BMCR 2022.01.17

Aulus Gellius und die Noctes Atticae: die literarische Konstruktion einer Sammlung

, Aulus Gellius und die Noctes Atticae: die literarische Konstruktion einer Sammlung. Millennium-Studien, 88. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. viii, 306. ISBN 9783110695007 $114.99.


Extensive studies on Aulus Gellius’ Noctes Atticae are not that many, although an increase has been registered since 2018, when Joseph Howley’s Aulus Gellius and Roman Reading Culture came out.[1] Before that, we need to move back to 2011 to find another monograph devoted to Gellius, that is, Christine Heusch’s Die Macht der memoria.[2] But 2020 saw the publication of as many as three works on Gellius: in addition to the new OCT edition by Leofranc Holford-Strevens, who also wrote a companion to clarify his textual decisions as well as to update some of his previous Gellian contributions,[3] Beate Beer published the book under review, a revised version of her habilitation thesis at the Univeristy of Zurich. As the title of the book suggests, its main goal is to bring to light the literary and fictional aspects of the Noctes Atticae.

The structure of the book is tripartite: the first part (“Stand der Forschung und Ziel der Arbeit”) is actually an introduction, which sets the book in context, presenting the state of research and outlining its aims. Part 2, the core of the study, is by far the longest (“Narrativität der Enzyklopädie”, 54-252) and analyses the various narratological and literary aspects of the Noctes Atticae. In the third part (“Poetik des Sammels”), Beer looks at the relationship between Gellius and other earlier or later authors of miscellanies. After a short conclusion (281-283) which sums up the results of the analysis, there is a bibliography divided into two sections: texts and commentaries, and secondary literature. Last come indexes of people, objects and passages referred to throughout the book.

Since Beer’s thesis is that the Noctes Atticae narrates knowledge (46), in the first part she provides, alongside a review of the status quaestionis in Gellian studies, a very detailed account of the narratological works which orient her research. Pride of place goes perhaps to Genette’s Die Erzählung (the German translation of both the Discours du récit and the Nouveau discours du récit), whose narratological criteria, once pinpointed in the Noctes Atticae, would make it clear that Gellius’ miscellany has not only “useful” but also “literary” aspects (26). In other words, what Beer’s work goes on to show quite persuasively is that the Noctes Atticae contains both elements which interest users of an encyclopedia and elements which attract readers of a curious work of literature. Other important studies which explicitly influence Beer’s are those by Hausendorf and Kesselheim, Iser, Pausch, Baumann, Jannidis, and Bachtin.

Right from its beginning, part 2 points toward a narratological reading of the Noctes Atticae. While acknowledging that this book belongs to the encyclopaedic genre and that culture (Bildung) is its main subject, Beer is quick to stress Gellius’ originality. This is immediately evident in the so called “open-ended” articles of the Noctes, i.e. articles which, leaving questions open, explicitly invite the reader to play an active role by looking for a conclusion to them (58-59). In so doing, Gellius would confer more importance on the act of quest itself rather than on its findings. After all, if results were more important, there would probably be internal cross-references among articles on the same topic, and this is not the case. According to Beer, this testifies to Gellius’ willingness to suggest a linear reading of his Noctes (76), which in turn would uphold her thesis that a sort of plot – very important to a narratological reading – does exist in this work.

The role of the reader becomes more and more important in the following sections, in which Beer ends up presenting the Noctes Atticae as a product of the reader rather than of the writer. According to her, since every reader actualises the text differently by filling the gaps left by the narrator, the Noctes Atticae gains the attractiveness of a fictional text (98)—although in my opinion Beer juxtaposes a little too often the Noctes and the Latin novels Satyrica and Metamorphoses. In this respect, what Beer suggests later on in the text is particularly unconvincing. On p. 236 she claims that Atticae shares the suffix -icus with several ancient novels—not only Petronius’ Satyrica, but also the Greek Ephesiaka, Milesiaka and Aithiopika—and that through this analogy Gellius would address the same audience as the novelists. Yet the difference is striking: the aforementioned titles are all substantivised neuter adjectives the translations of which usually convey the ideas of adventures (Satyrica = Satyrlike Adventures, Milesiaká = Milesian Adventures, etc.), while Atticae is but a geographic adjective modifying Noctes.

For her theory of linear reading Beer attributes great importance to the historical characters who appear throughout the Noctes (113-197) and whose personalities are revealed in article after article. Favorinus of Arelate, who appears in as many as 30 articles, is a case in point: he is not given a complete portrait once and for all the first time he pops up in the book, nor does the historical viewpoint prevail; rather, Gellius tells us only what aspects of Favorinus’ personality are relevant to the article in question, so that the reader has to go through the entire book if s/he wants to get a clearer idea of the character Favorinus (155). The other characters to whom Beer pays particular attention are Tauros, Herodes Atticus, Antonius Iulianus, and Fronto. Overall, Beer’s analysis of the historical figures suggests that the narrator privileges the plots of the single articles over the representation of the characters, that in any case he pays special attention to his audience when portraying the characters, and that the historical characters are therefore often standardised (184-187): briefly, it looks as if in the Noctes Atticae Gellius realises the Typendarstellung that Aristotle and Horace regarded as characteristic of the Kunstprosa.

Part 3 draws a comparison between the Noctes and other miscellanies. In particular, Beer stresses that, while Gellius and other ancient miscellanists collected verba, 17th– and 18th-century humanists rather collected res. When it then comes to comparing Gellius with Pliny the Elder, Beer highlights the different goals of the two: Pliny aimed at totality, Gellius at selectivity; Pliny ended up realising a Naturalienkabinett, Gellius an Erzählkabinett. Needless to say, the presence of words like selectivity and Erzählkabinett cannot be fortuitous, as they are clearly aimed at supporting Beer’s thesis of the narratological character of the Noctes Atticae.

Overall, Beer’s analysis is detailed and her book surely represents an important contribution to Gellian scholarship.[4] It will be difficult hereafter to deny that the Noctes Atticae show several narratological elements and aspects, which certainly make it more appealing to readers than, for example, Pliny’s Naturalis Historia. The theory of linear reading is no doubt attractive, although, despite Beer’s opinion, the index of the articles at the beginning of the Noctes Atticae rather seems to me to point in the direction of a selective reading. Since in the first part of her book Beer does seem to contemplate both readings—the one aimed at a user, the other at a reader—I am not sure why the presence of the intial index troubles her so much (76): it is useless to the reader, but useful to the user. After all, doesn’t Gellius’ structural originality mainly consist in being attractive to both?


[1] Joseph A. Howley, Aulus Gellius and Roman Reading Culture. Text, Presence and Imperial Knowledge in the Noctes Atticae, Cambridge – New York 2018.

[2] Christine Heusch, Die Macht der memoria: die ,Noctes Atticaeʻ des Aulus Gellius im Licht der Erinnerungskultur des 2. Jahrhunderts n. Chr., Berlin – New York 2011.

[3] Auli Gelli Noctes Atticae ab Leofranco Holford-Strevens recognitae brevique adnotatione critica instructae, Tomus I et II, Oxonii 2000 and L. Holford-Strevens (ed.), Gelliana. A Textual Companion to the Noctes Atticae of Aulus Gellius, Oxford 2020.

[4] I noticed only two misprints: Favornius instead of Favorinus (116, 1st line) and the lack of accent marks in the Greek ὑπερουράνιος τόπος (277, taken from a citation by Benjamin).