Aulus Gellius: An Antonine Scholar and His Achievement 
by Leofranc Holford-Strevens.
Duckworth, 284 pp., £35, November 1988, 0 7156 1971 3
Show More
Show More

The scene is set in Athens, a mid-December in the mid-second century AD. A group of Roman students meet to celebrate the Saturnalia with dinner and conversation. The host sets a quiz: each man gets a problem – a rare word, a doubtful tense-form, a logical teaser, an antiquarian practice, a debated passage of Plato or some ‘charmingly obscure’ verses from an archaic poet. A knowledgeable answer wins two prizes – a laurel wreath, and a volume of the Classics. Thus Polite Learning joins hands with Whole-some Mirth. In the background of this edifying picture reclines our narrator, the lawyer and littérateur Aulus Gellius.

Gellius is his book: and his book, the Attic Nights, is just such a game of Learned Pursuit. Four hundred short chapters, variously couched as essay or anecdote or dialogue, present four hundred problems of lore, language or literature. A preface of designer modesty tells us that this miscellany is a notebook, begun in the long winter nights in the countryside near Athens: notes taken from books, lectures and discussions, in the rare leisure of a busy life, set down selectively and in random order, for Gellius’s children and anyone else who aspires to exchange peasant ignorance for gentlemanly knowledge. The book – Gellius’s only production, so far as we know, in a working life of thirty years – has two faces: the diary of the perpetual student is also a manual for those who want to know about books without having to read them. Dip into it, and you find a variety of passing pleasures: the early history of ‘proletarian’; how oysters fatten at the full moon, how a dolphin fell in love with a handsome boy; Pompey agonises about his grammar, Virgil like a she-bear licks his epic into shape, Socrates recommends a shrewish spouse as good preparation for life. The setting itself provides vignettes of Roman society – dinner-parties, libraries, bookshops, senators in sneakers, a fire in the slums (‘urban property is not a good investment,’ comments an intellectual bystander). One chapter everyone knows: the story of Androcles and the Lion.

The book tells us a little about Gellius himself, and that little is all we know: he studied literature in Rome, philosophy in Athens; he lived in Rome, had a country place at Praeneste, spent his working hours as a JP. Clearly he was a man of independent means; it can be guessed that he came from a Roman town in Africa. As a well-to-do provincial, he stays rather in the background, often the guest, never the host: yet some of the names he drops are in the front rank of the great and the good. There is the gouty Fronto, the most famous Latin orator of the day, and Herodes Atticus of Athens, stylist, millionaire and public benefactor (or, as his enemies said, sharper and sadist) – both held the chief (if ornamental) magistracy of the Empire in AD 143, and served as tutors to the future Marcus Aurelius; there is the eunuchoid Favorinus, the front man in many of Gellius’s essays, friend and enemy of emperors, competing with Plutarch in the volume of his literary output. It’s a curious irony that the work of these grandees survives only in fragments. The modest excerptor, brief and improving, came through the devastations of the Middle Ages almost complete, to enjoy a boom at the Renaissance, emulation among the Augustans, and a last best-selling heir in Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature. Moderns have put modesty chief among his virtues; there are incidental studies, but no monograph. Now Gellius lives again: Leofranc Holford-Strevens has dedicated to him a full-scale study, acute, erudite and affectionate, a tour de force of fact and phrase.

Gellius has served as landscape and as quarry. As a landscape, he shows the contours of his time. The high empire looked back over a thousand years of Roman literature: the beginnings, when Ennius founded Roman epic, Cato and the Gracchi Roman oratory; the classic age of Cicero and Virgil; the baroque days of Seneca and Tacitus. The reaction was in full swing. Moral sentimentalists lamented, but did not emulate, the early republican days of virtue and porridge; the Emperor Hadrian, that arty despot, went so far as to revive the beard. Literary archaists had a more comfortable time: they praised and emulated the linguistic purity and artistic innocence they found in pre-classical writers like Cato and Ennius. Gellius, though he does not exclude Cicero and Virgil, exhibits the proper taste for the antique and the antiquarian. As in reading, so in writing. Latin of the Golden Age had dealt in paragraphs, Latin of the Silver Age – the original age of the sound bite – in phrases. Now the stylist focused on the word, the good word that, well-placed, gives distinction to the sentence. And a good word was a word used by a good (that is, pre-classical) author. Fronto sets out the principle; the taste is shared by the great writers of the day, Apuleius and Tertullian. We don’t know the ancient name for this taste (Holford-Strevens has already destroyed the idea that Fronto named it ‘the new style’). Moderns have spoken of ‘African Latin’ (long discredited), commonly of ‘archaism’. Holford-Strevens opts for the term ‘mannerism’ – rightly, for it’s the vocabulary, not the grammar or the structure, that makes a bow to the archaic. That manner has different effects. In Apuleius, the obsolete and the neoteric fuse into a neon candle which highlights the dirty doings of the picaresque world. In Gellius, the archaisms lie like sultanas in the gruel: his sentences, informal in intention and ungainly in effect, sound blandly over a base of verbal triplets (‘compulsive congestion of synonyms’, in Holford-Strevens’s phrase). The pedantic choosiness suits the pedantic excerptor.

