Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.02

David S. Potter, Literary Texts and the Roman Historian.   London and New York:  Routledge, 1999.  Pp. 218.  ISBN 0-415-08895-X (hb).  $60.00.  ISBN 0-414-08896-8 (pb).  $20.99.  

Reviewed by Thomas M. Banchich, Canisius College (
Word count: 1915 words

Congratulations to David Potter for a book that imparts important information while posing and thoughtfully considering questions critical for all those interested in using ancient literary texts for historical purposes. His work should benefit a broad range of readers, from neophytes to accomplished historians, in a variety of ways. All will learn or be reminded of the vast gulf that separates modern practitioners of history from their ancient counterparts, and, at the same time, of binding ties that transcend some 2000 years.

Literary Texts and the Roman Historian focuses, its authors tells us (p. 1), on the process of creation, dissemination, and reception of "texts that profess to offer a reconstruction or description of actual events." Each of the book's four chapters -- "Definitions," "Texts," "Scholarship," and "Presentation" -- is constructed around the consideration of passages from ancient authors which, in Potter's view, are reflective of factors central to the various stages of this process. The modus operandi throughout then involves a discussion of the role of these factors and the positions taken with regard to them within the context of modern historiography. So, after a brief Preface and Introduction, Potter's initial chapter, "Definitions," moves back and forth from features of historia suggested by Pliny the Younger, Aulus Gellius, Quintilian, Tacitus, and Cicero (among others) to current historiographic debate about history as inquiry, history as narrative, and the relationship between history and truth in the writings of social anthropologist Clifford Geertz and such representatives of postmodernism as the deconstructionist philosophers of language Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-François Lyotard.

Chapter Two is broad ranging and especially rich. Therein Potter proposes for the purpose of historical research a tripartite categorization of ancient textual evidence into three categories -- participant, illustrative, and narrative -- and discusses the relationship of each component to several modern approaches and methodologies, e.g. to Marxist historiography, social history, and the approach of the so-called Annales school. He also surveys the production and publication of books in the ancient world and the transmission of autograph texts through manuscript tradition to modern critical editions. In addition, "Texts" contains a good discussion of the nature of "fragments" and their use and misuse, supplemented (pp. 70-78) with an analysis of the reconstruction of Cassius Dio on the basis of passages in the Suda, the Excerpta Constantiniana, and the epitome of John Xiphilinus.

Research, the creation of a draft, and publication are the primary concerns of Chapter Three. Here Polybius, Tacitus, Dio, Herodian, Josephus, and Eusebius are mined for illustrations. Not surprisingly, cultural prejudices and personal background emerge as important historiographical determinants. So mainstream literary sources are preferred and the testimony of informants is, at least until the rise of Christianity, weighed more heavily than documentary evidence. These two factors Potter sets within a ancient "paradigm of discourse" (p. 102) not defined by physical science, as is its modern counterpart, but by the classical study of grammar, the philological method of which emphasized collation of sources, autopsy, and the evaluation of literary testimony on the basis of notions of propriety, e.g., whether a speech attributed to or a story about an individual was in character. This chapter also includes a balanced treatment of Quellenforschung and an interesting discussion of Greco-Roman uses of Near Eastern sources. The latter, Potter argues, were typically viewed through the filter of a classical cultural tradition that reached back to Herodotus and were rarely subjected to close analysis on their own terms. "Scholarship" concludes with a very welcome consideration of the nature and physical setting of reading and, on the basis of evidence from Herculaneum bearing on the method followed by Philodemus, of the stages involved in the actual physical production of an author's autograph copy and its subsequent ἔκδοσις.

