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Starting from the Top: Gellius, Antonine Reading Practice, and the Table of Contents

Scott DiGiulio

Brown University

For modern readers, the table of contents is an essential element of a scholarly work, offering a synoptic view of the text. In contrast, only four such indices survive in Latin literature that were definitively composed by the authors of the original works: Scribonius Largus’ Compositiones, Columella’s Res Rustica, Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, and Aulus Gellius’ Noctes Atticae (hereafter NA). These indices were such a comparative rarity that there is no single term for “table of contents” in Latin, and the authors that included them felt obligated to describe their function to their audiences. As such, the ancient table of contents has recently become a subject of interest for its own sake (Schröder, Riggsby), in addition to how these devices were integrated into the broader programs of authors like Pliny the Elder (Doody). Similarly, the index to Pliny the Younger’s Letters has received attention for its central role in mediating the reader’s experience of the collection (Bodel, Gibson).

Despite this interest, the latest of the extant tables of contents, that of Gellius’ NA, has received comparatively little attention beyond its formal characteristics (Maselli). This oversight can be attributed to its format, which presents challenges to the reader both in its miscellaneity as well as the complex syntax of its lemmata, in contrast to earlier, more utilitarian tables. However, in this paper I argue that Gellius integrated his table of contents into the literary program of the NA despite these apparent difficulties for the reader, employing it as more than a reference tool. Instead, reading the entries of the table of contents alongside the body text of the NA reveals dissonances of the sort that emerge between the different chapters themselves at times. Negotiating between these tensions becomes part of Gellius’ project of cultivating critical, engaged readers.

In describing his table of contents, Gellius remarks that he included the capita rerum (NA pr.25), emphasizing their status as abridgements of the chapters that they represent (Gunderson). In so doing, Gellius suggests that these entries only begin to scratch the surface of each of the articles—the entries in the table of contents are beginnings rather summaries—and thus extend an invitation to read further. Indeed, these lemmata defy many of our expectations as a reference tool, and reading the table of contents alongside the chapters reveals a complex interplay between the two that induces the reader to reconsider the utility of the one for understanding the other. For instance, NA 13.25, on pleonasm, prompts readers to reflect on the use of quaesitum tractatumque in the lemma, as well as the nature of the lemmata themselves. Gellius’ treatments can also subvert the reader’s expectations, as in the case of 17.19, in which the lemma offers Epictetus as the subject, but the bulk of the chapter filters his words through Favorinus, a known rival and philosophical opponent (Favorinum ego audivi dicere Epictetum philosophum dixisse…, 17.19.1); in so doing, Gellius manages to problematize Epictetus and his authority for his reader.

The table of contents in Gellius then is a different kind of tool than the earlier tables of contents, thoroughly integrated into Gellius’ literary and intellectual project as a part of the text that needs to be read instead of merely consulted. While the inclusion of tables of contents in his earlier precedents were concerned with ensuring that readers understood how to use the device to navigate the work, in Gellius the table of contents becomes another text for his audience to read, meditate upon, and situate within its broader literary context. Gellius’ capita rerum diverge from the conventions of the majority of previous examples and instead are integrated into his miscellaneous project. With his table of contents, Gellius offers a snapshot of his essential points, but he also guides the reader to important questions arising from his treatment.

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Linguistic Strategies and the Hermeneutics of Reading

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