Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.11.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.11.32

Kathryn Welch (ed.), Appian's Roman History: Empire and Civil War. Roman culture in an age of civil war.   Swansea:  Classical Press of Wales, 2015.  Pp. xxvi, 326.  ISBN 9781910589007.  $100.00.  

Reviewed by Adam Kemezis, University of Alberta (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Through no fault of his own, Appian will always be unsatisfying to most of his modern readers. These readers are chiefly historians of mid-to-late republican Rome who are obliged to rely on his history as the most complete surviving narrative of events that took place two to three centuries before he wrote. For these purposes, his text can never be an adequate substitute for the now-lost contemporary works on which it is (directly or indirectly) based.

Throughout the twentieth century, scholars often felt that because Appian was not the author they needed him to be, he was therefore a bad author in absolute terms: unoriginal, uncomprehending and unskilled. He was thus primarily the target of source-research, for which purpose it was interpretively useful to treat him as something of a cipher. This started to change in the 1990s, when, in line with new approaches to ancient historiography in general, a series of important works established Appian as an author with a coherent structure, methodology and point of view. 1 This boost in critical esteem improved the quality of subsequent work on Appian, but not necessarily its quantity. Twenty years on, he remains a little-studied author, less than Plutarch or even Cassius Dio.

At last, however, Kathryn Welch has produced a volume of essays devoted entirely to the Alexandrian historian, one which makes considerable advances in its own right and points the way, one hopes, to further work in several promising directions. The book, comprising fifteen essays plus Welch's introduction, all in English, comes out of a conference held in 2010 in Sydney. Australians are thus well represented among the contributors, who include several well-known scholars primarily of the late Republican period (all Anglophone except for Kai Brodersen).

Welch's introduction provides a comprehensive survey of historical reception and recent work on Appian, and perceptively explores an important methodological tension that runs through the whole book, one on which Welch and the contributors wisely avoid trying to impose a uniform resolution. Granted that Appian is not a passive or transparent replicator of his sources, what is he? Put a different way, should his text be approached as the coherent and consciously shaped product of an original literary artist, or as the last stage of a tradition, molded in various ways by Appian himself but still heavily determined in its content and ideology by earlier authors? The answer often depends on the type of questions one is using Appian to answer. Historians of the periods Appian describes (including Welch herself) will tend on the whole to prefer the latter. Their contributions make up the majority of the volume and will be dealt with first, somewhat diverging from their order in the book.

The two most ambitious in this category are those by John Rich and Richard Westall, which between them constitute almost a third of the book and deserve to be treated at length as a diptych. Rich's piece is a lengthy exploration of one of the more neglected corners of Appian, his account in the Syriakē of Rome's war against Antiochus III in the early 180s. In Rich's view, Appian relies directly and almost solely on Polybius for this account, and indeed for all his other narratives of the period covered by that author (and for earlier periods on Dionysius of Halicarnassus). Rich lays out (69-72) a model of Appian's working methods in which the historian first read through a single principal source and compiled from it a hypomnēma (translated as "draft," though one might equally use "sketch"). Then in a second stage of his work, Appian turned the hypomnēma into a finished literary composition. As Rich notes, such a method leaves little scope for further consultation or supplementing of the original source, but does allow an author to shape his material and give it his own voice. Through the rest of the essay, Rich compares Appian's text with the Polybian account (largely as reconstructed from Livy) and argues that divergences can best be explained as Appian imposing his own emphasis on the material, in particular by focusing more tightly than Polybius on the moral agency of Antiochus. Rich is admirably thorough on the many points of detail, though our lack of the Polybian original makes it difficult to close the door entirely on those who want to construct a different source picture.

Westall, by contrast, addresses the biggest of Appianic source questions, namely the Civil Wars. He aims to decisively disprove the theory, associated above all with Emilio Gabba, that Appian relies almost entirely on Asinius Pollio. In doing this, however, Westall rejects the entire model on which that theory was based, in which Appian relies on a single source more or less contemporary with the events. Most of the essay is taken up with a survey of Appian's (unexpectedly numerous) citations of literary and epigraphic material. In Westall's view, these citations cannot in most cases reflect Appian's own reading of contemporary authors and documents, but are best explained as second-hand, taken from a variety of later sources. To the extent Westall believes in one principal source, it is the Elder Seneca (158-9).

