Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.03.25

Martin Zimmermann (ed.), Geschichtsschreibung und politischer Wandel im 3. Jh. n.Chr. Historia Einzelschriften, 127.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 1999.  Pp. 244.  ISBN 3-515-07457-0.  DM 98.  

Reviewed by Michael Meckler, The Ohio State University
Word count: 1846 words


Karl-Ernst Petzold, Martin Zimmermann, Helmut Krasser, Thomas A. Schmitz, Manfred G. Schmidt, Thomas Hidber, Hartwin Brandt, Christof Schuler and Bruno Bleckmann

The essays in this volume are the offspring of a colloquium held in 1998 to mark the 80th birthday of Karl-Ernst Petzold, and their publication immediately follows that of Petzold's collected articles (in volume 126) in the Historia monograph series. Petzold is best known for his work on Polybius. Although his scholarship also touched upon classical Greek and early Roman historiography, the third century AD was not an area of his research. Readers may be surprised by the theme of this colloquium, the choice of which is not adequately explained either in Martin Zimmerman's preface or in the greeting of Petzold that open the book (pp.7-15). Those interested in Petzold's scholarship will find little in this Festschrift of interest to them.

The scholar whose thoughts and ideas are at the center of this collection is the editor, Martin Zimmermann. Zimmermann wrote two of the essays, one on Herodian (the subject of Zimmermann's 1996 Tübingen Habilitationsschrift) and the collection's impressive first essay on "Encomium and historiography: the evolutionary paths of the writing of imperial history from the first through the third centuries AD" (pp.17-56; the titles of the essays will be given in English translation throughout this review). Zimmermann has assumed a daunting task: to survey the transformation of historical writing, especially the writing of contemporary history, from the end of the Roman republic through the Severan dynasty. Lucian's essay How To Write History forms the prism through which Zimmermann examines changes in Roman imperial historiography. Lucian criticized authors whose distorted representations of Lucius Verus' Parthian campaigns made fact subservient to rhetoric in order to glorify the emperor in grander style. Zimmermann follows the relationship between encomium and historical writing as the genres, authors and purposes of historical writing changed in the course of the principate.

Zimmermann discerns three phases in this transforming relationship: a decline in the political function of history writing under the Julio-Claudians and Flavians; a resurgence in the importance of historians in the wake of Domitian's tyrannical reign; and finally, the ever increasing infection, from the time of Hadrian onwards, of historical writing by imperial encomium. A concern one may have with this scheme is its reliance (at least for the first two phases) upon Tacitus' understanding of Roman imperial history. Not that the scheme is necessarily wrong, but we must always wonder to what degree did the times make Tacitus (notwithstanding his own mentions of the circumstances of his writing), or was Tacitus a unique author who just happened to live and write when he did. Had Tacitus' writings been lost to us (which, of course, they nearly were), our perceptions of Roman historiographical tradition might be considerably different.

In his discussion, Zimmermann shows a masterful command of detail, and he is not afraid to make bold assertions (such as casting doubt on the existence of contemporary historians of Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, despite mention of such historians in Lucian and Herodian, p.45). The extent of Zimmermann's bibliographic citations is remarkable, from the most up-to-date publications (works appearing in 1998, when the Petzold colloquium was held) to those of the more distant past. The extensive footnotes, which in addition to bibliography often contain important elaborations of details in the main text, would alone provide a valuable resource for scholars interested in Roman imperial historiography.

Also impressive is Zimmermann's other essay, "Herodian's construction of history and his view of the residents of Rome" (pp.119-143). This essay deals with political interpretations of Herodian's text, both within the context of the third century as well as in more recent times. Zimmermann discusses humanist and other early modern scholars who saw the purpose of Herodian's work as a lesson in the art of government. When looking, however, at Herodian's representations of the urban plebs in Rome, Zimmermann finds it difficult to discern any meaningful political viewpoint. Similarly, the characterization of emperors as good or bad has more to do with the demands of rhetoric than with any understanding of the operations of Roman government.

One other essay in the collection deals with Herodian's text. Thomas Hidber, in "Time and narrative perspective in Herodian's History" (pp.145-167), examines whether the text of Herodian was unfinished or unrevised, and how time is employed within Herodian's narrative scheme. On the first question, Hidber quite rightly argues that the relative paucity of speeches in the later books is due to a change in how the author wished to adorn his narrative rather than the publication of an unrevised text. Concerning time, Hidber argues that the vague chronology of events interspersed with rare bursts of temporal detail is typical of the ancient historical monograph (with comparison to Xenophon and Sallust). Furthermore, Hidber brings in the concept of focalization from narratology to connect variations in how time is described to how closely the narration of a passage represents the perceptions of the protagonist.

This review has discussed the essays on Herodian outside of the order in which they appear in the volume because Herodian's work is central to the theme of historiographical tradition meant to underlie the collection. The editor, Zimmermann, wishes to restore Herodian to a place of importance among Greek authors of the Roman empire, and Herodian has been attracting greater scholarly interest in the past half-decade (most notably in the German translation and commentary of F. L. Müller [Stuttgart, 1996; strongly criticized by Zimmermann, p.199 n.1] and in essays in ANRW II 34.4 [Berlin, 1998]). With regard to the literary value of Herodian's text, the author's deficiencies as a "scientific" historian -- deficiencies that are not insubstantial -- are more than compensated by his highly rhetoricized language, style and outlook. In many ways, Herodian's work seems very fresh to today's readers, an example of post-modern historical writing of which Hayden White would be proud.

