Cato Said He Needed Little And Proved It

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 13.24


24: The words of Marcus Cato who says that he lacks many things but he desires nothing


“The consul and censor Marcus Cato says that when the state and private citizens had abundant wealth, his own country home was plain and simple and that it was not even whitewashed even when he was nearly seventy-years old.  And later, he uses these words, saying: “I have no expensive building, tool or piece of clothing—nor a costly slave or maid. If there is anything to use, I use it.  If there is not, I lack it. I believe that everyone should use and enjoy what he possesses.” He adds to this: “Some complain that I lack many things; but I fault those who cannot go without.”

This plain honesty of the Tusculan man, who says that he lacks many things but still desires nothing, does more in encouraging thrift and happiness with modest possession than the treatises of those Greeks who claim to be philosophers, forming empty shadows of words, declaring that they have nothing, and still need nothing, and desire nothing when they are burning with having, needing, and desiring.”

Cato Also Did Not Have Good Looks

XXIV. Verba M. Catonis, egere se multis rebus et nihil tamen cupere dicentis

M. Cato consularis et censorius publicis iam privatisque opulentis rebus villas suas inexcultas et rudes ne tectorio quidem praelitas fuisse dicit ad annum usque aetatis suae septuagesimum. Atque ibi postea his verbis utitur: “Neque mihi” inquit “aedificatio neque vasum neque vestimentum ullum est manupretiosum neque pretiosus servus neque ancilla. Si quid est,” inquit “quod utar, utor; si non est, egeo. Suum cuique per me uti atque frui licet”. Tum deinde addit: “Vitio vertunt, quia multa egeo; at ego illis, quia nequeunt egere”. II. Haec mera veritas Tusculani hominis egere se multis rebus et nihil tamen cupere dicentis plus hercle promovet ad exhortandam parsimoniam sustinendamque inopiam quam Graecae istorum praestigiae philosophari sese dicentium umbrasque verborum inanes fingentium, qui se nihil habere et nihil tamen egere ac nihil cupere dicunt, cum et habendo et egendo et cupiendo ardeant.

Cicero Teaches Us How To Lie and Get Away with It

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 12.12

12 The clever response of Marcus Cicero as he defends himself against a claim of obvious lying

“This is a part of rhetorical training too—to admit criminal matters not subject to danger cleverly and with charm so that, if something foul is alleged which cannot be denied, you may defuse it with a humorous response and make the whole matter more dignified with a joke rather than an allegation, just as it is recorded that Cicero did when he tempered what could not be denied with a clever and amusing comment.

For when Cicero wanted to purchase a house on the Palatine hill and he did not have the money at hand, he accepted in private as much as two million sesterces [$100,000?] from Publius Sulla* who was then a defendant in a case. But the whole matter was made public before he bought the house and he was charged with receiving money for buying a house from an accused defendant. So then, troubled by the unanticipated criticism, Cicero denied that he had received the money and denied that he would have bought the house, saying “Indeed, If I buy the house, it is true that I took the money”.

But later, when he had bought the house and was charged with being a liar in the senate by his enemies, he laughed plenty and said while chuckling: “You are senseless men if you don’t know that it is a mark of a wise and cautious head of a family, when he wants to buy something, to deny that he wants to buy it to scare off competitors!”

*He was charged for participating in the conspiracy with Cataline.

XII Faceta responsio M. Ciceronis amolientis a se crimen manifesti mendacii.

[1] Haec quoque disciplina rhetorica est callide et cum astu res criminosas citra periculum confiteri, ut, si obiectum sit turpe aliquid, quod negari non queat, responsione ioculari eludas et rem facias risu magis dignam quam crimine, sicut fecisse Ciceronem scriptum est, cum id, quod infitiari non poterat, urbano facetoque dicto diluit. [2] Nam cum emere uellet in Palatio domum et pecuniam in praesens non haberet, a P. Sulla, qui tum reus erat, mutua sestertium uiciens tacita accepit. [3] Ea res tamen, priusquam emeret, prodita est et in uulgus exiuit, obiectumque ei est, quod pecuniam domus emendae causa a reo accepisset. [4] Tum Cicero inopinata obprobratione permotus accepisse se negauit ac domum quoque se empturum negauit atque ‘adeo’ inquit ‘uerum sit accepisse me pecuniam, si domum emero’. Sed cum postea emisset et hoc mendacium in senatu ei ab inimicis obiceretur, risit satis atque inter ridendum: ‘ἀκοινονόητοι’ inquit ‘homines estis, cum ignoratis prudentis et cauti patrisfamilias esse, quod emere uelit, empturum sese negare propter competitores emptionis.’

