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Aulus Gellius

Like the Deipnosophists of Athenaeus or the later Saturnalia of Macrobius, Aulus Gellius, who flourished in the mid-first century AD, writes in the tradition of the dinner conversation, although his own miscellany is completely without the literary structure that a dialogue provides. The result is that an obscure note on grammar or textual criticism follows another on antiquity or history. Here is a sampling from his Attic Nights.

Once, an old woman came to Tarquin the Proud, bringing with her nine books that she wished to sell, declaring them to be oracles of the gods. An exorbitant price was asked, which Tarquin refused to pay. Burning three of the books to ashes, she asked the king whether he would buy the remaining six and, when refused, burned three more, again offering to sell the remaining three for the same price. Intrigued, Tarquin bought the Sibylline books and deposited them in the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter, where they were consulted by the Quindecemviri (council of fifteen) on matters of state (I.19).

At one time, the young sons of senators were permitted to accompany their fathers to the Curia, where one boy heard important legislation being discussed. Pestered by his mother to divulge the secret proceedings, he said that the Senate was debating whether one man should have two wives or one woman, two husbands. The next day, to the bewilderment of the senators, the women gathered at the house, imploring them to allow a woman to have two husbands. When the boy explained what he had done, it was voted that only he would be allowed into the Senate, because he had contrived such an amusing fiction to preserve its discussion (I.23).

The power and efficacy of the number seven, taken from Imagines, a lost collection of seven hundred illustrated biographies by Marcus Varro: seven comprises the number of planets, as well as the stars in the Pleiades and Ursa Major and Minor (the Big and Little Dipper); the summer solstice occurs in the seventh sign from the winter solstice and the winter solstice in the seventh sign after the summer; the moon completes its course in four times seven days; a healthy child cannot be born before the seventh month; there are seven wonders of the world and seven sages, as well as seven circuits of the track at the races, etc. (III.10).

Plato was said to have paid ten thousand denarii for several books of Philolaus, the first to be written by a Pythagorean, and Aristotle eighteen thousand for some books on philosophy (III.17). These exorbitant sums can be compared to a deluxe edition of Martial's Epigrams, the first book of which cost five denarii (I.117).

On the restorative powers of music: Flute music, when played skillfully and melodiously, was thought to cure snake bites. "So very close is the connection between the bodies and minds of men, and therefore between physical and mental ailments and their remedies" (IV.13).

Alexander was said to have paid seventy-eight thousand denarii for his horse Bucephalas, who, when equipped for battle, would allow no other rider. Once, grievously wounded and dying from a loss of blood, the animal safely removed Alexander from the battle and then fell down dead. In his honor, a city was built and named Bucephalon (V.3).

Antiochus once displayed to Hannibal his magnificent army, its soldiers arrayed with gold and silver, chariots with scythes, turreted elephants, and horsemen with brilliant trappings. "Do you think that all this can be equalled and that it is enough for the Romans?" To which Hannibal replied, "I think all this will be enough, yes, quite enough, for the Romans, even though they are most avaricious" (V.5).

To those who do not believe in Providence because there is evil in the world, Chrysippus (the third-century BC Stoic philosopher) replied, "There is absolutely nothing more foolish than those men who think that good could exist, if there were at the same time no evil. For since good is the opposite of evil, it necessarily follows that both must exist in opposition to each other, supported as it were by mutual adverse forces; since as a matter of fact no opposite is conceivable without something to oppose it" (VII.1).

Three reasons are given for the punishment of crimes: for the sake of correction, for the sake of example to others, and to uphold the honor of the injured person. "Accordingly, when there is either strong hope that the culprit will voluntarily correct himself without punishment, or on the other hand when there is no hope that he can be reformed and corrected; or when there is no need to fear loss of prestige in the one who has been sinned against; or if the sin is not of such a sort that punishment must be inflicted in order that it may inspire a necessary feeling of fear--then in the case of all such sins the desire to inflict punishment does not seem to be at all fitting" (VII.14).

The library at Alexandria: "At a later time an enormous quantity of books, nearly seven hundred thousand volumes, was either acquired or written in Egypt under the kings known as Ptolemies; but these were all burned during the sack of the city in our first war with Alexandria [48 BC], not intentionally or by anyone's order but accidentally by the auxiliary soldiers" (VII.17).

