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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Claudius Ælianus (c. 175–c. 235)

ACCORDING to his ‘Varia Historia,’ Ælianus Claudius was a native of Præneste and a citizen of Rome, at the time of the emperor Hadrian. He taught Greek rhetoric at Rome, and hence was known as “the Sophist.” He spoke and wrote Greek with the fluency and ease of a native Athenian, and gained thereby the epithet of “the honey-tongued.” He lived to be sixty years of age, and never married because he would not incur the responsibility of children.

The ‘Varia Historia’ is the most noteworthy of his works. It is a curious and interesting collection of short narratives, anecdotes, and other historical, biographical, and antiquarian matter, selected from the Greek authors whom he said he loved to study. And it is valuable because it preserves scraps of works now lost. The extracts are either in the words of the original, or give the compiler’s version; for, as he says, he liked to have his own way and to follow his own taste. They are grouped without method; but in this very lack of order—which shows that “browsing” instinct which Charles Lamb declared to be essential to a right feeling for literature—the charm of the book lies. This habit of straying, and his lack of style, prove Ælianus more of a vagabond in the domain of letters than a rhetorician.

His other important book, ‘De Animalium Natura’ (On the Nature of Animals), is a medley of his own observations, both in Italy and during his travels as far as Egypt. For several hundred years it was a popular and standard book on zoölogy; and even as late as the fourteenth century, Manuel Philes, a Byzantine poet, founded upon it a poem on animals. Like the ‘Varia Historia,’ it is scrappy and gossiping. He leaps from subject to subject: from elephants to dragons, from the liver of mice to the uses of oxen. There was, however, method in this disorder; for as he says, he sought thereby to give variety and hold his reader’s attention. The book is interesting, moreover, as giving us a personal glimpse of the man and of his methods of work; for in a concluding chapter he states the general principle on which he composed: that he has spent great labor, thought, and care in writing it; that he has preferred the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of wealth; that for his part, he found more pleasure in observing the habits of the lion, the panther, and the fox, in listening to the song of the nightingale, and in studying the migrations of cranes, than in mere heaping up of riches and finding himself numbered among the great; and that throughout his work he has sought to adhere to the truth.

Ælianus was more of a moralizer than an artist in words; his style has no distinctive literary qualities, and in both of his chief works is the evident intention to set forth religious and moral principles. He wrote, moreover, some treatises expressly on religious and philosophic subjects, and some letters on husbandry.

The ‘Varia Historia’ has been twice translated into English: by Abraham Fleming in 1576, and by Thomas Stanley, son of the poet and philosopher Stanley, in 1665. Fleming was a poet and scholar of the English Renaissance, who translated from the ancients, and made a digest of Holinshed’s ‘Historie of England.’ His version of Ælianus loses nothing by its quaint wording, as will be seen from the subjoined stories. The full title of the book is ‘A Registre of Hystories containing martiall Exploits of worthy Warriours, politique Practices and civil Magistrates, wise Sentences of famous Philosophers, and other Matters manifolde and memorable written in Greek by Ælianus Claudius and delivered in English by Abraham Fleming’ (1576).