Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.45

John Marincola (ed.), A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography (2 vols.). Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World.   Malden, MA:  Blackwell Publishing, 2007.  Pp. 656.  ISBN 978-1-4051-0216-2.  $299.95.  

Reviewed by John Bauschatz, University of Arizona (
Word count: 2113 words

Table of Contents

A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography is the latest entry in Blackwell's Companions to the Ancient World series. According to the publisher, the series "provides sophisticated and authoritative overviews of periods of ancient history, genres of classical literature, and the most important themes in ancient culture," with essays "designed for an international audience of scholars, students, and general readers." For the most part, the series has been received favorably, to judge from the many positive reviews of individual volumes.1 Seventeen volumes have been published so far, and ten others are currently in preparation.

I will state up front that I very much enjoyed this Companion. John Marincola has done a fine job as editor of this thick volume--of these two thick volumes, rather--and his contributors have likewise acquitted themselves of their tasks very admirably. On the whole, the book satisfies the dictates of the companion genre and the aims of the series to which it belongs. That it does not quite succeed in every aspect is to be expected of a work of such breadth and should not be held against it.

In what follows I will provide a brief outline of the individual sections of the book and the purpose / success of each section. Given the sheer size of the text--there are fifty-seven chapters in all--I will restrict myself to commenting on those contributions that are somehow noteworthy. I will ask the reader to take it on faith that, in general, the quality of individual contributions is very high, and also will beg pardon of those contributors passed over with only a name check (or less).

A few preliminary remarks about the format of the book: each of the contributions runs to around 10-15 pages in length; most are divided into subsections; most have conclusions and suggestions for further reading at the end; footnotes are avoided, in favor of (sometimes very lengthy) parentheses; for the most part, (transliterated) Greek and Latin quotations are accompanied by English translations.

After the usual front matter (the Contents [pp. vii-xi], a list of Contributors [pp. xii-xix], a Preface [pp. xx-xxi], some Acknowledgements [pp. xxii-xxiii] and lists of Abbreviations for both Ancient Authors [pp. xxiv-xxxvi] and Reference Works [pp. xxxvii-xli]) we find Marincola's Introduction (pp. 1-9). Marincola avoids painting a big picture of the history of Greco-Roman historiography, and instead provides a general overview of the book's purpose and the issues it will tackle. The overall message is that the subject of Greek and Roman historiography is a complicated one; that the (ancient) writers of Greek and Roman history, as well as their works, were products of a number of different influences; and that ancient historiography as a genre is not easily reduced to generalizations (p. 8). Marincola's very accurate characterization of the subject sets the scene quite nicely and more than adequately prepares the reader for the discussions that will follow.

In Part I: Contexts (pp. 11-144), the reader finds ten chapters that consider the most common ingredients in Greek and Roman historiography. The essays collected here treat the use of sources (documents, oral tradition, speeches, etc.) in Greek and Roman historians (Marincola, chapter 9; Rhodes, chapter 4; Saïd, chapter 6), conceptions of history and historiography in the ancient world (Nicolai, chapter 1; Schepens, chapter 3), the origins of historiography in Greece and Rome (Darbo-Peschanski, chapter 2; Wiseman, chapter 5), the expressed and unexpressed aims of the writers of ancient histories (Dewald, chapter 7; Pitcher, chapter 8) and the ability (or inability) of ancient and modern readers alike to digest and fully appreciate ancient historical texts (Woodman, chapter 10). These ten well-balanced essays provide the reader with a solid sketch of the components of Greek and Roman historiography, with--to my mind, at least--no notable omissions or superfluities. One essay deserves special mention: that of Woodman (chapter 10, "Readers and Reception: A Text Case"), in which the author argues in favor of reading ancient history in the original language. Via a careful examination of Tacitus, Annals 2.53, Woodman makes a strong case that it is pointless to hope to capture, in a translation, the full range of meanings in--and the many nuances of--a text like Tacitus', which engages the reader on so many different levels. I think he argues too vehemently in favor of the necessity of teaching classical texts in the original language and condemns too strongly the proliferation of classics courses taught in translation. All the same, his piece was an undeniably fun and invigorating read.

