Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.07


Alain M. Gowing, The Triumviral Narratives of Appian and Cassius Dio. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992. Pp. xiii + 374. ISBN 0-472-10294-X.


Reviewed by J.L. Hilton, University of Natal.

This book, a revision of a dissertation awarded by Bryn Mawr in 1988, undertakes a meticulous and thoroughly documented comparison between the two main extant historical accounts of the triumviral period by Appian and Cassius Dio (44 BC to 35 BC). Gowing frequently discusses authors and events outside of this framework (e.g. authors: Velleius, Cicero, the biographers, the Elder Seneca -- see the index locorum and p. 1 n. 1; events: Actium pp. 35, 121; the conspiracy of Catiline pp. 144-148). It is not, however, the author's intention to give a historical account of the triumviral period. Instead, he aims 'to compare Appian and Dio as interpreters rather than mere transmitters of history, as authors whose works, however derivative, nevertheless provide valid evidence for the evolution of important historiographical trends and perspectives between the second and early third centuries AD' (p. 2). In the light of the author's leading quotation (about the burning of all documents dealing with the early y ears of the triumvirate on the orders of Augustus, App. 5.132.548, cited p. 1), this is not only a sensible policy but also one that promises much.

The author's enterprise is of compelling interest: the wide divergence among our authorities on the events of these years; the construction of walls of propaganda around the chief players: the opportunists, the assassins, and their avengers; the development of narrative prose in the second and third centuries AD; in short, history as text. However, despite the programmatic statement by the author, quoted above, the book consists largely of the description rather than the explanation of the differences between the Antonine and the Severan historian (a distinction drawn by Gowing himself, p. 5). The posthumous reputations of Brutus and Cassius are mentioned briefly, but the later development of an ideological tradition concerning the senate, the republic and the personal cost paid by individuals for the establishment of the Augustan autocracy do not feature at all prominently. The author provides a detailed exposition of the triumviral period and sets the work of Appian and Dio in the context of their times but pays scant attention to the growth of the republican ideal in the intervening period. This was evidently (but regrettably) beyond the scope of this book.

Parts 1 and 4 of the work deal with the author's problems and findings. Part 1 contains discussions of what is known of the careers of Appian (Chapter 1: An Alexandrian in Rome), and Dio (Chapter 2: The Roman Senator from Bithynia); a preliminary look at the period (Chapter 3: Overview of the Triumviral Period); a glance at the question of the sources or source used by Appian and Dio (Chapter 4: The Source Question); and a summary of the events of the period (Chapter 5: The Historical Situation). Part 4 consists of Gowing's assessment of Appian (Chapter 15: Appian as an Antonine Historian) and Dio (Chapter 16: Dio as a Severan Historian), and a general conclusion (Chapter 17).

Appian is the real centre of interest in the book -- a fact for which the author makes no apology (p. 5). Gowing is rightly concerned to remedy the imbalance that exists between the study of Dio and that of Appian and to reassess the Alexandrian historian's reputation, which has undeservedly fallen rather low among modern scholars. Triumviral Narratives will serve to enhance the reputation of this historian. The emphasis on Appian is evident from the period under study, which corresponds exactly to books 3-5 of the Civil War (approximately equal to Dio 44.20-49.18). The virtues of Appian are emphasised: his interest in social issues (pp. 92-93), his knowledge of finance (pp. 17-18), and his objectivity (e.g. pp. 90-91, 121, 293). Gowing also provides his own translation of a fragment, which is taken to refer to Appian's flight from the Jews during the revolt of 115-117. On the basis of this fragment Gowing suggests that Appian had first-hand knowledge of civil revolts and popular anger at Roman oppression, that he disliked the rabble and that he believed in divine intervention in human affairs (pp. 13-16). While there is evidence of Appian's interest in civil disturbances and divine interventions during these years, his aristocratic dislike of the rabble and lack of sympathy for the Jews (which are not particularly noticeable in the fragment in question) are not mentioned again in the discussion of the persons and events of the triumviral period.

Gowing's interest in Appian is particularly evident in his discussion of the Alexandrian's portrayal of Sextus Pompey. The analysis of this complex and important figure as a victim of the triumviral period is subtle and convincing. Gowing underlines the superiority of the historian's treatment of 'the Republicans' last hope' over that of Dio: 'Appian approached Sextus critically, with an eye to sifting the false from the true, the propaganda from the reality' (p. 205). This assessment of Appian inevitably raises the familiar question of the sources used by Appian and challenges the view of Appian as a historian who accepted the pro-Republican views of his sources uncritically, even if they ran counter to his own anti-Republican outlook. Gowing concedes that both Appian and Dio may have made use of the judgements as well as the information of their sources but argues that these authors made these opinions their own (p. 50). However, this is a very different judgement from the one quoted above (p. 205). The proof for the assertion that Appian was critical of his sources is rather circumstantial and is largely based on the demonstration that Appian lived in a literary circle which included Fronto, Arrian, and Aristides and that, although this circle idealised Rome, its members did not do so uncritically. This concluding contextualisation of Appian in Chapter 15 is largely independent of the preceding comparative analyses in Parts 2 and 3. Gowing's depiction of the way Appian and Dio handle the personalities and events of the time, such as the proscriptions, provides further evidence for the differences of approach by the two authors, which suggest two distinct but rather shadowy personalities. It is a pity that these observations were not pulled together in the concluding chapters.

