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Aulus Gellius's "Attic Nights" : Lack of Arrangement Makes its Own Kind of Arrangement

Circa 180 CE
Leaf 174 recto of Vat. Pal. lat. 24. The undertext of the 4th century palimpsest is very visible in the image.

Leaf 174 recto of Vat. Pal. lat. 24. The undertext of the 4th century palimpsest is very visible in the image.

About 180 CE Roman author and grammarian Aulus Gellius published  Noctes Atticae (Attic Nights), a miscellaneously arranged commentary, or compilation of notes on the Latin language, law, philosophy, history, antiquarianism and other subjects. Gellius claimed that he assembled his commentarii from the initial notes or annotationes he made from books that he read or statements that he heard that he wanted to remember:

"I used to jot down [annotabam] whatever took my fancy, of any and every kind, without any definite order or plan; and such notes I could lay away as an aid to the memory, like a kind of literary storehouse" (quoted by Blair, Too Much to Know. Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age [2010] 82).

Attic Nights is divided into twenty books, of which all have survived in some form except book eight, for which we have only the index. The work is devoid of any formal sequence or standard arrangement, which, in itself is a kind of arrangement. Though Gellius was not considered a major author in antiquity, his work was exploited by pagan and Christian authors. 

The oldest surviving manuscript of Noctes Atticae is one of the oldest parchment codices surviving from antiquity. It is a fourth century palimpsest (manuscript A of the text) written in rustic capitals that is preserved in the Vatican Library (Vat. Pal. lat. 24). In Codices Latini Antiquiores I (1934) no. 74 E. A. Lowe described it as follows:

"Palimpsest, primary script (for the upper script, Vetus Testamentum in uncial aec. VII-VIII, see No. 68a). Forty-four leaves survive, each folded in two and now foliated: 72, 79, 80, 82-85, 87-99, 102-121, 129-176. The leaves now unbound and kept between cardboard. Size (when opened out) 195 x 150 mm. (105 x 105 mm.) in 2 columns of 13 lines averaging 10 letters to the line. Ruling on the hair-side, which is outside, apparently after folding; single bounding lines enclose each column. Prickings to guide ruling sometimes intercolumnar but more often, apparently, on the outer bounding line. Gatherings of ten; one survives complete, and a second lacks one bifolium only. In each quire the first and the last page are left blank—an extraordinary practice found also in Vatic. Regin. La. 2077 (Cicero, Verrines; see No. 115) but the last page has the quire-mark q followed by a Roman numeral in large sloping cursive placed in the centre of the upper half of the page. Abbreviations: ,  =bus, que: R'=rum at line-ends; P.R. = populus Romanus. Omitted N at line-ends marked by a simple stroke after the vowel. Script is Rustic capital of a striking type, written probably with a reed, and showing marked contrast between fine and thick strokes—an example of extreme technical ability: B, F, L often rise above the other letters; F, G and last stroke of U descend below the base line; Y has a peculiar shape- a straight stem supporting a slant s-like top. Blank spaces carefully calculated were left for the Greek texts cited but were never filled.

"Origin uncertain. A scribe's signature on foll. 173v-172, the first page of a quire, seems to read: COTT.A..SCRIPSIT. The Gellius was erased for rewriting ca. saec. VII-VIII. The MS. was probably at Lorsch during the eighth century. Later it was at Heidelberg, whence it was removed to the Vatican in 1623."

By the end of Antiquity the text of Gellius disappeared; it was unknown to authorities such as Isidore of Seville and the Venerable Bede.

"At this time must have come the split in the transmission, whereby Books 1-7 circulated separately from 9-20- a time which also saw the loss of all of Book 8 (including the lemmata), the lemmata to Book 19 and many of those to 20, and the end of the work (20, 10.7-11.5)" (P.K. Marshall in Reynolds (ed) Texts and Transmission. A Survey of the Latin Classics [1983] 176-77 ff, outlining the transmission of the text through various families of manuscripts during the Middle Ages.) See also Holford-Strevens, "Aulus Gellius," Grafton, Mott, Settis (eds) The Classical Tradition (2010) 386-87.

Gellius's Noctes Atticae first appeared in print from the press of Sweynheym and Pannartz, In domo Petri de Maximis, in Rome on April 11, 1469. It was edited for the press by Giovanni Andrea Bussi, Bishop of Aleria. ISTC No.: ig00118000. Ten printed editions of the text appeared in the 15th century, all from Italian presses.

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