Wisdom is the Offspring of Experience and Memory

from Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 13.8

The poet Afranius wisely and elegantly said that Wisdom is the daughter of Experience and Memory

The poet Afranius expressed himself exceptionally and most truthfully concerning the creation and cultivation of wisdom, that it is the daughter of Experience and Memory. For, with that claim, he shows that whoever wishes to be wise in human matters does not need merely books and training in rhetoric and philosophy, but must also become familiar with and practiced in understanding and facing the rest of life as well—to remember with conviction all of its actions and outcomes and from that to learn and take counsel from what the actual dangers of life teach, not just what books and teachers have attempted to represent through their empty words and fictions, like those in farces or dreams. The lines are from a Roman comedy by Afranius, called the Chair: “Experience fathered me; Memory gave birth to me; the Greeks call me Sophia, I am wisdom in Rome.”

There is a similar sentiment from Pacuvius which the philosopher Macedo, a good man and a close friend, used to think should be written above the entries of all the temples: “I hate men of base work and philosophical sentiment”. He said this because nothing was more shameful or intolerable than the fact that lazy and useless people veiled in beard and cloak should turn the basic foundations of philosophy into games of the tongue and words and then, even as they were dripping with faults, loudly renounce others’ vices.”


Quod Afranius poeta prudenter et lepide Sapientiam filiam esse Vsus et Memoriae dixit.


  1. Eximie hoc atque verissime Afranius poeta de gignenda conparandaque sapientia opinatus est, quod eam filiam esse Vsus et Memoriae dixit. II. Eo namque argumento demonstrat, qui sapiens rerum esse humanarum velit, non libris solis neque disciplinis rhetoricis dialecticisque opus esse, sed oportere cum versari quoque exercerique in rebus comminus noscendis periclitandisque eaque omnia acta et eventa firmiter meminisse et proinde sapere atque consulere ex his, quae pericula ipsa rerum docuerint, non quae libri tantum aut magistri per quasdam inanitates verborum et imaginum tamquam in mimo aut in somnio deblateraverint. III. Versus Afranii sunt in togata, cui Sellae nomen est:


Vsus me genuit, mater peperit Memoria,

Sophiam vocant me Grai, vos Sapientiam.


Item versus est in eandem ferme sententiam Pacuvii, quem Macedo philosophus, vir bonus, familiaris meus, scribi debere censebat pro foribus omnium templorum: ego odi homines ignava opera et philosopha sententia. V. Nihil enim fieri posse indignius neque intolerantius dicebat, quam quod homines ignavi ac desides operti barba et pallio mores et emolumenta philosophiae in linguae verborumque artes converterent et vitia facundissime accusarent intercutibus ipsi vitiis madentes.

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.

Tawdry Tuesday Two: Remorse for 10,000 Drachmas

Aulus Gellius on Demosthenes and the Courtesan Lais (Attic Nights 1.VIII)

8 A detail excerpted from the writings of the philosopher Sotion about the prostitute Lais and the orator Demosthenes

Sotion was a rather well known man from the peripatetic school. He wrote a book filled with varied and extensive anecdotes and named it The Horn of Amaltheia, which in our tongue is pretty close to saying The Horn of Plenty.

In that book he included this anecdote about Demosthenes the orator and Lais the prostitute. “Lais”, he says, “the Corinthian, used to earn a lot of money through the elegance and beauty of her body. Often, some of the most well-known wealthy men from all of Greece came to see her, but not a one was admitted unless he gave what she asked: and she used to ask for no small amount.” He says that this is where the common saying was born among Greeks that “It is not possible for everyman to sail to Corinth”, since a man went to Corinth to Lais in vain if he could not give what she asked.

“And the famous Demosthenes went to her in secret and asked for her services. But she asked for 10,000 drachmas” [1]–an amount which would be exchanged for ten thousand of our denarii—“Struck dumb by the woman’s daring and by the great heap of money, Demosthenes turned away pale and said “I cannot buy regret for such a price”. But the Greek which he is said to have spoken is more charming: “I will not buy remorse for 10,000 drachmas.”

