Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.06.05


Emilio Gabba, Dionysius and the History of Archaic Rome. Sather Classical Lectures Volume 56. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Pp. 271. $35.00.


Reviewed by Daniel P. Harmon, University of Washington.

Since the time of Eduard Schwartz, and even before him, the assessment of Dionysius of Halicarnassus as an historian has been largely negative. Schwartz (RE V [1905], cols. 934-961) saw Dionysius' History of Archaic Rome as a deplorable instance of a rhetorical historiography which glorified an outmoded classicism. In Schwartz' view, as Gabba explains (p. 9), Dionysius failed completely to come to terms with "the dramatic problem of a Greek world faced with Roman domination." Schwartz' assessment has had a long and on the whole an unfortunate impact upon most subsequent scholarship. Indeed, it is only recently that Dionysius has come to be appreciated and in some measure seen in a more favorable light. Gabba's purpose in this book, which is a reworking and amplification of his 1980 Sather Classical Lectures, is not to defend Dionysius of Halicarnassus nor to rescue him from the negative criticisms of Eduard Schwartz so much as to understand the basic nature of The History of Archaic Rome. We have been expecting the publication of the 1980 Sather Lectures for quite some time, and few will be disappointed with Gabba's long awaited book.

For all its relative brevity (271 pages), this is not always an easy book to read. In fact, there is a degree of repetitiousness which probably reflects the constantly restated tenet of Dionysius' work, that the Roman people were originally Greek. This conviction is obviously mistaken but it is not so simple an issue to deal with as it might at first seem. As a number of scholars have recognized, Dionysius' identification of the Romans as Greek in origin springs from a complex reality of enormous importance in the Augustan age. Roman culture and society was thoroughly Hellenized and in high measure even shaped during the most crucial periods of its development by Greek experience and ideals. It was a fundamental thrust of Augustan ideology to stress, in spite of the pervasively Greek dimensions of Roman society, the Italic ethnography of the peninsula. Dionysius' vision of Roman origins was in large measure an attempt to resolve the tension between the Greek and Roman elements upon which the nature and the very identity of Roman society was based. The vision of Dionysius was in many ways idiosyncratic. But Gabba shows, in a very closely argued discussion, that it had deep roots in Roman historical traditions extending back at least to the fourth century. In another chapter, which again treats large issues in a highly condensed fashion, Gabba sets the work of Dionysius within the context of the Classical revival of the Augustan age. The discussion here includes a consideration of Dionysius' De antiquis oratoribus, the historical text known as the Ineditum Vaticanum, the treatise by an unknown author On the Sublime, as well as the contrasting views of Strabo and Plutarch, among others. In a separate chapter devoted to historical tenets and methods, Gabba compares and contrasts Dionysius with Herodotus and Polybius but it is, as we should expect, especially Dionysius' criticism of Thucydides (in De Thucydide) and the influence of Theopompus (reflected in the Letter to Pompey) which receive the most attention. The end of the chapter takes up Dionysius' familiarity with, and his mixed assessment of, Roman historiography.

The tendency to treat a rather large number of subjects within a very brief compass is also evident in Gabba's discussion of "History and Antiquarianism," a chapter which includes consideration of Roman antiquarianism in general, its expression in Livy and Varro, its relevance to the complex issue of ethnogenesis and of Roman identification with such peoples as the Arcadians, Pelasgians, Trojans, Etruscans, etc., and its relationship to the very nature of Roman myth. This discussion, like most others i n the book, is based upon Gabba's impressive familiarity with all the wide-ranging dimensions of the subject at hand, in this case including not only historical and literary analysis but also Roman archaeology and comparative Indo-European mythology. A similar richness of interpretation marks the last chapter of the book, in which Gabba in a sense summarizes the whole purpose of the History in a discussion of its political meaning for the era in which it was written. Set in the context of the sweep of the political thought of his times, Dionysius' vision of Rome contrasts with the heavily anti-Roman polemic which he was probably attempting to counter in his interpretation of the role of Greek influence upon Rome. Dionysius, Gabba concludes (p. 216), sought to legitimize Rome's assumed direction of a unifying process "which posited the great ethical principles of classical Greece, mediated by the Roman political experience, as the basis for civic cohabitation in the Mediterranean world."

Because Gabba touches upon so many topics within such a limited compass, the book will at times be difficult and perhaps frustrating for readers who are less familiar with the many facets of the subject. Dionysius is widely used as a source for archaeological and historical information. Some discussion of his reliability as a source occurs in various places in the book. A more thorough treatment of this subject would have been welcome. But on the whole, Gabba's Dionysius and the History of Archaic Rome is a masterly book, with a rich bibliography and generous reference to the work of other scholars. The book fills a genuine need, and it will in all probability long remain the basic resource for our understanding of this fascinating Greek historian of ancient Rome.