Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.07.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.07.40

Christopher Burden-Strevens, Mads Lindholmer (ed.), Cassius Dio's Forgotten History of Early Rome: The Roman History, Books 1-21. Historiography of Rome and its empire, 3.   Leiden:  Brill, 2018.  Pp. xiv, 338.  ISBN 9789004384378.  €121,00.  

Reviewed by Jeremy J. Swist, University of Iowa (

Ever since Fergus Millar published A Study of Cassius Dio in 1964, the reputation of the Severan senator-turned-historian, not only as an important source of Roman history, but also as an original and sophisticated author, has been steadily rising. In recent years it has truly taken off. As noted at the beginning of this volume by Carsten Lange and Jesper Madsen, the editors of the Historiography of Rome and its Empire series, there has been an explosion of recent and forthcoming studies, commentaries, and editions thanks in large part to the formation of the Cassius Dio Network. A significant obstacle to this rehabilitation, however, has been the loss of the first quarter of his total 80 books but for a series of late antique and Byzantine excerpts, along with a twelfth-century epitome by John Zonaras. The purpose of the present volume is not only to reconstruct this “forgotten history,” but to fully integrate it into the unity of the Roman History and its historiographical aims and methods. The time is ripe to bring Dio out of Livy’s shadow and to consider his original and independent approach to the infancy and childhood of res publica Romana.

Co-editor Christopher Burden-Strevens opens the volume with an excellent introductory chapter that lays out the volume’s aims, along with its place within and debt to recent scholarship, while also duly previewing each contribution. Burden-Strevens identifies which chapters will be useful to which individual interests, while at the same time demonstrating how they all work together toward a defined set of objectives.

Part I, titled “The Text,” addresses the relation of Dio’s early books to his sources, and of the Byzantine excerpts and epitomes to Dio’s original. These first three chapters establish a solid foundation for the volume’s subsequent contributions by assuring its readers not only of the reliability of Zonaras and the excerptors, but also of Dio’s creative independence from extant parallel sources for early Roman history, such as Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Plutarch.

Valérie Fromentin opens this section with a chapter on the reliability of Zonaras’ epitome through its references to speeches. As she acknowledges, the loss of the speeches of Dio’s early books is especially lamentable given the function of speeches in ancient historiography of both driving and interpreting events, as well as portraying character. Fromentin offers a method for locating and even reconstructing these speeches, both direct and indirect, by referring to how Zonaras epitomizes extant portions of the Roman History.

Chapter 2 by Gianpaolo Urso tackles the question of whether Dio consulted pre-Augustan sources directly or through the mediation of writers such as Livy and Dionysius. After a helpful review of the debate over whether Dio used Livy and to what extent, Urso then presents copious and convincing evidence that Dio operated largely independently from Livy and consulted a number of late republican historians. For instance, his account of the Latin War arguably draws from a source composed within living memory of the Social War. Urso clinches his argument by contextualizing Dio in the literary milieu of Aulus Gellius and Ulpian, where interest in Republican literature was especially in vogue.

C. T. Mallan rounds out the first section with Chapter 3, where he establishes the political and intellectual contexts of the excerpting of Dio in tenth-century Byzantium under Constantine VII, in order to argue that the excerptors’ aim was a self-contained, albeit “impressionistic” historical narrative in its own right. The chapter begins with a valuable historical sketch of the readership, transmission, abbreviation, and excerpting of the Roman History (with special attention to Books 1-2, on the regal period) from its initial publication in the mid-third century up through middle Byzantium. Mallan then lays out the methodology of the excerptors, identifying them as “would-be antiquarians who were engaged with the struggles and pressures of high politics in the imperial court, and who looked to the past for political guidance and moral edification” (p. 88). Mallan ultimately concludes that the excerptors worked in the spirit both of renewed interest in the exempla of Rome’s founding fathers, and the drive to reclaim authentic Roman identity through preserving the memory thereof.

Part II of the volume contains four chapters on “Military & Political History,” which take different approaches to demonstrating the unity and continuity between Dio’s accounts of the earlier and later Republic.

Chapter 4 by series co-editor Jesper Majbom Madsen uses Dio’s depiction of the Senate in the early Republic to refute assumptions that the narrative arc of his Republican history conformed to that of a Dekadenzmodell, of a moral “decline and fall.” Instead, Dio intended the entire history of the Republic to be an extensive, narrative argument against the viability and stability of dēmokratia. As an heir to Thucydides’ essentialist view of human nature, Dio demonstrates that elite competition threatened to undermine republican government from the very beginning, checked by only a handful of men whose prioritization of the common good over private ambition made them exceptions to the rule rather than representatives of the whole. The Republic did not fall due to a general moral decline, but rather inherent and inveterate problems began operating on a greater scale.

In Chapter 5, Marianne Coudry also dismisses the Dekadenzmodell by treating Dio’s history of the Republic as a monolith rather than dividing it into descending stages of Early, Middle, and Late. Coudry demonstrates this unity through the consistent exemplarity of the “great men” Camillus, Scipio, and Caesar, who occupy these three periods respectively. It can be shown that all three men face similar circumstances, especially aristocratic jealousy of their power and popularity. Fabricius is a notable exception to the rule, because his lack of personal ambition clears him as a potential threat to the nobility.

