Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.55 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.55

Tino Shahin (ed.), Fragmente der Historiker: Nikolaos von Damaskus. Bibliothek der Griechischen Literatur 84.   Stuttgart:  Hiersemann, 2018.  Pp. 127.  ISBN 9783777218045.  €158.00.  

Reviewed by Benedikt Eckhardt, University of Edinburgh (

Table of Contents

Although Nicolaus of Damascus is cited regularly by ancient authors from Strabo to the late antique lexicographers, only fractions of his impressive oeuvre have been preserved (mainly in the “Excerpta Constantiniana”). Modern interest in them has been very unevenly distributed. While the “Life of Augustus” is now available in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German translations, the fragments of the “Universal History”, the “Autobiography”, and the “Collection of Customs” have received much less attention. Some fragments contain unique information on their subject matter (e.g. F 57 on Cypselus, F 135 on Herod) and have been discussed several times, but until now there had been only one complete translation, in French.1 Shahin now offers the first German rendering of all fragments, excluding the “Bios Kaisaros”, of which a fairly recent German translation already exists.2

The “Bibliothek der Griechischen Literatur” is traditionally a translation-only series, and Shahin’s volume is no exception to this rule. A brief introduction assembles the relevant information on Nicolaus’ life and works. The commentary is useful but very limited in scope and not free of errors.3 The value of the book thus depends on the translation. Shahin does not try to be elegant, but seems to make a point of staying very close to the original, at the risk of becoming almost unintelligible. A single passage (F 132,2) may stand in for many:

“[Nikolaos] meinte, dass die Kenntnis von den Musen oder das Fehlen der Kenntnis nicht dem Fehlen der Künste der Banausen glichen, sondern im Gegenteil, dass für diejenigen, die maßvoll leben, die Unkenntnis über sie und die Kenntnis der Banausen schimpflich sei”.

I doubt that many native speakers will understand this on first sight, let alone other scholars. They may want to turn to the French of Parmentier and Prometea Barone:

“[Nicolas] considérait que le fait de pratiquer ou d’abandonner les Muses n’est pas semblable à la pratique ou à l’abandon des métiers vulgaires et que, au contraire, un homme ordinaire qui les ignore et connaît les métiers vulgaires, doit être blâmé”.

On many occasions, Shahin’s Nicolaus is more difficult to understand than he has to be; many sentences have to be read at least twice to yield some sense. However, accuracy is the most important criterion in assessing a translation, and there are certainly passages where Shahin captures the meaning better than his predecessors.4 If the overall verdict has to be negative, the reason is not the inelegant nature of the translation, but the fact that such cases are rare. In general, Shahin’s translation suffers from three problems that severely limit its potential uses.

The first problem becomes apparent simply from reading the German text: on numerous occasions, Shahin gets the temporal relationships wrong, most frequently by using the perfect tense where German requires pluperfect, but also by oddly inserting present tense into a chain of past tense verbs. Examples could be cited from every testimonium or fragment where anteriority occurs; the result regularly reads like this: “Als die Juden dies gesagt haben, befreite Nikolaos die Könige von den Beschuldigungen” (T 9); “(sie) konnten sich allerdings nicht mit ihr allein besprechen, denn das meiste ist ihr von Dirke verboten worden” (F 7); “… begegnete ihm ein Mann, der ausgepeitscht worden ist und Mist in einem Korb wegtrug” (F 66,13); “… dass er auch seine Tante beseitigen wollte, die anderen Brüder, die er hat, und die Kinder der Beseitigten” (F 136,6). These are accurate translations of the tenses used in the Greek text, but of course a translation needs to take into account the way temporal relations are constructed in the respective languages (e.g. in the last example, where ὄντας indicates contemporaneity in the past, it obviously makes no sense to use present tense in German, as if Nicolaus wanted to say that Antipater was still alive). One wonders how this problem, which leads to ungrammatical German text on almost every page, could have been overlooked, since no knowledge of Greek is required to spot it.

