A new English translation of Diodorus' history of the Greek world during the Periclean era, and an iconoclastic reappraisal of this undervalued historian by one of the world's leading Classicists.
Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus (ca. 100-30 BCE) is our only surviving source for a continuous narrative of Greek history from Xerxes' invasion to the Wars of the Successors following the death of Alexander the Great. Yet this important historian has been consistently denigrated as a mere copyist who slavishly reproduced the works of earlier historians without understanding what he was writing. By contrast, in this iconoclastic work Peter Green builds a convincing case for Diodorus' merits as a historian. Through a fresh English translation of a key portion of his multi-volume history (the so-called Bibliotheke, or "Library") and a commentary and notes that refute earlier assessments of Diodorus, Green offers a fairer, better balanced estimate of this much-maligned historian.
The portion of Diodorus' history translated here covers the period 480-431 BCE, from the Persian invasion of Greece to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. This half-century, known as the Pentekontaetia, was the Golden Age of Periclean Athens, a time of unprecedented achievement in drama, architecture, philosophy, historiography, and the visual arts. Green's accompanying notes and commentary revisit longstanding debates about historical inconsistencies in Diodorus' work and offer thought-provoking new interpretations and conclusions. In his masterful introductory essay, Green demolishes the traditional view of Diodorus and argues for a thorough critical reappraisal of this synthesizing historian, who attempted nothing less than a "universal history" that begins with the gods of mythology and continues down to the eve of Julius Caesar's Gallic campaigns.
A Choice Outstanding Academic BookOutstanding Academic TitlesChoice magazine
- Diodorus Siculus: Life and Background
- The Bibliotheke I: Composition, Antecedents, Influences
- The Bibliotheke II: Aims, Achievements, Criticism
- The Persian Wars and the Pentekontaetia
- Translation and Commentary, Diodorus Siculus Bibliotheke Book 11: 480-451 B.C.E.
- Translation and Commentary, Diodorus Siculus Bibliotheke Book 12.1.1-12.37.1: 450-431 B.C.E.
- Appendix A: The Terminal Date of the Bibliotheke
- Appendix B: Athenian Losses in the Egyptian Campaign
- Maps 1-8
- Chronological Table
My acquaintance with Diodorus goes back half a century, and involves a most improbable prophecy. While writing my first published book—an excruciatingly naïve account of my recent travels in Italy and Sicily—I found myself getting interested in that early Sicilian nationalist Ducetius. To find out more about him, I turned to Diodorus, as anyone must who studies the ancient history of Sicily. When my book appeared it was, to my considerable surprise, picked out by Harold Nicolson as the subject of a lead review in the London Observer. This, I very soon realized, was in order to let Nicolson play with it, as cat with mouse, and exercise his cultured irony at my expense. Still, column-inches, good or bad, measure publicity—something my publisher was quick to point out—so I couldn't really complain. The acme of damning with faint praise was reached by Nicolson in his final sentence, where, magnanimously, he assured his readers that one day this neophyte author would "write a commentary on Diodorus Siculus that would delight us all." Since I happened to remember—and so, I'm sure, did Nicolson—that Macaulay had described Diodorus as a "stupid, credulous, prosing old ass," I wasn't convinced that this was an unalloyed compliment. But it certainly stuck in my mind. In the fullness of time—and fifty years on can surely be so described—it looks as though Nicolson's improbable forecast may, at long last, be coming true. The commentary, at least, is materializing. How many people it delights will, of course, be quite another matter.
For a great deal of my career as a professional classicist, I—like so many of my colleagues—looked on Diodorus as a mere pis aller fallback, only as good as his source of the moment. While there is undoubtedly a certain amount of truth in this popular thumbnail evaluation, it is very far from the whole picture, as I discovered when I began to investigate him more closely, as a necessary preliminary to my projected commentary on Herodotos. What struck me first, and most powerfully, was the violent, contemptuous, and often seemingly near-hysterical academic chorus of dismissal, most pronounced among German, or Germanic-inspired, exponents of Quellenforschung. It struck me then, and still does, that any author capable of arousing such a degree of emotional vituperation in scholars has to be something more than a mere slavish copyist or mindless Dummkopf. So, indeed, it turned out. Diodorus also happens to be the only surviving continuous narrative source for Greek history between the Greco-Persian Wars and Alexander's Successors (Diadochoi): as a result, the academic world could, and did, claim to be faulting him, in effect, for not having adopted the historiographical principles of Thucydides, and for choosing instead to follow the (necessarily inferior) "vulgate tradition."
