Demosthenes and the Price of Repentance

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.8

“Sotion the Peripatetic, certainly a man of decent reputation, wrote a book full of many varied investigations, which he called the ‘Horn of Amalthea,’ which has roughly the same sense as ‘Cornucopia.’ In that book we find this story written about the orator Demosthenes and the courtesan Lais. He writes: ‘Lais the Corinthian earned a great deal of money on account of the elegance and loveliness of her form, and a throng of rich and well-known men rushed to her from all of Greece, but were not admitted unless they gave her what she demanded. She was in the habit, however, of asking too much.’ Here he says that this is the origin of the old Greek adage, not every man’s vessel makes it into Corinth, because he who was unable to give to Lais what she demanded had come to her in vain.

‘Demosthenes came to her in secret and asked that she give him something of her bounty. But Lais demanded 10,000 drachmas,’ (which amounts to ten thousand denarii.) ‘Demosthenes was struck by the woman’s impudence and the greatness of the sum demanded. He was struck pale, turned away, and said as he was leaving, I would not pay so much for regret.’”


Sotion ex peripatetica disciplina haut sane ignobilis vir fuit. Is librum multae variaeque historiae refertum composuit eumque inscripsit keras Amaltheias. 2 Ea vox hoc ferme valet, tamquam si dicas “cornum Copiae”. In eo libro super Demosthene rhetore et Laide meretrice historia haec scripta est: “Lais” inquit “Corinthia ob elegantiam venustatemque formae grandem pecuniam demerebat, conventusque ad eam ditiorum hominum ex omni Graecia celebres erant, neque admittebatur, nisi qui dabat, quod poposcerat; poscebat autem illa nimium quantum.” Hinc ait natum esse illud frequens apud Graecos adagium: ou pantos andros es Korinthon esth’ho plous quod frustra iret Corinthum ad Laidem, qui non quiret dare, quod posceretur.  “Ad hanc ille Demosthenes clanculum adit et, ut sibi copiam sui faceret, petit. At Lais myrias drachmas poposcit”, hoc facit nummi nostratis denarium decem milia. “Tali petulantia mulieris atque pecuniae magnitudine ictus expavidusque Demosthenes avertitur et discedens “ego” inquit “paenitere tanti non emo”.

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.

Image result for medieval manuscript lexicography
Cod. Guelf. 956 Helmst., 221v

Full Frontal Sodomy: A Philosopher’s Insult

Aulus Gellius, 3.5:

The fault of luxury and the effeminacy of both eyes and body reproached by a certain philosopher named Arcesilaus in a bitter but amusing way.

Plutarch relates that the philosopher Arcesilaus used a rather strong word about an excessively dainty man, who was nevertheless thought to be morally sound and free from sensual vice. When he noted the man’s smooth voice, his well-arranged hair, and his eyes so full of play and wanton pleasure, he said, ‘It really makes no difference in which parts you are a sodomite, whether they be up front or behind!’

Deliciarum vitium et mollities oculorum et corporis ab Arcesila philosopho cuidam obprobrata acerbe simul et festiviter. 1 Plutarchus refert Arcesilaum philosophum vehementi verbo usum esse de quodam nimis delicato divite, qui incorruptus tamen et a stupro integer dicebatur. 2 Nam cum vocem eius infractam capillumque arte compositum et oculos ludibundos atque inlecebrae voluptatisque plenos videret : “nihil interest,” inquit “quibus membris cinaedi sitis, posterioribus an prioribus”.

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.



Chameleon Tales from Pliny

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 10.12


12 Concerning the miraculous tales which Pliny the Elder ascribes most unworthily to the philosopher Democritus; and also about the image of a flying dove


In the twenty-eighth book of his Natural Histories, Pliny the Elder reports that there was a book by the most noble Philosopher Democritus On the Power and Nature of the Chameleon and that he had read it himself. He ascribes to it many silly and ridiculous things, allegedly written by Democritus—a few of which I remember, unwillingly, since they are so repulsive. For instance, that Democritus claimed that a hawk, the fastest of all birds, if he flies over a chameleon by chance, is suddenly dragged to the ground by a chameleon crawling below it and that after it comes down by some force offers itself willingly on the ground to be taken and torn to pieces by other birds!

