Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.11.15

Charles E. Muntz, Diodorus Siculus and the World of the Late Roman Republic.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xii, 284.  ISBN 9780190498726.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Lisa Irene Hau, University of Glasgow (


Diodorus Siculus and the World of the Late Roman Republic is part of the wave of scholarship which since the 1980s and ’90s has attempted to rehabilitate Diodorus as a thinker and/or as a historian. It accomplishes this purpose more successfully than many other publications of the same persuasion: Muntz applies careful and critical scholarship both to Diodorus’ own text and to control texts that were (probably) based on the same sources, and he reaches balanced and nuanced conclusions. His main goal throughout is to show that, although Diodorus undeniably based his work closely on written sources and took over ideas from other writers and—primarily—from current trends in his time, he moulded his material to reflect on the current issues of the Late Roman Republic even when writing about mythological times or far-away places. Overall, Muntz’s analysis and argument are convincing, and it is good to see such care and attention being paid to Diodorus’ text and its historical context rather than to preconceived ideas about its sources.

The book begins with a strong, spirited opening, which dispenses with two hundred and fifty years of Quellenforschung in one elegant sweep. The Introduction then gives a good overall introduction to Diodorus based on the meagre biographical evidence. Muntz also manages to turn the age-old derision of Diodorus for being ignored at Rome into an advantage by arguing that his lack of position made him see things only an outsider could see. Muntz is right to note that Books 1-5 of Diodorus have received relatively little attention (except for the monograph by Sulimani, from which Muntz is wisely careful to distance his own work),1 and his idea that these books may be the key to understanding Diodorus’ outlook on the world and its current issues is novel and interesting. The Introduction ends with another lively argument againstQuellenforschung and a plea for studying Diodorus in his own right.

Chapter 2 discusses how Diodorus organized his material in his first five books. It argues, not always successfully, that the oddities in organisation perceived by modern readers are due to factors such as Diodorus’ conscious avoidance of treating the same material twice and sometimes placing discussions at the less obvious of two possible places, and finally to the work having been published in a somewhat unrevised form. Here Muntz first airs an idea which will be one of the main motifs and conclusions of the monograph’s final chapters, namely that Diodorus never published his work and did not finish it. He also rightly points out that Diodorus might have been expected to make Rome the centre of his work, like Pompeius Trogus and Nicolaus of Damascus, and that it is remarkable that he did not. (Here, a reference to the extensive discussion of Rome’s place in the Bibliotheke in the introduction to volume 1 of the Belles Lettres edition of the fragments2 would have been desirable, but the monograph evinces a general shortage of citations of French and Italian scholarly literature.)

Chapter 3 focuses on Diodorus’ account of the origin of civilisation in Book 1 and on echoes of it throughout Books 1-5 and also later in the work. Diodorus’ Kulturgeschichte has received much attention, but mostly from those who want to ascribe it wholesale to this or that philosopher or philosophical school. Muntz shows that Diodorus is writing in an established tradition, using ideas that were current in Rome in the 1st century BC, and he makes a convincing case that Diodorus is contributing to the debate, not copying others. Muntz compares the accounts of Posidonius, Diodorus, Lucretius, and Vitruvius and concludes that Diodorus emphasises the primitiveness and wretchedness of early man more than the others, and that he foregrounds the role of necessity as teacher. To a lesser extent, Diodorus shows the role of metus hostilis in the progress towards civilisation. Whenever possible, Muntz compares Diodorus’ account with other accounts which seem to be based on the same sources. This is carefully done, and although the conclusion is always that Diodorus offers a slightly different take on matters than our other surviving texts, and so belongs in the rehabilitation camp, the revisionist agenda is not allowed to twist the evidence. One can, of course, quibble with some of the conclusions—for instance, I am personally less persuaded by the role of chreia (‘necessity/need’) in the later, historical books of the Bibliotheke than Muntz. And one can also occasionally take issue with parts of the argument - Polybius does, in fact, mention metus hostilis as a factor in keeping the different Roman classes together (Plb. 6.18.2), and this fear is also a theme in Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae (Cat. 10.1-3), so it is not quite as innovative a factor in Diodorus as Muntz would like it to be. However, the methodology is sound and the argument as a whole is a joy to follow. The overall argument of this chapter, that Diodorus is influenced by the climate of the first century BC in Rome and uses his accounts of early human beings and foreign civilisations partly to comment on Late Republican society and politics, is both interesting and convincing.