Chapter Four, "Presentation," treats the interesting topic of the relationship between the style in which an historian chooses to write and the standards and objectives of contemporaneous history as an intellectual orientation, one of what Potter terms the "non-factual aspects of writing history" (p. 130). To readers attuned to recent historiographical developments in the United States, it will come as no surprise that Potter examines Hayden White's theory of literary and historical exposition. From White, Potter turns to Leopold von Ranke and misunderstandings of his supposed clarion call to the writing of history wie es eigentlich gewesen, thence to the debate between objectivism and relativism often associated in the United States with Charles Beard and Carl Becker. Within the resultant theoretical framework, Potter considers Lucian's How to Write History, Dionysius of Halicarnassus' Essay on Thucydides, and several passages from Cicero. In the end, Potter finds this trio largely in agreement with regard to narratio and historia:

'No one claims that everything in a history will necessarily be true, or that the historian should remove his personality from what he writes. Rather, the historian should cast judgment on events and should produce speeches that entertain so long as they are appropriate to the circumstances. The core narrative should be based on the best evidence that can be found, and that evidence should not be distorted' (p. 138).

There follows an interesting discussion of chronicles and chronographies, as distinguished from actual history -- for Potter notes, "Historical narrative and the recording or facts are not, and were not in antiquity, the same thing" (p. 150) --, of the Christian Gospels, the Historia Augusta, and various accounts of martyrdom all convincingly analyzed by Potter as repositories of evidence about ancient cultural assumptions concerned with what made for good historical writing. A brief Epilogue (pp. 152-155) thoughtfully observes that, while the genre of history as practiced in the Greco-Roman world doubtless was the "discourse of the dominant," it was but one of a repository of several alternative discourses, each in some way distinct but, at the same time, complementary.

There is (pp. 156-157) a generally helpful Appendix comprised of short biographical and bibliographical notes on ancient authors discussed in the text, and readers are referred to the 3rd edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary for supplementary information. Appropriate entries perhaps should have mentioned R. T. Ridley's translation of Zosimus, along with Charles Robinson's rendering of Callisthenes and Frank Norman's two most recent Libanius Loebs, none of which appear in the bibliographies of the corresponding OCD articles.1 Many of the few to whom it matters would take issue with the confident assertion (p. 160, s.v. Eunapius) that Ammianus used Eunapius. More important to most readers, especially given the attention paid by Potter to what Sextus Empiricus has to say about Asclepiades (of Myrleia?), is the absence from the Asclepiades' entry in the Appendix (p. 157) of any mention that Asclepiades of Myrleia (FgrH 687) and the Asclepiades of Sextus' Adversus Grammaticos (referred to on p. 14 as Adv. Gramm., but, certainly to the confusion of some, on p. 165 as Against the Professors and Adversus Mathematicos) may be discrete individuals and are so distinguished in the OCD. Potter's endnotes (pp. 168-202) are generally very informative. A Select Bibliography (pp. 203-211) and Index (pp. 212-218) follow. There are several photographic illustrations: a wooden reading stand now in the University of Michigan's Kelsey Museum of Archaeology; the exterior of the Library of Celsus at Ephesus; and portions of Oxyrhynchus Papyri 12, 2082, and 3537.

Too many production errors are an aggravation: the next-to-last line of p. 20 reads: "The second will is the methods for providing context"; on p. 75, commas are needed between "Zonaras" and "the Excerpta," and later after "Gutschmidt" (sic), who deserves to be identified correctly as Alfred (or at least A.) von Gutschmid (sic) rather than "a German scholar named Gutschmidt"; p. 77, after 68.15, has "Excepts" for "Excerpts," and, after 68.9.1, misplaced parentheses around Petrus Patricius; on p. 112, "copies," the last word in the first of the processes of composition attributed to Philodemus, should be "copied"; p. 134, has "pramatike=" for "pragmatike="; at p. 174, n. 24, the date of van Groningen's article should read 1963; on p. 214, s.v. Eunapius, "Conastintinian" appears for "Constantinian"; and at p. 216, s.v. Lyotard, Jean-Francois lacks its cedilla. Accents and breathing marks in the only two extended passages of Greek (p.191, n. 71) are badly botched and, in the second of these, Φ appears for φ in ἀφῃρημένα. For the zeta in ἵζω, p. 170, n. 15 substitutes the later digamma character used for numerical notation topped with a single inverted opening quotation mark.