The contrast between these two views is instructive. Rich's Appian remains a useful conduit for the lost historiography of Republican Rome, but he is also a somewhat original author, which limits that usefulness. Westall's Appian is less of an author and passes his sources on more faithfully than Rich's, but the sources involved are more varied and later than one would wish for reconstructive purposes. Both essays are cogently argued and show deep engagement with Appian's text, but it is difficult to see how they could both be correct. In their thoughtful use of authorial models, however, the essays allow for uncommonly stimulating comparison. This is a newer and more sophisticated kind of source-research.

This applies also to Welch's own contribution. She examines Appian's narrative of the two and a half years from Caesar's assassination in 44 to the Assassins' final defeat in 42. Welch (among others) sees a major disconnect between the material up to the start of Book 4 (when the proscriptions begin) and the rest. In her view, this is best explained by a change of source, and Welch finds evidence for this both in thematic discrepancies and in varying points of view. In her view, Appian's own (pro-Caesarian) opinions remain manifest but do not obscure the two distinct voices of his sources. The identity of those sources, however, is left an open question. Fiona Tweedie's contribution similarly uses inconsistency as a way to detect different source-traditions. She examines Appian's view of Scipio Aemilianus, which appears distinctly positive in the Libykē (in the Polybian tradition) but ambiguous in the Iberikē (thought to derive from Posidonius). Although Tweedie finds more of Appian's voice in the latter portrayal, she reaches a similar conclusion to Welch, that Appian has made little effort to bring consistency to disparate traditions. Lastly in this vein, Tom Stevenson looks at the juxtaposition of the related concepts tychē and eutychia in Appian's narrative of the Pharsalus campaign (BC 2.48-91) and detects patterns that point to the possible influence of the "Pompeian" Livy.

Several of the remaining contributions focus on particular short episodes or historical questions. Of these, the most provocative is that of Bronwyn Hopwood, who argues that the speech of Hortensia preserved at BC 4.32-34 draws on a surviving authentic text of this rare act of female political speech. Evidence for this (312-18) includes the continued circulation at least into Quintilian's time of a speech attributed to Hortensia and (in Hopwood's view) resonances of the same speech in Livy's account in Book 34 of the Lex Oppia. Hopwood also finds correspondences between Hortensia's speech and the text (usually seen as basically authentic) that Appian gives for the Proscription Edict.

Martin Stone's and Kit Morrell's articles both deal with complex points of historical reconstruction (respectively Ti. Gracchus' land law and Drusus' failed judicial reforms of 91) that lend themselves poorly to a summary. Both scholars, however, see in Appian an active author whose technique results in a dramatization and condensation that, while coherent and even admirable from a literary point of view, creates thorny problems for those who aim to extract from his text points of legal nuance.

The remainder of the contributions in the volume mainly deal with literary or cultural-historical aspects of Appian's text and career. Josiah Osgood's piece aims to give a context for Appian's unusual structure, which narrates Roman conquest province by province rather than in annalistic sequence. Osgood attractively links this view with a series of representations (visual as well as literary) of the empire as a sequence of provincial units. These include Augustus' famous breviarium read out by Tiberius at his funeral, as well as the famous reliefs from the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias and the writings of Josephus and Florus. For Osgood, Appian's text reflects a Hadrianic-Antonine revival of Augustus' ideology of the empire as a complete whole to which the provinces are just as integral as the imperial center.