Part II: Surveys (pp. 145-311) will likely prove the section of the Companion most useful to readers over the long run. Here one finds fifteen chapters containing detailed descriptions of the many different varieties of ancient historiography. Five chapters treat subgenres: continuous history (Tuplin, chapter 12), local history (Harding, chapter 14), memoir and autobiography (Riggsby, chapter 22), universal history (Marincola, chapter 13) and war monographs (Rood, chapter 11). The reader who initially objects that this collection of subgenres is too restricted in scope will likely be pleased to find that a number of genres with close affinities to historiography--biography, epic, tragedy, etc.--are treated in a later section of the book (Part IV; see below). Also collected here are five essays on Greek historians who wrote on regions of the ancient Mediterranean outside the Greek mainland, including Judaea (Sterling, chapter 19), Magna Graecia (Vattuone, chapter 15), the Near East (Dillery, chapter 18), Persia (Lenfant, chapter 16) and Rome (Pelling, chapter 20). Most of these essays provide information on lesser- (or little-) known historians, many of whom are but names to us now. At times, these five chapters read like only slightly expanded OCD entries, but given the often scant evidence for their subjects, this can be forgiven. Rounding out Part II are four chapters on historiography during different periods in the history of Rome--the early (Beck, chapter 21) and late Republic (Levene, chapter 23), the imperial period (Matthews, chapter 24) and Late Antiquity (Banchich, chapter 25)--and an essay on the historians of Alexander the Great (Zambrini, chapter 17). Again, thoroughness is the rule. The reader who makes his or her way through this section of the Companion will emerge with a rich understanding of the temporal, geographic and stylistic scope of Greek and Roman historiography.

Part III: Readings (pp. 313-480) opens volume two, after reprints of the Contents (pp. v-ix) and the lists of Abbreviations for Ancient Authors (pp. x-xxii) and Reference Works (pp. xxiii-xxvii) from volume one. The reader finds here a series of twenty-four essays, each of which focuses in on a very specific author, theme and (often) passage of text. The ancient authors treated in Part III run the chronological gamut from Herodotus to Ammianus Marcellinus, and the individual essays differ widely in scope and style. As one might imagine, not everything here will appeal to every reader, and not every reader will have the expertise necessary to fully appreciate every offering. For instance, the reader excited to discover the chapter on the literary merits of book one of Appian's Civil Wars (Bucher, chapter 46) may also find stimulating the essay on the transition from republic to principate in Velleius Paterculus (Gowing, chapter 40), but not the treatment of agôn in Thucydides (Lateiner, chapter 29) or the discussion of Ammianus Marcellinus' intended audience (Rohrbacher, chapter 48). In the end, the reader will likely find some things to like, but more to ignore. As I read through the uniformly excellent essays collected here, I wondered about the reasons behind the inclusion of a section like this--filled with such narrow studies--in a companion designed for a broad audience. One might make the argument that it is only by engaging with an ancient author at close range that one truly gains an appreciation for his or her style, preoccupations and similarities to and differences from other authors. I would agree, but I would also argue that such close examination is not the responsibility of a companion volume, especially as many, if not most of its intended readers will not have the Greek and/or Latin skills necessary to fully appreciate the text(s) being dissected. In the end, I could not shake the suspicion that this section had been included largely to boost the size of the Companion to two volumes and correspondingly to boost the price to a wallet-sapping $349.99.

Part IV: Neighbors (pp. 481-564) marks a return to good companion-style form. In this section the chapters concern literary genres that overlap to varying degrees with historiography: antiquarian literature (Bravo, chapter 53), biography (Stadter, chapter 54), ethnography (Dench, chapter 51), epic (Leigh, chapter 50), geography (Engels, chapter 55), the novel (Morgan, chapter 56) and tragedy (Rutherford, chapter 52). Ancient generic boundaries were quite permeable, so the discussions offered in this section are apt. All are quite good, as well. Readers interested in ancient history but unfamiliar with the full length and breadth of classical literature will, in Part IV, find many new avenues for exploration.

