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Aulus Gellius 9.4

Translation copyright 2000 Neil W. Bernstein; all rights reserved.

Concerning miraculous occurrences among the barbarian peoples. About dire and dangerous enchantments; also including stories of women who were suddenly changed into men.

  1. When I returned from Greece to Italy, I stopped at Brundisium and disembarked from the ship to stroll around that famous port city. Quintus Ennius called this port "lucky" (praepes), using a slightly archaic but thoroughly appropriate word. (1) Out in the open I saw bundles of books for sale.
  2. I eagerly proceeded at once to the books.
  3. These were all Greek books, full of miraculous stories and unheard-of and unbelievable things, by ancient writers of considerable authority, including Aristeas of Proconnesus, Isigonus of Nicaea, Ctesias, Onesicritus, Polystephanus, and Hegesias.
  4. The books themselves looked dirty from long disuse and had a disgusting physical condition and appearance.
  5. I approached nevertheless and discussed the price. Induced by their wonderful and unexpected cheapness, I bought many books for a small amount of money and hastily read through them all over the course of the following two nights. I plucked out certain things from my reading and I noted down miracles that Roman writers had mostly left aside. I spread them through these commentaries, so that those who will read them will not find themselves completely unprepared and ignorant when they hear stories about things of this nature. (2)
  6. There were writings in these books of the following type:
  7. People in the most remote region of Scythia, leading their lives in the northernmost zone of the world, consume the bodies of human beings. They survive on this form of nourishment and are called "man-eaters".

    Another: there are people called Arimaspi living under the region of the sky who have one eye in the middle of their foreheads. The poets say that the Cyclopes had a similar appearance. (3)

    Another: in the same zone there are other people who run extremely fast; their feet turn backwards instead of pointing forwards like other people's. (4)

    Furthermore, it is handed down and recorded that in a certain far-off land called "Albania", people are born whose hair turns gray in childhood and who see more with their eyes at night than at other times. (5)

    Another: it is believed as certain that the Sauromatae, who live far beyond the river Borysthenes, always eat food every other day but fast on the intervening day. (6)

  8. Later, I also read in the seventh book of Pliny the Elder's Natural History (7) the same account that I ran across in these books: that there are certain families in Africa that can cast enchantments with their voice and words.
  9. If by chance they were to offer immoderate praise for pretty trees, prosperous crops, delightful children, outstanding horses, herds flourishing as the result of care and feeding—all of these creatures would suddenly die as the result of no other attributable cause. It is also written in these same books that they can cause a deadly enchantment with their eyes. And it is said that people in Illyria can kill those whom they have gazed at angrily for a long time. People with such a deadly gaze, men and women alike, have double pupils in each of their eyes. (8)
  10. Also in the mountains of India there are men who have the barking heads of dogs; they live by hunting birds and wild beasts. And there are also other miraclous things in the furthest lands of the east, such as the people called "Monocoli", who run with the most lively swiftness by jumping on a single leg. There are also certain Monocoli whose eyes are in their shoulders, as they have no necks. (9)
  11. But the following goes beyond any possible limit of amazement: the same writers say that there are people in furthest India with shaggy bodies, covered in feathers just like birds. They eat no food but live on floral odors breathed in through their nostrils. They also say that the Pygmies live not far from these people, and that the tallest of this kind is not taller than two and a quarter feet. (10)
  12. I read these accounts and many others of the same kind.
  13. But impatience seized me when I was writing them up. This was inappropriate writing that was of no help in smartening and enhancing one's way of life.
  14. Nevertheless I wished here to note down this further miracle that Pliny the Elder, a man invested with great authority during his lifetime thanks to his talent and rank, wrote in the seventh book of his Natural History. He wrote that he neither had heard nor read of this, but knew it and saw it himself.
  15. The words that I have placed below are those of Pliny himself, taken from the same book, and they certainly cause us not to reject or laugh at the well-known tale of the ancient poets about Caenis and Caeneus. (11)
  16. Pliny writes: "It is not fantastic that women can change into men. I found in the annals that when Quintus Licinius Crassus and Gaius Cassius Longinus were consuls, a girl in Casinum changed into a boy and was sent away to a desert island at the insistence of her parents and the haruspices. (12) Licinius Mucianus declared that he saw a man named Arescons at Argos, whose name had been Arescusa and who had also been married. Soon a beard and manhood came and he took a wife. Mucianus saw a boy at Smyrna who had had the same fate. In Africa, I myself saw Lucius Cossitius, a citizen of Thysdrus, who had been changed into a man on his wedding day. He was still living when I wrote this." (13)
  17. 16. In the same book Pliny writes the following words: "There are people born with both sexes whom we call 'hermaphrodites'. Once we called them 'androgynes' and treated them as monstrous creatures; but now we treat them as our toys." (14)


  1. Ennius, Annales 488V. Gellius quotes the entire line of Ennius and discusses the derivation and meanings of the word praepes ("lucky") at Gell. 7.6.6.
  2. Compare Gellius' statement of purpose in the preface to the Attic Nights: to "save men employed in other professions from a shamefully uneducated ignorance of customs and the usage of words" (Gell. praef. 12).
  3. Herodotus claims that their name means "one-eyed" (Herodotus, Histories 4.27); cf. [Aeschylus], Prometheus Bound 805, Strabo 1.2.10.
  4. Cf. Pliny, Natural History 7.11, Augustine City of God 16.8.
  5. Transcaucasian Albania includes parts of modern Daghestan and northern Azerbaijan.
  6. The Borysthenes is the modern river Dneiper.
  7. AD 23/4-79; author of the Natural History, a 37-book encyclopedia; cf. Mary Beagon, Roman nature: the thought of Pliny the Elder (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).
  8. Cf. Pliny, Natural History 7.16. On the double pupil, cf. W.B. McDaniel, "The pupula duplex and other tokens of the evil eye in the light of ophthalmology," Classical Philology 9 (1918), pp. 335-346.
  9. "The one-legged people"; cf. Pliny, Natural History 7.23.
  10. Cf. Pliny, Natural History 7.25-26.
  11. After Poseidon raped Caenis, he offered to grant her wishes; she asked to be transformed into a man and was henceforth known as Caeneus. Cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses 12.189-209.
  12. In 171 BC.
  13. Cf. Pliny, Natural History 7.36.
  14. Cf. Pliny, Natural History 7.34.

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