The vista is closed to one side. Gellius could and did read Greek, of course; and he called his book Attic Nights, hinting midnight oil in the cultural heartland. But he wrote Latin, and kept no more than a toe in Greece, let alone in the great new centres of Antioch, Ephesus and Alexandria. His Herodes is the simple stylist, not the hated overreacher; his Favorinus speaks fair, he is not the daring equivocal figure who boasted himself a triple paradox – a Gaul who spoke Greek, an eunuch who had stood trial for adultery, a citizen who had fallen out with his emperor and lived to tell. Both belonged to a world as glamorous as that of Liszt and Paganini: a celebrity circuit of show-speakers, statued at home, crowd-pullers abroad, sharing the tables of the great and great themselves. Their chronicler Philostratus records the babble and battle of this transcontinental Bloomsbury. They declaimed on imaginary themes – incidents of Greek history six centuries old, legal cases too involuted and sensational for any court: that was their Art, and their fans filled the theatre and roared. Many used this eloquence, and its prestige, to political advantage, as envoys to Court or imperial secretaries. It was a nervy and bitchy life: unhappy the rhetor who dried up, or dropped a solecism, in the heat of performance; one of Hadrian’s secretaries even forged a pornographic novel in a rival’s name; when Herodes quarrelled with the Athenians, it went all the way up to the Emperor on the banks of the Save. Favorinus had his own arch-enemy (never mentioned by Gellius), the princely Marcus Antonius Polemo of Smyrna, who ‘spoke to cities as his inferiors and to gods as his equals’. (Crippled and dying at 56, he cemented his image with professional last words: ‘Just give me back my body, and I will declaim.’) These were powerful men, as courtiers and culture-heroes: but such flamboyance was not for Gellius.

It was the heyday of the liberal arts (a grateful government granted tax-exemptions to their practitioners). Rhetoric, philosophy, scholarship, despite internal bickerings, cohered: no style without study, no moralising without style, no gentleman without all three. Gellius had studied the proper things, but his taste was mostly for scholarship – he has no time for the visual arts or for oriental religions, not much for metaphysics or declamation. Words, and Latin words. Gellius has the old Roman suspicion of Greek cleverness; he and his contemporaries read less Greek literature than their more insecure predecessors (the gap between West and East is beginning to open again). It is not overt chauvinism, but a practical imperial preference for the concrete and the home-grown; and it is for Latin literature and Latin scholarship that he has been mined. The founding fathers of Latin literature survive to us only in quotations: we have no single work, except the galumphing comedies of Plautus, in its original form. Gellius’s interests make him a quarry of quotations: seventy from the polymath satirist Varro, forty from father Ennius himself, half the miserable remains of the historian Quadrigarius.

The practical user must end by asking how reliable Gellius is: did he check his quotations, or simply copy them from earlier scholars? Paraphrase one authority, or conflate several? To assess our source, we need to reconstruct his sources: and that is the difficulty. Nineteenth-century scholars, who thought themselves in business to get results, dissected Gellius with positivist confidence. Holford-Strevens is rightly impatient of ‘the source-critic’s calculus’, and, suitably for a deconstructive age, emphasises the practicalities: ancient scholars knew many books, but could obtain only some of them; ancient scholars had no dictionaries, and their assertions about usage are therefore fallible; ancient scholars – indeed Cicero and Virgil themselves – were capable of mistranslating their Greek. By these standards, Gellius performed remarkably well: precise and accurate, devoted and conscientious (he examined half-a-dozen manuscripts to establish one case-ending), myopically judicious, trusting authority before reason, literal-minded to the point of Philistinism – we owe more to these sober virtues than to his moments of acumen and independence.

Gellius offers High Table conversation as naive novelists conceive it: a smorgasbord of dry bones, lightly dusted with charm. Holford-Strevens offers a connoisseur’s guide to the landscape and a scientist’s handbook to the geology. He is of course enormously more learned, more intelligent and more eloquent than his author, and though he has a strong sympathy for the dilettante colleague, his verve and irony make a strong contrast with Gellius’s owlishness. He sets deliberate limits. He can write about ‘mannerism’ in the history of Latin literature, or about ‘archaism’ as a snobbery of provincial élites, and does so in his introduction. But essentially this is a book about the book. Large parts will serve as a commentary on the text, or on the quotations in the text; other sections contribute notably to the study of the Latin language and of Latin style. The exposition is sometimes breathless, but always vivid; the footnotes sparkle with curious knowledge. The learning would be extraordinary in itself: from the name ‘Gellius’ to the Hungarian translation of 1905, every detail gets weighed and placed. It is much more extraordinary that the learning always serves a point, and expresses itself, not in professorese, but in a style of classical vigour and elegance. On the way, there are crisp insights to reflect on (the high Empire produced no historians, the Roman gods had no spouses); and a cynical wit targets, among others, the imperial poseur (‘surrounded himself with intellectuals in order to upstage them’) and the lubricious professor (‘a pedant peering underneath the bedclothes’). This is a book to mine for its information; to admire for its technical mastery; and to enjoy for its own spirited enjoyment of scholarship and of the literature that scholarship illuminates.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences