Tyrants in the Stacks: Pisistratus, the First Librarian?

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 7.17

17: Who was the first of all to provide books for the public to read; and what quantity of books were in Athenian public libraries before the Persian invasions?

Pisistratus the tyrant is said to have been the first to make books of liberal disciplines available to be read publicly in Athens. Afterwards, the Athenians themselves increased the collection eagerly and carefully. But later when Xerxes became master of Athens and the city was burned except for the citadel, he stole the entire collection and took it to Persia. Many years later, King Seleucus, who was nicknamed Nicanor, made sure that all of these books were returned to Athens.

At a later date, a great number of books—nearly seven hundred thousand volumes, were either collected or published in Egypt under the Ptolemaic kings; but these books were all burned in our first Alexandrian War during the sack of the city—this wasn’t done on purpose or by any orders, but accidentally by the auxiliary regiment.”

 XVII. Quis omnium primus libros publice praebuerit legendos; quantusque numerus fuerit Athenis ante clades Persicas librorum in bibliothecis publicorum.

1 Libros Athenis disciplinarum liberalium publice ad legendum praebendos primus posuisse dicitur Pisistratus tyrannus. Deinceps studiosius accuratiusque ipsi Athenienses auxerunt; sed omnem illam postea librorum copiam Xerxes Athenarum potitus urbe ipsa praeter arcem incensa abstulit asportavitque in Persas. 2 Eos porro libros universos multis post tempestatibus Seleucus rex, qui Nicanor appellatus est, referendos Athenas curavit. 3 Ingens postea numerus librorum in Aegypto ab Ptolemaeis regibus vel conquisitus vel confectus est ad milia ferme voluminum septingenta; sed ea omnia bello priore Alexandrino, dum diripitur ea civitas, non sponte neque opera consulta, sed a militibus forte auxiliaris incensa sunt.

 

[The War mentioned here is likely 48 CBE; the Library at Alexandria was rebuilt by 41 BCE. It was burned again in 272 CE and abandoned by the end of the 4th century CE]

Ingres - Pisistratus head and left hand of Alcibiades, 1824-1834.jpg
From here

Marcus Cato, Literary and Cultural Critic

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 11.8

“Marcus Cato is reported to have criticized Aulus Albinus rightly and efficiently. Albinus wrote a Roman history in the Greek language during the consulship of Lucius Lucullus [151 BCE].

In the introduction to his history he wrote something of the following sentiment: no one ought to seek to fault him if anything presented in the book was inaccurate or written inelegantly; “For”, he writes “I am a Roman man born in Latium and the Greek language is most foreign to me.”

For this, then, he sought a favor, freedom from a poor evaluation, if he made any mistake. When Marcus Cato read this, he said “Aulus, you are certainly no minor dilettante, since you prefer to apologize for a mistake rather than avoiding it. We ought to seek forgiveness when we have made a mistake accidentally or have wronged someone without choice. But tell me—who compelled you to do this thing you’re doing, the thing you ask to be forgiven before you do it?” This story is recorded in the thirteenth book of Cornelius Nepos’ On Illustrious Men.”

Iuste venusteque admodum reprehendisse dicitur Aulum Albinum M. Cato. 2 Albinus, qui cum L. Lucullo consul fuit, res Romanas oratione Graeca scriptitavit. 3 In eius historiae principio scriptum est ad hanc sententiam: neminem suscensere sibi convenire, si quid in his libris parum composite aut minus eleganter scriptum foret; “nam sum” inquit “homo Romanus natus in Latio, Graeca oratio a nobis alienissima est”, ideoque veniam gratiamque malae existimationis, si quid esset erratum, postulavit. 4 Ea cum legisset M. Cato: “Ne tu,” inquit “Aule, nimium nugator es, cum maluisti culpam deprecari, quam culpa vacare. Nam petere veniam solemus, aut cum inprudentes erravimus aut cum compulsi peccavimus. Tibi,” inquit “oro te, quis perpulit, ut id committeres, quod, Priusquam faceres, peteres, ut ignosceretur?” 5 Scriptum hoc est in libro Corneli Nepotis de inlustribus viris XIII.

 

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Diction-Police! Don’t Archaize or Neologize!

From Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights 11.7

One Should Avoid Very Archaic Words That Have Become Antiquated and Fallen Out of Use

“Using words that are obsolete and worn down seems as affected as using uncustomary or new ones of harsh or unpleasant character. Personally, I find more annoying and offensive those words that are new, unknown, or previously unheard rather than those that are merely colloquial and vulgar. I do insist, however, that phrases seem new when they are unused and abandoned, even if they are really ancient. In truth, it is a common vice of learning late in life, what the Greeks call opsimathia, when there’s something you’ve never said and of which you were ignorant for a while, which, once you have begun to understand it, you manage to work it into any place or into any matter you’re discussing.

