Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.07.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.07.39

Nicolas Wiater, Dionysius von Halikarnass. Römische Frühgeschichte, Band 1: Bücher 1 bis 3. Bibliothek der griechischen Literatur, Bd 75.   Stuttgart:  Anton Hiersemann, 2014.  Pp. viii, 365.  ISBN 9783777214047.  €194.00.  

Reviewed by John Noël Dillon (

Table of Contents

This is the first volume of a new German translation of the Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, covering books 1-3 of Dionysius’s account of the origins and early history of the Roman people. For German-speakers, this translation is indeed a very welcome replacement of the nineteenth-century translation of Schaller and Christian.1 For international scholars who read German, it also represents a significant improvement over the aging Loeb translation by Ernest Cary.2 Only in French have two volumes (1 and 3) of a new Belles Lettres edition of Dionysius’ Antiquities appeared, as well as translations of books 1 and 2 and the fragmentary books 14-20.3

This volume in particular is valuable for its detailed introduction (55 pages), in which Wiater provides the reader with a valuable overview of Dionyius of Halicarnassus’ intellectual and social background, his classicizing worldview, and the Antiquities itself as a historiographical work and as a historical source. Wiater’s discussion of the principles behind the translation itself also gives insight into Dionysius’ idiosyncratic style by comparison to German academic prose. On the whole, in just 55 pages, Wiater succeeds in giving an outstanding, accessible introduction to this important historiographical work.

For Wiater, Dionysius’ classicizing worldview is the basis for understanding his historical work.4 He thus begins by placing Dionysius in the context of likeminded Greek intellectuals in Augustan Rome against the background of Greco-Roman cultural exchange. Dionysius was one of several prominent Greeks (e.g., Strabo and Nicolaus of Damascus) pursuing a revival of classical Greek style under Augustus. Dionysius’ classicism, however, was more than an aesthetic preference for the classical age (9). It entailed political and moral conceptions that Dionysius sought to establish and reinforce in his own day. In his view, the “philosophical rhetoric” of the classical age had declined after the death of Alexander the Great. As the Greek heartland lost its political and cultural importance, the classical political and moral values it embodied also gave way to the barbarized forms of the Hellenistic period, until the triumph of Rome in the age of Augustus made it possible to return to the classical ideals. As Wiater succinctly puts it, “classical Greek culture is spread over the entire inhabited world by Roman power, but Roman power under Augustus may be considered a positive development only because the Romans themselves have made these classical Greek moral, political, and aesthetic ideals their own” (11).

The broad purpose of the Antiquities itself is to promote this classical revival in the shadow of Roman power, while claiming Rome itself for Greece. Dionysius’ immediate goal to that end, as Wiater concisely states, is to prove that the Romans are ethnically and culturally Greek (16). Dionysius is genuinely interested in Roman history and values, but he views everything from the perspective of the Romans’ Greek identity and their relationship with contemporary Greeks (ibid.). Dionysius’ account is written against the background of the mutual ambivalence the Greeks and Romans felt toward one another and the importance of diplomatic kinship relations in Greek thought (17). Wiater emphasizes that the Romans adapted Greek culture; they did not slavishly imitate it. Yet adaptation also induced an “anxiety of influence” in Roman intellectual culture, leading some Romans to assert the independence of their achievements. Dionysius paradoxically cuts this knot by acknowledging the achievements of Rome while claiming them for Greece. The Antiquities is ultimately “the most comprehensive and ambitious attempt in the Greek language to determine the essence of the Romans... The question of the Romans’ essence and their relationship to the Greeks is the framework in which all other topics are discussed to begin with” (23).

Wiater considers potential Greek and Roman reactions to Dionysius’ Antiquities before moving on to consider the work as a historical source. With respect to the question of whether the Antiquities is pro- or anti-Augustus, Wiater regards that dichotomy as a chimera: Dionysius was profoundly conservative, and his views thus bear some affinity to Augustus’ conservative restoration program, but there is nothing to suggest that the Antiquities was composed as a propagandistic work for or against Augustus (31-33).

To situate the Antiquities as a historical source, Wiater devotes several pages to reviewing early Roman historiography and the pitfalls of using it as a source for early Roman history. Wiater is squarely in the camp of the skeptics. The conclusion is that “one should not expect too much of the Roman Antiquities as a historical source”: Dionysius’ sources may have preserved authentic information, but there is no way to verify it (41, reiterated 44). The Antiquities is, however, a valuable historical source of another sort: as a cultural-historical document, it gives us a reliable picture of what Romans in the first century BC believed about their origins. The Antiquities is especially valuable for giving a snapshot of the influence that contact with the Romans had had on Greek thought and the Greek worldview (45).

Wiater concludes his introduction with an interesting discussion of the principles of his translation. The text and transmission of the Antiquities, as well as modern editions of the text, is briefly discussed in an earlier section (13-16). The translation is based primarily on Carl Jacoby’s Teubner edition (1885-1905), but for books 1 and 3 Wiater has also consulted the new Belles Lettres editions by Fromentin and Sautel. Divergences from Jacoby’s text are duly noted in the footnotes to the translation.