Again, there is some truth in this. Again, it is not the whole truth. As my research advanced, I began to realize that much of the hysteria was due to the need to preserve traditional rules and principles that enable textual critics or historians to make easy rule-of-thumb generic judgments. Too often for comfort, Diodorus' narrative disagrees with those of Herodotos or Thucydides: if these are by definition deemed superior, the awkward business of solving historical problems can be virtually shelved. A "mindless scribbler" (who must also, apparently, be a congenital liar) can be disregarded whenever his evidence conflicts with that of a blue-riband early source. This assumption that Diodorus' variants are always wrong must, of course—as I soon saw, and as the hostile tradition was well aware—be balanced against those many occasions on which the Dummkopf says what historians want to hear. The solution, in terms of Quellenforschung, turned out to be simple: when Diodorus gets anything right, the credit goes to his (conveniently nonsurviving) source, copied more or less verbatim, and, of course, without comprehension. As a recipe for saving historians trouble, this ranks with the cognate notion—also very popular in nineteenth-century Germany—of the uncontaminated manuscript tradition.
Unfortunately (as what follows should make amply clear), Diodorus, properly examined, turns out to be a rational, methodical, if somewhat unimaginative, minor historian, who planned on a large scale, and was quite capable of seeing major faults and inconsistencies provided he lived to correct them. This means that all the historical problems in his text that have for long been side-stepped on the grounds that his evidence is that of a virtual mental defective, and thus can always be disregarded when inconvenient, are back on the table for discussion. I hope I have always been alert to this problem. I first became really aware of it during the first few months of 1999. At the time, I was living in Athens, in a rather dingy Kolonaki apartment. Contrary to popular beliefs concerning the Athens climate, it rained almost every day. Kosovo was in full spate, and almost every Athenian I talked to, including many highly cultivated and cosmopolitan old friends, was rabidly, and often scarily, pro-Serb. (I sometimes got the distinct impression that they felt a little ethnic cleansing might be no bad thing.)
It was against this background that I began to translate Diodorus on the Persian Wars and the Pentekontaetia (Books 11-12.37), and then, as the rains eased off and a bedraggled spring emerged, on the reigns of Philip II and Alexander (Books 16-17). All the time I was acutely conscious, as was inevitable, of those characteristics in the "vulgate tradition" that earned the contempt of civilized scholars: the emphasis on ad hominem (or, even more often, ad feminam) motivation, the taste for scandal in high places, the heated rhetoric, the cynical belief that everyone had his price, that there was no crime or folly to which the ambitious would not stoop, the vigorous moral exhortations. After my day's work I would drop in to a local bar for a drink, where I found Athens television telling, mutatis mutandis, exactly the same kind of story with which I had been confronted in my translation.
This fortuitous, but highly instructive, coincidence made me face the fact that much of the rejection of the "vulgate tradition" stemmed directly from the robustly meliorist beliefs of nineteenth-century scholars, convinced that no civilized person, and a fortiori no civilized fifth-century Greek, "could possibly behave like that." Power indeed corrupts—Acton's old saw remains true in ways, and to a degree, that even he may well have never foreseen—and this is something that the historiography of the ancient world must never forget. Corruption can also, as several modern examples vividly demonstrate, have its luridly vulgar side. Those alleged ancient "myths" look uncomfortably plausible today. My judgments on events, during the Pentekontaetia in particular, have always, I hope, borne this in mind.
There are other built-in problems. The study of Greek history in the last couple of centuries has produced more than its share of ultra-conservative authoritarian dogmatists. For such figures Thucydides has always been a quasi-divine inspiration, "whose piercing eye," as Jenny Roberts dryly notes (Athens on Trial [Princeton, 1994], p. 296), "is still accorded a reverence long since withdrawn from his fellows." How could it be otherwise? Not a word about women, except the Periklean aside that they should shut up and stay home; a narrative exclusively devoted to warfare and politics; and ballooning abstract generalizations everywhere. Thucydides is the intellectual chauvinist's ideal: no wonder the few radical attacks on him have come mostly from women historians such as Mabel Lang, Jacqueline de Romilly, or Virginia Hunter. But there's also a flip side to this: hero-worship can get oppressive without a few dogs to kick around.
Hence, for ancient historians, the familiar displays of venomous contempt for lesser luminaries such as Xenophon, Polybius, Quintus Curtius Rufus—or, as we have seen, Diodorus Siculus. Xenophon, the country squire who makes Socrates sound like an ordinary mortal, and whose pro-Spartan line embarrasses Athenocentrics, is damned by historians for not being Thucydides, and by philosophers because he wasn't Plato. Polybius' Greek style is written off as Kanzleisprache, bureaucratese. Curtius has been dismissed as an amateur, a "hasty and irresponsible rhetorician" (C. Edson) and, by Ronald Syme, as "little better than a superior journalist" (Baynham 1998, 5 with refs.). Careful investigation reveals that few of these charges are in fact substantially true. This raises the question of how far successive scholars have actually read the authors they castigate, and how far they have simply taken over, unexamined, the charges leveled by their predecessors. These, of course, are precisely the charges they level at Diodorus. Fabula de te narratur.
