Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.12.14 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.12.14

Richard L. Hunter, Casper C. de Jonge (ed.), Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Augustan Rome: Rhetoric, Criticism and Historiography. Greek culture in the Roman world.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2019.  Pp. ix, 300.  ISBN 9781108474900.  $105.00.  

Reviewed by Beatrice Poletti, Queen's University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

A welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on Dionysius of Halicarnassus, this volume investigates critical aspects of Dionysius’ oeuvre focusing on its indissociable and unique relationship with contemporary Rome. The volume, which is based on the 2012 homonymous conference held in Leiden, comprises ten contributions by international experts of Greco-Roman historiography and rhetoric, many of whom have a long familiarity with Dionysius’ work. The contributions are preceded by the editors’ foreword, which presents the background of Dionysius’ literary activity, and are followed by Joy Connelly’s inspiring envoi. The volume is organized into thematic sections (listed below). The first one (contributions 1 to 4) focuses on Dionysius’ activity as a literary critic; the second one (contributions 5 to 7) centers on his historiographical work (i.e., the Roman Antiquities); while the third one (contributions 8 to 10) presents as a unifying theme the relationship between Dionysius and his Roman setting. The volume ends with a robust and up-to-date bibliography, which however includes surprisingly few titles by Emilio Gabba, despite his life-long study of the Greek author. A more detailed index could have been a useful tool to navigate the volume.

De Jonge and Hunter’s introduction (1-33) provides insights into the volume’s agenda and main themes. One is the duality inherent in Dionysius’ oeuvre, which was deeply informed by the relationship between Greek and Roman identity. Beyond the simplistic view of Dionysius as ‘a Greek living in Rome,’ the editors remind us of the complexities of Dionysius’ networks, activities, and intellectual background as well as his distinctive ideas of Rome as a Greek city and of Roman leadership as responsible for generalized intellectual renaissance (cf. the introduction to On the Ancient Orators). In stressing this, the editors (and the volume’s contributors) explore a path already laid out by Gabba, but not followed systematically or coherently after his pioneering monograph.1 In fact, a common error of modern scholarship on Dionysius has been the separation between his treatises on literary criticism and the Roman Antiquities. The approach taken here, by emphasizing unity rather than division, is undoubtedly refreshing. It rejects the traditional dichotomy between rhetoric and historiography stressing instead their connection as inseparable components of Dionysius’ educational project.

Another theme of the volume is the strenuous and overall effective attempt at contextualizing Dionysius in the intellectual and political milieu of Augustan Rome. Parallels with other contemporary writers, both Greeks and Romans, are scattered throughout to show the multiplicity of literary interests and critical ideas with which Dionysius’ own intertwined, thus moving on from fruitless assumptions of Dionysius’ inferiority, especially when compared with his contemporary fellow- historian Livy. The volume also tackles long-debated topics in Dionysian scholarship, such as the relationship between Dionysius and Augustan ideology and the ‘ethnic’ identity of Dionysius’ audience. In such cases, the contributors take a nuanced approach that avoids the (outdated) contrasts pro- or anti-Augustan, and Greeks or Romans.2 The hypothesis of a mixed, Greek-speaking readership, in particular — though not a novelty3 — remains important and is rightly emphasized here, being crucial to better understand Dionysius’ oeuvre and to situate it within the fluid framework of early imperial society and literature.