Finally, in Part V: Transition (pp. 565-581) the Nachleben of Greco-Roman historiography is considered. This is a worthwhile pursuit, to be sure; but oddly, this entire Part consists of only one essay, Croke's "Late Antique Historiography, 250-650 CE" (chapter 57). One wonders why a new Part was necessary, and why this useful discussion could not have been more appropriately slotted in at the end of Part II (before or after the last chapter [25]: Banchich, "The Epitomizing Tradition in Late Antiquity"). Granted, it might have seemed odd to end the companion abruptly after Part IV: Neighbors; and indeed, the current solution does provide something of an epilogue for the work. Still, why not call it an epilogue? Or, better yet, why not add a few more chapters to this part of the text, concerning (e.g.) the eventual rebirth of historiography after the Middle Ages, or the traces of Greco-Roman historiographical practice detectable in modern historiography?

Following Part V, the reader will find the Bibliography (pp. 582-641), the Index Locorum (pp. 642-676) and the General Index (pp. 677-705).

I will add here a few comments on what I perceive as the general deficiencies of the volume before I conclude. As noted above, the text admirably covers a broad swath of subject matter and contains precious few holes in content. One area which I thought deserving of at least brief treatment--perhaps in the introduction--was the history of modern work on Greco-Roman historiography. Not everyone who reads this book will know who Arnaldo Momigliano was, or why Felix Jacoby is cited so frequently in its essays. A chapter on the various theoretical lenses through which ancient history and its writers have been viewed over the years might also have been useful. I have already commented on the questionable placement in the text of Part V and the questionable inclusion in the text of Part III. The length and formatting of the individual chapters of the book is generally very uniform, though a few of the essays seem unfinished for one reason or another. For instance, chapter 4, "Documents and the Greek Historians" (Rhodes), provides an excellent survey but ends abruptly with no Conclusion or, more frustratingly, any suggestions for Further Reading. Some of the essays show side effects of translation from an original version that contained formatting incompatible with that of the Companion as a whole. The first chapter (Nicolai, "The Place of History in the Ancient World") is an example of one such essay: it is overburdened with long parenthetical remarks--likely the vestiges of footnotes--that slow the reader's pace considerably. There is also a noticeable difference in the presentation of source material in Greek and source material in Latin: while a number of essays contain long block quotes of Latin, followed by translations, there are no long block quotations of Greek, simply translations; and where brief Greek quotations are employed, transliteration is the rule. I imagine that this was mandated by the publisher, not the editor or his contributors. Still, it is unfortunate to see such an imbalance in the presentation of original language text, especially given that the great majority of surviving Greco-Roman historiographical material is in Greek.2

That said, it should be stressed that A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography is a fine, if imperfect, addition to the exploding ranks of handbooks on classical antiquity. It is perhaps too big, too expensive and (at times) too narrowly focused a book to truly serve as a companion for the "general" reader sought by the publisher; but as it also offers the most thorough, vigorous and up-to-date treatment of the subject of ancient historiography available today, it should find a place on the shelves of scholars and students of antiquity alike.


1.   See (e.g.) the overall positive BMCR reviews of the Companion to Ancient Epic by Antonia Syson (BMCR 2007.09.41) and the Companion to Greek Rhetoric by Øivind Andersen (BMCR 2008.02.15). On the other hand, Geoffrey Summers returns a somewhat mixed verdict on the Companion to the Ancient Near East (BMCR 2005.05.58; see also the response of Gonzalo Rubio in BMCR 2005.06.19.
2.   On a more positive note, the book is virtually free of typos. I caught the following: volume 1, p. xiv, column 1: "Agesilaus" is not italicized; volume 1, p. xxix and volume 2, p. xv: Fronto's dates are "ca. 95-166", not "ca. 95-116"; p. 278, paragraph 2: dittography of "their"; p. 366, paragraph 2: there is no ")" to correspond with the "(" in "(dealing"; p. 517, paragraph 1: "Dionysius" should end in an apostrophe; p. 702: under the entry for Tacitus, "Aeneid" is not italicized.

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