Jonathan Price's contribution reads Appian's Civil Wars through the lens of Thucydides' portrayal of stasis as an all-consuming and inescapable condition that tears apart orderly society. Appian follows Thucydides in seeing the Roman civil wars as an instance of Rome being destroyed by the aretē that had brought it greatness. Appian diverges, however, in seeing a uniquely Roman solution to the destructive cycle, namely the foundation of the stable monarchical state built on homonoia. Luke Pitcher's article on "the Erotics of Appian" has indisputably the most unexpected title in the book. While Pitcher is obliged to admit that in fact Appian hardly discusses sexual desire at all, he makes the significant point that the few exceptions almost all concern non-Roman leaders or Romans (notably Sertorius) who have taken on "barbarian" characteristics. Pitcher explores the implications of these episodes for Appian's extant (and disappointingly chaste) portrayal of Caesar and his lost account of Antony and Cleopatra. Eleanor Cowan's piece on "Deceit in Appian" naturally has more material to work with. In particular, she follows the language of hypokrisis through the portrayals of Antony and Octavian (both of whom appear to claim the quality for themselves) and then of Julius Caesar (who is a master deceiver until he is himself taken in by the Assassins).

The remaining pieces include two that focus on reception. Andrew Bonnell aims to give some moderating context to the much-quoted remarks of Karl Marx praising Appian. Heartening as Marx's verdict is, the Alexandrian played a relatively small part in forming his historical thought. Anton Powell surveys modern translations of Appian and takes to task the most widely used English version (Horace White's Loeb) for toning down key aspects of the Greek, including Appian's use of divine vocabulary to account for unexpected contingencies, and some phrases that may hearken back to Augustus' propaganda against Sextus Pompey. The volume concludes with a piece by Kai Brodersen on the recently discovered sarcophagus epitaph by a certain "Appianos" who is very likely our historian. The poem commemorates a wife named Eutychia ("good fortune"), and Brodersen finds it perhaps not coincidental that eutychia is in Appian's history one of the driving forces of Roman success.

It remains only to add that as a whole the volume testifies amply to Welch's skill and experience as an editor. The contributions are well selected and there is abundant evidence of cross-fertilization and quality control: typos and errors are few and inconsequential. The index is full and the consolidated bibliography invaluable, although using the latter with endnotes (after every article) is cumbersome. The book is well laid out and pleasingly sturdy. It also contains several excellent maps. It is an altogether exemplary volume.

Table of Contents

Kathryn Welch, "Appian of Alexandria: A Reappraisal" - 1-13
Andrew G. Bonnell, "A 'very valuable book': Karl Marx and Appian" - 15-21
Josiah Osgood, "Breviarium Totius Imperii: The Background of Appian's Roman History" - 23-44
Jonathan J. Price, "Thucydidean Stasis and the Roman Empire in Appian's Interpretation of History" - 45-63
John Rich, "Appian, Polybius and the Romans' War with Antiochus the Great: A Study in Appian's Sources and Methods" - 65-123
Richard Westall, "The Sources for the Civil Wars of Appian of Alexandria" - 125-67
Fiona Tweedie, "Appian's Characterisation of Scipio Aemilianus" - 169-84
Eleanor Cowan, "Deceit in Appian" - 185-203
Luke Pitcher, "The Erotics of Appian" - 205-19
Martin Stone, "Tiberius Gracchus and the Nations of Italy" - 221-34
Kit Morrell, "Appian and the Judiciary Law of M. Livius Drusus (tr. pl. 91)" - 235-55
Tom Stevenson "Appian on the Pharsalus Campaign: Civil Wars 2.48-91" - 257-75
Kathryn Welch, "Programme and Narrative in Civil Wars 2.118-4.138" - 277-304
Bronwyn Hopwood, "Hortensia Speaks: An Authentic Voice of Resistance?" - 305-22
Anton Powell, "Appian: Canary in the Coal Mine of Roman History? Modern Translations and the History of the Triumviral Period." - 323-40
Kai Brodersen, "Epitaphios: Appianos and his Treasured Eutychia θησαυρίζειν τὴν εὐτυχίαν" - 341-50


1.   These begin perhaps with the monographs by Bernhard Goldmann (Einheitlichkeit und Eigenständigkeit der Historia Romana des Appian, Hildesheim 1988) and Alain Gowing (The Triumviral Narratives of Appian and Cassius Dio, Ann Arbor 1992) and include the many contributions on Appian in ANRW 2.34.1 (1993) as well as the relevant sections of Martin Hose, Erneuerung der Vergangenheit: Die Historiker im Imperium Romanum von Florus bis Cassius Dio (Stuttgart, 1994) and several articles by Kai Brodersen and Gregory Bucher.

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