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

From ‘Attic Nights’

By Aulus Gellius (Second Century A.D.)

Translation of Rev. William Beloe

Origin and Plan of the Book

MORE pleasing works than the present may certainly be found: my object in writing this was to provide my children, as well as myself, with that kind of amusement in which they might properly relax and indulge themselves at the intervals from more important business. I have preserved the same accidental arrangement which I had before used in making the collection. Whatever book came into my hand, whether it was Greek or Latin, or whatever I heard that was either worthy of being recorded or agreeable to my fancy, I wrote down without distinction and without order. These things I treasured up to aid my memory, as it were by a store-house of learning; so that when I wanted to refer to any particular circumstance or word which I had at the moment forgotten, and the books from which they were taken happened not to be at hand, I could easily find and apply it. Thus the same irregularity will appear in these commentaries as existed in the original annotations, which were concisely written down without any method or arrangement in the course of what I at different times had heard or read. As these observations at first constituted my business and my amusement through many long winter nights which I spent in Attica, I have given them the name of ‘Attic Nights.’… It is an old proverb, “A jay has no concern with music, nor a hog with perfumes:” but that the ill-humor and invidiousness of certain ill-taught people may be still more exasperated, I shall borrow a few verses from a chorus of Aristophanes; and what he, a man of most exquisite humor, proposed as a law to the spectators of his play, I also recommend to the readers of this volume, that the vulgar and unhallowed herd, who are averse to the sports of the Muses, may not touch nor even approach it. The verses are these:—
  • SILENT be they, and far from hence remove,
  • By scenes like ours not likely to improve,
  • Who never paid the honored Muse her rights,
  • Who senseless live in wild, impure delights;
  • I bid them once, I bid them twice begone,
  • I bid them thrice, in still a louder tone:
  • Far hence depart, whilst ye with dance and song
  • Our solemn feast, our tuneful nights prolong.
  • The Vestal Virgins

    The writers on the subject of taking a Vestal Virgin, of whom Labeo Antistius is the most elaborate, have asserted that no one could be taken who was less than six or more than ten years old. Neither could she be taken unless both her father and mother were alive, if she had any defect of voice or hearing, or indeed any personal blemish, or if she herself or father had been made free; or if under the protection of her grandfather, her father being alive; if one or both of her parents were in actual servitude, or employed in mean occupations. She whose sister was in this character might plead exemption, as might she whose father was flamen, augur, one of the fifteen who had care of the sacred books, or one of the seventeen who regulated the sacred feasts, or a priest of Mars. Exemption was also granted to her who was betrothed to a pontiff, and to the daughter of the sacred trumpeter. Capito Ateius has also observed that the daughter of a man was ineligible who had no establishment in Italy, and that his daughter might be excused who had three children. But as soon as a Vestal Virgin is taken, conducted to the vestibule of Vesta, and delivered to the pontiffs, she is from that moment removed from her father’s authority, without any form of emancipation or loss of rank, and has also the right of making her will. No more ancient records remain concerning the form and ceremony of taking a virgin, except that the first virgin was taken by King Numa. But we find a Papian law which provides that at the will of the supreme pontiff twenty virgins should be chosen from the people; that these should draw lots in the public assembly; and that the supreme pontiff might take her whose lot it was, to become the servant of Vesta. But this drawing of lots by the Papian law does not now seem necessary; for if any person of ingenuous birth goes to the pontiff and offers his daughter for this ministry, if she may be accepted without any violation of what the ceremonies of religion enjoin, the Senate dispenses with the Papian law. Moreover, a virgin is said to be taken, because she is taken by the hand of the high priest from that parent under whose authority she is, and led away as a captive in war. In the first book of Fabius Pictor, we have the form of words which the supreme pontiff is to repeat when he takes a virgin. It is this:—

    “I take thee, beloved, as a priestess of Vesta, to perform religious service, to discharge those duties with respect to the whole body of the Roman people which the law most wisely requires of a priestess of Vesta.”

