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Gellius’ Convivial Scenes and Roman Intellectual Identity in the Noctes Atticae

Scott J. DiGiulio

Mississippi State University

Within the Noctes Atticae (NA), the Antonine author Aulus Gellius often includes symposiastic and convivial scenes, incorporating Greek literary traditions of miscellanistic writing into his project. These scenes have received significant attention for what they reveal about cultures of reading in the Roman world (Johnson), and the ways in which they negotiate between Greek and Roman intellectual models, as the debates staged in Gellius’ dining scenes often pit representatives of both cultures against one another (Holford-Strevens, Gunderson, Keulen, Howley 2014, 2018). While in these settings Romans may engage in games of sophisms and riddles or other prototypically Greek intellectual endeavors, Gellius’ convivia are central venues for negotiating a distinct identity throughout the NA, balanced between Greek and Roman habits of mind. In this paper I argue that one set of clustered convivial scenes near the end of the work illustrates this particular intellectual identity, with Gellius offering both positive and negative models for his paradigmatic Roman through their behaviors in banquet contexts.

Throughout the NA, Gellius aims to construct an idealized convivial scene, and does so by looking to the Republican past. To provide one model, he quotes Varro, who presents various features of the ideal convivium, including the number of guests, the fare, and, perhaps most importantly, the shape of the conversation, which should be useful while still intellectually pleasant (iucundos atque invitabiles et cum quadam inlecebra et voluptate utiles, ex quibus ingenium nostrum venustius fiat et amoenius, 13.11.4). Underlying Varro’s, and by extension Gellius’, claims about the convivium is a culturally conditioned sense of utility and pleasure; if the convivium is an opportunity to read and relax, and to indulge in some of the seductions of learned conversation, nevertheless there needs to be some form of usefulness that can be derived. Gellius’ discussion of the Varronian convivium highlights several key elements of the scene, and as a result this chapter serves as a cipher for reading the banquet scenes throughout the rest of the NA.

This proposed model appears at odds with the behavior of a number of Gellius’ characters in banquet and sympotic scenes, including several otherwise authoritative characters; Gellius uses these scenes to scrutinize proper Roman intellectual conduct, as chapters featuring Julius Paulus and Fronto, (19.7 and 19.8) demonstrate. On the walk home from a simple banquet at Paulus’ estate, Gellius pores over the language of the texts he had heard read during the party, setting aside the poeticisms that, in his mind, have little place in proper oratio (19.7.13); in reviewing these readings, he appears to focus on a practical reapplication of what he has heard. Gellius also claims to have visited the consular and imperial tutor Fronto often in his leisure time, and always to have left with greater knowledge (19.8.1). However, he concludes at the end of the episode that, while dining with Fronto was often educational, nevertheless his focus was in encouraging the hunting down of rare words (19.8.16), a Greek vice that Gellius has previously rebuked (e.g. 2.9). Unlike the proper habits modeled by Gellius, Fronto’s behavior at his own convivium demonstrates a misappropriation of Greek intellectual traits, despite Fronto’s exemplary status. Similarly, in the indulgent last convivium of the work at the house of the poet Annianus (20.8), the meal and its entertainment offer relatively trivial explanations of natural phenomena drawn from Plutarch, a far cry from Gellius’ salutary, if modest, meal and intellectual process at 19.7. Much like the model proposed by Varro, Gellius implies here that balance is essential not only to a proper convivium, but for the cultivated Roman mind of his time.

Session/Panel Title

Literary Banquets of the Imperial Era

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