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Monumenta rerum ac disciplinarum? Varro’s Reception and the Case of Gellius’ Noctes Atticae Book 3

Scott DiGiulio

Hailed as the pinnacle of Roman antiquarian thought continuously into the Antonine period, Varro’s influence is strongly felt throughout the Noctes Atticae of Aulus Gellius (NA), a miscellaneous text steeped in the revival of antiquarian interest under the High Roman Empire. Considered a vir Romani generis doctissimus (NA 4.16.1), Gellius directly cites Varro over eighty times as an authority on virtually every topic of interest (Holford-Strevens; Stevenson). Yet, little work has been done on the reception of Varro in Gellius beyond the antiquarian or linguistic level, in large part because scholars are only now beginning to understand Gellius as a creative author in his own right rather than a compiler of other texts (Gunderson, Keulen, Heusch). This paper investigates one instance of Gellius’ treatment of Varro as both an antiquarian and a literary source. I argue that Gellius creates a network of parallel citations of Varro in the third book of the NA which interact with one another across the first and second halves of the book. In so doing, Gellius invites his audience to read these sets of citations against one another and resolve the tensions that emerge between them. This careful composition by Gellius simultaneously appeals to and problematizes the intellectual authority of his predecessor, prompting his audience to reflect on Varro’s authority in the time of the Antonines.

Gellius prominently cites Varro in seven of the nineteen chapters in NA Book 3. In his first appearances, Varro is cited unproblematically as an authority on the calendrical systems of the Romans and several of their neighbors (3.2.2-11), and on the authenticity of Plautine comedies (3.3.2-14). Though seemingly unrelated, Gellius connects these citations through an extensive quotation of Plautus focused on the reckoning of time (3.3.5), suggesting a fundamental interrelation between the Varronian citations in order to recognize Gellius’ skillful use of Varro as a source. Varro reappears at 3.10, where Gellius discusses the Hebdomades and its claims of the number seven’s magical properties, with specific details alluding to other Gellian discussions (e.g. 3.10.2 recalls 2.22) that reflect the further necessity of reading the Varronian citations as part of a broader network throughout the work. Of note is Gellius’ skepticism of Varro’s depiction of human activity as divided into hebdomads rather than natural phenomena (3.10.16-17), the first problematization of Varro in the book. Gellius later cites an unknown work of Varro at 3.14 to discuss the difference between dimidium and dimidiatum, which includes a discussion of half-days and the words’ usage by Plautus; both citations allude to the earlier appearances of Varro at 3.2-3, and conflict with Varro’s usages of dimidium in the earlier context. These interrelations prime the reader for the most extensive chapter in the book, 3.16, in which Varro’s work among others is cited for the length of human gestation. Gellius flags the connections to earlier discussions at the outset (3.16.3-4), including his synkrisis of Menander and Caecilius (2.23), and evokes the comparative reading technique employed there. The citations of Varro set his Menippean satires against Rerum divinarum as the chapter enacts this Gellian technique designed to elicit the reader’s judgment on his sources, and transforms Varro from authority to the antiquarian object in need of interrogation.

Gellius thus manipulates Varro’s voice in a fashion similar to his playful treatment of other of his sources throughout the NA, and in so doing prompts his reader to reflect on Varro’s authority, as well as his own. Far from blindly accepting Varro as an infallible source and in spite of his high regard for him, Gellius challenges his audience to judge the merits of the different works of Varro’s voluminous output for individual inquiries. Such treatment is revelatory of both Gellius’ treatment of his sources, as well as the transformation of Varro into an antiquarian object of inquiry in the Antonine age.

Session/Panel Title

The Intellectual Legacy of M. Terentius Varro: Varronian Influence on Roman Scholarship and Latin Literary Culture

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