by Neil W. Bernstein

Plain accuracy has all too often eluded the interpreters of the Nights, not only in difficult places. Put not your trust in translations! No doubt Gellius is read in the main by those who do not need them… (1)

In the middle of the second century AD, Aulus Gellius wrote a twenty-book compendium of miscellaneous learning that he entitled Attic Nights (Noctes Atticae). Gellius describes the purpose of his research in the work’s preface; he has read widely and recorded information:

that might lead active and ready minds along a swift and easy short-cut to the desire for independent learning and to the study of the practical arts; that might save men employed in other professions from a shamefully uneducated ignorance of customs and the usage of words. (Gell. praef. 12)

The work survives today in mostly complete form (the eighth book and the end of the twentieth are missing), unlike many of the lost sources to which Gellius refers. The dates of Gellius’ birth and death remain quite uncertain; the author was born sometime between 125 and 128 and died perhaps after 170. (2)


  1. Holford-Strevens 1988: 251.
  2. For a detailed discussion of Gellius’ career, cf. Holford-Strevens 1998: ch. 1.

In this selection:

  • 1.8: The story found in the works of the philosopher Sotion about the courtesan Lais and the orator Demosthenes
  • 1.17: How calmly Socrates tolerated his wife’s intractable nature; and what Marcus Varro wrote in a certain satire about the husband’s duty
  • 1.19: The story about the Sibylline books and king Tarquinius Superbus
  • 3.1: An inquiry and discussion concerning why Sallust said that greed feminizes not only the masculine soul but also the body itself
  • 3.16: Concerning the variety in the period of gestation, as described by doctors and philosophers; including the opinions of ancient poets about this matter, along with many other things worth hearing and remembering. Also, the words of the doctor Hippocrates, as taken from his book entitled On Nutriment.
  • 4.2: On the difference between the words disease and defect, and what significance these words possess in the edict of the aediles. Also, whether eunuchs and sterile women can be returned, together with diverse opinions on this matter.
  • 4.3: That before Carvilius’ divorce there were no lawsuits in the city of Rome concerning a wife’s property; also, the correct usage of the word concubine [paelex] and its derivation. 
  • 4.4: What Servius Sulpicius wrote in his book On Dowries on the law and the custom of ancient betrothals.
  • 4.14: The story of Hostilius Mancinus, one of the aediles, and the prostitute Manilia; and the decree of the tribunes to whom Manilia appealed.
  • 4.20: Concerning people who made certain inappropriate jokes before the censors and were punished by them; also, the deliberation concerning the punishment of a person who yawned while standing before them.
  • 5.11: That Bias’s syllogism concerning marriage cannot be considered a convertible argument.
  • 5.19: What adoption [adoptatio] and adrogation [adrogatio] are and how they differ. The formula that a person adrogating children uses to put this matter before the Roman people.
  • 6.12: Concerning tunics with long sleeves, and how Scipio Aemilianus reproached Sulpicius Galus for wearing them.
  • 7.7: About Acca Larentia and Gaia Taracia, and the origin of the priesthood of Arval Brothers.
  • 8.11: How wittily Socrates responded to his wife Xanthippe when she asked him to spend more money on feasting during the Festival of Dionysus.
  • 9.4: Concerning miraculous occurrences among the barbarian peoples. About dire and dangerous enchantments; also including stories of women who were suddenly changed into men.
  • 10.2: What Aristotle related concerning the number of offspring in a single labor
  • 10.6: The penalty inflicted by the plebeian aediles on the daughter of Appius Caecus, a noble woman, because she spoke too arrogantly
  • 10.15: Concerning the rituals of the priest and priestess of Jupiter, including the words from the praetor’s edict in which he says he will not force either the Vestals or the priest of Jupiter to take oaths 
  • 10.18: The story of Artemisia; also, concerning the competition among famous writers at the tomb of Mausolus
  • 11.6: That women in Rome did not swear by Hercules, nor men by Castor
  • 12.1: A discourse of the philosopher Favorinus, in which he persuades a noble lady to nurse her children herself, with her own milk, and not with that of other nurses
  • 12.7: The reason why Gnaeus Dolabella the proconsul sent the case of a female defendant who had confessed to poisoning to the court of the Areopagus
  • 13.4: Writings of Alexander
  • 15.10: Concerning the remarkable suicides of young Milesian women
  • 19.11: [He gives some erotic verses which Plato wrote while still quite young and competing in the tragic competition]
  • 20.7: [How different the Greek authors’ opinions are on the number of Niobe’s children]

Also available (Lefkowitz and Fant)

Modern print editions and translations:

  • Bernardi Perini, Giorgio. 1992. Aulus Gellius: le notti attiche. Torino: Unione tipografico-editrice torinese.
  • Marache, René, and Yvette Julien. 1967-1998. Aulu-Gelle: Les Nuits Attiques. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
  • Marshall, P.K. 1990. Auli Gellii Noctes Atticae. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Rolfe, J.C. 1946. The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Further reading:

  • Baldwin, Barry. 1975. Studies in Aulus Gellius. Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press.
  • Holford-Strevens, Leofranc. 1988. Aulus Gellius. London: Duckworth. (BMCR)
  • Maselli, G. 1979. Lingua e scuola in Gellio grammatico. Lecce: Milella.
  • See too: Cross Project Resource Discovery

Permission is hereby granted to distribute for classroom use, provided that both Neil W. Bernstein and Diotíma are identified in any such use. Other uses not authorized in writing by the translator or in accord with fair use policy are expressly prohibited.