In translating Dionysius, Wiater strives not only to be accurate and readable, but also “to convey to the reader the same impression as the original” (48). In that, he has brilliantly succeeded: his German Dionysius, to my mind, has virtually the same feel as the Greek original. Even allowing for the breaking up of long periods and modern punctuation, the German text breathes the same factual yet involved style that makes Dionysius a more challenging author than first meets the eye. Wiater aptly characterizes Dionysius’ style as “procedural” or “academic,” reminiscent of scholarly German prose of the 19th century: “All syntactical possibilities are exhausted to cram as much information as possible in every sentence” (46). The result is “artistic, but not elegant” (ibid.). In other words, Dionysius recalls rather the complex, dense prose of vintage Pauly-Wissowa articles, while he lacks “the stylistic virtuosity and analytical acuity of a Mommsen” (47). Wiater captures this peculiar style brilliantly and similarly conveys the stilted formalism of the fictional speeches that Dionysius liberally inserts throughout the Antiquities (though they are still relatively short in the first few books). If Wiater errs in any way, it is perhaps by making Dionysius more elegant in German than he is in Greek.

Despite the fluency of Wiater’s German Dionysius, an important orthographic choice reinforces the impression that one is reading a Greek work of Roman historiography: rather than use conventional Latin or even Latinized names for persons and places, Wiater transcribes Dionysius’ Greek orthography as it appears in the Greek text. The German translation thus nonetheless has an alienating effect on the reader, as Dionysius’ Hellenization of the Romans is inscribed in the text itself. The seven kings of Rome, for instance, are Romylos, Nomas Pompilios, Tyllos Hostilios, Ankos Markios, Leukios Tarkynios Priskos, Serouïos Tyllius, and Leukios Tarkynios Souperbos (148f.). To avoid confusion, Wiater provides the reader with the conventional forms in brackets when each is first mentioned (the index likewise uses the conventional forms). The effect of the Greek transcriptions, however, is sometimes startling. Fabius Pictor and Cato the Elder, for example, appear as Koïntos Phabios and “Katon der Porkier” (146), and names such as Laouïnion (Lavinium) may not be self-evident to the uninitiated. Wiater’s translation thus compels readers to view the Romans from Dionysius’ Greek perspective, as Dionysius himself intended.

Besides its high inherent quality, the translation is also extremely user-friendly. Wiater has divided each book into discrete sections according to Dionysius’ subject, and these are all indicated in the table of contents of the translation and repeated at the beginning of each book, so that readers can easily skip to whatever part interests them most. These section headings likewise appear as running headers throughout the book. Wiater has further divided each section into episodes. For example, in book 1, a section titled “Identität, Abstammung und Schicksal der Gründer Roms,” covering chapters 76-85 (148-162) is divided into five episodes: Amulius and Numitor, the rape of Ilia and birth of Romulus and Remus, the rescue of the twins by the wolf, the capture of Remus and reunion with Numitor, and alternative versions of the story.

The translation is also provided with informative footnotes treating a wide variety of details of potential interest to both experts and amateurs. Wiater devotes considerable space to discussing textual-critical problems and departures from Jacoby’s standard edition. His textual proposals merit serious scholarly attention. The footnotes furthermore explain Greek and Latin etymologies, references to historical and mythological persons and places, Dionysius’ sources, and other historical and literary questions, drawing primarily on the New Pauly and the French commented editions of Fromentin and Sautel. The notes thus amount to an unobtrusive commentary on the text and tend to accumulate precisely where they are of the most immediate help to Roman historians. Finally, readers will benefit from the updated bibliography appended to the end of the introduction (51-55), and an index of persons, names and things at the end (357-366).

To conclude, Wiater has produced an outstanding translation of Dionysius’ Antiquities that will undoubtedly serve as the standard translation among scholars writing in German. The accuracy and elegance of Wiater’s translation moreover recommend it to any German-reading scholar seeking to come to terms directly with the Greek text itself. The only major drawback to this translation is the publisher’s price tag of €194, which will relegate it largely to wealthy research libraries and encourage readers to continue to rely on the translations freely available online, whether in English at Lacus Curtius or German at Google Books.


1.   Gottfriend Jakob Schaller and Adolph Heinrich Christian (trans.), Urgeschichte der Römer, 12 vols. (Stuttgart: Metztler, 1827-1849).
2.   Ernest Cary (trans.), The Roman Antiquities, Loeb Classical Library, 7 vols. (Cambridge, -MA: Harvard University Press, 1937-1950).
3.   Valérie Fromentin (ed. and trans.), Antiquités Romaines, vol. 1, Introduction Générale – Livre 1 (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1998); Jacques-Hubert Sautel (ed. and trans.), Antiquités Romaines, vol. 3, Livre III (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2002); Valérie Fromentin/Jacques Schnäbele (trans.), Denys d’Halicarnasse: Les Origines de Rome (Les Antiquités Romaines livres I et II), Les Belles Lettres, La Roue à livres 2, (Paris 1990); Sylvie Pittia (ed., trans.), Denys d’Halicarnasse: Rome et la conquête de l’Italie aux IVe et IIIe s. avant J.-C., Les Belles Lettres, Collection Fragments 2 (Paris 2002).
4.   Readers should consult Wiater’s own important work on this subject: Nicolas Wiater, The Ideology of Classicism: Language, History, and Identity in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, 105 (Berlin; New York: De Gruyter, 2011). Reviewed in BMCR 2012.06.41.

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