Not all historians, particularly in recent years, have treated Diodorus in this way, though his defenders have always formed a minority. This seems an appropriate point at which to acknowledge, with grateful thanks, the very substantial help I have had from earlier scholars in the process of readjustment and rehabilitation, above all from the ground-breaking work of Catherine Rubincam and Kenneth Sacks. Without their invaluable researches and advice, this work could hardly have been begun. To Professor Rubincam and to John Marincola I am also indebted for a minutely detailed critical scrutiny of my manuscript. Professor Marincola's own work constantly sharpened my critical judgment in the slippery—and now rapidly changing—field of Greek historiography, and his generous evaluation of my original manuscript gave me welcome encouragement when I most needed it.
Almost literally at the eleventh hour, my colleague Craig Gibson brought to my attention Frances Pownall's remarkable new study Lessons from the Past: The Moral Use of History in Fourth-Century Prose (2004), which confirmed, in detail, the anti-democratic political agenda latent in moralizing tropes by historians such as Ephoros and Theopompos. Others, both living and dead, to whom—not always through agreement—I am particularly indebted are: D. Ambaglio, E. Badian, A. B. Bosworth, K. Brodersen, P. Burde, J. M. Camacho Rojo, F. Cássola, F. Chamoux, K. Clarke, M. Corsaro, R. Drews, B. Eck, B. Farrington, E. Galvagno, J. Haillet, E. Lévy, R. Neubert, J. Palm, M. Pavan, G. Perl, A. Pinzone, A. M. Prestianni Giallombardo, W. Spoerri, C. Vial, and G. Zecchini. The extent of that debt will be apparent throughout my commentary.
In addition, throughout the difficult gestation of this manuscript, I have always been able to rely on the robust common sense and shrewd criticism of my wife Carin, whose expertise in a quite different field of classics enabled her to bring to my findings the sharp insights of what might be described as a cognate outsider. Once again, too, and on this occasion more than usually, I am immensely grateful for the skill, speed, and resourcefulness shown by the staff of the Interlibrary Loan Department in the University of Iowa: Diodorus' trail is marked by a striking number of elusive, mostly early, foreign pamphlets and monographs, all of which—like so many rabbits from the conjuror's proverbial top-hat—they triumphantly produced for me.
My translation is based primarily upon Haillet's (2001) recension for Book 11, and on Vogel's 1890 Teubner text (despite Casevitz's caveats, 1972, xv) for Book 12. I have, however, made regular and eclectic use of Vogel's text and apparatus criticus throughout (as well as the text printed by Oldfather , which is, with few but occasionally interesting exceptions, Vogel's); I have also consulted that of Casevitz for Book 12. There are two main families of MSS for Books 11-12: The first is headed by P (Patmiacus 50, tenth-eleventh century), in general the most reliable text, and its apograph S (Scorialis, fifteenth century); the second depends on M (Marcianus gr. 375, tenth century), from which there derives F (Laurentianus 70.12, fifteenth century). On the comparatively few occasions (cf. Haillet 2001, xxxvi) that textual problems occur, or that my readings diverge from those of Haillet and Vogel, the reader will find a note and discussion.
Finally, an apologetic word about the inconsistencies in my spelling of Greek proper names, where in recent years I have been moving steadily away from the old Latinized convention, which strikes me more and more as both inappropriate and not-so-subtly insulting. To be sure, we no longer replace Greek gods by their supposed Roman equivalents in translation (as Henry Cary was still doing as late as 1847 in his version of Herodotos: Jove for Zeus, Minerva for Athena, etc.); but otherwise our spelling still imposes a false Roman norm: terminations in -um rather than -on, Latin rather than Greek diphthongs (ae for ai, oe for oi), k replaced by c, and so on. I have done what I can to correct this; but there still remains for me, as for others, an irreducible quota of names to which, in their Latinized forms, we have become so acclimatized that to change them becomes virtually impossible. Thus I write Aeschylus, not Aischylos, Thucydides, not Thoukydides, Corinth, not Korinthos. I have also retained a higher percentage of Romanized forms when dealing with Romanized Sicily than elsewhere. Though there may be some basis for this, I do not flatter myself it is entirely logical. Here I must take refuge (while eschewing the grandiose assertion that follows it) in Walt Whitman's cheerful apophthegm: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself."