Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.45 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.45

Kai Brodersen, Polyainos: Strategika. Griechisch-deutsch. Sammlung Tusculum.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. 720.  ISBN 9783110536645.  $80.99.  

Reviewed by Lee Fratantuono, Ohio Wesleyan University (

The second-century C.E. Macedonian writer Polyainos is barely a name even to many advanced students and scholars of classics and ancient history. His obscurity is regrettable given the intrinsic interest and historical value of his one surviving work, the Strategika dedicated to Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus on the occasion of the Roman-Parthian War of 161-166 C.E. Polyainos’ eight book compendium is a treasure trove of anecdotes mostly concerning famous and memorable episodes in military history, with heavy coverage of the Greek masters of strategy and tactics, some valuable ethnographic treatment of Carthaginians and “barbarians,” and (lamentably) comparatively brief attention to both Roman and female noteworthy figures in the history of the art and practice of war. Treatment of Roman affairs does not extend beyond a short consideration of Augustus (the rich material of the next two centuries of Roman history is ignored); Julius Caesar fares significantly better.

“Stratagems” is a broadly conceived concept; Polyainos includes many seemingly random comments on the military practices of his subjects (Augustus, for example, is noted for his use of decimation with slacker soldiers). The “stratagem compilation” was a popular diversionary and educational work in antiquity; Frontinus’ similar volume, as well as the miscellany of Valerius Maximus on memorable deeds and sayings, offer parallels in Latin literature. Polyainos’ aim is didactic; one who reads his work is meant to obtain an education in the art of war. Writing centuries after Alexander the Great, Polyainos presents himself as a Macedonian with a certain expertise in how to deal with the renewed threats to the stability of the Roman East that had erupted in the wake of yet another clash between Rome and Parthia over the kingdom of Armenia. Stray references here and there in the prefaces to the individual books preserve information about the progress of the war.

The relative lack of interest in Polyainos through much of history (the Byzantine epitomists are a notable exception) has been ascribed to alleged stylistic flaws in his Greek (perceived Second Sophistic peculiarities aside, he would in fact serve as a potentially interesting intermediate author for contemporary classroom use), as well as to his aforementioned apparent lack of interest in Roman warfare. But a dearth of scholarly resources has surely been a contributing factor. There is no Loeb edition, no Oxford text, no Budé, and no Teubner since 1887.1 Enter Brodersen’s Tusculum edition of the Greek text (sine apparatu, as is customary with volumes in the series) with German translation, which appears some years after his edited volume of papers on the author.2 Anyone interested in either the author or the genre of his work will want access to this magisterial volume.

If Brodersen has a rival, it is the admirable (and difficult to obtain) two-volume edition of Peter Krentz and Everett Wheeler, released in 1994 by Ares Publishers, Inc.3 Krentz and Wheeler reprint Melber’s Teubner text, with an English translation and an extensive introduction and bibliography. (They also include the anonymous Excerpts and the tenth century Stratagems of the Emperor Leo).4 Certainly the Krentz and Wheeler edition is on a vaster scale than Brodersen’s Tusculum. But Brodersen’s work is now the most convenient available edition of this fascinating author, and his volume reflects the new work done on Polyainos in the two decades since Krentz-Wheeler.

While annotations are few (in keeping with the nature of the Tusculum series), Brodersen provides an invaluable collection of parallel passages. The introduction considers these parallels at greater length in a succinct and lucid treatment of source criticism, the historical background of Rome’s war with Parthia, and the later reception of Polyainos’ work. Divergences from Melber’s text are noted. There is also a useful bibliography of scholarship on the parallel texts and their ancient sources. The introduction and treatment of parallel passages will be of great use to scholars for the facilitation of references to classic anecdotes.

The Sammlung Tusculum has produced several recent volumes of great merit under the editorship of Niklas Holzberg and Bernhard Zimmermann. The new Polyainos fills an important gap in classical studies by providing a reliable and affordable edition of an author whose 833 anecdotes offer many hours of enjoyable reading in episodes both celebrated and more obscure. The aged Polyainos is said to have been too old to travel to distant Ctesiphon with victorious Roman armies; it is to be hoped that the work he instead bequeathed to posterity will enjoy greater fame and dissemination through the much appreciated labors of Professor Brodersen.


1.   Johann Melber, ed. Polyaeni Strategematon libri octo. Leipzig: Teubner, 1887. Melber’s text (which is based on the work of Eduard von Woefflin, editor of the first Teubner edition of 1860) has been reprinted in the Cambridge Library Collection.
2.   Kai Brodersen, ed. Polyainos: Neue Studien. Berlin: Verlag Antike, 2010. The papers in the volume originated from a conference at the University of Erfurt in 2009.
3.   Polyaenus: Stratagems of War. Chicago, Illinois: Ares Publishers Inc., 1994. Ares had previously reprinted Shepherd’s 1793 English translation of Polyainos that had been dedicated to the British general Cornwallis; late eighteenth-century Britain witnessed one of the periodic revivals of interest in the Strategika.
4.   These works appear in Melber’s Teubner; they are not included in the Tusculum edition.

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