jump to navigation
  • Aulus Gellius and Antique Forteana December 24, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    Mrs B is incapacitated in the hospital, tiny little Miss B is learning to drink milk and the trusty family au pair is down and out with flu. Beachcombing, thus, has a terrifying day ahead of him alone with Little Miss B who has already made it clear that she objects to her little sister’s presence in the world. He better get cracking then before she wakes up…

    Beachcombing is a big fan of Aulus Gellius’s Attic Nights, in part because the second-century author takes the reader on a curious meander through life in an Empire that was already going brown around its fluvial edges.

    One passage that particularly caught Beachcombing’s imagination when he first read Aulus was the following (9,4):

    When I [Aulus Gellius] was returning from Greece to Italy and had come to Brundisium, after disembarking I was strolling about in that famous port, which Quintus Ennius called praepes, or ‘propitious’, using an epithet that is somewhat far-fetched, but altogether apt. There I saw some bundles of books exposed for sale, and I at once eagerly hurried to them. Now, all those books were in Greek, filled with marvellous tales, things unheard of, incredible; but the writers were ancient and of no mean authority: Aristeas of Proconnesus, Isigonus of Nicaea, Ctesias and Onesicritus, Philostephanus and Hegesias. The volumes themselves, however, were filthy from long neglect, in bad condition and unsightly. Nevertheless, I drew near and asked their price; then, attracted by their extraordinary and unexpected cheapness, I bought a large number of them for a small sum, and ran through all of them hastily in the course of the next two nights. As I read, I culled from them, and noted down, some things that were remarkable and for the most part unmentioned by our native writers…

    Aulus had essentially stumbled upon some antique Forteana (on an example from Ctesias see a previous Beachcombing post), Forteana that was not particularly popular by the second century if the price Aulus bought them for is anything to go by.

    Anyway, to the meat.

    Those books, then, contained matter of the following sort: that the most remote of the Scythians, who pass their life in the far north, eat human flesh and subsist on the nourishment of that food… Also that there are men in the same latitude having one eye in the middle of the forehead and called Arimaspi, who are of the appearance that the poets give the Cyclops. That there are also in the same region other men, of marvellous swiftness, whose feet are turned backwards and do not point forward, as in the rest of mankind. Further, that it was handed down by tradition that in a distant land called Albania men are born whose hair turns white in childhood and who see better by night than in the daytime. That it was also a matter of assured belief that the Sauromatae, who dwell far away beyond the river Borysthenes, take food only every other day and fast on the intervening day. In those same books I ran upon this statement too, which I later read also in the seventh book of the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, that in the land of Africa there are families of persons who work spells by voice and tongue; for if they should chance to have bestowed extravagant praise upon beautiful trees, plentiful crops, charming children, fine horses, flocks that are well fed and in good condition, suddenly, for no other cause than this, all these would die. That with the eyes too a deadly spell is cast, is written in those same books, and it is said that there are persons among the Illyrians who by their gaze kill those at whom they have looked for some time in anger; and that those persons themselves, both men and women, who possess this power of harmful gaze, have two pupils in each eye. Also that in the mountains of the land of India there are men who have the heads of dogs, and bark, [see Beachcombing’s post on this] and that they feed upon birds and wild animals which they have taken in the chase. That in the remotest lands of the east too there are other marvellous men called monocoli, or ‘one-legged’, who run by hopping with their single leg and are of a most lively swiftness. And that there are also some others who are without necks and have eyes in their shoulders. But all bounds of wonder are passed by the statement of those same writers, that there is a tribe in farthest India with bodies that are rough and covered with feathers like birds, who eat no food but live by inhaling the perfume of flowers. And that not far from these people is the land of Pygmies, the tallest of whom are not more than two feet and a quarter in height.

    Aulus then has a strong reaction: one that Beachcombing associates with reading Erik von D as a teenager.

    These and many other stories of the kind I read; but when writing them down, I was seized with disgust for such worthless writings, which contribute nothing to the enrichment or profit of life!

    As a bizarrist Beachcombing feels he shouldn’t let Aulus G. get away with this. But it is striking how many of these references are utter bilge. Beachcombing – just for the sheer bloody hell of it – has put in bold in the passage above stories that were true (i.e. they reflect something a Roman traveller in the place in question might have perceived to be true). Any other additions do please let Beachcombing know: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    As Beachcombing has noted on many other occasions homo sapiens was born to take aspirin and to lie.