The second, related problem is the way Shahin deals with participles. Where he transforms them into main clauses, the result is often inelegant but usually correct. Subordinate clauses often lead to the temporal problems pointed out above. But there are also quite a few cases where the choice to use a subordinate clause generates a nonsensical text. In F 50 on Arkesilaos and Learchos, Shahin chooses a causal sense for δυσθνητοῦντα, which leads to the unsatisfactory conclusion that Arkesilaos was killed because he was dying anyway (“Weil er aber schwer im Sterben lag, erwürgte ihn sein Bruder”). Similarly, in F 66,25 εὑρόμενος cannot have a causal meaning (“weil er durch einen Eunuchen den Einlass zu erreichen suchte, berichtete er ihm [sc. Astyages] alles”). In F 103q on Machlyan marriage customs, the suitors come together for a meal in the house of the future father in law. Shahin translates πολλὰ δὲ σκωπτόντων as “wenn sie viele Scherze machen”, as if that might happen or not, but the gathering is a joke contest to determine who wins the woman, so the sense cannot be conditional. Again, examples could be multiplied.

The third problem is that even if we ignore the first two issues, significant errors remain. In Nicolaus’ advice in T 6 (should Herod have his other sons imprisoned or killed?), the optatives are difficult, but the sense must be the same as in F 136: if you have a different punishment in mind (i.e. death, rather than imprisonment), you should not give the impression of having acted out of anger rather than reason; and in any case, if you set them free, the misfortune is not irreversible (as it would be if you killed your sons). Shahin’s version has Nicolaus say the opposite.5 F 4 on the effeminization of Parsondes makes little sense if οὐδείς τε ἂν ἰδὼν ... οὐχὶ γυναῖκα ὑπέλαβε is translated “Keiner, der ihn gesehen hat, … hätte ihn für eine Frau gehalten” (perhaps a “nicht” has been lost?). Later in the same fragment, Artaios’ messenger wonders how a warlike man like Parsondes did not kill himself as he was unable to kill others (οὐ διεχρήσατο ἑαυτόν, εἰ μὴ καὶ ἄλλους ἐδύνατο); the point is lost in Shahin’s translation (“… wenn schon nichts Anderes möglich gewesen ist”). In F 57,2-3, Cypselus’ would-be killers disclose the truth to Eetion (φράσαντες ... τὰς ἀληθείας); it is unclear why Shahin insists that they somehow tricked him in the process (“… wobei sie dem Vater die Wahrheit verdreht darstellten”; “sie hatten ihm zwar etwas vorgemacht” in 57,3 for δόξαν ... μὲν εἶπαν). In 57,4 (Cypselus’ return to Corinth), οὐδὲν μελλήσας should be “without delay” rather than “ohne feste Absicht”. In F 61,3 on Cleisthenes of Sikyon’s usurpation, Isodemus co-opts Cleisthenes as ruler because he believes his claims; Shahin supplies the wrong names and has Cleisthenes co-opt Isodemus. In F 66,33, Astyages offers to put only Cyrus and his supporters in chains (δήσειν αὐτοὺς μόνον παχείαις πέδαις) to make them surrender (for he will kill them when they are caught); Shahin turns the offer into a trick (“allein um ihnen nämlich schwere Fußfesseln anzulegen”). Minos met Zeus every ninth year (F103aa), not nine years in a row. In F 131,3, Shahin has Nicolaus use his father’s deathbed wish (to make an offering for Zeus) to prove the questionable point that those who die do what is necessary and do not enjoy life anymore (“… dass auch die Sterbenden das Gebotene wahren und sich nicht mehr am Leben erfreuen werden”), but the sense must surely be that “divine ordinances have to be followed even by the dying and those who no longer have any prospect of enjoying life” (ὅτι τὸ πρὸς θεοὺς ὅσιον δεῖ καὶ τελευτῶντας φυλάττειν καὶ μηδὲν ἔτι ἀπολαύσεσθαι τοῦ βίου μέλλοντας). Nicolaus praises himself in F 137,5 for not having used his fame and wealth for the wrong purposes (τῷ γνώριμος εἶναι καὶ εὔπορος εἰς σὐδὲν ἄτοπον ἐχρήσατο); Shahin makes him “not use (fame and honor) wrongly” to become “famous and rich to anyone” (“… der keinen verkehrten Gebrauch machte, um für irgendjemanden bekannt und wohlhabend zu sein”). Of numerous smaller quibbles, I only point to T 12 where Nicolaus is called κατ’ αὐτὸν [sc. Ἡρώδην] ἱστοριογράφος, which I would understand as referring to contemporaneity, not as “his historiographer” (“sein Geschichtsschreiber”).

