For whenever I had taken in hand any Greek or Latin book, or had heard anything worth remembering, I used to jot down whatever took my fancy… and such notes I would lay away as an aide to my memory, like a kind of literary storehouse…. — Aulius Gellius
Aulus Gellius (c. 125 – 180) is a man after my own heart. I refer to his famous notebook Attic Nights as the original “blog,” because it obviously served the same purpose in his day as an online diary does in ours. In the ancient world notebooks and letters were often very public affairs. In that sense, perhaps, the recent blogging phenomenon is a return to the idea of the “man of letters” that existed in Gellius’ epoch.
It was while staying at a country retreat in Attica (on the outskirts of Athens) that this Roman lawyer compiled his thoughts at the end of each day, drawing on writings and incidents that interested him most. Much of Attic Nights is a digest of other authors. Yet this in itself provides an invaluable catalog of ancient literature. What we know of a lost work is often because of what Gellius said about it. Although his forays into recondite legal or grammatical problems are not of much interest, his personal reminiscences are always entertaining.
At the beginning of Book I, Gellius recounts: “While we were students at Athens, Herodes Atticus, a man of consular rank and of true Grecian eloquence, often invited me to his country houses near that city, in company with… others of our countrymen who had withdrawn from Rome to Greece in quest of culture.” One day they were visited by a boastful young man, who claimed to be a Stoic and dominated the after-dinner conversation by prattling “unseasonably, absurdly, and at immoderate length” about his superiority over other thinkers. Finally their teacher had enough. Herodes addressed the youth sarcastically as “mightiest of all philosophers,” and referred him to a passage in Epictetus’ famous Stoic writings which rebuked novices who understood nothing about philosophy “but merely babbled of trifling propositions” and bragged of sophomoric learning.
A bit later Gellius shares a humorous recollection about witnessing a trial in which the defendant was represented by a verbose lawyer who kept wandering from his subject. When the counsel said “I am present for the honourable gentleman,” the judge upbraided him, saying: “You surely present too much, but you do not represent your client.” It is things like this that not only provide literary amusement or common sense advice, but also give us an invaluable record of ancient life . . . . which in some ways was not so different from our own.