N.G. Wilson (ed. & tr.), Aelian: Historical Miscellany. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1997. Pp. 514. ISBN 0-674-99535-X. UK£11.95.
A. J. Podlecki
University of British Columbia and Swarthmore College
In succession to J. de Voto's translation comes Nigel Wilson's Loeb Varia Historia.[] Classicists no longer have an excuse not to check a citation in Aelian, and a general reader who wants to find out what a bedside book from antiquity might have looked like has the means ready to hand. For all his touted A)FE/LEIA (a quality for which he is praised by Philostratos, VS 31), Aelian's Greek can be quite tricky and with his translation Wilson puts us further in his debt: besides being clear and accurate it is often sprightly and even elegant (for an example of this latter quality, see 13.1: 'In general the atmosphere was of festival and one could feast on the scent' for KAI\ PARH=N TH|= TE A)/LLH| PANHGURI/ZEIN KAI\ KATA\ TH\N EU)WDI/AN E(STIA=SQAI).
This is a very miscellaneous miscellany indeed. Generally the stories tumble out without any apparent principle of ordering but sometimes a train of thought (albeit rambling) can be glimpsed. Phrynichos the tragedian (who Aelian says was also a general; where did he get this? can it be right?) wrote choral odes that aroused a warlike spirit -- along the lines of the Aischylos of Aristophanes' Frogs -- at 3.8, which leads into amours among warriors making them more warlike (3.9) and this in turn brings up the topic of how the Spartan ephors dealt with such love (3.10). After an apparently intrusive chapter on Peripatetic doctrine, Aelian returns to Spartan love between men at 3.12. The stories about artists and instrumentalists at 3.30-33 seem to be prepared for by the thought: 'philosophy has a moderating influence even on unlikely recipients' (cf. the story about Sokrates and Plato at 3.27). In among the discursive and rambling stories there are some effective longer chapters, little essays, such the accounts of Sokrates and Aristophanes and Sokrates' enthusiasm for Euripides (2.13), the second Aspasia (12.1), the wrangling over Alexander's corpse (12.64), and Atalanta, her cave and her two centaur suitors (13.1). We get a glimpse of how Aelian must have gathered this strange assortment of fact and fantasy: 'I read this in a book about Sybaris' (14.20).[] Elsewhere we are told: 'This is an anecdote in general circulation, recurring persistently in many sources' (3.3). Wilson tries to give the reader some help, but his notes are uneven. Sometimes it is a mere (though nonetheless useful) identification, or cross-reference to another section of VH but occasionally we are treated to something fuller and more scholarly (10.7 on the astronomers Oinopides and Meton; 12.11 on Roman temples to Febris, Fever; 12.37 on silphium; 14.14 on a mot of Stratonikos; 14.31 on Ptolemy VIII's expulsions). Now and then a schoolmasterly tone creeps in: 'This chapter (12.36) gives a notable proof of the fluidity of Greek myths'; 'There is danger that some of his (sc. Archilochos') utterances were taken out of context and used in support of facile inferences' (p. 323 n. a, on a long excerpt from Kritias at 10.13).
Aelian was a Roman citizen, perhaps a freedman, allegedly from Praeneste, who produced his work early in the third century. He was trying to reach a mainly (though not, I think, exclusively) Greek audience, but he sometimes lets his Roman sensibilities peep out from behind his otherwise transnational persona: 'Romans know how to behave honourably, and do not overcome their enemies with craft, guile, and intrigue' (12.33). At 14.45 he says he must avoid giving more Roman than Greek examples, 'lest someone think I am indulging myself for patriotic reasons.'
It is difficult on the present evidence to be sure where Aelian's debts lay. Although he never mentions Athenaios and Plutarch, he appears to have lifted a fair amount of material from them (cf. Dilts' or Wilson's citations). Isokrates, whom Aelian names several times, has been detected as source of some of the stories (4.8 in part, 5.10), and the same is true of Xenophon. But Aelian also dips his cup into the pool of now non-standard authors, naming, among others, Ephoros, Theopompos, Androtion and Theophrastos. What about convergences -- minor and fleeting -- of his stories with those in Valerius Maximus and Polyainos? Did all these authors work with a common trove of material? Were certain sorts of anecdotes more popular than others? A close study of the possible affiliations seems to me to be a desideratum.
It would probably be flattering to Aelian to talk of original research, but where he can be checked he sometimes comes off surprisingly well, as on the lawcode of Gortyn (12.12). Sometimes he doesn't come off so well, as in 5.13 -- a potted (and erroneous) history of the Athenian Constitution. There are good stories (not all of them encountered here for the first time) about visual artists (I count 15 references to Overbeck's Schriftquellen in Dilts' apparatus)[] and poets in various genres: Plato disowning his earlier poetic efforts (2.30), Sokrates' fondness for dramas by Euripides (2.13), and Euripides' fondness for Agathon, with the Chrysippos as a love-gift (2.21); Euripides' Trojan tetralogy coming second to Xenokles ('whoever he was', 2.8). I liked the enumeration of the titles of the various sections of Homer's epics (13.14). If the number of occurrences in Wilson's index of persons reflects the popularity of stories about these individuals with Aelian's readers, the ratings would be as follows. Alexander with 39 mentions beats out his father Philip's 26. Sokrates surpasses his pupil Plato 35 to 31; Aristotle and Diogenes lag far behind with 14 and 13 respectively. Among poets Pindar and Euripides are tied with 7 mentions apiece, but Homer (not surprisingly) come out on top with 23. The ranking of fifth-century politicians is: Alkibiades 13, Themistokles 11, Perikles 7, Aristeides 6, and Kimon bringing up the rear with 2.
Although a moralizing tone is often barely beneath the surface -- readers were to be edified as well as diverted -- Aelian now and then drives home explicitly the message he thinks the reader should be taking away (10.9 [at end] on Philoxenos the glutton, 10.15 on the suitors of Aristeides' daughters; 12.49 on Phokion's greatness; and other examples at 112.62, 14.27, 14.34 [at end]). The book has a repetitions, and so it is probably unfinished.
Different readers will have their own favourite sections. Mine are 7.20 (men who dye their hair, cf. 11.4 on Agathokles' baldness); Sokrates' mot 'idleness is the sister of freedom' (10.14), the Cinderella's slipper motif applied to the courtesan Rhodopis (13.33), and Agathon's rebuff to someone who proposed to correct his work that he would be 'destroying the Agathon in Agathon' (14.13).
[] J.G. De Voto, Aelian: Historical Miscellany (Chicago 1995). Since this is not a comparative evaluation of the two works, I will restrict myself to Wilson's book. DeVoto translates an unspecified ready-made text; Wilson has established his own text on the basis, however -- as he informs us -- of Mervin Dilts' exemplary 1974 edition and collation of the MSS, Claudii Aeliani Varia Historia (Leipzig 1974). In a couple of places where I've checked, Wilson's rendering of Aelian's not-always-easy Greek is more accurate.
[] Aelian rather charmingly adds: 'I put it on record as a kindness (DIA\ FILANQRWPI/AN) to my fellow men, because I do not wish to deprive others of a laugh.'
[] J.A. Overbeck, Die antiken Schriftquellen zur Geschichte der bildenden KŁnste bei den Griechen (Leipzig 1868).