Next comes Chapter 6 by series co-editor Carsten Hjort Lange, who especially highlights the Thucydidean pedigree of Dio’s analysis of Roman history. Not only was the Republic always an “unworkable system, either causing or caused by the inevitable presence of internal problems such as violence, stasis, and bellum civile” (p. 166); but the potential for these malignancies was also rooted in human nature, ever since Romulus and Remus quarreled over the kingship.

Part II concludes with Chapter 7, where the volume’s co-editor Mads Lindholmer, by contrasting Dio's account with those of Livy and Dionysius, delivers the coup de grâce to the notion that Dio idealized the early Republic. In particular, Dio paints the internal conflicts of the early Republic as significantly more violent than in these prior sources: they exemplify not the productive competition espoused by Hesiod; rather, Dio frequently employs terms such as philotimia (ambition) and phthonos (envy) as negative and corrosive. Lindholmer concludes from this analysis that Dio’s refusal to idealize the early Republic boosts his credibility as a source for early Roman history.

Part III of the volume, “Early Rome & Dio’s Project,” contains three chapters that explore more directly the resonances between the first and last books of Dio’s history, including the reciprocal influence between early Rome and that of the Severan historian’s own lifetime.

In the first of these chapters, John Rich challenges assumptions that the speeches in the early books were different in nature from those in subsequent books. Toward this end, Rich revises Boissevain’s distinction between direct and indirect discourse in his catalogue of the early fragments, and argues that direct speech was more frequent in the earlier books than previously assumed. Furthermore, Rich reinforces the unity of Dio’s history by suggesting that the early speeches, rather than moralizing, tend to be characterized by as much disingenuousness and deception as later speeches.

Next is Chapter 9 by Brandon Jones, who breaks with the volume’s general program of rejecting the label of Dio’s Republican history as a narrative of decline from an ideal, though he does not do so in a manner that contradicts his fellow contributors. Jones examines how instances of Romans’ interactions with non-Romans in the early books tend to emphasize the positive qualities of the former—chief among these are andreia (manliness), sophrosynē (moderation), and resistance to tryphē (extravagance)—in contrast to the negative qualities of enemies such as the Gauls, Samnites, Greeks, and Carthaginians. So integral to Roman identity are these virtues that they become rhetorical ammunition with which to paint fellow-Roman opponents as un-Roman (e.g. Octavian against Antony). While human ambition and violence remain constants throughout, by focusing on the morally corrupting influence of tryphē in the wake of eastern conquests, Jones identifies one way in which a thread of moral decline can be traced through Dio’s history from early Rome to the imperial present.

The final chapter of the section and volume is Chapter 10, where Verena Schulz takes on the notion argued by her fellow-contributors that the constants in human nature give unity to Dio’s history, which in turn recommends early Roman figures, especially monarchs, as positive and negative exempla. Schulz catalogues the exemplary links, suggested by textual parallels, between kings and emperors in Dio’s text, especially those who ruled during his lifetime. These include reflections of Romulus in Septimius Severus, of Tarquinius Priscus (before taking the throne) in Marcus Aurelius, and of Tarquinius Superbus in Commodus. As Schulz notes, such parallels both come naturally after over two centuries of autocratic rule, and more importantly, recommend the kings as integral to an historiographical discourse on good and bad Roman rulership.

While it is essential reading, and not merely for those who study Dio’s early books, this volume also makes a strong case for how foundational these books are to anyone who works on Dio. Like a good Aristotelian plot, the Roman History’s beginning, middle, and end compose a unity. Beyond the volume’s content, which is excellently organized in its sequence of chapters, its front and end matter are equally splendid. The volume opens with brief and helpful introductions to the contributors and their scholarly profiles, and it concludes with a useful and well-organized index of names and key terms. Each chapter includes its own bibliography, rather than at the end of the volume. The physical book itself is contained within a glossy, durable hardcover fittingly graced by the reverse of a Republican-era coin depicting the founding twins suckled by the she-wolf. The chapters are written in lucid English, French, and Italian, with only a few typographical errors.

Authors and titles

Notes on Contributors
Carsten Hjort Lange & Jesper Majbom Madsen, The Historiography of Rome and Its Empire Series
Christopher Burden-Strevens, Introduction

I. The Text
1. Valérie Fromentin, La fiabilité de Zonaras dans les deux premières décades de l’Histoire romaine de Cassius Dion: le cas des discours
2. Gianpaolo Urso, Cassio Dione e le fonti pre-liviane: una versione alternativa dei primi secoli di Roma
3. C. T. Mallan, The Regal Period in the Excerpta Constantiniana and in Some Early Byzantine Extracts From Dio’s Roman History

II. Military & Political History
4. Jesper Majbom Madsen, From Nobles to Villains: The Story of the Republican Senate in Cassius Dio’s Roman History
5. Marianne Coudry, The ‘Great Men’ of the Middle Republic in Cassius Dio’s Roman History
6. Carsten Hjort Lange, Cassius Dio on Violence, Stasis, and Civil War: The Early Years
7. Mads Ortving Lindholmer, Breaking the Idealistic Paradigm: Competition in Dio’s Earlier Republic

III. Early Rome & Dio’s Project
8. John Rich, Speech in Cassius Dio’s Roman History, Books 1-35
9. Brandon Jones, Cultural Interactions & Identities in Dio’s Early Books 10. Verena Schulz, Defining the Good Ruler: Early Kings as Proto-Imperial Figures in Cassius Dio
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