the start of the semester.

As a long-time fan of Aulus Gellius, I must admit that I was predisposed in favor of this textbook, and this fall when I teach third-semester Latin at Hope College I will be using this textbook as the centerpiece of my syllabus. Although this intermediate reader does require supplementation with other aids, it is another useful tool for a college or even high-school Latin teacher to consider when considering the “problem” of third-semester or third-year Latin.

I save for the end only two minor criticisms. First, the map of the Roman Empire (p. xii) shows its state at the death of Augustus. With respect to the author of the Attic Nights, a map showing the empire in the mid-2nd c. CE would be more appropriate. Second, Chambers seems to alter the text of Gellius more than she acknowledges. In the table of contents she notes from which book and section of the Attic Nights she has taken each text translation. In “A Note to the Teacher” she states: “These translations represent the original manuscript with no alterations (other than replacing with a Latin form Aulus Gellius’ occasional use of a Greek word). I use ellipses (…) to denote omissions from the original.” Nowhere, however, does Chambers cite the source of her text of Aulus Gellius, and this reader can only assume that she is using P.K. Marshall’s OCT in its corrected edition of 1990. Also, she occasionally subtly changes the text without remark to make it easier for students to read. For instance, the third text translation (“Pythagoras and Hercules” on p. 13) is represented as the full lemma and text of Attic Nights 1,i. Chambers, however, replaces “de comprehendenda corporis proceritate qua” with “de comprehendendo corporis statu quo” in the lemma, changes “Herculani” to “Herculis” in line 11, and inserts “quanta longinquitas corporis ei mensurae conveniret” in lines 11 and 12. Minor inserts like (“esse”) after “ratiocinatum” in line 3 and “metatum” in line 6 are less intrusive, but given Chambers’ desire to give students real Latin texts she should relegate hints for translating the passages to the footnotes.

Table of Contents:

Preface vii
A Note to the Student ix
A Note to the Teacher xi
Map of the Roman Empire xii
I. Aulus Gellius 3
II. The Attic Nights (Excerpts from the Praefatio) 6
III. How Pythagoras Calculated the Height of Hercules (Bk. I,i) 11
IV. The Difficult Decision of Chilo the Lacedaemonian (Excerpt from Bk. I,iii) 15
V. The Taunting of Demosthenes of Athens and Likewise of Hortensius of Rome (Bk. I,v) 20
VI. The Method and Order of Pythagorean Training (Excerpt from Bk. I,ix) 25
VII. The Sibylline Books and King Tarquinius (Bk. I,xix) 29
VIII. Papirius Praetextatus (Bk. I,xxiii) 33
IX. Why Fabricius Luscinus Campaigned for Cornelius Rufus (Bk. IV,viii) 38
X. Androcles and the Lion (Bk. V,xiv) 42
XI. Hannibal’s Joke about the Army of King Antiochus (Bk. V,v) 51
XII. Julius Caesar and the Filibuster of Marcus Cato (B.k IV,x) 54
XIII. Memorable Censorial Reprimands (Bk. IV,xii) 59
XIV. Three Examples of Severe Censorial Reprimands (Bk. IV,xx) 61
XV. The Strength and Nature of the Palm Tree (Bk. III,vi) 65
XVI. A Saying of Practical Value (Excerpt from Bk. XVI,i) 67
XVII. A Fable of Aesop Worth Remembering (Excerpt from Bk. II,xxix) 70
Compiled Grammar Charts 77
Glossary 103


1. Hammond, Mason and Anne Amory. 1967. Aeneas to Augustus: A Beginning Latin Reader for College Students. 2nd edition. Harvard University Press.

2. Holford-Strevens, Leofranc. 2005. Aulus Gellius: An Antonine Scholar and His Achievement. Oxford University Press.