For example, at Rome we met an experienced man famous for his work as a public defender who had achieved a rapid and incomplete education. When he was speaking to the prefect of the city and wanted to say that a certain many lived on poor and miserable food—he ate bread made of bran and drank old, spoiled wine—he said “this Roman knight eats apluda and drinks flocces.” Everyone who was there looked at one another, at first rather severely and with confused, inquiring faces wondering what either word meant: then, as if he had spoken in Etruscan or Gallic, they all laughed together. That man had read that ancient farmers had called grain apluda—the word is used by Plautus in a comedy called Astraba, if that is a Plautine comedy. Similarly, “flocces” in ancient usage indicated the lees of a vine pressed from grapes, like the fruit from olives, a thing he read in Caecilius’ Polumeni. And he had saved these two words for decorating a speech!”

 

Verbis antiquissimis relictisque iam et desitis minime utendum.

Verbis uti aut nimis obsoletis exculcatisque aut insolentibus novitatisque durae et inlepidae par esse delictum videtur. Sed molestius equidem culpatiusque esse arbitror verba nova, incognita, inaudita dicere quam involgata et sordentia. Nova autem videri dico etiam ea, quae sunt inusitata et desita, tametsi sunt vetusta. Est adeo id vitium plerumque serae eruditionis, quam Graeci opsimathian appellant, ut, quod numquam didiceris, diu ignoraveris, cum id scire aliquando coeperis, magni facias quo in loco cumque et quacumque in re dicere. Veluti Romae nobis praesentibus vetus celebratusque homo in causis, sed repentina et quasi tumultuaria doctrina praeditus, cum apud praefectum urbi verba faceret et dicere vellet inopi quendam miseroque victu vivere et furfureum panem esitare vinumque eructum et fetidum potare, “hic” inquit “eques Romanus apludam edit et flocces bibit”.

Aspexerunt omnes, qui aderant, alius alium, primo tristiores turbato et requirente voltu, quidnam illud utriusque verbi foret; post deinde, quasi nescio quid Tusce aut Gallice dixisset, universi riserunt. Legerat autem ille “apludam” veteres rusticos frumenti furfurem dixisse idque a Plauto in comoedia, si ea Plauti est, quae Astraba inscripta est, positum esse. Item “flocces” audierat prisca voce significare vini faecem e vinaceis expressam, sicuti fraces oleis, idque aput Caecilium in Poltimenis legerat, eaque sibi duo verba ad orationum ornamenta servaverat.

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Cod. Guelf. 956 Helmst., 221v

The Poetic Enigma

 

Aulus Gellius 13.6 On the enigma

 

“What the Greeks call enigmas, some of most ancient writers called this genre “scirpi” (“rushes”). I have just found an example of this that is very old, by Hercules, and very charming, composed in three iambic trimeters. I have left it without an answer so that I can prompt theories of my readers in answering it. These are three lines:

I don’t know whether he is less once or twice
Or both of these at once; as I once heard him say
That he did not wish to yield his place to king Zeus himself

He who does not wish to bother himself for too long over this will find what the answer is in the second book of Varro’s On Latin Language, dedicated to Marcellus.”

 

[The answer is Terminus. Once and twice minus equals thrice minus (terminus). Terminus refused to be removed from a section of the temple to Capitoline Jupiter].

 

 

6 De aenigmate.

 

1 Quae Graeci dicunt “aenigmata”, hoc genus quidam ex nostris veteribus “scirpos” appellaverunt. Quale est quod nuper invenimus per hercle anticum, perquam lepidum, tribus versibus senariis compositum aenigma, quod reliquimus inenarratum, ut legentium coniecturas in requirendo acueremus. 2 Versus tres hi sunt:

semel minusne an bis minus sit nescio,

an utrumque eorum; ut quondam audivi dicier,

Iovi ipsi regi noluit concedere.

 

3 Hoc qui nolet diutius aput sese quaerere, inveniet quid sit in M. Varronis de sermone Latino ad Marcellum libro secundo.

 

 

All Words Are Ambiguous; Or No Words Are

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 11.12

  1. On the fact that the philosopher Chrysippus claimsthat every word was ambiguous and unclear and that Diorous thinks on the contrary that no word is ambiguous.

Chrysippus says that every word is ambiguous by nature since two or more things can be understood from the same thing. Diodorus, however, the one who had the name Cronus, says: “No word is ambiguous nor may anyone say or understand a word in an ambiguous sense; and it ought not to seem to be anything other than what the person who says it believes he is saying.  But when I,” he continues, “mean something different from what you interpret, it may seem that the word has been spoken unclearly rather than ambiguously: for the nature of an ambiguous word ought to be that the person who speaks it has two or more meanings. No one, however, says two or more things when he has meant only one.”