    It is also said in those commentaries of Labeo which he wrote on the Twelve Tables:—

    “No Vestal Virgin can be heiress to any intestate person of either sex. Such effects are said to belong to the public. It is inquired by what right this is done?” When taken she is called amata, or beloved, by the high priest; because Amata is said to have been the name of her who was first taken.

    The Secrets of the Senate

    It was formerly usual for the senators of Rome to enter the Senate-house accompanied by their sons who had taken the prætexta. When something of superior importance was discussed in the Senate, and the further consideration adjourned to the day following, it was resolved that no one should divulge the subject of their debates till it should be formally decreed. The mother of the young Papirius, who had accompanied his father to the Senate-house, inquired of her son what the senators had been doing. The youth replied that he had been enjoined silence, and was not at liberty to say. The woman became more anxious to know; the secretness of the thing, and the silence of the youth, did but inflame her curiosity. She therefore urged him with more vehement earnestness. The young man, on the importunity of his mother, determined on a humorous and pleasant fallacy: he said it was discussed in the Senate, which would be most beneficial to the State—for one man to have two wives, or for one woman to have two husbands. As soon as she heard this she was much agitated, and leaving her house in great trepidation, went to tell the other matrons what she had learned. The next day a troop of matrons went to the Senate-house, and with tears and entreaties implored that one woman might be suffered to have two husbands, rather than one man to have two wives. The senators on entering the house were astonished, and wondered what this intemperate proceeding of the women, and their petition, could mean. The young Papirius, advancing to the midst of the Senate, explained the pressing importunity of his mother, his answer, and the matter as it was. The Senate, delighted with the honor and ingenuity of the youth, made a decree that from that time no youth should be suffered to enter the Senate with his father, this Papirius alone excepted.

    Plutarch and His Slave

    Plutarch once ordered a slave, who was an impudent and worthless fellow, but who had paid some attention to books and philosophical disputations, to be stripped (I know not for what fault) and whipped. As soon as his punishment began, he averred that he did not deserve to be beaten; that he had been guilty of no offense or crime. As they went on whipping him, he called out louder, not with any cry of suffering or complaint, but gravely reproaching his master. Such behavior, he said, was unworthy of Plutarch; that anger disgraced a philosopher; that he had often disputed on the mischiefs of anger; that he had written a very excellent book about not giving place to anger; but that whatever he had said in that book was now contradicted by the furious and ungovernable anger with which he had now ordered him to be severely beaten. Plutarch then replied with deliberate calmness:—“But why, rascal, do I now seem to you to be in anger? Is it from my countenance, my voice, my color, or my words, that you conceive me to be angry? I cannot think that my eyes betray any ferocity, nor is my countenance disturbed or my voice boisterous; neither do I foam at the mouth, nor are my cheeks red; nor do I say anything indecent or to be repented of; nor do I tremble or seem greatly agitated. These, though you may not know it, are the usual signs of anger.” Then, turning to the person who was whipping him: “Whilst this man and I,” said he, “are disputing, do you go on with your employment.”

