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CJ-ONLINE  September 2009

CJ-ONLINE September 2009

Subject:

CJ Online 2009.09.02 GUNDERSON, Nox Philologiae: Aulus Gellius

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Nox Philologiae: Aulus Gellius and the Fantasy of the Roman Library. By 
ERIK GUNDERSON. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009. Pp. ix + 344. 
Cloth, $55.00. ISBN 978–0–299–22970–2.

Order this text for $44.41 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20

Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 
http://classicaljournal.org/reviews.php


CJ Online 2009.09.02

Although this book is advertised as the work of Erik Gunderson (hereafter 
G.), the title page states that the true author is “Anonymous” and that 
his work has been “edited and with an introduction by Erik Gunderson.” 
A “facsimile of the original title page” and a dedication to Domitius 
Insanus, the memorably outspoken grammarian of Noctes Atticae 18.7 follow. 
These three devices alert the reader that the subsequent pages contain more 
than an ordinary scholarly assessment of the legacy of Aulus Gellius’ 
Noctes Atticae. Gellius has become an increasingly popular subject of study 
chiefly due to the work of Leofranc Holford-Strevens, whose classic Aulus 
Gellius (London, 1988) was republished in a revised and expanded form in 
2003. G. has higher literary pretensions with his own study of ancient (and 
modern) antiquarianism, and he has infused his work with the spirit of 
Aulus Gellius. This is not meant to imply that G. has undertaken these 
devices for frivolous ends: his book is a more personal endeavor than the 
amusing literary games that the characters in the Noctes often play at 
table, and as G. examines Gellius’ Noctes as “an autobiography of a 
life in books” (p. 14), he simultaneously recreates his own life in books 
and ruminates at length on what it means to be a classicist. G. shows that 
we are closer to Gellius than we think: “Antiquarians are all children of 
the book: even as they give birth to books, books also give birth to 
them” (p. 251).

The conceit of the Nox Philogiae (hereafter Nox) as a lost work recreated 
in the hands of G. is maintained throughout. As he states in the Praefatio 
Editoris: “Now that the first printing of this volume has long since 
become generally unavailable and is only to be found with some difficulty 
on the dustiest shelves of select antiquarian bookshops, the hour has 
perhaps arrived to make it broadly accessible once again for the benefit of 
contemporary readers.” A dusty book given new life by a scholar is a 
trope common in Gellius and familiar in modern scholarship, and G. has 
subjected his own scholarship to this kind of distancing in order to shed 
more light on the relationship of Gellius to his own miscellany. Indeed, 
the problematic nature of authorship, both for antiquarian scholars like 
Gellius and for modern classicists writing about them, along with the 
strange self-identification and self-reflection between the writer, the 
reader and the excerpted author are the most prominent themes in the Nox, 
and G. has daringly chosen to weave them into the fabric of the work. As a 
result, the Nox itself is arranged and composed like P.K. Marshall’s OCT 
edition of Gellius: separated into two volumes (Tomus I and II) composed of 
eight books (Libri), including a “Book Zero,” i.e. a list of the 
capitula of each book after the fashion of Gellius and Pliny the Elder in 
his encyclopedia. The indices occur not at the end of the Nox but as Liber 
Quintus at the end of Tomus I, i.e. in the middle of the book. And most 
significantly, G. has divided each “book” into sections with Latin 
lemmata, some of which he plucks from Gellius’ Noctes, although he has 
composed others himself. This is also the only book I have ever read that 
is itself listed in its bibliography—under “Anonymous,” of 
course—which G. has situated in its usual place at the end of the work, 
after the appendices and lists of fragmenta adespota and fragmenta spuria, 
which provide a bit of fun for both author and reader. Fans of Gellius will 
note with a smile that the Liber Octavus of G.’s Nox has been wholly lost 
except for its lemmata, just like the eighth book of Gellius’ original 
Noctes.

These distancing devices, coupled with the reflexive stance G. adopts 
towards his subject, cause reflections to pile up, so to speak, as in a 
hall of mirrors. For instance, there are no less than four prefaces in the 
Nox: the first (p. ix) is the Praefatio Editoris mentioned above, in which 
G., like Gellius, hopes that his readers will find something in 
Anonymous’ work to amuse and edify them (and perhaps to excerpt?); the 
second (pp. 5–7) provides the reader with a short introduction to ancient 
bibliophiles and antiquarians; in the third (pp. 8–17) G. expresses his 
intent to track “the circulation of knowledge” and “the competition 
of knowers” (p. 12) among Gellius, his friends and their sources and to 
explain what he believes the true nature of antiquarianism to be; and the 
fourth preface (pp. 18–44) finally tackles Gellius’ important but 
incomplete preface to the Noctes. This final preface on a preface, so to 
speak, consists of a detailed and indeed almost word-for-word analysis of 
Gellius’ preface, and I consider it one of the main strengths of the Nox.

The two “volumes” each have their own focus. In the first Tomus G. 
devotes individual chapters to each of the three main principles that 
guided ancient attitudes towards language: auctoritas (authority of 
“good” ancient authors), ratio (analysis by means of analogy or 
etymology) and usus (common use). Liber Quartus, subtitled “Index Nominum 
vel Dramatis Personae,” treats the major figures in Gellius’ work and 
life, from his larger than life idols like Favorinus, Taurus and Fronto, to 
the more mundane annoyances that intrude upon their learned society—the 
contentious grammarians and braggart youths who always receive their 
comeuppance but never merit a name in the Noctes. Tomus II is harder to 
characterize; it is a long meditation on books, reading and authorship both 
in Gellius’ milieu and our own, which culminates in the Liber Septimus, 
wherein G. asserts in succession that Ennius (one of Gellius’ favorite 
authors), Macrobius (whose Saturnalia reuses large portions of Gellius’ 
work), Holford-Strevens and G. himself are all authors, in a way, of the 
Noctes Atticae. After G. traces the dizzying cycle of use and re-use of 
material, of authors who become readers and readers who become authors, of 
excerpting authors who are themselves excerpted in return, the modern 
reader emerges at the end with a sense of distant but real connection to 
the objects of his study.

I should caution that this book is not meant for the general audience, for 
although G. translates quoted passages of Gellius, he does not translate 
his lemmata, and numerous French and German passages throughout are 
likewise left untranslated. Readers unfamiliar with French cinema, 
Nietzsche and postmodern theory (especially the works of Derrida and 
Foucault) will feel adrift in Tomus II especially. G.’s enthusiasm for 
his subject is contagious, but he occasionally indulges in wordplay that 
obscures rather than elucidates his material. Furthermore, although G. 
shows a deep knowledge of the scholarship on Gellius, his criticisms are 
not always made in the same courteous fashion with which Gellius and his 
fellow learned companions conducted their banquets of letters, something G. 
is generous enough to admit.

All this is presumably part of G.’s plan to shake the reader out of 
complacency. As he surveys the work of modern scholars on Gellius, G. 
criticizes their continued insistence on him as a fixed figure (“a 
somewhat simple man, in a bit over his head, affable but highly 
fallible”). For G. is intent upon rediscovering Gellius’ “plural 
self” (p. 291) and showing how that self expands to fill the void between 
Gellius, his sources, his readers, his editors, his commentators, his 
adaptors and so forth. G.’s Nox is a difficult book and will undoubtedly 
provoke strong reactions, but it is a thoughtful, scholarly work of many 
noctes that deserves to be read by anyone interested in Latin literature of 
the High Empire in general and Aulus Gellius in particular.

PATRICK HOGAN
Hope College


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