Wednesday, February 27, 2019


Joseph A. Howley, Aulus Gellius and Roman Reading Culture: Text, Presence and Imperial Knowledge in the 'Noctes Atticae'. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. x, 282. ISBN 9781316510124. £75.00.

Reviewed by Stuart R. Thomson, Christ's Hospital, UK (

Version at BMCR home site


Since Leofranc Holford-Strevens' magisterial Aulus Gellius in 1988 and its 2003 revised edition,1 there have been a number of excellent monographs on this complex Antonine excerpter and raconteur. 2009 in particular was a vintage year, which saw the publication both of the marvelously idiosyncratic Nox Philologiae of Erik Gunderson (University of Wisconsin Press, reviewed BMCR 2009.11.30) and Wytse Keulen's politically-focused Gellius the Satirist (Brill; reviewed BMCR 2009.05.13). There is much that is interesting and new in Howley's offering, but an overall assessment must be frank in admitting that this 2018 publication adds very little to the richness of what was available in 2009.

The book is divided into 5 chapters, along with a relatively brief introduction and conclusion. The introduction makes clear that the approach the book takes is primarily concerned with the literary value of the NA itself: its narrative frames and method of presenting text as itself an intellectual project, rather than seeing it merely as a repository of fragments. Howley's aim is to show that the NA is both a more sophisticated text than has been recognised, and therefore also a more significant text in the history of Western intellectual culture (ix).

Chapter 1, the most interesting and valuable in the book, introduces Howley's key thematic idea, that of intellectual inlecebra ('enticement' or 'seduction') as a core of Gellius' intellectual programme, initially by comparing it to Plutarch's concept of polypragmosyne, but the allure of reading recurs as a thread throughout Howley's analysis (e.g. 218-20, 257). Reading and writing (following Gellius) should involve managing one's one own sensual attraction to books and their contents, as well as interrogating the desires and purposes of the authors of those texts. Thus, the disorder of the work (especially the scattered autobiographical fragments) "both models and engages the reader in the project of self-scrutiny that is … an essential part of the NA's unifying project for its reader" (48). An interesting analysis of the relationship between the NA's chapter headings and the actual texts, with the parallel of Epictetus' Discourses as a comparandum, illustrates the kind of self-scrutiny the text requires: the gap between what is advertised and what is given implicitly engages the reader who wants to mine the text, as an encyclopedia, in self-scrutiny and examination of their own desires for reading.

Chapter 2 interrogates Gellius' writing about reading, and compares it to models offered by Plutarch, Quintilian, and Pliny the Elder. Howley sees the latter in particular as a foil against which Gellius reacts and defines himself; he expands on this criticism and competition in chapter 3 ('Gellius on Pliny: Fashioning the Miscellanist and his Readerly Lifestyle'). Chapter 4 examines the NA's engagement with the tradition of secondary literature (commentaries, other miscellanistic works, but also the consulting of experts as narratively presented), in large part through close reading of passages that engage with the scholarly output of Tullius Tiro.

Howley starts chapter 5 ('Favorinus, Fiction, and Dialogue at the Limits of Expertise') by examining the role of different generic frameworks, dialogue and fable, in the NA: his exploration of the use of fictionality does interesting work placing the NA contextually with the classical traditions of these modes of writing, and this section is one of the most illuminating and promising of the volume. It is a shame that it is relatively short, and too much of it is simply summary and description of comparable dialogue (e.g. the whole of Lucian's Philopseudes is re-told at 215-216). Further questions are prompted by the start made here: how Gellius might be implicated in the fate of dialogue later in antiquity (as debated by Simon Goldhill and Averil Cameron, amongst others2) but also about how 'dialogic' (in a Bakhtinian sense) we can consider a text like the NA to be. Some exploration of these would have deepened this chapter (especially given Howley's explicit aim to push Gellius more centrally into the history of Western reading), but the argument is nonetheless rich and provocative.

The remainder of the chapter builds on this by arguing that Gellius entices his readers to scrutinise and interrogate authority figures, either in their written works, or in literal dialogue. Here, the key figure under discussion is Favorinus. Both through modelling and representing the process of critiquing and questioning authority figures (even those who are valorized, like Favorinus), Gellius encourages an active and critical intellectual approach. Overall, however, it is difficult to read the book as a cohesive argument; perhaps necessarily for anything that deals with Gellius—reading or writing in a straight line is antithetical to the subject matter, so to speak—but I found some aspects more than necessarily difficult. First, Howley tries to insert his interpretation of Gellius into broader lines of literary or historical enquiry, but often this actually appears as a superficial summary of limited secondary literature, with nothing added apart from juxtaposing this summary with readings from Gellius, to which it seems at a distinct disconnect. To take an example, at 102-111, Howley gives a quick overview of the history of reading from antiquity to the nineteenth century, which leaps straight to Augustine, and then to the mediaeval period; several pages then compare Gellius to reading in the nineteenth century, and another several pages compare Gellius to the multi-media era and blogging: no references to the text of the NA are made in these pages, and no references are made back to these comparisons. It is useful to have a summary of the main lines of scholarship, but there is no real argument here. More could be added to give depth and nuance to this contextualising (e.g. the experience of Jewish and Christian dialogue, miscellany and commentary); if Howley wants to place the NA in a lineage of Western styles of reading while giving a reading that is rich with Gellius' own time and place, skipping from the NA to Augustine to the middle ages misses out some vital parts of the story.