The other essays in this volume vary in quality and relevance, and shall be reviewed following the order in which they appear. Helmut Krasser wrote the second essay in the volume, on "The culture of reading as backdrop for the reception of history writing in the high empire" (pp.57-69). Krasser takes as his starting point Gellius' reminiscences of a debate in a bookseller's shop concerning vocabulary in Sallust's Histories (Attic Nights 18.4.1). Krasser uses this encounter to elaborate on how, for educated Romans of the principate, reading provided necessary preparation for social interaction. Romans demonstrated daily their erudition, status and moral outlook in conversations about the literature they read. The social demands on reading may help to explain the popularity of biography and antiquarian modes of historical writing, texts whose details more easily lent themselves to display than did history proper.

The contribution of Thomas A. Schmitz, "Performing history in the Second Sophistic" (pp.71-92; in English, the only essay in the collection not written in German), does not touch upon historiography proper. Schmitz instead attempts to understand Greek declamation of the high empire in terms of performance theory. Schmitz, however, tediously meanders through secondary material and primary sources without ever making much of a point. He provides subheadings such as "The power of discourse" and "Performances as crises" only to question the legitimacy of his own terminology and undercut any argument he might possibly have made. Schmitz's essay would have profited from more concentrated and sustained discussion of a more select set of source materials. His topic, the use of history in sophistic declamation, is certainly worthy of further study.

Manfred G. Schmidt's essay is deceptively titled "Political and personal motivation in Dio's contemporary history" (pp.93-117). Schmidt is not concerned with the final books of Dio's history, which include eyewitness accounts of events in the reigns of Commodus and the Severans. Instead, much of the essay is taken up with Dio's description of the debate in book 52 between Maecenas and Agrippa over the form of the "restored" Roman government under Augustus. Schmidt argues that Dio employed the ideals and reality of Severan governance in creating the debate episode. The argument that contemporary concerns affected the representation of history is hardly surprising or original. Schmidt freely acknowledges his debt to an article by Mason Hammond from nearly seven decades ago (in TAPA 63 [1932], 88-102), which itself was a reaction to Paul Meyer's dissertation of four decades earlier (Berlin, 1891). Schmidt's contribution is little more than to cloak an old question in new bibliography.

Hartwin Brandt provides an unremarkable summary of current scholarship on Dexippus in his essay "Dexippus and the historiography of the third century AD" (pp.169-81). Brandt is heavily indebted to the work of other scholars, to which he does not seem to have much to add. Typical of Brandt's spare discussion is his providing the text of the famous statue base inscription (IG II.2 3669) to Dexippus with neither translation nor discussion beyond a single sentence (albeit a long, multiple-claused sentence). Brandt seems unaware of the useful discussion of this inscription by Erkki Sironen (in Paavo Castrén, ed., Post-Herulian Athens [Helsinki, 1994], pp.17-19), which would have aided any thorough examination of Dexippus' career had Brandt been interested in providing one.

Christof Schuler, in his essay "Cyprian: the Christian view of contemporary history" (pp.183-202), attempts to diminish the importance modern historians of the "Crisis of the Third Century" have placed upon the writings of this bishop of Carthage. Schuler argues against attempts to see in Cyprian's writings either an analysis of imperial crisis or a reflexion of widely held views about the operations of Roman government. For Schuler, Cyprian's concerns were fashioned by his upbringing among the provincial elite of the province of Africa, and those concerns stayed fixed upon the needs of the province's Christian communities.

Bruno Bleckmann's essay, "Between panegyric and historiography: Praxagoras and his predecessors" (pp.203-228), seems especially out of place in this volume. Praxagoras lived, it seems, sometime in the mid- to late-fourth century, when he wrote a history of the reign of Constantine the Great and that of the early years of his sons. The work survives only in the fragments excerpted by the Byzantine scholar Photius. Any discussion of Praxagoras must deal primarily with the fourth century rather than the volume's stated theme of the mid-third century. Bleckmann attempts to bridge this gap with an introductory discussion of the familiar distinctions between history proper and biography, distinctions that had already become blurred by the third century. The rest of the essay concerns topics more central to Praxagoras' own day, including a complex discussion on the vexed question of the relationship between Eusebius' Life of Constantine, Oration 59 of Libanius, and Praxagoras' Constantinian history.

As with many other Festschriften and conference proceedings, the essays in this volume fail to uphold the collection's intended, unifying theme. The volume does, however, attest to growing interest in the third century AD, a period whose rich history and literature have long been overlooked by classicists. Such growing interest can only be applauded. Perhaps when the volume's editor, Martin Zimmermann, reaches his 80th birthday, Herodian will hold as prominent a place in our discipline as Polybius -- the author illuminated by the scholarship of this volume's honorand, Karl-Ernst Petzold -- does today.

Read Latest
Index for 2000
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:45, Friday, 03 April 2009