Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.08

Édith Parmentier, Francesca Prometea Barone (ed.), Nicolas de Damas. Histoires; Recueil de coutumes; Vie d'Auguste; Autobiographie. Fragments.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2011.  Pp. lxi, 374.  ISBN 9782251742113.  €45.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kenneth G. Holum, University of Maryland (

This book consists of a thorough introduction to the person and the historical and ethnographic works of Nicolas (or Nikolaos, as in the Greek manuscripts) of Damascus, followed by a reprint of Felix Jacoby’s edition (Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, no. 90, vol. IIA, 324-430) of the testimonies (T) and fragments (F) along with a facing-page translation into French of the preserved texts and commentary on the texts contained in elaborate footnotes. The authors also provide indices of personal names and of peoples and places. Not included are remnants of the scientific/philosophical works of Nicolas edited by H. J. Drossart-Lulofs and E. L. J. Poortman: the Syriac text of a commentary on Aristotle’s philosophy (1969) and the De plantis, preserved in Syriac, Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew, which is an expansion of Aristotle’s work on the same topic with additions drawn from Theophrastus (1989). Indeed, as the authors point out (p. xx), the ancients remembered Nicolas primarily as a Peripatetic philosopher. Ignoring the philosophical and scientific writings, except for the briefest mention (pp. xx-xxi), the new book draws together scholarship on Nicolas and his other works that has appeared since Ben Zion Wachholder published a perceptive monograph in 1962, which remains fundamental.1 Wachholder, for example (pp. 10-13), drew attention to the influence of Nicolas upon the medieval paraphrase of Josephus, the Sefer Yosiphon written in Hebrew, a text that preserves a more favorable assessment of Herod the Great than that of Josephus. A bit one-sided on Nicolas as an author, the new book nevertheless forms a welcome addition to a useful text series that makes readily available, and at a moderate price, a variety of fragmentary philosophical and historical treatises, scholia, and bodies of correspondence in both Greek and Latin.

Often taking issue with Jacoby, Wachholder, and others, the authors reconstruct the career of a man who hobnobbed with the powerful. Nicolas of Damascus issued from the Syrian city’s Hellenized elite of the first century B.C., and indeed is himself a valuable index of the depth of the elite’s Hellenization. A younger contemporary of Herod, king of Judaea, and of Augustus, he was known in antiquity not just as a Peripatetic but also as Herod’s confidant. In 36 Cleopatra, mistress at the time of Damascus, invited him to Alexandria to teach her twin children by M. Antonius, but according to the authors he may have filled the role of didaskalos mainly after the parents’ deaths in 30, when the children and Nicolas himself passed to the entourage of Octavian and returned with him to Italy. Indeed, Augustus subsequently befriended Nicolas and named a favored variety of date nicolai after him because of his sweet disposition and rosy cheeks (T10a-b). In 20 B.C. Nicolas traveled with Augustus to Syria, and thus attended Herod’s encounter with the Princeps at Gadara. By 14 Nicolas had joined–as secretary and often ambassador–the court of Herod, whom he apparently admired greatly and served faithfully until the king’s death in 4 B.C. Josephus preserves two speeches that Nicolas delivered on behalf of the king in sensitive circumstances, the first in 14 B.C. defending the rights of the Jews of Ionia before M. Agrippa, of whom he was “the best friend after Augustus” (F142, cf. pp. xvi-xvii), and the second in 5 B.C. before Varus, governor of Syria, accusing Herod’s eldest son Antipater of conspiracy against his father (F143, p. xix). Successful in both cases, Nicolas demonstrated political acumen that matched his diligent scholarship.

The testimonies and fragments included here derive from a large number of ancient authors and Byzantine excerpters, beginning with Nicolas’ contemporary Strabo, continuing with Josephus in the first century, Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae ca. 200, and extending to the sixth century Ethnika of Stephen of Byzantium and the tenth century excerpta prepared on orders of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (d. 959). The fragments represent four works of “historical” character, the Histories, the Life of Augustus, the Collection of Customs, and the Autobiography.

The authors do not take a position as to when Nicolas composed these works or their order, reporting the “current” view of Jacoby that he wrote the Life of Augustus between 25 and 20 B.C. before the Histories as a compliment to Augustus’ recent Res gestae. Laqueur thought that he wrote mainly after Herod’s death, when he had retired to Rome to live a quiet life according to Peripatetic precepts (pp xxxiii-xxxiv, cf. xx).

In the Autobiography (F131-39), the earliest work of this genre known in Greek, Nicolas wrote in the third person–unlike Josephus, who used the first person in his autobiography–perhaps because Nicolas emulated Caesar’s Commentarii, which he had read. To judge from the few fragments, the work dealt with Nicolas’ family and education, political career, and character, but unlike Josephus’ autobiography it gives no hint of apologetic intent, perhaps, the authors suspect, because this is not an autobiography at all but the work of an unknown admirer. We know similarly little of the Collection of Customs(Ethon synagogue(F103a-124, altogether 47 fragments) preserved exclusively in “scraps” that the fifth-century Macedonian Stobaeus assembled for the instruction of his son, hoping to interest him in reading. Since the “scraps” are indeed ethnographic, many will find gratuitous the authors’ suggestion that the Synagoge was actually just passages that Stobaeus culled from the Histories. Among the Spartans, for example, “it was shameful to be the tent-mate or wrestling partner of a coward” (F103z),2 and in India wives competed to be counted as a dead man’s favorite and thus for the honor of sharing his funeral pyre (F124).

