Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.39

Egidia Occhipinti, The Hellenica Oxyrhynchia and Historiography: New Research Perspectives. Mnemosyne supplements: monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 395.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2016.  Pp. xi, 303.  ISBN 9789004325715.  $151.00.  

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Universiteit van Amsterdam (


The Hellenica Oxyrhynchia (henceforth HO) is the name given to a history of Greece in the late fifth and early fourth centuries BC, of which papyrus fragments were found at Oxyrhynchus, modern El Bahnasa, near the Oasis Fayum in Egypt. The largest of the three generally accepted papyrus groups that constitute (what is left of) the HO, commonly known as the London fragment, was found in 1906 and published in 1908 by Grenfell and Hunt as P.Oxy. 5.842. 1 It dates to the second or third century AD. It narrates events from 397 to 395 BC. Another major group, known as the Florentine papyrus, was found in 1934 by E. Breccia. This fragment, referred to as PSI 1304, dating to the second century AD, deals with episodes in the Decelean War between 409-407 BC. It was published only in 1949 by Bartoletti in the series of the Pubblicazioni della Societa Italiana per la ricerca dei papyri greci e latini in Egitto.2 To the HO belongs also a third important fragment, the P.Cairo 26/6/27/1-35, dating to the late first century AD.3 It reports events between 411 and 406 BC. Together, these three papyrus groups constitute about 900 (incomplete) lines of the original work. Apart from these, there are some more potential fragments of the HO, of which, however, the attribution is contested (1). The HO seems to have been intended as some sort of a continuation of Thucydides (as is frequently also assumed to have been the case for Xenophon’s Hellenica: for a comparison between the two, e.g., see pp. 8-11 of the book under scrutiny). Currently, the unknown author of the HO is, conveniently, described as ‘P’. A review of all fragments of the text, including a historical commentary, can be found in Bruce4; the currently adopted editions are those by Bartoletti or McKechnie and Kern.5

In contrast to most works on the HO, “[t]his book involves a new historiographical study of the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia that defines its relationship with fifth- and fourth-century historical works as well as its role as a source of Diodorus’ Bibliotheke” (1). After the introductory chapter (1-11), describing some issues relating to the HO in modern scholarship, Occhipinti analyses the position of the HO in modern historiographical research in 2 parts, the first consisting of 3 chapters, involving “a close analysis of the HO against other sources relating the same facts” (11), the second of 5 chapters, offering a thematic approach.

Though various works from the fourth century BC, notably by Xenophon and Theopompus, were introduced as a Hellenica and could be seen, to some extent, as an effort to continue Thucydides’ work, they differ from Thucydides at least in one major respect, viz. that they increasingly referred “to broad contents, which were not limited to Greek subjects” or adapted “a sort of synchronistic narrative … to their annalistic framework” (17). This change, Occhipinti argues, was largely caused by the fact that political networks in which Greek affairs played a part had expanded outside the traditional Greek world and therefore needed attention. Like others, ‘P’ also “regarded some form of chronological framework as a natural and convenient way of organising his material within the narrative” (21). Within this context, however, he also pointed out synchronisms, thereby hopping from one theatre of events to another, alternating between narrative and analytical episodes: as such “he combined together both Thucydides’ and Herodotus’ methods of composition” (23). Simultaneously, ‘P’ informs his audience “which accounts … are trustworthy in comparison with others” (27).

A main topic in the HO, discussed in chapter three (31-56), appears to have been the explanation why several Greek poleis opposed Sparta, leading to the so-called Corinthian War, as well as Spartan motivations to go to war in Asia Minor (‘P’ generally shows himself very familiar with its terrain, events, and Persian operations). In the latter context, Occhipinti investigates whether the HO (probably to be dated no later than c. 346 BC) “can be seen as a sort of historiographical reply to Xenophon’s Hellenica” (31). If this would prove to be true, it should date the HO at least slightly later than Xenophon’s work: according to Occhipinti “[t]his claim is … plausible” (32). Moreover, also the thematic evidence she discusses in chapters five (89-115) and six (116-140) “enforces our assumption that the Oxyrhynchus historian replies to Xenophon’s narrative” (33). If only because of this comparison (and the arguments she adduces in this chapter), Occhipinti’s work provides a welcome addition to the research on fourth-century BC historiography.

