Correcting Sallust

Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae: 4.15

A Sentence from Sallust’s History, Which His Unfair Detractors Have Censured with Malignant Zeal

“The elegance of Sallust’s speeches and arrangement of words, as well as his pursuit of innovation was straightaway met with much ill-will, and many men of not inconsiderable talent tried to censure and detract from much of what he wrote. In that pursuit, they insulted him ignorantly and with malice. Nevertheless, there are some parts of Sallust which admit of some criticism, such as that which we find in his Bellum Catilina, which has the look of being written with too little attention.

The words of Sallust run: ‘And to me it seems that even though the same glory does not attend upon the writer and the doer of deeds, it nevertheless seems in the first place arduous to write history. The first difficulty is that the words must be matched to the deeds; the second is that many will think that the censure which you pass upon vices can be attributed to your own spiteful malice. When you make mention of someone’s great virtue and glory, which each reader considers easily within his own power of achieving, it will be accepted with equanimity; but if you exceed that, the reader will consider these things as contrived in the telling, and think them false.’

They say that Sallust proposed to write the reasons for which it is difficult to write history, but that – once he had listed the first cause – he simply degenerated into an enumeration of complaints. For it is not to be reckoned as a difficulty in writing history that those who read it either interpret it unfairly or think it false. They say that the composition of history should be considered “subject to false opinion” rather than “arduous.” That is because what is “arduous” is difficult in its own completion, rather than difficult because of the erroneous opinions of others.

This is what his malevolent detractors say. But Sallust does not mean by “arduous” only “difficult;” he means by “arduous” what the Greeks meant by “chalepon,” which is not just “difficult,” but also bothersome, inconvenient, and intractable. The signification of these words is not far off from the sentiment of Sallust recorded above.”

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Defensa a culpa sententia ex historia Sallustii, quam iniqui eius cum insectatione maligni reprehenderint. 

1 Elegantia orationis Sallustii verborumque fingendi et novandi studium cum multa prorsus invidia fuit, multique non mediocri ingenio viri conati sunt reprehendere pleraque et obtrectare. In quibus plura inscite aut maligne vellicant. Nonnulla tamen videri possunt non indigna reprehensione; quale illud in Catilinae historia repertum est, quod habeat eam speciem quasi parum adtente dictum. Verba Sallustii haec sunt:

2 “Ac mihi quidem, tametsi haudquaquam par gloria sequitur scriptorem et auctorem rerum, tamen inprimis arduum videtur res gestas scribere: primum, quod facta dictis exaequanda sunt; dein, quia plerique, quae delicta reprehenderis, malivolentia et invidia dicta putant. Vbi de magna virtute atque gloria bonorum memores, quae sibi quisque facilia factu putat, aequo animo accipit; supra, veluti ficta, pro falsis ducit.”

3 “Proposuit” inquiunt “dicturum causas, quamobrem videatur esse arduum res gestas scribere; atque ibi cum primam causam dixerit, dein non alteram causam, sed querellas dicit. 4 Non enim causa videri debet, cur historiae opus arduum sit, quod hi, qui legunt, aut inique interpretantur quae scripta sunt, aut vera esse non credunt.” 5 Obnoxiam quippe et obiectam falsis existimationibus eam rem dicendam aiunt quam “arduam”; quia, quod est arduum, sui operis difficultate est arduum, non opinionis alienae erroribus.

6 Haec illi malivoli reprehensores dicunt. Sed “arduum” Sallustius non pro difficili tantum, sed pro eo quoque ponit, quod Graeci chalepon appellant, quod est cum difficile, tum molestum quoque et incommodum et intractabile. Quorum verborum significatio a sententia Sallustii supra scripta non abhorret.

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