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American Journal of Philology 122.1 (2001) 87-106
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Homo Fandi Dulcissimus: The Role of Favorinus in the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius
Stephen M. Beall
ONE OF THE INDIRECT BENEFITS of reading the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius is that he offers us a glimpse of the "smart set" of Antonine Rome. Many chapters are cast as anecdotes featuring Gellius' mentors and acquaintances, among whom he counted such illustrious figures as Herodes Atticus, Marcus Fronto, and the grammarian known as Domitius "the Insane." But the "star" of the work is clearly Favorinus of Arles, a flamboyant orator who described his life in three paradoxes: he was a native of Gaul who spoke Greek, a eunuch who was accused of adultery, 1 and a citizen who quarreled with an emperor and lived (Philostratus, VS 489). To Gellius, he was "Favorinus noster," and the twenty-seven anecdotes involving him indicate that the two were on fairly intimate terms. 2
We are left to wonder, however, how someone as eccentric as Favorinus should have become the special friend and mentor of a "fairly conservative, practically minded Roman" such as Gellius. 3 Perhaps, following Polemo, we can attribute the attraction to Favorinus' skill in the black arts. 4 It is more likely, however, that he possessed qualities that could be adapted to Gellius' intellectual program but which have not been fully elucidated by scholarship. 5 These can best be expounded, I believe, as three additional paradoxes: Favorinus was a polymath who passed for a philosopher, a philhellene who studied Roman culture, and [End Page 87] a Greek "Asianist" with ties to Latin archaism. All three paradoxes, as we shall see, relate to thematic issues in the Attic Nights and may help us to account for the paradoxical nature of the work as a whole.
1. Favorinus: The Miscellaneous Philosopher
Favorinus' professional status was open to question even in antiquity. Philostratus describes him as a "philosopher" who "was called a sophist" by dint of his charm as a speaker (VS 489). The Suda puts the case less charitably, saying that "he was full of philosophy, but more devoted to rhetoric" (Phi 4). Lucian's Demonax found him too effeminate in style and appearance to wear the mantle (Demonax 12-13). When Favorinus claimed a philosopher's exemption from public service, the emperor Hadrian was prepared to rule against him (Philostratus, VS 490). Favorinus averted this disaster by accepting the priesthood in question, claiming that he had been advised to do so in a dream.
The question of Favorinus' calling is further complicated by the mixed character of his published work, little of which survives. 6 He wrote treatises on philosophical skepticism, including the celebrated Pyrrhonian Tropes (Phil. VS 491; cf. Gellius, 11.5.5). 7 He did not, however, restrict himself to writing of a technical kind. He also produced two miscellanies, the Memorabilia and Omnigena Historia, which seem to have combined philosophical anecdotes with other sorts of trivia, including etymologies and wonder tales. 8 His oratorical remains likewise indicate a versatile and playful intellect. Two speeches preserved in the corpus of Dio Chrysostom (37, 64), and a third on a recently discovered papyrus, are notable for their witty use of stock themes and exempla. He declaimed on "absurd" themes, such as the virtues of Thersites and the advantages of the quartan fever (Gellius, NA 17.12). Indeed, he was so adept at sophistic role-playing that Gellius could not tell when he was speaking in earnest (14.1.2). Philostratus reports that he drew crowds with a highly musical style of speaking, at times almost like singing, which won applause even from people who could not understand Greek (VS 491).
In the anecdotes of the Attic Nights, we find a similarly ambiguous [End Page 88] characterization. Although Gellius regularly honors his mentor with the epithet philosophus, 9 he praises him chiefly for the "sweetness of his diction," which, he says, held him captive for entire days (16.3.1; cf. 14.1.32). Elsewhere he lauds him...