Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.65 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.65

Luis Ballesteros Pastor, Pompeyo Trogo, Justino y Mitrídates: Comentario al Epítome de las Historias Filípicas (37,1,6 - 38,8,1). Spudasmata, Bd 154.   Hildesheim:  Georg Olms Verlag, 2013.  Pp. 368.  ISBN 9783487150703.  €58.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by David Braund, University of Exeter (

Mithridates VI Eupator continues to fascinate and to generate publications of differing quality. This book is among the best to appear in recent decades, as will be no great surprise to those who follow Mithridatic matters closely. For Ballesteros Pastor has already given us a fine biography of the king (Granada, 1996) and a string of valuable articles about aspects of his reign. All that work has been characterized not only by the close attention to sources that is basic to ancient history, but also by a desire to understand and appreciate the larger concerns of the ancient authors whose works he seeks to use. Now, in the book under review, we have much of the fruit of this sustained attention to ancient writing about Mithridates, centred upon Justin’s summary version of historical writing about Mithridates and his time that is ascribed to Trogus.

In terms of structure, the book is familiar and conservative. A short preface is followed by an extended introduction, Justin’s Latin text (a large slice of Books 37 and 38) and a detailed commentary (of a broadly historical nature), keyed to that text. The book closes with an enormous bibliography and useful indices of names and selected subjects.

However, this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Introduction in particular is extraordinarily broad in scope and rich in detail. In setting the scene for the commentary, its formidable 102 pages offer a coherent vision of the issues at stake by starting with Trogus and Justin and then leading the reader through a series of attendant topics. From consideration of Armenian and Cappadocian perspectives, we proceed to a valuable discussion of the “prologues” in our text, to the awkward problem of the text’s attitudes to Rome and particular Romans. We are reminded in detail of the Roman willingness to engage in self-criticism on imperialism and related matters, albeit without threatening the reality of Roman imperialism and often with an eye to damning particular Romans for their supposed deviance from an acceptable imperialist norm. Further, we are given (in all due caution) an enticing collation of what might be signs of Pontic propaganda in our text along with Sallust’s famous Letter of Mithridates, which might be taken similarly. Then we have a series of knotty chronological problems in connection with Mithridates’ accession, death and more. And finally a very valuable discussion of Trogus’ influence, as far as it can be traced, in a series of other major authorities on Mithridates, namely Florus, Valerius Maximus, Frontinus, Orosius and Plutarch.

There is a great deal to absorb in this introduction, which is all but a book in its own right. However, the reader is assisted by a very helpful arrangement of topics and array of sub-headings. Indeed, the introduction closes with its own conclusion, recapitulating the outcome of its wide-ranging discussion. Here we have in a nutshell the main findings of the book, which form the framework for the commentary to follow. There are bold, large hypotheses here, with which this reviewer has a variety of difficulties. However, these hypotheses are grounded in reasoned argument, so that, even if readers do not feel able to travel all the way with Ballesteros Pastor, they will learn a great deal en route, not least by revisiting assumptions.

The central claims are: 1) Trogus was the author of our text insofar as he adapted a Universal History which had been composed at the court(s) of the rulers of Armenia and Cappadocia. Particular attention is drawn to Tigranes and Archelaus I. In the course of this adaptation, Trogus added material, particularly as supplied by his elders. Trogus’ work was in turn especially important to Appian and Memnon of Heraclea Pontica. Moreover, (2) Justin has not only abridged Trogus, but has also reworked his text in more fundamental ways (e.g. in his version of Mithridates famous “harangue”). Justin’s interest (even pride, it is claimed) in Scythians is explained in terms of what Ballesteros Pastor takes to be Justin’s own Scythian identity. By this he means that Justin should be imagined as a citizen of Olbia or another of the cities of the north Black Sea.

Inevitably questions and doubts abound, but one cannot fail to be impressed by Ballesteros Pastor’s ability to pose challenges, asking, for example why Heraclea Pontica gets quite so much attention in our text. Of course, we might prefer to develop arguments along different lines: the Mithridatic relationship with Scythians, for example, could be seen as enmity or friendship or part of a larger nexus of ideas about culture, civilization and evidence of Mithridatic success. Meanwhile, the Greeks of the northern Black Sea did not usually relish their Scythian connections, still less take pride in them. Even if we deem Justin to have been himself a Scythian in some sense (and there is no pressing cause to do so), that would be the beginning of our exploration of his concern with Scythians, not the end of the matter. There is also the larger issue of “ethnographic material” in the text as a whole, from which Scythians cannot be wholly divorced and with which Ballesteros Pastor does not much engage. However, no matter how we choose to proceed, it is useful to ask the question that arises from Ballesteros Pastor’s observation of Scythian prominence in the text, not to mention the many oddities in its representation of Scythian history. While Ballesteros Pastor is not one for polemics, the great virtues of his work in general and of this book perhaps most clearly are his unwillingness to accept received wisdom uncritically and his own creative freedom of thought to good purpose. The subsequent commentary is of great value even if one does not follow the author in his larger arguments of the Introduction. We find throughout the commentary a wealth of learned discussion of matters arising from the text, with detailed ancient sources and up-to-date modern scholarship. All this is done very concisely.

In sum this bold book sheds a great deal of light, while it will probably also generate a certain amount of heat in debate. In either case, such sustained and well-informed attention to this important and tricky text can only be a very good thing. Meanwhile, the learned commentary makes this book a must for all who seek to use this text with historical or historiographical intent. It is to be hoped that the fact that this fine book has been published in Spanish will not deter too many readers.

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