Claudius Aelianus (ca. 175 – ca. 235), often seen as just Aelian, born at Praeneste, was a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric who flourished under Septimius Severus and probably outlived Elagabalus, who died in 222. He spoke Greek so perfectly that he was called "honey-tongued" (meliglossos); Roman-born, he preferred Greek authors, and wrote in a slightly archaizing Greek himself.
His two chief works are valuable for the numerous quotations from the works of earlier authors, which are otherwise lost, and for the surprising lore, which offers unexpected glimpses into the Greco-Roman world-view.
De Natura Animalium (Περὶ Ζῴων Ἰδιότητος)
On the Nature of Animals, ("On the Characteristics of Animals" is an alternative title; usually cited, though, by its Latin title), is a curious collection, in 17 books, of brief stories of natural history, sometimes selected with an eye to conveying allegorical moral lessons, sometimes because they are just so astonishing:
The Loeb Classical Library introduction characterizes the book as
Aelian's anecdotes on animals rarely depend on direct observation: they are almost entirely taken from written sources, often Pliny the Elder, but also other authors and works now lost, to whom he is thus a valuable witness. He is more attentive to marine life than might be expected, though, and this seems to reflect first-hand personal interest; he often quotes "fishermen". At times he strikes the modern reader as thoroughly credulous, but at others he specifically states that he is merely reporting what is told by others, and even that he does not believe them. Aelian's work is one of the sources of medieval natural history and of the bestiaries of the Middle Ages; in some ways an allegory of the moral world, an Emblem Book.
The text as it has come down to us is badly mangled and garbled and replete with later interpolations. Conrad Gessner (or Gesner), the Swiss scientist and natural historian of the Renaissance, made a Latin translation of Aelian's work, to give it a wider European audience. An English translation by A. F. Scholfield has been published in the Loeb Classical Library, 3 vols. (19[ ]-59).
Varia Historia (Ποικίλη Ἱστορία)
Various History — for the most part preserved only in an abridged form — is Aelian's other well-known work, a miscellany of anecdotes and biographical sketches, lists, pithy maxims, and descriptions of natural wonders and strange local customs, in 14 books, with many surprises for the cultural historian and the mythographer, anecdotes about the famous Greek philosophers, poets, historians, and playwrights and myths instructively retold. The emphasis is on various moralizing tales about heroes and rulers, athletes and wise men; reports about food and drink, different styles in dress or lovers, local habits in giving gifts or entertainments, or in religious beliefs and death customs; and comments on Greek painting. Aelian gives an account of fly fishing, using lures of red wool and feathers, of lacquerwork, serpent worship — Essentially the Various History is a Classical "magazine" in the original senses of that word. He is not perfectly trustworthy in details, and his agenda is always to inculcate culturally "correct" Stoic opinions, perhaps so that his readers will not feel guilty, but Jane Ellen Harrison found survivals of archaic rites mentioned by Aelian very illuminating in her Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903, 1922).
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