Another thing that is beyond all human belief: if the head and neck of a chameleon is burned with the wood which we call oak, rain and thunder occur suddenly; the same thing, allegedly, happens if that animal is burned on the top of a house. There is still another tale which, by Hercules, I doubted that I should include since it is so absurd. But I have decided clearly that it is necessary that we speak what we think about the false incitements that come from this type of wonder—the types of things by which many sharp minds—indeed, those which are most desirous of knowledge—are often possessed and which lead them especially to ruin. But I return to Pliny. He says to roast the chameleon’s left foot with iron heated in a fire along with a herb  which bears the same name (“chameleon”), and to mix both into an ointment and to rub it into paste and place it in a wooden container. Whoever carries that, even if he is in the middle of a crowd, can be seen by no one.”


12De portentis fabularum, quae Plinius Secundus indignissime in Democritum philosophum confert; ibidem de simulacro volucri columbae.


1 Librum esse Democriti, nobilissimi philosophorum, de vi et natura chamaeleontis eumque se legisse Plinius Secundus in naturalis historiae vicesimo octavo refert multaque vana atque intoleranda auribus deinde quasi a Democrito scripta tradit, ex quibus pauca haec inviti meminimus, quia pertaesum est: 2 accipitrem avium rapidissimum a chamaeleonte humi reptante, si eum forte supervolet, detrahi et cadere vi quadam in terram ceterisque avibus laniandum sponte sua obicere sese et dedere. 3 Item aliud ultra humanam fidem: caput et collum chamaeleontis si uratur ligno, quod appellatur “robur”, imbres et tonitrus fieri derepente, idque ipsum usu venire, si iecur eiusdem animalis in summis tegulis uratur. 4 Item aliud, quod hercle an ponerem dubitavi, – ita est deridiculae vanitatis – nisi idcirco plane posui, quod oportuit nos dicere, quid de istiusmodi admirationum fallaci inlecebra sentiremus, qua plerumque capiuntur et ad perniciem elabuntur ingenia maxime sollertia eaque potissimum, quae discendi cupidiora sunt. 5 Sed redeo ad Plinium. Sinistrum pedem ait chamaeleontis ferro ex igni calefacto torreri cum herba, quae appellatur eodem nomine chamaeleontis, et utrumque macerari unguento conligique in modum pastilli atque in vas mitti ligneum et eum, qui id vas ferat, etiamsi is in medio palam versetur, a nullo videri posse.

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.”

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”.

Politicians Take Note: Lying Vs. Reporting an Untruth


Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 11.11 The Difference Between Lying and Speaking an Untruth

11: The words of Publius Nigidius in which he has that there is a difference between lying [mentiri] and “speaking an untruth” [mendacium dicere]

These are the precise words of Publius Nigidius, a man of surpassing talents in the pursuit of the liberal arts, whom Marcus Cicero revered for his intelligence and his impressive control of his learning: “There is a difference between speaking an untruth and lying.  A man who lies is not deceived himself; he is trying to deceive another. Someone who speaks an untruth, is himself deceived.”

He also adds this: “The man who lies, deceives as much as he can; but the one who speaks an untruth, does not deceive to the extent of his ability.” And then he adds as well on this matter: “A good man, ought to strain not to lie; a wise man should endeavor not to say anything untrue; the one affects the man himself, the other does not.” By Heracles, Nigidius so variously and cleverly sets out so many opinions on the same matter, as if he were saying something different each time!”

P. Nigidius Figulus Wrote About Stuff Like This.

Verba P. Nigidii, quibus differre dicit “mentiri” et “mendacium dicere”.

Verba sunt ipsa haec P. Nigidii, hominis in studiis bonarum artium praecellentis, quem M. Cicero ingenii doctrinarumque nomine summe reveritus est: “Inter mendacium dicere et mentiri distat. Qui mentitur, ipse non fallitur, alterum fallere conatur; qui mendacium dicit, ipse fallitur”. II. Item hoc addidit: “Qui mentitur,” inquit “fallit, quantum in se est; at qui mendacium dicit, ipse non fallit, quantum in se est”. III. Item hoc quoque super eadem re dicit: “Vir bonus” inquit “praestare debet, ne mentiatur, prudens, ne mendacium dicat; alterum incidit in hominem, alterum non”. IV. Varie me hercule et lepide Nigidius tot sententias in eandem rem, quasi aliud atque aliud diceret, disparavit.