Classical Prose Miscellanies and Modern Blogs

When I was preparing to start a blog, I thought for some time about a possible theme. I was somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of writing a blog that was like a personal diary, or a blog that was about any random thing that happened to me at a given moment. Of course, there are plenty of blogs like those out there, but they’re just not for me. Some very successful blogs focus on a specific theme or subject matter. However, I am interested in too many things to be able to restrict a personal blog to just one theme, even if I defined that theme really broadly. So I needed a way to turn this trait of mine to my own advantage, to make it work for me rather than against me.

In the course of doing some research in graduate school, I discovered that a number of ancient Greek and Latin authors had written prose works that deliberately avoided set themes or systematic organization. One instructive example is Aulus Gellius’s Noctes Atticae. The title of this work, which can be translated as “Attic Nights” or “Nights in Attica,” reflects the fact that the work was begun as a way of passing the time on long winter nights while Gellius resided in Attica, the region around Athens, Greece. In the preface to this work, Gellius explains his rationale for assembling writings on various subjects. I quote from the Loeb translation of J.C. Rolfe (1927), available in an online transcription by Bill Thayer at LacusCurtius:

[I]n the arrangement of my material I have adopted the same haphazard order that I had previously followed in collecting it. For whenever I had taken in hand any Greek or Latin book, or had heard anything worth remembering, I used to jot down whatever took my fancy, of any and every kind, without any definite plan or order, and such notes I would lay away as an aid to my memory, like a kind of literary storehouse, so that when the need arose of a word or a subject which I chanced for the moment to have forgotten, and the books from which I had taken it were not at hand, I could readily find and produce it. It therefore follows, that in these notes there is the same variety of subject that there was in those former brief jottings which I had made without order or arrangement, as the fruit of instruction or reading in various lines.

The whole point of this kind of writing, in other words, is not only to discuss a wide variety of topics, but also to embody that variety in the writing’s organization (or lack thereof). The absence of a consistent theme and the lack of clear or “logical” organization are usually considered to be marks of bad writing, but a prose miscellany is intentionally written to turn these criteria on their heads, making virtues out of what normally would be considered to be defects. Although only a few examples of these kinds of works have survived from the ancient world more or less intact, Gellius’s preface (once again in Rolfe’s translation) mentions many others that had been written by his time:

…some called their books “The Muses,” others “Woods”, one used the title “Athena’s Mantle”, another “The Horn of Amaltheia,” still another “Honeycomb,” several “Meads,” one “Fruits of my Reading,” another “Gleanings from Early Writers,” another “The Nosegay,” still another “Discoveries.” Some have used the name “Torches,” others “Tapestry,” others “Repertory,” others “Helicon,” “Problems,” “Handbooks” and “Daggers.” One man called his book “Memorabilia,” one “Principia,” one “Incidentals,” another “Instructions.” Other titles are “Natural History,” “Universal History,” “The Field,” “The Fruit-basket,” or “Topics.” Many have termed their notes “Miscellanies,” some “Moral Epistles,” “Questions in Epistolary Form,” or “Miscellaneous Queries,” and there are some other titles that are exceedingly witty and redolent of extreme refinement.

The use of the word “history” in some of these titles might seem strange; how can a deliberately disorganized work that has no consistent theme properly be called a “history”? It helps to remember, though, that the ancient Greek word ἱστορία (historia) originally meant “inquiry” or “knowledge learned by inquiry,” and only later came to be used in the sense that we are familiar with today–“a narrative or account of inquiries into events that happened in the past.”

A work with a similar title, written well after Gellius’s time, is the Varia Historia. Its author, Claudius Aelian, was a Roman sophist from the town of Praeneste, but like many literate and cultured Romans of his era, he enjoyed dabbling in Greek prose composition. (Even the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius famously wrote his philosophical Meditations in Greek.) In its original language, Aelian’s prose miscellany is entitled Ποικίλη Ἱστορία (Poikile Historia). The first word in this phrase, poikile, literally means “many-colored” or “variegated.” (In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, this same word is used in Genesis 37:3 to describe Joseph’s coat, and thus the King James Bible, influenced by the Septuagint, refers to Joseph’s coat “of many colours.”) So Aelian uses the phrase Poikile Historia to mean a “many-colored history,” a metaphor for a series of inquiries on various topics. This work was translated into Latin during the Renaissance, and as a result, it became customary among scholars to refer to the work by a Latin translation of the title, Varia Historia.

The seventeenth-century scholar and poet Thomas Stanley translated the Poikile Historia into English in 1665, under the title Various History, and James Eason has transcribed an online version of Stanley’s translation. By perusing some of the chapter headings, we can get an idea of the range of topics that Aelian writes about: “How the Cretan Goats cure themselves when shot”; “Of some persons extraordinarily foolish”; “Of some who have been harmed by Laws, which they themselves made”; “Of Clinias and of Achilles, who used to repress anger by Musick”; “That they are ridiculous who think highly of themselves because of their Parents.” (Stanley’s English sounds somewhat old-fashioned to us in the twenty-first century, but this outcome is actually rather appropriate for reading Aelian, who wrote Greek in a deliberately archaic style.) Sometimes Aelian leaps from topic to topic with no sense of connection, but at other times he uses adjacent sections of his work to bring together and discuss different examples of the same phenomenon. For example, the third book of the Poikile Historia includes four sections in a row having to do with famous ancient persons who stoically endured the tragic deaths of their children, and three sections in a row on drunkenness among various ancient peoples. By forsaking systematic organization, prose miscellanies can sometimes hit upon connections between topics that might not always be possible or apparent in a highly organized treatise.

Now of course, what we modern folk do with our blogs is not exactly the same; blogging is based on a very different technology, and it allows for a whole new level of interaction with readers than was possible for these ancient authors. But when I glance at chapters from the Noctes Atticae, or the Varia Historia, their methods sometimes seem similar to those employed by many blogs: take a quote, or an anecdote, or a passage from some source, and expand on it with your own thoughts, or sometimes just present the quote or anecdote or passage by itself without further comment, if that is enough to interest readers. And I particularly admire these works for embracing variety instead of treating their inherent lack of focus as some kind of defect. Sometimes the connections between topics, or the movement from one to another, is more interesting than following a single theme all the way to its logical conclusion, and this can be true for blogs as well as for ancient texts. And so my blog, A Various History, continues a long tradition of intentionally miscellaneous writing. Certainly there are many blogs out there that do more or less the same thing that I plan to do, and that don’t require classical precedents, but I like the idea of adapting an ancient form of literature to a modern, innovative mode of communication. I guess I’m just pretentious that way!