Secondly, the majority of Howley's argument is built around close, detailed reading of specific programmatic passages: an overwhelming proportion of these, however, are already well-mined. What earlier discussions may lack in length, they make up for in succinctness and clarity. For instance, Howley's reading of Gellius' presentation of Pliny is very similar to Gunderson 181-5; the same key passages are mined: NA 3.16 (200-1 page numbers in Howley), 9.4 (115-20 and 123-34), 9.16 (128), 10.12 (29-30, 135-40), and passing reference to 16.6 (116). Significant insights are echoed: e.g. the unexpectedness of sed redeo ad Plinium (136-7), or the meta-literary significance of the ending of 9.4 (134). Howley's discussion is lengthier and more convoluted, but not really different. Similarly, the section on Tiro (174 and following) is anticipated by Gunderson 186-193. Whilst Howley attempts to distance himself from Gunderson's approach (69), which he sees as insufficiently historically situated, this seems to make little difference to the actual interpretations of the NA, and how we and its original audience read or ought to read it.

For another example, Howley's treatment of Gellius' relationship with Favorinus adds little to Holford-Strevens' detailed chapter on this topic. The same ground is also covered by Gunderson (171-2), who adds the more post-modern lit-crit aspects present in Howley's reading: the implicit limitations on authority and the way that Gellius self-consciously plays with voicing Favorinus, both strategies which encourage (self-)reflective reading practices. There is no suggestion of anything academically untoward—the diligent reader can follow Howley's footnotes to these sources—merely a lack of something distinctively new.

Lastly, on style: if any single concern lies at the heart of the NA, it must be words; their correct usages, definitions, and roles in every aspect of life; spoken, written, and read. Writing a book on the NA, then, invites close examination of the use of language; one might also argue more generally that the humanistic disciplines claim at least some of their authoritative status on the basis of effective use of words: making arguments is an exercise in language. On this level, in its use of language, I find the volume under review wanting, to a degree that noticeably impairs its overall quality. There are sporadic attempts at Gunderson's allusive excesses, without the heart or success of Gunderson's full- throated idiosyncrasy. Thus on 5-6, in swift succession the NA is compared to a Wunderkammer, 'dark matter', China Mieville's The City and the City, the contemporary miscellanies of John Hodgman, and the putative discovery in two thousand years' time of the totality of YouTube in 2015. The point to all of them is that we should pay attention to framing narratives and treat the NA itself as an object of study, not merely a medium for preserving fragments. This is surely a point that needs no such over-the-top elaboration (particularly considering it is the basis of both Keulen and Gunderson's work). Playful interweaving of frames and contexts is part and parcel of Gunderson's style, and integral to his whole reading/writing of Gellius: in the present work, it comes across as belaboured and shallow. These kinds of otiose comparisons occur at regular intervals, and the rather wordy attempts to explain how such Zeitgeisty references are relevant render the point at hand more rather than less confused. Other stylistic infelicities make the process of reading jarring: we are told that Gellius' 'understanding of reading is a precise blend' of philosophical and rhetorical approaches (110), but I had to spend time puzzling over what was meant by the use of the word 'precise'; how would it differ from an ad hoc blend? The language used here is just not clearly thought through. These are only a handful of the passages that forcibly struck my attention; further examples abound. It is a shame that in the editing process there was not more care taken to produce a more readable manuscript: much of what I have noted here adds nothing to the argument and by obfuscation rather detracts from it.3

Overall, although this is not the book that I would recommend on Aulus Gellius, there are avenues of exploration it opens up which are well worth the specialist's time, and will also bring Aulus Gellius quite rightly into the ken of those interested in the history of reading, and the traditions of fictionality and dialogue. There is a great deal of parallel material that sets Gellius firmly within his own context, but also diachronically within a history of Western reading; the NA's use of narrative is carefully placed within an ancient tradition and brought to the fore as an important technique for understanding the programme set out for its readers; the key theme of inlecebra is an interesting and valuable thread to follow through the NA. There are undoubtedly other gems to be found scattered throughout the book: criticism regarding some of the rough in which they are embedded should not obscure the fact that there are diamonds, too.


1.   Aulus Gellius: An Antonine Scholar and his Achievement (Oxford, 2003).
2.   E.g. Goldhill (ed.), The End of Dialogue in Antiquity (Cambridge, 2009); Averil Cameron, Dialoguing in Late Antiquity (Harvard, 2014).
3.   Otherwise, this is a well-edited volume, with the following the only typographical errors I noted: 32 n.25: discrimins for discriminis; 42 and 51: the style of headings and subheadings is inconsistently applied; 62: 'that brought his to the passage', should presumably read 'him' or 'his attention'; 101 n.112: 'pieces collected in 1999' should (I presume) read 'pieces collected in Cavallo and Chartier (1999)'; 142: 'allows the reader to…develop… attentiveness to both what he reads and herself': switching between assumed male and female readers is generally fine, but within a single sentence is disconcerting; 148 n.70 there is a parenthesis missing; 165: 'dsecribing'; 170 'state' should read 'statue'; 205 'well-tread' should be 'well-trodden'; 249: 'the Cato's strategy'.

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