    Discussion on One of Solon’s Laws

    In those very ancient laws of Solon which were inscribed at Athens on wooden tables, and which, from veneration to him, the Athenians, to render eternal, had sanctioned with punishments and religious oaths, Aristotle relates there was one to this effect: If in any tumultuous dissension a sedition should ensue, and the people divide themselves into two parties, and from this irritation of their minds both sides should take arms and fight; then he who in this unfortunate period of civil discord should join himself to neither party, but should individually withdraw himself from the common calamity of the city, should be deprived of his house, his family and fortunes, and be driven into exile from his country. When I had read this law of Solon, who was eminent for his wisdom, I was at first impressed with great astonishment, wondering for what reason he should think those men deserving of punishment who withdrew themselves from sedition and a civil war. Then a person who had profoundly and carefully examined the use and purport of this law, affirmed that it was calculated not to increase but terminate sedition; and indeed it really is so, for if all the more respectable, who were at first unable to check sedition, and could not overawe the divided and infatuated people, join themselves to one part or other, it will happen that when they are divided on both sides, and each party begins to be ruled and moderated by them, as men of superior influence, harmony will by their means be sooner restored and confirmed; for whilst they regulate and temper their own parties respectively, they would rather see their opponents conciliated than destroyed. Favorinus the philosopher was of opinion that the same thing ought to be done in the disputes of brothers and of friends: that they who are benevolently inclined to both sides, but have little influence in restoring harmony, from being considered as doubtful friends, should decidedly take one part or other; by which act they will obtain more effectual power in restoring harmony to both. At present, says he, the friends of both think they do well by leaving and deserting both, thus giving them up to malignant or sordid lawyers, who inflame their resentments and disputes from animosity or from avarice.

    The Nature of Sight

    I have remarked various opinions among philosophers concerning the causes of sight and the nature of vision. The Stoics affirm the causes of sight to be an emission of radii from the eyes against those things which are capable of being seen, with an expansion at the same time of the air. But Epicurus thinks that there proceed from all bodies certain images of the bodies themselves, and that these impress themselves upon the eyes, and that thence arises the sense of sight. Plato is of opinion that a species of fire and light issues from the eyes, and that this, being united and continued either with the light of the sun or the light of some other fire, by its own, added to the external force, enables us to see whatever it meets and illuminates.

    But on these things it is not worth while to trifle further; and I recur to an opinion of the Neoptolemus of Ennius, whom I have before mentioned: he thinks that we should taste of philosophy, but not plunge in it over head and ears.

    Earliest Libraries

    Pisistratus the tyrant is said to have been the first who supplied books of the liberal sciences at Athens for public use. Afterwards the Athenians themselves with great care and pains increased their number; but all this multitude of books, Xerxes, when he obtained possession of Athens and burned the whole of the city except the citadel, seized and carried away to Persia. But King Seleucus, who was called Nicanor, many years afterwards, was careful that all of them should be again carried back to Athens.

    A prodigious number of books were in succeeding times collected by the Ptolemies in Egypt, to the amount of near seven hundred thousand volumes. But in the first Alexandrine war the whole library, during the plunder of the city, was destroyed by fire; not by any concerted design, but accidentally by the auxiliary soldiers.

    Realistic Acting

    There was an actor in Greece of great celebrity, superior to the rest in the grace and harmony of his voice and action. His name, it is said, was Polus, and he acted in the tragedies of the more eminent poets, with great knowledge and accuracy. This Polus lost by death his only and beloved son. When he had sufficiently indulged his natural grief, he returned to his employment. Being at this time to act the ‘Electra’ of Sophocles at Athens, it was his part to carry an urn as containing the bones of Orestes. The argument of the fable is so imagined that Electra, who is presumed to carry the relics of her brother, laments and commiserates his end, who is believed to have died a violent death. Polus, therefore, clad in the mourning habit of Electra, took from the tomb the bones and urn of his son, and as if embracing Orestes, filled the place, not with the image and imitation, but with the sighs and lamentations of unfeigned sorrow. Therefore, when a fable seemed to be represented, real grief was displayed.

    The Athlete’s End

    Milo of Crotona, a celebrated wrestler, who as is recorded was crowned in the fiftieth Olympiad, met with a lamentable and extraordinary death. When, now an old man, he had desisted from his athletic art and was journeying alone in the woody parts of Italy, he saw an oak very near the roadside, gaping in the middle of the trunk, with its branches extended: willing, I suppose, to try what strength he had left, he put his fingers into the fissure of the tree, and attempted to pluck aside and separate the oak, and did actually tear and divide it in the middle; but when the oak was thus split in two, and he relaxed his hold as having accomplished his intention, upon a cessation of the force it returned to its natural position, and left the man, when it united, with his hands confined, to be torn by wild beasts.