Chapter 4 focuses on the place of mythology in the Bibliotheke. It begins with an overview of the place of mythology in Herodotus and Thucydides and its likely place in the best-known fragmentary historiographies before Diodorus. Muntz shows that Diodorus gave a much more prominent place to mythology than any of his historiographical predecessors, but also that he approached mythology with a serious and critical mindset, influenced in part by the genre of mythography which was blossoming in the first century BC. Muntz argues that Books 4-6 functions like a general mythological handbook, something that seems to have been otherwise missing from the Greek world, and that Diodorus compiled it himself from a number of different and sometimes obscure sources rather than basing it on one now lost source. This is not implausible, and Muntz makes a good case here for Diodorus’ innovativeness, if not ‘originality’. The chapter then discusses Diodorus’ approach to mythology, which is found to be a combination of rationalisation, allegoresis, and Euhemerism, with this last doctrine dominating. Muntz shows how Euhemerism fits into Diodorus’ wider didactic purpose and argues convincingly that while Diodorus took over the Euhemeristic interpretation of the Greek gods from Euhemerus’ Sacred History, he created the Euhemeristic interpretation of the Egyptian gods himself. Muntz then compares Diodorus’ approach to myth with that of some of his near-contemporaries: Strabo, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Varro, and Livy. He concludes that Diodorus’ approach shows similarities to all of these, but ultimately differs, particularly in his Euhemeristic accounts of not just heroes, but also gods.

On this note, chapter 5 continues with a discussion of the deified culture-bringers, the topic of Sulimani’s 2011 monograph (see n. 1). Muntz’s approach is more nuanced than that of Sulimani, and he insists, probably rightly, on a difference between those culture-bringers, such as Dionysus and Heracles, who are deified for their benefactions and form a precedent for ruler cult, and those—such as Sesoosis and Semiramis—who do not, perhaps because their conquests were ultimately for their own benefit and not that of others. The chapter then offers a fascinating discussion of Roman attitudes to ruler cult in the Late Republic and closes with an analysis of Diodorus’ (fragmented) portrayal of Julius Caesar as a beneficent ruler worthy of deification.

Chapter 6 focuses on attitudes to kingship in the Roman Republic and in the Bibliotheke. Muntz shows that Diodorus writes in a tradition of Hellenistic kingship literature which recommended the same virtues as he does, for instance in his comments on Roman governors (Diod. Sic. 37.1-6). He then proceeds to argue that Diodorus portrays the Egyptian monarchy as the perfect constitution, where the king lives a life regulated by the laws, and the Assyrian monarchy as the antithesis that was brought down by its degeneracy, and that this latter is meant to reflect on Rome and act as a warning. This is an interesting argument, although I am personally not entirely convinced by the parallels drawn between Rome and Assyria. Muntz concludes: ‘Diodorus is, in effect, both saying the Romans can develop a strong, stable, and just monarchy, and challenging them to do so. History has provided the Romans with examples of how to build a stable state, and it is up to the Romans to take what they can from those examples’ (214).

The seventh and final chapter is, as befits a concluding chapter, also the most daring and potentially groundbreaking. Here Muntz develops his theory of Diodorus’ working method and of the dates of composition of the Bibliotheke’s individual books. He argues that many oddities of the first five books (and some from later in the Bibliotheke) can be explained by the theory that Diodorus intended the work to be organised in hexads comprising smaller groups of three books. He also argues that Diodorus had finished either the first three or the first six books at the time of Caesar’s assassination. He then judged the climate unfavourable for publishing a work that offered such a celebratory account of Egypt and Dionysus and such a positive attitude to monarchy and ruler-cult. As he continued to read certain parts of the early books to different audiences, he revised them, but other parts remained too controversial to share and so were not revised. The overall conclusion is a challenge to take Books 1-5 seriously as an integral part of Diodorus’ overall plan, and one that reflects his views on contemporary matters to such a degree that this part of the work was the very reason he could not publish it: ‘The final explanation for why Diodorus did not publish does not lie in his approval or disapproval of Octavian or in his depiction of Rome in the later books, but rather in his use of Egypt and Dionysus as his principle exemplars in the opening books’ (236).

Overall, this is a successful challenge to those who still consider Diodorus a ‘mindless compiler’. In Muntz’s case, the revisionist approach is not a bulldozer with which to force an argument from unwilling evidence, but a can opener used carefully to pry the evidence open. One can disagree with parts of his argument, but the approach is sound, and his conclusions demand respect and—if one disagrees with them—counter-arguments.


1.   Sulimani, I. (2011) Diodorus' Mythistory and the Pagan Mission. Historiography and Culture-heroes in the First Pentad of the Bibliotheke, Leiden: Brill.
2.   Diodore de Sicile, Bibliothèque historique. Fragments. Tome I. Livres VI-X, texte établi, traduit et commenté par Aude Cohen-Skalli, Paris: Belles Lettres 2012.

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