Potter makes only a couple outright errors. He slips, for instance, at p. 92 when he transfers comments about Julian's physician Oribasius from Müller's fr. 8 of Eunapius' History (FHG IV, p. 15) to the same author's the Lives of the Philosophers. His characterization (p. 127) of Charles Beard's 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution [of the United States] as "the first significant application of prosopography to a major historical problem" inexplicably ignores Matthias Gelzer's Die Nobilität der römischen Republik of 1912. There are other lapses which, though hardly involving mistakes, do deserve comment. So the discussion of the Suda (p. 74), fails to note a point important to Potter's treatment of Quellenforschung and fragments: Carl de Boor's demonstration that the Suda's compilers regularly adapted their historical entries from the Excerpta Constantiniana rather than from texts of the historians themselves.2 At p. 73, the Anonymous Continuator of Dio is very often taken to be Petrus Patricius.3 The unexplained Anecdota of p. 77 (after 68.6-7) are, in fact, the Excerpta de Virtutibis et Vitiis, a clarification that would have strengthened Potter's message about the true nature of the text often treated as that of Cassius Dio. At p. 199, n. 78, there is a misleading mention of "later works" of Ammianus Marcellinus. At p. 60, though the Parian Marble is indeed better known than the Chronicum Romanum, some readers still might find helpful a reference in the appropriate endnote to FgrH 239. The attribution to Zenodotus of actual marginal notes (p. 105) to the text of Homer may, given what we know of the layout of columns on papyrus rolls, raise eyebrows or mislead. It seems rash to dismiss the possibility of the ancient use of thematically or alphabetically arranged note cards or some reasonable facsimile thereof (p. 107). Potter's understanding of ἔκδοσις as an author's limited distribution of a finished work, while reflective of what clearly was typical, is too narrow.4 Since many historians today have not the slightest idea who August Böckh was, it would have been helpful to give his first name (p. 45), likewise for Heinrich Nissen (p. 90), whose Kritische Untersuchungen über die Quellen der vierten und funften Dekade des Livius (Berlin: Weidmann, 1863) probably should have been cited. Given Potter's emphasis on the relationship between history, myth, and truth and on book production, the absence from both notes and bibliography of Hermann Peter's Wahrheit und Kunst (Leipzig and Berlin: B. G. Teubner, 1911) and Theodor Birt's still instructive Das Antike Buchwesen (Berlin: Wilhelm Hertz, 1882) are a mild surprise.

Despite these flaws, Literary Texts and the Roman Historian will be read with profit by many interested in its subject. In particular, it should prove a worthwhile addition to reading lists for graduate courses in Greek and Roman historiography. Though its transitions from antiquity to modernity or postmodernity are sometimes abrupt and unsettling, the end result is, in most instances, stimulating. Certainly, as ancient historiography becomes more self-conscious and reflective, the issues which Potter raises will seem ever more important to those who devote themselves to its study.


1.   Canberra: Australian Association of Byzantine Studies, 1982); The History of Alexander the Great (Providence, R.I.: Brown University, 1953), I, pp. 45-77; (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), respectively.
2.   "Suidas und die Konstantinische Excerptsammlung," BZ 21 (1912), pp. 381-424, and BZ 23 (1914-1919), pp. 1-127.
3.   For an overview of the debate about the relationship between the fragments of Petrus Patricius and the Anonymous, see Bruno Bleckmann, Die Reichskrise des III. Jahrhunderts in der spätantiken und byzantinischen Geschichtsschreibung (Munich: Tuduv-Verlagsgesellschaft, 1992), pp. 51-53.
4.   The ἔκδοσεις of Eunapius' History as described by Photius Bibl. Cod. 77 (ed. Henry, I, pp. 158-160) offers a notorious example of a broader meaning, on which see, e.g., Aaron Baker, "Eunapius' Νέα Ἔκδοσις and Photius," GRBS 29 (1988), pp. 389-402.

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