Part 1, Dionysius and Augustan Rhetoric and Literary Criticism, comprises contributions by Richard Hunter, Nicolas Wiater, Harvey Yunis, and Laura Viidebaum. Based on his reading of De Thucydide, Hunter (37-55) discusses Dionysius’ idea of a ‘critic’ and draws attention to the judicial language used by Dionysius to elucidate the twofold judgement involved in the critic’s tasks, as ‘he’ both judges and is judged for ‘his’ criticism (44). Hunter emphasizes the continuity, in Dionysius’ conception, between the forensic world of Classical Athens and the political arena of contemporary Rome and persuasively shows how Dionysius’ criticism was ultimately specific to his time and place, namely, Augustan Rome. Wiater (56-82) distinguishes two levels of understanding the past: the ‘ideal’ and the ‘historical’. Dionysius, Wiater argues, is interested in the ‘ideal’ past that he constructs in his reading of the classical texts and presents as a model for Augustan Rome. The classical past is thereby a mental-emotional construct, a ‘structure of feelings’ encoded in the classical texts. Wiater views Dionysius’ engagement with the past not as an attempt to recreate 4th-5th century Athens, but as a process of implementing the classical ideal in the present. While he admits that Dionysius never makes any explicit comments on how he concretely envisioned the pursuit of the classical ideal (73), Wiater identifies the tools (namely, metathesis and selective mimesis) by which, according to Dionysius, the critic could manipulate the classical texts into didactic instruments.4 The contributions of Yunis (83-105) and Viidebaum (106-124) both center on the relevance of studying and teaching the rhetorical models of Attic oratory in Augustan Rome. Viidebaum, in particular, in her discussion of Dionysius’ criticism of Lysias’ style, makes a convincing parallel between Lysias’ charis and the Roman concept of venustas, further illuminating the significance of Dionysius’ teaching in the context of Roman eloquence and aesthetics.

Part 2, Dionysius and Augustan Historiography, includes essays by S.P. Oakley, Clemence Schultze, and Matthew Fox. Oakley (127-160) takes a fresh look at Dionysius’ fondness for detail and lengthy narratives, considering both Dionysius’ views on historiography as expressed in his critical essays and the material Dionysius found in the annalistic tradition. Oakley gives a thorough treatment of the principle of acribeia or ‘fullness of narrative’ (esp. 141-144) — which was much needed — explaining the different levels where this principle operates in Roman Antiquities. One may wonder, however, if several three-page long quotes from Dionysius’ text were really necessary to make the point. Schultze (161-179) analyzes two stories of the Roman Antiquities featuring female characters and shows how the narratives reflect contemporary (Augustan) preoccupations with family and female morality. Schultze expands her observations to include other episodes of the Roman Antiquities and notes that proper interaction with women and family relations are central elements of Dionysius’ history of Rome. While the implication is not necessarily that Dionysius supported Augustus’ moral programme, the Augustan resonances in his text suggest a certain interaction with the contemporary discourse on morality. Fox (180-200) examines the ‘prehistory’ of Rome in Roman Antiquities’ Book 1. Expanding on previous discussions on Dionysius’ source material and his interaction with the readers through it5, Fox explains how Dionysius ‘constructed’ Rome as a Greek city and brings the discussion out of ethnic definitions and a “crude nationalist polarity between Greek and Roman” (199).

The contributions in Part 3, titled Dionysius and Augustan Rome, respectively by Christopher Pelling, Daniel Hogg, and Casper C. de Jonge, could arguably be reassigned to the other two sections (in fact, all the contributions of the volume contain extensive references to Dionysius’ contemporary setting). Pelling (203-220) examines the interpretation of constitutional shifts in the Roman Antiquities focusing on the transition from monarchy to republic. While he detects various themes with an Augustan ring, he underlines their ambivalence, as they could represent praise as well as criticism. He draws attention to several important points in Dionysius’ history of Rome, such as the focus on individuals in bringing about historical change and the significance of speeches in explaining constitutional developments. Hogg (221-241) analyzes Dionysius’ treatment of the decemvirate and specifically the theme of procedural chaos and senatorial conflicts which, Hogg suggests, foreshadows the weak performance of the senate in the 1st century BCE. He also poses the question about Augustus’ role in Dionysius’ reconstruction, remarking (like Pelling in his contribution) on the ambivalent interpretation of Dionysius’ text: was Augustus the reformer of a chaotic senate or a tyrant like Appius Claudius? Finally, de Jonge (242-266) explores the relationship between Dionysius’ treatise On Composition and Horace’s Ars Poetica. He not only highlights similarities between these two contemporary works (especially concerning the idea of skillful arrangement of words), but also contextualizes Dionysius’ treatise in a broader critical scene comprising the major Augustan authors. De Jonge’s conclusion, suggesting that one may find hints of Augustus’ own eloquence and even mores in Dionysius, is fascinating but feels slightly speculative.

