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Aulus GelliusAn Antonine Scholar and his Achievement$

Leofranc Holford-Strevens

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780199263196

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199263196.001.0001

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(p.329) Epilogue
Aulus Gellius

Leofranc Holford-Strevens

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The epilogue sums up Gellius's strengths and weaknesses, and distances the book from unfavourable nineteenth-century criticism.

Keywords:   criticism, strengths, weaknesses

If it is the salesman in Bussi who prefaces his editio princeps by informing the Pope that Gellius has always been reckoned with the greatest Latin authors, or even exalted above the rest as a master of all styles, not only one, who discusses every field of knowledge, is suitable for students of all ages, and has barely a word to be faulted,1 it is the Spaniard in Vives who, to avenge his compatriot Seneca, reviles him as a mere compiler and show-off, an unlearned chatterbox with a disgusting style, whose semantic discussions are footling and mostly false.2 Neither of these judgements is acceptable.

Admiration for the early writers does not lead us, like Gellius and Scaliger,3 to despise those of the Silver Age; but Gellius, for his time, is a remarkably sound critic. His grammatical discussions, though fallible, display intelligence; and in grammar as in criticism, he often appears to greater advantage than the professionals. He is no philosopher, but no more unphilosophical than most of his, and our, contemporaries; he is no historian, but history was no longer being written except in Greek. His knowledge (p.330) of that language and its literature, adequate by the standards of his age, is less than may be found in the late Republic; but it has rarely been his students’ strongest suit. He has an interest, albeit superficial, in law and medicine; he is a skilful narrator with no small facility for invention; he can express his personal affection without embarrassing even an English reader; his laudatory superlatives are no more monotonous than Cicero’s; his confessedly inexhaustive expositions are successfully designed to stimulate our own researches. Few among the learned, if they attempted to write in Gellius’ vein, could produce so attractive or wide-ranging a miscellany.

If the enterprise itself be maligned, we should remember what a fine and versatile scholar observed soon after the First World War: the worst faults of the Second Sophistic, such as ‘the superficial “general education”’ and ‘the debasement of scholarship in face of the mass public’, were common to his own day—and are to ours.4 What the sophists may plead, that too may Gellius; amidst our popular digests, Companions to tell us what a writer wrote or a thinker thought, and books of classified quotations to deck out a text with others’ words, posssibly mistranslated and certainly out of context, it ill becomes us to sneer at the learned miscellanies, the collections of placita, the handbooks of exempla, in which Gellius’ age abounded.5

The dogma that writers should have a moral purpose, asserted with vehemence to supply its want of cogency, will not compel us either to blame Gellius for lacking one or to defend him by inventing it. His conventional morality, despite his protestations, is not his central theme. If women must be reminded of maternal duties, or the rise of superstition combated by refutation of astrology, or Rome’s religious inheritance asserted against new cults, these are incidental considerations beside the display of eloquence and learning; but these are displayed, not only for his own greater glory, but to confer social polish on his readers and to stimulate their intellectual curiosity.

For all his public service and his sermons on the active life, he is a bookish man, who has not even noticed the boundary stones (p.331) delimiting the pomerium,6 Wagner the Famulus not Faust;7 but since when has it been a sin for a scholar to be warmed on winter nights by what he reads, and on unrolling a noble manuscript to feel that all heaven has come down to him?8 One long-read history of Roman literature found Gellius devoted to the withered leaves and not the flourishing tree,9 yet to the lovers who lie beneath the flourishing tree, to the children who play in its branches, and to the lumberjack who chops it down, the greatest scholar is but a porer over withered leaves; in another he was ‘of restricted intellect, petty and blind in both his admiration and his aversions’10—a judgement whose falsity no longer needs asserting—but faithfully portrayed an era of pompous bustle without a serious goal, obsessed with trivialities,11 a charge that to a German on the eve of the Reichsgründung no doubt seemed graver than to us who have learnt that a serious goal need not be a good one.12

Such censures are happily absent from current histories and general accounts,13 written by authors all too aware that the man in the street, or the laboratory, thus belittles the study of dead languages and cultures not his own. In an age with less respect for learning than the second century, we should not throw stones from our glass house, nor assail our ancient colleague, even forerunner,14 in displaced self-hatred. For all his limitations, he is a delightful companion, full of charm and not without intelligence: ‘one of the best writers of his kind’, said Macaulay;15 ‘He compels our attention,’ (p.332) declared a more recent critic, ‘not only as a source of information, but in his own right … we have in Gellius a helpful and congenial guide.’16 Howmany scholars’ work, ancient or modern, can be read for pleasure? Jealousy, masked in austerity, may disapprove; but he still defies his traducers as once he defied ‘the gracelessness and envy of certain ill-educated persons’,17 while bidding the rest of us join in his festival of learning.