A review should not be pedantic, but as the book offers little apart from a translation, there is not much else to discuss (and the above is only an extract from a longer list of errata). It is good to have Nicolaus in German, but more care should have been given to this project at all stages of production.6 This leads to a final consideration, for no review of a volume of the “Bibliothek der griechischen Literatur” is complete without a remark on pricing. Leaving aside incredulity or moral outrage, it comes down to simple facts. At the time of writing this review, Les Belles Lettres still offer, for 47 Euros, a bilingual edition of all of Nicolaus’ fragments including the “Life of Augustus”, with substantial introduction and commentary supporting an elegant and for the most part accurate translation. Hiersemann now wants to sell, for 158 Euro (i.e. 1.24 Euro per page!), a German-only version that does not include the “Life of Augustus”, provides only very basic introduction and commentary, and features a far from unproblematic translation. The choice of any responsible librarian should be clear.


1.   E. Parmentier & F. Prometea Barone, Nicolas de Damas, Paris 2011.
2.   J. Malitz, Nikolaos von Damaskus. Leben des Kaisers Augustus, Darmstadt 2003.
3.   The συνέδριον convened for Antipater’s trial (T 7) was not the high council of the Jews (p. 13 n. 7 and in the translation), but a group of friends and relatives that Varus συνήδρευε (Josephus AJ 16,93). That Cypselus was related to the Bakchiads via his mother is not a proprium of Nicolaus F 57 (as stated p. 57 n. 117), but simply summarizes the Herodotean account of Eetion’s marriage with Labda (5,92). When the Causians mourn those who are born and praise the dead as happy (F 117), the obvious reference would not be to Spartan ideals of an honorable death (p. 101 n. 41), but to the wisdom of Silenus. Antipater’s mother (F 143) was Doris, not Mariamme (p. 118, n. 11).
4.   E.g. F 44,2, where Shahin brings out the passive Δαμοννὼ ... ὑπό τινος ἀνεψιοῦ ... μοιχευθεῖσα, whereas in Parmentier/Prometea Barone, “Damonno prit pour amant un cousin …”. In F 66,12, εἰσῄει Κῦρον introduces Cyrus’ thoughts as in Shahin’s translation, not the Babylonian’s as in Parmentier/Prometea Barone.
5.   “… wenn du entscheiden solltest, sie auf andere Weise zu bestrafen, scheint es nicht, als seist du eher deinem Gemüt als deiner Vernunft gefolgt. Wenn du aber umgekehrt entscheiden solltest, sie freizulassen, ist das Unglück für dich nicht rückgängig zu machen” (καὶ εἰ μὲν ἑτέρως σοι δοκοίη κολάζειν αὐτούς, μὴ φαίνοιο ὀργῇ τὸ πλεῖον γνώμῃ κεχρῆσθαι, εἰ δὲ τἀναντία ἀπολύειν, μὴ ἀνεπανόρθωτον εἴη σοι τὸ ἀτύχημα). Incidentally, the close correlation to F 136 would perhaps justify elevating T 6 from Testimonium to Fragment.
6.   Note typos: p. 15 “bekannter ist <er> aber für die Berichte”; p. 31 “erkundig<t>e sich”; p. 39 “dass der Plan {aus} vom Umfeld des Kissos ausging”; p. 58 “bei den Korinther<n>”; p. 95 “hapax legeomenenon”; p. 98 “rechtlichste<n> Volkes”; p. 114 “an <und> für sich”.

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