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Aelian’s De Natura Animalium and Varia Historia: Between Greek and Latin Traditions of Miscellaneity

Scott J. DiGiulio

Mississippi State University

Variety is a hallmark of Aelian’s output, ranging from invectives to literary epistles to miscellaneous collections. However, as scholars have begun to recognize the place of Aelian and his diverse oeuvre in the context of imperial literature (Smith, Goldhill), and miscellaneous writings have begun to receive more serious treatment as literary endeavors in their own right, Aelian’s De natura animalium (De nat. an.) and Varia historia (VH) remain overlooked within broader narratives of miscellany. Even the latter, which is explicitly termed a miscellany, has been largely neglected, and when scholars have engaged with these collections seriously they have interpreted them primarily as resources for students interested in enhancing their paideia (Johnson, Stamm).

Part of the challenge lies with Aelian’s background and corresponding influences. The biographical sketch of Aelian provided by Philostratus presents a somewhat paradoxical image: praised for his exceptional facility with Attic Greek, he was nevertheless a conservative Roman who took great pride in never having left the Italian peninsula (Philostr. VS 624-625). As a result, Aelian’s miscellanism stands between two (intertwined) traditions of variety in Latin and Greek literature in the imperial period; indeed, Aelian’s work draws from attitudes to both ποικιλία and varietas, and in particular has close connections to Gellius’ and Plutarch’s attitudes about miscellany (Bevegni, Fitzgerald). In this paper I argue that, in articulating his approach, Aelian aligns more closely with his Latin predecessors than is typically acknowledged. These connections are especially clear in the manner in which Aelian articulates his own approach to compiling a miscellaneous collection.

In both the Preface and the Epilogue of the De nat. an., Aelian reflects on his aesthetic in terms that echo discussions in his Latin predecessors. He argues in the Preface that his main goal is for his audience to derive profitable use from his collection; such utility is a central feature of the programmatic statements of both Pliny the Elder and Aulus Gellius (Gunderson, Keulen), which is more pronounced than in comparable Greek discussions. Further, in defending his choice in the Epilogue he notes that he has arranged his work in a miscellaneous fashion (ἀνέμιξα δὲ καὶ τὰ ποικίλα ποικίλως) as an explicitly aesthetic choice, noting its value for maintaining the interest of his reader. He appeals to the common miscellaneous metaphor of the garland, and strives to position his own work as comparable to that of the poets; in this respect, Aelian positions himself as a serious literary author rather than a mere compiler, a posture assumed by Gellius, among others.

While the VH lacks the same sort of explicit framing, nevertheless the first chapter of the work, on the hunting habits of the octopus, offers a similar view of the compiler at work (Campanile). Much like the octopus, which adapts to each situation, the composer of miscellany must be able to consume an array of seemingly indigestible texts and to be able to change the appearance of the text to entice passing readers. The octopus is a fitting analogue for Aelian, given its traditional connections with mental acuity of the sort idealized in poetic, as well as sophistic, activity. This attitude towards miscellany, however, shares much with Gellian and Plutarchan attitudes towards the allurements of learning, and especially the miscellaneous endeavor. Despite the traditional evaluation of Aelian as a mere compiler, a careful reading of his statements reveals a creative figure in his own right, drawing freely from both Greek and Latin traditions of miscellany. Recognizing the appeal, and the power, of variety, Aelian weaves together these two traditions in an effort to elevate his work and cultivate a novel, and distinctly miscellaneous, prose aesthetic.

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Characterizing the Ancient Miscellany

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