Why a missile, whether an arrow or stone from a sling, is more accurately thrown from below than above: "...throwing is easier if you throw downwards, provided you wish only to throw, and not to hit a mark. But when the direction and force of the throw must be regulated and guided, then, if you are throwing downwards, the control and command of the marksman are impaired by the downward impulse itself, such as it is, and by the weight of the falling missile. But if you throw your weapon upwards, and direct hand and eye to hitting something above you, the missile which you have hurled will go to the spot to which the impulse which you have given bears it" (IX.1).

On translating: "Whenever striking expressions from the Greek poets are to be translated and imitated, they say that we should not always strive to render every single word with exact literalness. For many thngs lose their charm if they are transplanted too forcibly--unwillingly, as it were, and reluctantly" (IX.9).

"When Pompey was preparing to consecrate the temple of Victory, the steps of which formed his theatre, and to inscribe upon it his name and honours, the question arose whether consul teritum should be written, or terito. Pompey took great pains to refer this question to the most learned men of Rome, and when there was difference of opinion, some maintaining that tertio ought to be written, others teritum, Pompey asked Cicero," says Varro, "to decide upon what seemed to him the more correct form...He accordingly advised Pompey to write neither teritum nor tertio, but to inscribe the first four letters only, so that the meaning was shown without writing the whole word, but yet the doubt as to the form of the word was concealed" (X.1).

The daughter of Appius Claudius Caecus is fined for intemperate language after being jostled by spectators as she left a play: "What, pray, would have become of me, and how much more should I have been crowded and pressed upon, had not my brother Publius Claudius lost his fleet in the sea-fight and with it a vast number of citizens? Surely I should have lost my life, overwhelmed by a still greater mass of people. How I wish," said she, "that my brother might come to life again, take another fleet to Sicily, and destroy that crowd which has just knocked poor me about." (Suetonius, in his Life of Tiberius, II, relates a similar story. Claudius Pulcher, ignoring the unfavorable auspices of the sacred chickens, which would not eat before he began a naval battle off Sicily in 249 BC, threw them overboard, saying that, if they would not eat, they might as well drink. It is to this loss that his sister referred when, says Suetonius, she was tried for treason, having wished, when her carriage was delayed in the throng, that her brother might come to life and lose another fleet, to make less of a crowd in Rome.)

The wearing of a ring on the finger of the left hand next to the little finger: "Apion in his Egyptian History says that the reason for this practice is, that upon cutting into and opening human bodies...it was found that a very fine nerve proceeded from that finger alone of which we have spoken, and made its way to the human heart; that it therefore seemed quite reasonable that this finger in particlar should be honoured with such an ornament, since it seems to be joined, and as it were united, with that supreme organ, the heart" (X.10).

On the ceremonies and rituals imposed on the flamen (special priest) of Jupiter: "The priest of Jupiter must not pass under an arbour of vines. The feet of the couch on which he sleeps must be smeared with a thin coating of clay, and he must not sleep away from this bed for three nights in succession, and no other person must sleep in that bed. At the foot of his bed there should be a box with sacrificial cakes" (X.15).

"It is written in the records of Grecian story that the philosopher Democritus, a man worthy of reverence beyond all others and of the highest authority, of his own accord deprived himself of eye-sight, because he believed that the thoughts and mediations of his mind in examinng nature's laws would be more vivid and exact if he should free them from the allurements of sight and the distractions offered by the eyes" (X.17).


It is from the lost Aegyptiaca of Apion, a first-century AD grammarian from Alexandria, that Gellius retells two charming and well-known fables: the story of Androclus (Androcles) and the Lion (V.14), and the Boy on the Dolphin (VI.8). Disconcertingly, Apion's history of Egypt also contains accusations against the Jews, including the golden head of an ass being found in the Temple, charges of ritual murder, and the exodus of Jews from Egypt being expelled because they were lepers, the blind and lame. So scurrilous were these calumnies that Josephus felt compelled to refute them in Against Apion. (The title of the apology is somewhat a misnomer, as it is directed against the Greeks and only Book II.1-14 actually deals with Apion.)

Pliny (Preface, XXV) said that Tiberius called Apion cymbalum mundi, "the cymbal of the world" for his self-aggrandizement and that Apion declared that those to whom he dedicated his works were made immortal as a result.


References: The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius (1927) translated by John C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library); Pliny: Natural History (1938) translated by H. Rackham (Loeb Classical Library); Aulus Gellius (1988) by Leofranc Holford-Strevens; Josephus: Against Apion (1926) translated by H. St. J. Thackeray (Loeb Classical Library).

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