Joy Connolly closes the volume with an envoi on migrancy (267-277), in which she acknowledges Dionysius’ place among the major classical authors in his effort to speak “between cultures and between genres” (268, quoting Hunter and de Jonge’s introduction). While her arguments get dense at times, Connolly speaks to a global audience by stressing the distinctive position of migrants in history and society. She also situates the volume in the Cambridge series, Greek Culture in the Roman World, whose aim is to uncover the complexity of intercultural exchange and negotiation of identities in the Mediterranean under Roman rule. The effort of ‘rehabilitating’ Dionysius is notable and indeed successful. A structural improvement could be made by placing the most cited texts at the end of the book, as many contributions refer repeatedly to the same passages (such as the introduction to On the Ancient Orators). Despite the minor flaws pointed out here, this volume will offer a highly valuable tool not only for scholars interested in Dionysius’ works, but also for those investigating Augustan and Early Imperial literature in general as well as the cultural and social changes surrounding the Mediterranean world at that time.

Table of Contents

Introduction (Casper C. de Jonge and Richard Hunter), 1
Part 1: Dionysius and Augustan Rhetoric and Literary Criticism, 35
1. Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the Idea of the Critic (Richard Hunter), 37
2. Experiencing the Past: Language, Time and Historical Consciousness in Dionysian Criticism (Nicolas Wiater), 56
3. Dionysius’ Demosthenes and Augustan Atticism (Harvey Yunis), 83
4. Dionysius and Lysias’ Charm (Laura Viidebaum), 106
Part 2: Dionysius and Augustan Historiography, 125
5. The Expansive Scale of the Roman Antiquities (S.P. Oakley), 127
6. Ways of Killing Women: Dionysius on the Deaths of Horatia and Lucretia (Clemence Schultze), 161
7. The Prehistory of the Roman polis in Dionysius (Matthew Fox), 180
Part 3: Dionysius and Augustan Rome, 201
8. Dionysius on Regime Change (Christopher Pelling), 203
9. How Roman are the Antiquities? The Decemvirate according to Dionysius (Daniel Hogg), 221
10. Dionysius and Horace: Composition in Augustan Rome (Casper de Jonge), 242
Envoi: Migrancy (Joy Connolly), 267


1.   Gabba, Emilio. Dionysius and the History of archaic Rome. Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.
2.   Cf., e.g., Wiater, Nicolas. The ideology of Classicism: language, history, and identity in Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2011, and Hogg, Daniel. “Libraries in a Greek working life: Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a case study in Rome.” In Ancient Libraries, edited by Jason König, Aikaterini Oikonomopoulou, and Greg Woolf, 137-151. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
3.   As early argued in Schultze, Clemence. “Dionysius of Halicarnassus and his audience.” In Past perspective. Studies in Greek and Roman historical writing. Papers presented at a conference in Leeds, 6-8 April 1983, edited by I.S. Moxon, J.D. Smart, and A.J. Woodman, 121-141. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
4.   See also Jonge, Casper C. de. Between grammar and rhetoric. Dionysius of Halicarnassus on language, linguistics and literature. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2008, and Wiater 2011 (n. 2).
5.   Cf., e.g., Schultze, Clemence. “Authority, originality and competence in the Roman Archaeology of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.” Histos 4 (2000): 1-38 and, more recently Wiater, Nicolas. “Expertise, ‘Character’ and the ‘Authority Effect’ in the Early Roman History of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.” In Authority and Expertise in Ancient Scientific Culture, edited by Jason König and Greg Woolf, 231-259. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

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