Aelian’s Varia Historia is a is a collection deeply engaged with ancient debates over definitions of Greek, Roman and barbarian identity (on which, see Woolf 2011, Gruen 2011, Dench 2008, Whitmarsh 2001). While Aelian repeatedly commends Greek exempla to his reader, he also shows examples of outsiders more Greek than Greeks and, conversely, Greeks failing to perform Greek identity. Aelian himself embodied this paradox of marginal Greek identity: although never having left Italy, Aelian could speak Attic as well as any native Athenian (Philostratus, VS. 2.624, see Smith 2014). This paper argues that through his miscellany, Aelian thematizes the geography of Greek paideia and encourages an ecumenical ideal of Hellenic identity. Whereas compilatory authors such as Pliny the Elder associated the peripheries of the the world with barbarianism and marvel (on which, see Woolf 2011, Romm 1994, Jacob 1983), Aelian’s miscellany contests the geography of Greek identity.
At first glance, Aelian’s collection valorizes Greekness. Aelian says he ‘loves the Greeks most of all’ (9.32) and Greek stories indeed predominate in his collection (Smith 2014, Stamm 2003). He often critiques behaviour as non-Greek, for example, citing at 5.11 the king of Thrace who was a ‘lover of Greece’ (φιλέλλην) but who ‘behaved in a very non-Greek way’ (μὴ ποιήσας Ἑλλενικά). Similarly, at 4.1 Aelian presents an ethnographic account of barbarisms from Italy to Assyria, such as the Dardanians of Illyria who wash only three times in the course of their life, the Sardinians who beat their elders to death, the Assyrians who collect all the girls of marriageable age and sell them into marriage, and the Deribbae who sacrifice the men at the age of 70. Through such lists enumerating perverse cultural practices, Aelian makes Greece the moral norm, demarcating its Mediterranean peripheries as sites of deviance and alterity (Goldhill 2010).
Nonetheless, Aelian’s miscellany problematizes the Greek world and its notional boundaries. Aelian describes Alexander imitating the grief of Achilles but to barbaric excess: ‘He seemed to act according to Greek custom’ (Ἑλληνικὰ ἐδόκει μοι δρᾶν) but when he decided to knock down the walls of Ecbatana, he ‘grieved barbarously’ (ἐπένθει βαρβαρικῶς, 7.8). Aelian suggestively probes Alexander’s Greekness (itself a topic of ancient debate, see Whitmarsh 2001). On the other hand, Aelian praises the example of Calanus (5.6) and Anarcharsis (5.7) for their wisdom imitating and even surpassing their Greek contemporaries. Depicted very much in 5.7 as a Solonic figure wandering in pursuit of wisdom, Anacharsis attracts the wonder of the Athenian, Solon (Montiglio 2005). Like Lucian’s Anacharsis and Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana (on which, see Abraham 2014, Goldhill 2001, Elsner 1997), Aelian showcases the wisdom of remote places, perceiving a transcendental Greek wisdom outside of Greece.
Non-Greeks implicitly become Greek. At 11.9, declaring that ‘the best of the Greeks’ (οἱ τῶν Ἑλλήνων ἄριστοι) were in fact poor, Aelian lists those who exemplify contempt for luxuries: Aristides, Phocion, Epaminondas, Pelopidas, Ephialtes – yet he surprisingly includes one non-Greek before Ephialtes: Scipio Aemilianus, who rejected an elaborately decorated shield saying that ‘a Roman ought to have hope in his right hand, not in his left.’ Greece is Aelian’s primary standard of moral conduct but there are outliers, explicitly Roman ones, who merit a place alongside ‘the best of the Greeks’ in his miscellany. Aelian also notes the bravery of the Celts who fight bravely and leave memorials of their virtue ‘in the Greek way’ (Ἑλληνικῶς), implicitly becoming Greek (Stamm 2003).
Athens in particular exemplifies this ethic of inclusivity in his collection. Aelian congratulates Athens specifically for its ecumenical inclusivity, praising the Athenians for electing the foreigners Cyzicus and Heraclides of Clazomenae as generals (14.5). Here at least, Athens is presented as a model of civic excellence precisely because of its willingness to accord offices meritocratically to outsiders. Implicitly, Athens is a metatextual model for Aelian’s own collection: his miscellany decouples Greek paideia from its geographic boundaries, seeking out and celebrating its outsiders.