Of the work entitled On the Life of Caesar Augustus and His Education only six fragments survive in Jacoby’s enumeration (F125-130), but most extensive is the remarkable F130, the longest fragment of all, extending over 35 pages each of translation and original Greek. As far as knowledge of it survives, the Life covered first the youth and education of Octavian and his reaction to hearing of Julius Caesar’s death, preserved in the Constantintinian Excerpta de virtutibus. Then, in the Jacoby enumeration, F130 begins with Octavian at Apollonia in Epirus, where he heard of the assassination, and his return to Rome. There follows a very detailed and illuminating account of the conspiracy, deriving, apparently, from eyewitness and perhaps from the written correspondence of participants, followed by the beginning of Octavian’s conflict with M. Antonius until November 44 B.C. As one might have expected, F130 comes not from the De virtutibus but from the Constantinian Excerpta de insidiis. While adopting the Jacoby text, the authors question whether F130 might actually have originated in the Histories. Indeed, the focus of F125-129 is Octavian himself, and the inspiration is Augustan propaganda, as in the Res gestae published in 20 B.C., so the different focus of F130 does appear suspicious. Nevertheless, in transitional paragraph 58 in F130, Nicolas’ words “thereafter I will speak of the second Caesar, on whose account I undertook this work” clearly support (in this reviewer’s opinion) Jacoby’s decision to include F130 with the Life.

By far the longest and best-know work of Nicolas is what Jacoby calls the Histories (F1-68, 71-102, 140-43, 104 fragments). The authors propose to resolve a conundrum about the work’s ancient title, held commonly to be Universal History, by pointing out that Nicolas himself refers to it twice in the Autobiography F135 asserting that King Herod urged him to write a “history” (singular), and that he consequently undertook an “immense labor” by “assembling the whole of history.” Inexplicably, they then adopt Jacoby’s conventional plural title (p. xxiii). Indeed, it was a gigantic work in 144 books, surpassing even Livy by two books. Whatever its title, these books were political history in the manner of Herodotus and a “universal history” of the type first attempted by Ephorus of Cyme in the fourth century B.C. that covered the past of the entire Hellenic world and of known lands beyond it. Identified fragments survive from books 1-7 on the Near Eastern empires of Assyria and the Medes, the mythical early history of Greece, and archaic Greece and Lydia. Nicolas, for example, provided an alternative to the traditional tale of Pelops winning the hand of Hippodameia by victory in a chariot race. A gap ensues from books 8 to 102 except for book 18 on the Mysians of Lydia again and 96 on the Deluge (F72), relating the discovery of an ark on a high mountain in Armenia timbers of which were long preserved. From books 102 through 124 scattered fragments survive on Mithradates of Pontus, Sulla, Lucullus, and Crassus reaching the reign of King Herod in 123 and 124 (F81). As he reached his own day, Nicolas apparently wrote with the level of detail apparent in F130 on the assassination of Caesar (above), devoting the last 20 books to just the final eight years of Herod.

Surveying the surviving fragments the authors derive important conclusions. Nicolas generally followed one source at a time, sometimes combining his main source, e.g. Herodotus on Gyges (F47), with another source, in this case the lost history of the Lydian Xanthos. In Nicolas the authors perceive what they call a “rationalizing” tendency. They see it, for example, in his account of Stheneboea (F9), whose suicide after discovery of her passion for Bellerophon represents “psychological realism”; in characteristic historicizing of myths such as Jason at Iolkos (F54); and in his skepticism about the efficacy of consulting oracles, as in the career of Cypselus of Corinth (F57) or the legislation of Lycurgus at Sparta (F56), except as a means of garnering public support. At least the last of these types does appear to be a form of “rationalizing.”

Greatly to be regretted is the loss of Nicolas of Damascus on Herod the Great, but it is likely that we have a good deal of his account in Josephus. Indeed, a principal reason for recent interest in Nicolas is the likelihood that Josephus adopted him as his main source for the reign of Herod (pp. xv-xvi), and that the narrative of Josephus therefore preserves the evidence of one who was present for critical events and programs of King Herod’s reign, of the king’s buildings, for instance, about which Josephus may represent even the rhetorical flavor of Nicolas’ detailed original.3 Focusing too narrowly on the attested fragments, the authors evince little interest in this topic, and indeed register only the actual fragments in Josephus’ Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities as preserving evidence of Nicolas’ historiography (pp. lii-liii). On this topic scholars will necessarily continue to consult Wacholder and Jacoby himself.


1.   Ben Zion Wacholder (1962), Nicolaus of Damascus (California).
2.   The translation of syskenon here is “compagnon de table,” and indeed the Greek can imply sharing meals as well as quarters. Genuine slip-ups are rare, e.g. on p. xxi the Histories total 106 fragments in Jacoby (two of which have since been excluded), not 143; two footnotes misnumbered on p. 195; and on p. 278 paragraph enumeration misplaced in the translation.
3.   Wacholder, pp. 4-6, cf. recently P. Richardson (2004), Building Jewish in the Roman East (Baylor) and my review of E. Netzer (2006), The Architecture of Herod, the Great Builder(Mohr Siebeck), in JRA 20 (2009): 521-22.

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