8 Historia in libris Sotionis philosophi reperta super Laide meretrice et Demosthene rhetore.
1 Sotion ex peripatetica disciplina haut sane ignobilis vir fuit. Is librum multae variaeque historiae refertum composuit eumque inscripsit Κέρας Ἀμαλθείας. 2 Ea vox hoc ferme valet, tamquam si dicas “cornum Copiae”. 3 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.” 4 Hinc ait natum esse illud frequens apud Graecos adagium:

Οὐ παντὸς ἀνδρὸς ἐς Κόρινθον ἔσθ᾿ ὁ πλοῦς

quod frustra iret Corinthum ad Laidem, qui non quiret dare, quod posceretur. 5 “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. 6 “Tali petulantia mulieris atque pecuniae magnitudine ictus expavidusque Demosthenes avertitur et discedens “ego” inquit “paenitere tanti non emo”. Sed Graeca ipsa, quae fertur dixisse, lepidiora sunt: οὐκ ὠνοῦμαι μυρίων δραχμῶν μεταμέλειαν.

Does this face merit a surcharge?

[1] If we use the popular idea that a drachma was worth one day of a skilled worker’s wages, then Lais’ services cost 10,000 working days. Perhaps less overwhelming, but still impressive is valuing a drachma at $25 USD: A night with Lais is only $250,000 dollars. But maybe that’s just because it was Demosthenes….

Fragmentary Friday: How Democritus Blinded Himself

From Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights, 10.17

18: Why and How the Philosopher Democritus blinded himself; and the fine and charming verses Laberius wrote on the subject
“It is recorded among the accomplishments of Greek history that the philosopher Democritus, a man worthy of praise beyond the rest and blessed with ancient authority, deprived himself of eyesight willingly because he believed that his mind’s thoughts and reflections in considering the laws of nature would be clearer and more precise if he freed them from the incitements of sight and the eye’s mistakes.

Laberius the poet has described this deed and the method by which he accomplished his own blindness with a clever device in his farce named the Ropemaker, which describes the affair with just enough verses, written clearly. Laberius, however, created a different cause for the blindness and included it in the tale which he was writing, not inaptly. The character who speaks the following lines in Laberius’ poem is a wealthy but stingy wretch who laments the excessive spending and low behavior of his adolescent son. Here are Laberius’ lines:

“Democritus, the natural philosopher of Adbera
Placed a shield to face Hyperion’s arrival,
So that he might destroy his eyes with blazing bronze,
Thus he ruined his eyes with the rays of the sun,
So that he might not witness wicked citizens faring well.
Just so, I wish to blind the final portion of my years
Through the blaze of shining money
Rather than gazing upon my son’s extravagant prosperity.”

XVII. Quam ob causam et quali modo Democritus philosophus luminibus oculorum sese privaverit; et super ea re versus Laberii pure admodum et venuste facti.

I. Democritum philosophum in monumentis historiae Graecae scriptum est, virum praeter alios venerandum auctoritateque antiqua praeditum, luminibus oculorum sua sponte se privasse, quia existimaret cogitationes commentationesque animi sui in contemplandis naturae rationibus vegetiores et exactiores fore, si eas videndi inlecebris et oculorum impedimentis liberasset. II. Id factum eius modumque ipsum, quo caecitatem facile sollertia subtilissima conscivit, Laberius poeta in mimo, quem scripsit Restionem, versibus quidem satis munde atque graphice factis descripsit, sed causam voluntariae caecitatis finxit aliam vertitque in eam rem, quam tum agebat, non inconcinniter. III. Est enim persona, quae hoc aput Laberium dicit, divitis avari et parci sumptum plurimum asotiamque adulescentis viri deplorantis. IV. Versus Laberiani sunt:

Democritus Abderites physicus philosophus
clipeum constituit contra exortum Hyperionis,
oculos effodere ut posset splendore aereo.
Ita radiis solis aciem effodit luminis,
malis bene esse ne videret civibus.
Sic ego fulgentis splendorem pecuniae
volo elucificare exitum aetati meae,
ne in re bona videam esse nequam filium.


Decimus Liberius is a Roman playwright from the 1st century BCE

Using Archaic Words is as Bad as Using Made-Up New Ones

Aulus Gellius, Attics 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!”

7 Verbis antiquissimis relictisque iam et desitis minime utendum.

1 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. 2 Nova autem videri dico etiam ea, quae sunt inusitata et desita, tametsi sunt vetusta. 3 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”. 4 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. 5 Legerat autem ille “apludam” veteres rusticos frumenti furfurem dixisse idque a Plauto in comoedia, si ea Plauti est, quae Astraba inscripta est, positum esse. 6 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. 7