The author's judgement on Dio is less positive. Although credit is given to the Severan historian for his first-hand experience of the workings of the Senate and the Principate (pp. 21-25) and his extended political analyses (p. 293), nevertheless Dio's practice of inferring intentions from results (p. 62), his exclusive concentration on Octavian (p. 204), his political inhibitions (p. 293) and his rhetorical and uninformative description of battles (p. 221) are roundly condemned. Gowing also refers to Dio's racist comments on Macrinus and Caracalla (p. 29) as evidence of bias in the historian's work. This interesting general discussion could have been related to the later observation that Dio disliked Egyptians (p. 87 n. 71; p. 115) but, as in the case of Appian, observations made in the general discussion of the historian's approach to history are not always drawn from the comparative analyses undertaken in Parts 2 and 3.

Gowing's method in Parts 2 and 3 is to divide his subject into nine chapters, six on persons (Part 2: Octavian, Antony, Lepidus, Cicero, the tyrannicides, and Sextus Pompey) and three on events (Part 3: the battles, the speeches, and the proscriptions), on the grounds that these 'denote a historian's two principal concerns' (p. 4). This approach is mistaken, in my view, on two accounts. In the first place, while the influence of the Thucydidean principle that historical events depend on human nature was undeniably great among Greek and Roman historians (cf. Thuc. 1.22.4), such a division precludes analytic treatment of those occasions on which Dio and Appian offer a rational analysis of human behaviour in abstract terms. Consequently, the 'unusual sensitivity to and preoccupation with social issues and the class struggle', which Gowing attributes to Appian (p. 10), do not get the discussion they deserve. Instead, we are left with a few tantalising, but ultimately unsatisfying, comments (e.g. 'There were other factors -- the army, the dispossessed farmers, the proscribed -- which, in Appian's view, also merited attention.' pp. 92-93). This is all the more surprising as the author indicates influential support for his own view that this kind of analysis derives from Appian himself, rather than his source, as was previously suggested. Furthermore, Gowing points out that the Prussian revolutionary, Karl Marx, commended Appian for his analysis of the material basis of the civil wars (p. 9). This statement in itself requires fuller treatment than it is given in the opening chapter.

Secondly, Gowing's way of approaching his subject inevitably results in considerable repetition. To be fair, this is a complication the author himself was aware of ('In order to avoid undue repetition, I have tried to be selective ...' p. 4). Nevertheless, the resulting discussion is repetitive, as the author's own thorough indices make clear (e.g. the battle of Philippi, pp. 34-35, 108-113, 173-176, 210-218). The number of times passim is used in the index also shows the extent to which the author's method of organising his material has resulted in an interwoven texture (cf. Mutina, Perusia, the senate, and the proscriptions -- quite apart from the major players in the narrative). The reader is asked to tease out this web, while at the same time separating the strands of Appian's narrative from those of Dio. This task could have been made easier if the accounts of Dio and Cassius had been presented in tabular form as in Appendix 3, or at least under section headings.

A further problem with the book concerns its intended readership. The author tackles important problems of scholarship in the book, such as the question of the sources used by Appian and Dio. Other parts of the book, however, appear to be directed at readers with very little knowledge of Roman history. Chapter five in Part One, The Historical Situation (pp. 51-54) and Appendix One, Chronological Table of Events from the Ides of March 44 BC. to the Death of Sextus Pompey in 35 (pp. 301-307) are instances of this.

This lack of focus is evident also in the editorial policy with regard to the translation of passages of Greek and Latin. Whereas the author consistently uses E. Cary's translation of Cassius Dio and H. White's version of Appian, passages of Latin are not translated (e.g. pp. 118, 125, 181). Gowing also uses Greek and Latin terms liberally without translation, often to no real purpose (e.g. 'hoping to share in Octavian's H(GEMONI/A' p. 79; 'Rome's internal staseis' p. 92) and occasionally a little redundantly (e.g. 'his argument proceeds from what is utile or expedient' p. 231). The author is certainly not alone in this practice, but what is gained by the use of the Greek or Latin terms in cases such as these? Elsewhere whole sentences of Greek and Latin are left untranslated (e.g. pp. 178, 149 n. 17, 152 n. 30). Gowing usually cites the English translations without supplying the Greek text even in the footnotes. He does, however, cite two long passages of Greek for the purpose of stylistic comment and these are translated in the footnotes. However, the comments based on these passages are few and could just as easily have been drawn from the translations (pp. 212-215, concerning the rhetorical character of the description of the battle of Philippi by both Appian and Dio). The student of Roman history who has no knowledge of Latin and Greek (and there are increasing numbers of these) will require added motivation to overcome these largely unnecessary obstacles.

Triumviral Narratives is, in general, a highly professional product, which has been extremely thoroughly researched. Whatever drawbacks the book may have in terms of the way the material has been presented, these do not negate the fact that it is a substantial achievement. For a book of its size, remarkably few errors have slipped in (the ones I noticed include: the caption to figure 4; p. 15 line 23 delete 'the' in the phrase 'the Appian's'; p. 23 line 27 insert 'and' before Clarus; p. 64 insert 'the' before 'light'). The work makes a solid contribution to the study of Dio and, more particularly, Appian. Gowing's efforts will certainly stimulate further scholarship devoted to these writers.