Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.23

Christopher A. Baron, Timaeus of Tauromenium and Hellenistic Historiography.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xiii, 301.  ISBN 9781107000971.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Liv Mariah Yarrow, Brooklyn College; CUNY Graduate Center (


Over forty years ago Oswyn Murray observed that a history of Hellenistic historiography remained to be written.1 Baron claims that this task remains to be done (8). If so, his monograph has gone a far way to outlining the anatomy of the problem, exemplifying key themes, and demonstrating best practices. It is far more that a monograph on Timaeus alone. The work opens with a discussion of Philippus of Pergamum (FGrH 95 = IG IV.I2 687; p. 1-4) and ends with a discussion of Duris of Samos (Brill’s New Jacoby 76; p. 247-255). These analyses, together with similar substantial comparative case studies, illustrate methodological issues and thematic harmonies. Throughout, Baron argues that Timaeus fits well with Hellenistic conceptions of historiography, and that Polybius serves as a distorting lens, distracting us from what is typical in Timaeus’ work. It is Polybius himself who emerges as the outlier within the traditions of Hellenistic history-writing.

Baron owns the fact that much of his book is about what one cannot say about Timaeus, correcting not only for intentional distortions we receive through Polybius’ polemic, but also for the errors of earlier scholarship. Baron seems conscious of the dangers of himself becoming an epitimaeus, or “fault-finder”, in the same vein as the namesake of his book. He tries to remain primarily positive within the body of the text, relegating minor corrections of his predecessors to the footnotes. Nevertheless, Jacoby, Champion in Brill’s New Jacoby, and Vattuone are all central characters in this monograph. Baron is especially alive to how Jacoby’s views on the nature of historiography developed over the course of his project, and how the limits of the printed volumes affect our perceptions of the authors therein. He sees much contemporary value in the commentary and textual notes of Jacoby’s original. Throughout, he returns to the weaknesses of the Brill’s New Jacoby, observing that when we read the Brill’s New Jacoby, we are in effect reading Jacoby, not Timaeus, but without the aid of Jacoby’s notes and commentary (12). In an ideal world, devoid of the constraints of modern academic publishing, this monograph would have been accompanied by Baron’s own text, translation, and commentary of Timaeus. As it stands now, scholars will need to consult his index locorum and appendices to identify his numerous and important variant readings and translations.

A few guiding principles are essential to his project as a whole. He restricts himself to attested fragments alone for his reconstruction of the nature of Timaeus’ corpus, regularly drawing attention to where previous interpretations have gone too far, or are in the wrong direction completely, because of assumptions of “Timaean” influence in unattested passages (e.g. 176-178). Baron does not treat all fragments alike, but instead embraces Schepens’ idea of the “cover text” (4 with 16 n. 63). Much of the analysis in this monograph is thus devoted to showing how the transmitting authors’ own project mediates our reading of the Timaean material. This, he acknowledges, is not unlike Vattuone’s “recontextualization” (15), although Baron’s approach is perhaps more conservative. Baron is not blind to Timaeus’ probable influences on authors whose surviving texts do not directly name him, for example Diodorus (111), Trogus (54, 139, cf. 155 n. 59), and Fabius (55). However, he refuses to use such passages as the basis of his reconstruction.

The other overarching principle is Baron’s rejection of rigid genre or sub-genre classifications for ancient histories. Baron rejects both Jacoby’s five part-system (genealogical-mythological, ethnographic, chronographic, contemporary, and local) and also more recent scholarship, which has made distinctions between “tragic”, “rhetorical”, and “pragmatic” histories. Baron repeatedly emphasizes that at least half of Timaeus’ work treated events affecting multiple city-states in his own or his father’s lifetime, and that it thus contained all the elements of Jacoby’s Zeitgeschichte (contemporary history) category. Nonetheless, Jacoby printed the fragments of all the western Greek historians under the headings of horography and ethnography, emphasizing supposed “antiquarian” interests.

As an alternative to these earlier genre categories, Baron embraces Conte’s definition of genre as a “strategy of literary composition” and applies Marincola’s five criteria to Timaeus: narrative vs. non- narrative, focalization, chronological limits, chronological arrangements, and subject matter. Application of these categories reveals that Timaeus was working within the Herodotean tradition, and is perhaps even aptly described as a Herodotus of the West. While these ideas are developed at length in the final two chapters, they are already touchstones throughout the earlier sections.

Chapter 1, “How to Study a Fragmentary Historian”, summarizes Baron’s methodology and the history of previous scholarship, making clear that the book aims to contribute not just to Timaean studies, but to ancient historiography more generally. His stated goal is not to rehabilitate Timaeus, even if on final assessment he ends up cast in a more favorable light.

Chapter 2, “Timaeus’ Life and Works”: rejecting Brown and Champion’s placement of Timaeus in Athens prior to Agathocles’ rise to power, Baron argues that a date of sometime after 316 for Timaeus’ arrival in Athens is more likely. Timaeus’ connection through his father with Timoleon is emphasized. The rest of the chapter surveys his individual works, the Olympic Victors, the Histories, and the Pyrrhic War, exploring the scope of each, while also considering how each may have informed the others.

Chapter 3, “Timaeus’ Legacy: Rome and Beyond”, rejects attributing to Timaeus any special foresight of Rome’s future hegemony, but instead sees Timaeus’ treatment of Rome as informed by his ethnographic interests. Baron is optimistic that Timaeus may have discussed Rome’s Trojan origins in his treatment of the Pyrrhic wars, while endorsing Erskine’s view that these origins were not part of Pyrrhus’ own propaganda. The second half of the chapter considers Timaeus’ reception in antiquity, a theme developed throughout the book. He derives an important lesson on the vicissitudes of survival from the absence of Timaeus’ name among the fragments of the pinakes (library catalog) found at the gymnasium of Tauromenium, and aptly points out that Polybius’ book-length tirade presupposes the popularity of Timaeus. Baron is pessimistic that Timaeus’ work survived much past the second century AD. Later citations are likely to derive from secondhand references (cf. discussion of Photius, p. 146).