In my view, chapter four (57-86), in which Occhipinti compares the work of Diodorus, the HO, and Xenophon, is one of the pivotal chapters of this book. Diodorus’ Bibliotheke is our main literary source of information for the history of the mid-fourth century BC. It is still commonly believed that if the HO was among Diodorus’ sources, it was through mediation of Ephorus of Cyme’s Histories (a work known through some fragments, some attributions, and several conjectures but otherwise lost). Occhipinti argues that Diodorus’ account shows more consistency than often accepted as well as “a certain independence from his sources” (67). Working in this vein, Diodorus used both Xenophon and the HO, thoroughly adapting them to fit his own style and purpose. Moreover, Occhipinti also demonstrates that Diodorus probably used the HO directly, i.e. without any mediation. Occhipinti’s analysis is a refreshing contribution and stimulus in the renewed discussions on Diodorus.

Diodorus’ main theme throughout the Bibliotheke is morality (cf., e.g., D.S. 14.1, 15.1.3-5). Morality itself, in various forms and shapes, and applied by different classical authors, is also the main theme of Occhipinti’s chapters 7 (141-161, comparing notably ‘P’, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Diodorus); 8 (162-197, comparing the language of causation used by ‘P’ and various Athenian authors -including Thucydides and Xenophon); and 9 (198-238). In the latter chapter, the theme of ‘moralism’ is further elaborated. Though the morality of ‘P’ is overwhelmingly implicit, Occhipinti’s approach on this point lacks a comprehensive definition of what she [my emphasis] believes ‘morality’ to be: it all remains a little too unspecific and, above all, shifting. It also shows in the discussion on the ‘morality’ of other authors. Obviously, ‘morality’ can be a shifting concept, but also in that case I believe anyone discussing the topic should embed it in a general context. In this respect Occhipinti’s omission is not dissimilar to that of Hau.6 Nevertheless, Occhipinti, like Hau, in my view largely succeeds to convey a general idea of the intentions of the authors discussed.

The issue of ‘morality’ returns in the conclusion (239-243). In it, Occhipinti weaves together various threads discussed in the foregoing chapters and thereby comes closer to the identity of ‘P’. Nevertheless, she does not venture to suggest (rightly in my view) a particular name. The book concludes with four very interesting appendices that, from my perspective, would have fully merited to have been included, one way or another, in the main text itself. A good bibliography, an index of names, and a thematic index complete the book. Regrettably an index locorum is absent. The book is well written, well taken care of, and contains very few typos. Obviously primarily intended for an academic readership, several passages in Greek have been left untranslated. Perhaps this might make the book, regrettably, less accessible for graduate students interested in classics, ancient history and papyrology, who are explicitly included in the book’s intended audience. The price of the book, moreover, could well place it out of reach for many students, if it were not incorporated in their university’s library: both situations would be really unfortunate.

In conclusion: the publisher’s blurb states that “[t]he traditional and common approach taken by those who studied the HO is primarily historical: scholars have focused on particular, often isolated, topics such as the question of the authorship, the historical perspective of the HO against other Hellenica from the 4th century BC. This book is unconventional in that it offers a study of the HO and fifth- and fourth-century historical works supported by papyrological enquiries and literary strategies, such as intertextuality and narratology, which will undoubtedly contribute to the progress of research in ancient historiography.” Though perhaps a bit too pompously phrased, I think Occhipinti largely meets the targets she (or the series editors) set her(self). I at least found it a joy to read this book.


1.   Grenfell, B.P. and A.S. Hunt, ‘842. Theopompus (or Cratippus), Hellenica’, in: The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 5, London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1908, 110-242.
2.   V. Bartoletti, ‘Nuovi frammenti delle Elleniche di Ossirinco’, in: Papiri greci e latini, vol. 13, Florence: Istituto Papirologico ‘Girolamo Vitelli’, 1949, 61-81. Bartoletti believes the historian responsible for the HO was Cratippus, though he does not exclude the possibility of another, unknown, author.
3.   See: Koenen, L., ‘Papyrology in the Federal Republic of Germany and Fieldwork of the International Photographic Archive in Cairo’, Studia Papyrologica 15(1976), 39-79; also Lehmann, G.A., ‘Ein neues Fragment der Hell.Oxy.: Einige Bemerkungen zu P.Cairo (temp.Inv.No.) 26/6/27/1-35’, ZPE 26(1977), 181-191.
4.   Bruce, I. A. F., An Historical Commentary on the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
5.   Bartoletti, V., Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, Leipzig: Teubner, 1959; McKechnie, P.J. and S.J. Kern, Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, Edited with Translation and Commentary, Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1988.
6.   Hau, L.I., Moral History from Herodotus to Diodorus, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016; its review by Carlo Scardino: BMCR 2017.03.10.

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