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Aulus Gellius’ Noctes Atticae Book 2 and the Didactic Logic of Miscellany

Scott J. DiGiulio

While the scholarly community has traditionally held Aulus Gellius to be an unimaginative compiler of information and excerpts, the process of rehabilitating the Noctes Atticae (NA) and its author is now well underway, and Gellius is increasingly considered to be a rich source of information on the vibrant Antonine intellectual culture. As the NA gain more critical attention, the focus typically remains the socio-cultural background of the text (e.g. the seminal Holford-Strevens 2003); recently, more attention has been given to Gellius’ literary techniques (e.g. Keulen 2009, Gunderson 2009, Riggsby 2007) though here too there is still much to be done. In particular, the ordering of Gellius’ chapters (commentarii) has been largely overlooked, as scholars have taken Gellius’ statement in the preface, that the commentarii are organized haphazardly, as a straightforward fact. Although some scholars (Marache 1952, Henry 1994, Vardi 2004) have remarked on an apparent “disruption” to the natural order of the commentarii, no full interpretation of the ordering of the text has been proposed.

In this paper I examine Gellius’ claims about the arrangement of his commentarii and argue that there is a deliberate structure to the collection, and I illustrate this ordering by examining a suite of closely-linked chapters near the end of the second book of the NA. There are several different organizing principles to sets of chapters in the NA with different purposes, but one of the most important has a didactic function: one must internalize the lessons of previous chapters in order to interpret a later chapter correctly. In chapters 2.21-30, Gellius challenges his readers to apply lessons learned over the course of the book by utilizing a technique of careful reading.

A close reading of Book 2 reveals Gellius employing this educative mode on a large scale across the final ten chapters of the book. This suite begins with a technical discussion of the names of constellations in Latin and Greek at 2.21, while 2.22 presents a similar discussion at a convivium of Favorinus about the names of winds in both languages, which includes reference to a particular constellation, the septentriones, discussed at length in 2.21; the reader is left to understand correctly the reference to the septentriones in the new context after the previous discussion. In 2.26, Favorinus has a similar conversation with Fronto on the names of colors in Latin and Greek, the discussion of which ultimately leads Favorinus to correctly interpret a passage of Ennius, aided by a proper understanding of certain color words based on a reading of Georg. 3.82. The book concludes at 2.30 by discussing how the winds affect the movement of waves. Almost every point in this discussion draws on the previous chapters, and the composition of this final chapter challenges readers to recognize and correctly apply the numerous facts and techniques that Gellius has introduced in the previous chapters. The preceding chapters have honed the reader’s critical faculties, and Gellius encourages his audience to approach this last chapter with those earlier lessons in mind.

Thus, by internalizing the reading lessons Gellius has taught, one can not only reinforce what he has learned throughout the book, but also appreciate the craft with which the book is composed. Indeed, this rehearsal of material is a tactic that is evident in other places in the NA, such as 10.25-27, in which Gellius recites the names of weapons and ships and makes us of one from each list in chiastic order in successive chapters. Such structures reveal Gellius’ literary design, and exemplify a mode of reading and writing characteristic of such prose collections in the imperial literary environment. Gellius has carefully constructed these chapters to be mutually enriching, and this form of intratextual construction represents a kind of literary sophistication recognizable in other miscellaneous collections as diverse as the letters of Pliny and the epigrams of Martial. 

Session/Panel Title

The Second Sophistic

Session/Paper Number

11.3

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