Chapter 4, “The Distorting Lens of Polybius and Timaeus”, emphasizes the stock elements within Polybius’ attack and how, outside of book 12, Polybius demonstrably accepts Timaeus as a worthy predecessor. A running theme within Polybius’ invective is Timaeus’ enjoyment of his attacks on earlier writers, as shown through Polybius’ use of phil-compounds to describe him. Baron shows logical inconsistencies in Polybius’ characterization of Timaeus’ “bookish nature” and makes a convincing argument that Timaeus’ specialty was documentary evidence, the backbone of his reputation as an authority. The second half of the chapter is devoted to the distorting effect of Polybius’ polemic. Baron also develops the comparison with Herodotus, which will emerge most fully in his final chapter. Here, as well as throughout the book, Baron highlights how Polybius has determined modern readings of Timaeus. Less discussion is given to how Polybius’ point of view may have influenced subsequent authors in antiquity.

Chapter 5, “A Stranger in a Strange Land? Timaeus in Athens”, gives an extended critique of Momigliano’s 1959 article. Baron rejects the idea of Timaeus’ “radical isolation” or “lonely meditation.” To do so, he provides detailed historical background on the intersections between Athens and the West in the age of the Diadochi, thus demonstrating how the city was directly relevant to the contemporary affairs covered by Timaeus’ history, and vice versa. This is perhaps best illustrated through Baron’s discussion of the marriage connections of Agathocles, the antagonist of the last five books of Timaeus’ history.

The first half of chapter 6, “Polemical Invective and the Hellenistic Historian’s Craft”, continues the focus on Athens and its political and intellectual affairs. Baron’s reading of Timaeus’ criticisms of Aristotle reveal the former’s use of both humor and literary intertexts. Timaeus’ invective is further contextualized through the writings of Theophrastus and the fourth century comic stage. He ends with an important contrast between Polybius and Timaeus, namely that Polybius’ polemic is directed at Timaeus as a direct rival, and is thus an attempt to tear down Timaeus’ reputation in general, whereas Timaeus “engages in personal attacks on a case-by-case basis, where he needs to win an argument against them” (129). The second half of the chapter is a close comparison between Timaeus and his contemporary, Philochorus. Primary points of overlap include chronographical research, the use of documents, an interest in etymologies, and a tendency to treat more contemporary affairs in greater detail.

Chapter 7, “The Missing Link? Pythagoras and Pythagoreans”. The surviving fragments suggest that Timaeus’ interest in the Pythagoreans stems from his desire to demonstrate the “primacy of the Greek west in terms of cultural and intellectual achievements” (140). Baron’s approach is necessarily reductive, given how modern scholars have ignored multiple stages in the transmission of evidence with the result that they credit much of our surviving discussion in late authors, such as Iamblichus, to Timaeus. On a more constructive note, the chapter concludes with a comparison of Timaeus’ treatment of Pythagorus and Empedocles.

Chapter 8, “Just Like a Schoolboy: Timaeus and his Speeches”. Here, again, Baron’s primary aim is to correct for the distorting perspective of Polybius, who is revealed to have been intellectually isolated in his views on speeches in histories, whereas Timaeus’ approach is shown to be within the Hellenistic mainstream. Cicero and the author of On the Sublime in particular are marshaled to demonstrate stylistic admiration of Timaeus in antiquity. F22, the speech of Hermocrates at Gela, is given extended treatment; Baron sees it as possible that Timaeus’ version of the speech resembled that of Thucydides and that within Timaeus’ histories, the congress at Gela is a “symbolic moment in which the Siceliots glimpsed the possibility of peace”(190). The chapter gives special attention to Timaeus’ wordplay, a characteristic returned to throughout the book (cf. 127, 221, 244-245). Overall, Baron emphasizes that Timaeus conceived of ta deonta in significantly different terms than Polybius.

Chapter 9, “Generic Choices: The Shape of Timaeus’ Histories”, provides the detailed analyses mentioned above, following the structure proposed by Maricola. This leads directly into Chapter 10, “Herodotean Historiography in the Hellenistic Age”; Baron agrees with Murray’s view that Hellenistic historians “saw the world through Herodotean eyes.” To this end, he brings forward Flower’s observations on the frequency of phrases such as “until my time” and “even still today,” and demonstrates the extent of such time markers in the surviving fragments of Timaeus. He sees Herodotus as Timaeus’ model for narrative structure and also in his subject matter, which was determined by an “all-inclusive approach to history” (241).

Baron has produced a highly readable and engaging study of a single author, with broad implications for the study of not only Hellenistic historiography, but all fragmentary historians. It is likely that individual chapters, such as those focusing on Athens, the speeches, or Pythagoras may be read individually by scholars primarily focused on related topics. Each chapter has a satisfying internal cohesion, as if it were a stand-alone essay. Thus the broad themes highlighted at the outset of this review are reinforced throughout the work again and again. While this reader had a few quibbles here and there, and others may find areas of interpretation with which they disagree, overall this book is certain to play an integral role in future discussions of Hellenistic historiography.


1.   O. Murray, “Most Politick Historiographer Hermann Strasburger,“ Classical Review 18.2 (1968): 218-221. (Review of Hermann Strasburger, Die Wesensbestimmung der Geschichte durch die Antike Geschichtsschreibung Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1966.)

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