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Self-Education and Late-Learners in The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius

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posted on 2023-03-14, 23:25 authored by Sheppard, Joe

This thesis was motivated by expressions of self-education during the early Roman Empire, an unusual topic that has never before been studied in detail. The elite cultural perspective nearly always ensured that Latin authors presented the topos of self-education as a case of social embarrassment or status dissonance that needed to be resolved, with these so-called autodidacts characterised as intellectual arrivistes. But the material remains written by self-educated men and women are expressed in more personal terms, complicating any simple definition and hinting at another side. The first half of this thesis builds a theory of self-education by outlining the social structures that contributed to the phenomenon and by investigating the means and the motivation likely for the successful and practical-minded autodidact. This framework is influenced by Pierre Bourdieu, whose work on culture, class, and education integrated similar concerns within a theory of habitus. As with other alternatives to the conventional upbringing of the educated classes, attempts at self-education were inevitable but ultimately futile. An autodidact by definition missed out on the manners, gestures, and morals that came with the formal education and daily inculcation supplied by the traditional Roman household. In most instances it is unlikely that education could ever have contributed to social mobility. The latter half of this thesis treats Gellius's Attic Nights as a case study of self-education on two levels. A self-consciously recherche miscellany, the Nights at once encourages respectable gentlemen to improve themselves with a short-cut to culture, yet also humiliates any socially marginal figures attempting to educate themselves. This process reproduces the social order by undermining the integrity of any rivals to the elite cultural model while at the same time lionising the author and members of his circle as intellectual 'vigilantes'.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Pomeroy, Arthur