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Claudius Aelianus’ Varia Historia and the tradition of the miscellany Johnson, Diane Louise


Claudius Aelianus was recognized by Philostratus and the author of the Suda as a participant in the literary and intellectual movement of the Second Sophistic. Philostratus' biographical sketch in the Lives of the Sophists, however, makes it clear that Aelian did not perform publicly as did the other sophists whom Philostratus described; Aelian's retiring and scholarly nature is emphasized by Philostratus, who implies that Aelian's choice of literature over performance followed a pattern established by Demosthenes and Cicero. Most scholarship on the Varia Historia during the past 150 years addresses the question how Aelian made his collection, i.e. what sources he accessed. This directly reflects modern use of the Varia Historia as a quarry from which to mine information about the ancient world. Such scholarship must conclude that Aelian was not a modern research scholar with the goals, techniques, and readership of the modern "scientific" historian. What then were his goals, techniques, and readership? The Varia Historia cannot be fairly assessed without taking into account its membership in the genre of the miscellany. The Imperial miscellanist concerns himself with a specific subset of traditional literature: the material which supplements the standard literary education and may be termed polymathic. The miscellanist assumes a readership with whom he shares certain educative goals: specifically, further detailed education in literature beyond the primary level, including further work in the encyclic artes and a general increase in detailed information "for its own sake." Because the miscellanist adopts the stance of a mature amateur scholar gathering data for a younger reader, he reveals a patronizing tone in his collection. The data the miscellanist offers his reader is presented in a manner characterized by rroiKiXia or "variety"; as such it reflects the Imperial attitude toward the cultured person's correct use of leisure. An analysis of passages from the Varia Historia reveals that Aelian conceives his reader as a young person currently in the process of acquiring paideia. In his miscellany Aelian has provided this reader with material that conveys a moral message at the same time that it provides models of the correct way to respond to traditional literature.

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