Seven
What Would Diodorus Make of This Classic?

 

XII. Quod Chrysippus philosophus omne verbum ambiguum dubiumque esse dicit, Diodorus contra nullum verbum ambiguum esse putat.

Chrysippus ait omne verbum ambiguum natura esse, quoniam ex eodem duo vel plura accipi possunt. II. Diodorus autem, cui Crono cognomentum fuit: “nullum” inquit “verbum est ambiguum, nec quisquam ambiguum dicit aut sentit, nec aliud dici videri debet, quam quod se dicere sentit is, qui dicit. III. At cum ego” inquit “aliud sensi, tu aliud accepisti, obscure magis dictum videri potest quam ambigue; ambigui enim verbi natura illa esse debuit, ut, qui id diceret, duo vel plura diceret. Nemo autem duo vel plura dicit, qui se sensit unum dicere”.

On Roman Imitations in Comparison to Greek Models

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights II.23

 

“I have been reading the comedies by our poets which are based on and translated from Greek poets like Menander, Posidippus, Apollodorus or Alexis (and some comic writers as well). They do not at all displease while I read them—no, they seem written cleverly and attractively to the extent that you might believe that they cannot be made better. But if you take them and compare them to the Greek originals upon which they are based and consider the individual passages both together and separately with clear focus: the Latin texts immediately seem to be vulgar and simple: they are eclipsed by the wit and brilliance of the Greek texts which they are incapable of rivaling.”

Laocoon

Comoedias lectitamus nostrorum poetarum sumptas ac versas de Graecis Menandro aut Posidippo aut Apollodoro aut Alexide et quibusdam item aliis comicis. 2 Neque, cum legimus eas, nimium sane displicent, quin lepide quoque et venuste scriptae videantur, prorsus ut melius posse fieri nihil censeas. 3 Sed enim si conferas et componas Graeca ipsa, unde illa venerunt, ac singula considerate atque apte iunctis et alternis lectionibus committas, oppido quam iacere atque sordere incipiunt, quae Latina sunt; ita Graecarum, quas aemulari nequiverunt, facetiis atque luminibus obsolescunt.

The Meaning and Etymology of the “Humanities”

 

From Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights Book 13

17. That humanitas does not mean that which the common people believe it does but those who speak more properly use this word with a different meaning.

“Those who have spoken Latin and have used it correctly do not give the word humanitas the meaning which it commonly acquires, one equivalent to Greek philanthropia, indicating a certain kindly disposition and well-wishing toward all men indiscriminately. No, in correct use, humanitas means what the Greeks call paideia, what we have called education and training in the noble arts—these are the arts through which, when men learn them, they become most humanized. For the pursuit of this knowledge and the discipline derived from it has been given alone to mankind of all the animals—this is what it is called humanitas.

This is the way in which older writers use the word and among them especially Marcus Varro and Marcus Tullius, as nearly all the books show. I therefore consider it enough to offer a single example. So,  I quote hear the words from Varro’s first book of Human Antiquities, whose beginning goes like this: “Praxiteles, who thanks to his unparalleled artwork, is famous to anyone who has a little bit of liberal learning [humaniori].” Varro, here, does not use humaniori in a colloquial sense, as “easy-going, kind, or friendly, without knowledge of letters”—this meaning does not at all match his statement. What he means with it is a “man of some learning and training” who would know who Praxiteles was from books and spoken accounts.”

XVII. “Humanitatem” non significare id, quod volgus putat, sed eo vocabulo, qui sinceriter locuti sunt, magis proprie esse usos.

Qui verba Latina fecerunt quique his probe usi sunt, “humanitatem” non id esse voluerunt, quod volgus existimat quodque a Graecis philanthropia dicitur et significat dexteritatem quandam benivolentiamque erga omnis homines promiscam, sed “humanitatem” appellaverunt id propemodum, quod Graeci paideian vocant, nos eruditionem institutionemque in bonas artis dicimus. Quas qui sinceriter cupiunt adpetuntque, hi sunt vel maxime humanissimi. Huius enim scientiae cura et disciplina ex universis animantibus uni homini datast idcircoque “humanitas” appellata est.

Sic igitur eo verbo veteres esse usos et cumprimis M. Varronem Marcumque Tullium omnes ferme libri declarant. Quamobrem satis habui unum interim exemplum promere. III. Itaque verba posui Varronis e libro rerum humanarum primo, cuius principium hoc est: “Praxiteles, qui propter artificium egregium nemini est paulum modo humaniori ignotus”. IV. “Humaniori” inquit non ita, ut vulgo dicitur, facili et tractabili et benivolo, tametsi rudis litterarum sit – hoc enim cum sententia nequaquam convenit -, sed eruditiori doctiorique, qui Praxitelem, quid fuerit, et ex libris et ex historia cognoverit.