In the eyes of most classicists today the chief merit of Aulus Gellius, a Latin author of the Second Century AD, lies in the many fragments of lost authors he preserves, especially older Latin poets. Now I find Gellius an immensely charming and interesting writer myself, and I feel that one need not find historical excuses to read him and enjoy him. Yet apparently he was not oblivious of his role as a preserver of antiquities, for he writes in Noctes Atticae I.24.1:
Trium poetarum inlustrium epigrammata, Cn. Naevii, Plauti, M. Pacuvii, quae ipsi fecerunt et incidenda sepulcro suo reliquerunt, nobilitatis eorum gratia et venustatis scribenda in his commentariis esse duxi.
“I have judged that the epigrams of three famous poets, Cnaeus Naevius, Plautus, and Marcus Pacuvius, which they wrote and left to be engraved on their tombs, ought to be written down in my commentaries by reason of the excellence and antiquity of their authors.”
Now it may be that “gratia venustatis” merely reminds us that Gellius prefers old things to new ones, and that he would hardly record the epitaphs of his contemporaries; yet he must surely be thinking also of readers like himself, who, although they matched Gellius in their wide-ranging interest, yet might not be willing to take the same effort to track down these older writers. And if we prefer the more archaic meaning (never out of the question with Gellius) of “nobilitas,” that of famousness rather than excellence, then it becomes even more likely that our author had some thought of historical preservation when he wrote this.
The first epitaph is that of Cnaeus Naevius, an author of comedy, tragedy, and even epic in the later third and early second centuries BC; Gellius says that it is full of Campanian arrogance.
inmortales mortales si foret fas flere,
flerent divae Camenae Naevium poetam.
itaque postquam est Orcho traditus thesauro,
obliti sunt Romae loquier lingua
If it be right for Gods to weep for Men,
Let th’holy Muses weep for Naevius then,
For after Orcus gained him for her treasure
The men at
Gellius doubts whether the second one, attributed to the famous comic playwright Plautus, may have in fact been an invention of Marcus Varro, a distinguished Roman scholar of the first century BC, for his De Poetis “On Poets.”
postquam est mortem aptus Plautus, Comoedia luget,
scaena est deserta, dein Risus, Ludus Iocusque
et Numeri innumeri simul omnes conlacrimarunt.
Comedy mourned when that her Plautus died:
The stage was empty, Smile and Joke both cried,
And countless others still lie weeping by her side.
The last epitaph is that of Marcus Pacuvius, a dramatist and painter of the second century BC, whose tragedies were much admired by Cicero and his contemporaries. Gellius describes this epitaph as “most modest, most clean, and worthy of his most elegant gravity.”
Adulescens, tam etsi properas, hoc te saxulum
Rogat ut te aspicias, deinde quod scriptum est, legas.
Hic sunt poetae Pacuvii Marci sita
Ossa. Hoc volebam, nescius ne esses. Vale.
Although you rush, young man, this stone will plead
“Look to yourself, and what is written, read.”
Here Pacuvius’ poet’s bones do dwell.
This only would I have you know. Farewell.
I confess that I had quite a bit of trouble translating the last epigram, and I fear I have left it little of its “elegantissima gravitas.” I have drawn out the meaning in the last line especially, which is far more subtle in the Latin, literally, “I wanted this, that you would not be ignorant.”
In Naevius’ epitaph, the last line literally means “Those at