(1) Letter to Paul II, fo. [1]r, cf. fo. [5]r =pp. 19, 26–7 Miglio.

(2) Vives, De tradendis disciplinis 3. 8 (Opera vi. 337; cf. ibid. 340, ‘Gellius durissi-marum elegantiarum affectator’); Stephanus, Noct. Par. II–III replies at length (on motive, pp. 30–1). Vives preferred the synthetic classicism of Petrus Crinitus’ De honesta disciplina, a work permeated by Gellius, ‘uir graui consilio in rebus humanis’ (DHD 8. 9; with the debate between Savonarola and Pico, DHD 3. 2, compare NA 2. 26, 20. 1; at DHD 5. 3 the theme of NA 8. 9 is brought up to date with recent instances), but less than perfect in its emulation: DHD 1. 1 (on Tamerlane’s three tents, familiar from Marlowe, Tamb. 1421–35) begins with two ponderous sententiae, whereas Gellius, not obliged to strike up marble poses, tells his tale in NA 1. 1 without preamble; on the other hand, it presents a mock-antique document containing the dishonest (and malformed) word futuaria (DHD 11. 8), neither conceivable in the Nights. See too Vives, Opera ii. 141, cit. Ch. 3 n. 5, and n. on Aug. CD 9. 4, but contrast his Praelectio to Filelfo’s Conuiuia, ‘Aulus Gellius uir per se ipsum probatissimus’ (Opera ii. 84). Gianozzo Manetti in his Vita Senecae combats Gellius’ comments at length, but with the concessionary praises ‘uir apprime eruditus’ (§17), ‘licet elegantissimi hominis’ (§18), appropriate to one used as an authority in the companion Vita Socratis.

(3) ‘Ennius, Poëta eximius, magnifico ingenio. Vtinam totum haberemus&amisisse-mus Lucanum, Statium, Silium Italicum, & tous ces garçcons-là’ (Scaligerana, 136).

(4) Heiberg ii. 105: ‘den overfladiske “almindelige Dannelse”, Nedværdigelsen af Videnskaben overfor det store Publicum’.

(5) The disconnectedness of Roman education is censured by Kaster, ‘“Humani-tas”’, 12–13; but without demonstration of specific ill effect. Suggestive is Syme, RP v. 688.

(6) NA 13. 14. 7, but he appears to know the statues of Vediovis (5. 12. 12) and Valerius Corvinus (9. 11. 10).

(7) Niebuhr I. iii. 232; Friedländer, Kunstsinn, 25; see Goethe, Faust, 530–1. Hertz, R. und R. 35 adduces Matt. 15: 27 and Schiller, Wallensteins Lager, 208–11; but Wagner was the normal whipping-boy for a would-be faustisch culture.

(8) Goethe, Faust, 1106–9, made into a reproach by Friedläander, loc. cit.

(9) Schanz–Hosius–Krüger iii. 179: ‘ein Mann, der die verdorrten Blätter, nicht den blühenden Baum mit seiner Liebe umfaßt’.

(10) Teuffel 747 (6th edn. iii. 95): ‘Von beschränktem Geiste, kleinlich und blind in seiner Bewunderung wie in seinen Abneigungen’.

(11) Ibid. 749 (6th edn. iii. 97): ‘ihre wichtigthuerische Geschäftigkeit ohne ernstes Ziel, ihre Verranntheit in Nichtigkeiten’.

(12) When Teuffel’s judgement was reprinted in 1913, German society, as portrayed in Der Zauberberg, might perhaps be so described; but there were those with a serious goal, namely der nächste Krieg. In neither respect was Germany unique.

(13) See Goodyear, ‘Aulus Gellius’; v Albrecht, Geschichte, 1174–9, La Penna 547–65, Conte 583–4, Michel 39–46, Fantham 246–52, above all HLL iv 60–7.

(14) ‘in dem die heutige Forschung unter manchen Aspekten durchaus einen Vor-läufer erkennen kann’ (Nörr, ‘Der Jurist’, 59).

(15) Letters iii. 181 Pinney, cf. iii. 237, iv. 49, v. 416.

(16) Goodyear, ‘Aulus Gellius’, 680. For others so charmed see Hertz ii, pp. cxxxii–cxxxv; Vogel, ‘De compositione’, 8–9; Berthold, Auswahl, 18–19; cf. P. K. Marshall, OCD 2 460: ‘The work has a discreet charm of its own.’

(17) NA pr. 20; see Ch. 8 n. 51.