If only we had a time-machine to take us back to ancient Rome!

Reading in bed can be perilous.  I was just reading this in Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights (book 5, ch. 4), and had to get up and write about it:

4.  On the word duovicesimus, which is unknown to the general public, but occurs frequently in the writings of the learned.

I chanced to be sitting in a bookshop in the Sigillaria 1 with the poet Julius Paulus, the most learned man within my memory; and there was on sale there the Annals of Fabius 2 in a copy of good and undoubted age, which the dealer maintained was without errors.  But one of the better known grammarians, who had been called in by a purchaser to inspect the book, said that he had found in it one error; but the bookseller for his part offered to wager any amount whatever that there was not a mistake even in a single letter. The grammarian pointed out the following passage in the fourth book:  “Therefore it was then that for the first time one of the two consuls was chosen from the plebeians, in the twenty-second (duovicesimo) year after the Gauls captured Rome.”  “It ought,” to read, not duovicesimo, but duo et vicesimo or twenty-second; for what is the meaning of duovicesimo?” . . . 3 Varro in the sixteenth book of his Antiquities of Man; there he wrote as follows: “He died in the twenty-second year (duovicesimo); he was king for twenty-one years.” . . .

1. Quintus Fabius Pictor, who was sent as an envoy to Delphi after the battle of Cannae (216 B.C.), wrote a history of Rome from the coming of Aeneas to his own time. He wrote in Greek, but a Latin version is mentioned also by Quintilian (I.6.12) and was used by Varro and by Cicero.
2.  A street or quarter in Rome where the little images were sold which were given as presents at the festival of the Sigillaria.
3. There is a lacuna in the text which might be filled by “This question might be answered by.”

 Ah, which of us would not wish to be there, back in 160 AD, sitting in that bookshop in the Sigillaria, and looking over the shoulder of Aulus Gellius and Julius Paulus, as they examine the aged copy of the archaic Latin Annals of Q. Fabius Pictor!   What lover of books cannot sigh at the thought of that book, of “undoubted age”.

I wonder just how long it was, after that event, that the very last copy of Pictor’s work vanished from the world?

(Thanks to Bill Thayer for the text here).


4 thoughts on “If only we had a time-machine to take us back to ancient Rome!

  1. Yes! The sort of person who looks for faults but contributes nothing …

    These gossipy sorts of books are always a delight to read, like Boswell’s “Life of Johnson”. Never too many of them, as far as I am concerned.

  2. Reminds me of Migne’s offer of a reward to anybody who found any error in PL/PG (in the “important notice” inside many of the volumes… He would be bankrupt!
    Or the elderly gentleman in not so ancient Rome, glancing over the array of “new theology” and groaning aloud: “If only the proprietor knew what they were selling in his name!” Perplexed, I looked on the way out to see if the name of said proprietor was written anywhere. The bookshop was called “Libreria del Gesu'” (next door to the Church of the same name)!! I think the shop is now gone – but (report has it) the proprietor is still around…

  3. Interesting about Migne — thank you! I must take the time to read the biography of him one day.

    That anecdote about the Libreria … that is golden! Thank you so much for sharing that! It made me smile.

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