BMCR 1999.10.11

A Historical Commentary on Diodorus Siculus Book 15

, A historical commentary on Diodorus Siculus, Book 15. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. xxii, 602 pages : map ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780198152392 $125.00.

The first half of the 4th century BCE has long been seen as a swamp that most Greek historians prefer, if possible, to bypass. Between the fall of Athens and the rise of Philip comes what Hammond grandiloquently labelled ‘the period of transient hegemonies’. These are confusing and lack aesthetic appeal. During them the Athenian demos does not, to put it mildly, appear at its best. The sources, from Xenophon to Plato (more of this in a moment) raise more problems than they solve. The orators, in good Greek parti pris fashion, lie their heads off. Spartan brutality, Boiotian shortsightedness, Persian interference in Greek affairs, and Athenian resurgent imperalism between them create an atmosphere of shabby opportunism that idealists find acutely embarrassing. The historiographical hazards were made abundantly clear in CAH 2 vi (1994), and (together with the facts listed above) go some way to explaining why, if we omit serial historians such as Grote or Beloch, and collective enterprises like the CAH, the last individual historian to tackle the period en bloc was, incredible though this may seem, G.R. Sievers, whose Geschichte Griechenlands vom Ende des peloponnesischen Krieges bis zur Schlacht bei Mantinea (not listed in Stylianou’s massive bibliography) was published in Kiel as long ago as 1840.

On the other hand, the period has not lacked, in recent years, for excellent contributions discussing particular topics or aspects. Accame, Badian, Buckler, Cartledge, Cawkwell, Gray, Hamilton, Hansen, Krentz, Lewis, Pédech, Ryder, Sacks, Seager, Sordi, Strauss: these are only the names that spring first to mind. If a new historian of the years 404-350 in the Greek world does appear, he or she will have a wide range of solid specialist scholarship on which to draw. It is as an addition to this material that the exhaustive Historical Commentary by Stylianou (hereafter ‘St.’) on Bk xv of Diodorus will have real and lasting value. Bk xv covers the years 386/5 to 361/0, and includes, inter alia, the Spartan seizure of the Cadmeia, Dionysios’s later campaigns against Carthage, the events leading up to, and including, the Spartan defeat at Leuktra (371/0), and Thebes’ subsequent sunoikismos of Messene. Apart from Xenophon, Diodorus (hereafter ‘D.’) is our sole surviving narrative source for the half-century. Had the lost chronographers and historians on whom he drew survived, it is true, as St. suggested when reviewing Sacks’ Diodorus Siculus and the First Century [BMCR 02.06.19], that no one would ‘pay the slightest attention’ to D., on the good principle (though he doesn’t mention this), equally applicable to MSS and historical sources, that, as Housman stressed in his edition of Juvenal (p. xi), if a is the source of b and c and d, ‘then never in any case should recourse be had to b or c or d‘. Unless, of course, a is, as in the present case, irretrievably lost: which takes us into the misty, speculative, but, alas, also too often dogmatic region of historiographical Quellenforschung.

D., as the tradition from Volquardsen’s Untersuchungen of 1868 through Schwartz’s RE article of 1903 down to St.’s own long and combative introduction makes very clear, has suffered a good deal from this favorite scholarly pastime, which — along with the cognate exercise of Überlieferungsgeschichte — Housman (again) wrote off ( ibid., p. xxviii) as ‘these two lines of fiction’, a warning that fell on largely deaf ears. In D.’s case the result has been to distract attention from the historical value of the evidence transmitted by him, or at best to evaluate it by a rule-of-thumb derived from the inferred values and methods of his almost entirely lost sources. To complicate the issue, D. has been presented, by the same tradition, as a hack compilator (Wilamowitz’s ‘wretched scribbler’), mindless and tasteless, wholly devoid of originality, imagination, or talent, clinging to one historical source at a time, ignoring older and better sources even when these were easily available (e.g. only approaching Thucydides by way of Ephoros), master of nothing but cliché and commonplace platitudes. Such monumentally stupid targets of scholarly scorn — the witless interpolator is another such — invite suspicion, and demand close scrutiny, not least since their object seems to be to provide the tidy Gelehrte with a manageable universe: the direct descent of MSS untouched by contaminatio, the one-period one-book historiography, a Dummkopf off whom it’s easy to score intellectually, and who’s always there to highlight by contrast his critic’s rigorous scepticism and analytical insights.

There are welcome signs that in D.’s case some of these excesses are being corrected. The linguist Jonas Palm, whose analysis revealed a consistency of style throughout the Bibliotheke (thus calling in question — St.’s arguments at p. 15 notwithstanding — the idea that D. merely transcribed his sources, or that unattributed passages could be claimed as a source’s ipsissima verba), also, with lapidary common sense, dismissed as absurd the notion that D. would only approach such famous and easily available writers as Herodotos, Thucydides or Xenophon via a secondary source such as Ephoros.1 Another regular criticism now being challenged is the assumption — made on no other grounds than those of anti-Diodoran prejudice — that D.’s claim (1.4.1) to have travelled widely in Asia and Europe in preparation for his work, and to have spent thirty years all told in its execution, was mere lying invention.2

In the circumstances, it may be advantageous at this point to consider the positive benefits to be derived from D., irrespective of our assumptions about his sources. More particularly, since this is St.’s chosen area of study, let us look at Bk xv. As the striking tabulations by Vial demonstrate,3 D. differs fundamentally from Xenophon’s narrative at numerous points, contains much information on which Xenophon is silent, and, where they do overlap, often provides a preferable account. He is the only literary source (xxviii.1-5, xxix.5-8: Xen. Hell. v.4.34-36 hardly qualifies) to mention the Second Athenian League, mainly known to us through the Decree of Aristoteles ( IG II 2 43); he also has much useful detail (xxxviii.1-4, l.4-5, li.1-2) on the two koinai eirenai of 375/4 and 372/1 following the King’s Peace of 387/6 (to which he alludes at xv.5.1 and xiv.110). Though military operations are not normally his strong point (much scorn has been poured on his stereotyped phraseology in this area), St. concedes, persuasively (p. 395), that, with the problematic exception of Archidamos’s presence at Leuktra, D.’s account of that battle (liv.5-livi), ‘is basically correct’, whereas Xenophon’s (Hell. vi.4.4-15) is largely ‘an apologia … to explain the Spartan defeat, not the Theban victory’ (p. 398). D. also mentions (xxxiv.3-35.2; xlv.4; xlvi.2) several engagements (Naxos, Zacynthos, Corcyra) omitted by Xenophon altogether. He alone offers evidence (xiii.1-4; xiv.1-2) on the Elder Dionysios’s efforts to establish an Adriatic empire, and on Sparta’s dissatisfaction with the King’s Peace in 386 (v.1-2). In general he draws a highly persuasive picture of the power-struggles, through both war and diplomacy, that marked the period. There is much amiss with his chronology, but without it, on balance, historians would be a good deal worse off. To criticize him is easy: errors of all sorts abound, through contradictions, confusion of locality or identity, topographical ignorance, or omission. Yet, as Vial points out,4 when it comes to omissions for this period, Xenophon is more culpable.

There are also some more general traits that need to be noted. D.’s historiography is (as we are often reminded, by St. not least) ethical rather than political: he comes over as a tireless moralist. Both individuals and cities are examined in this light. Examples of Realpolitik D. readily interprets as exercises in generosity or sophrosyne. Athens’ switch of alliance to Sparta in 369 is seen, not as an attempt to restore a balance of power dangerously disrupted by Leuktra, but simply as an example of Athenian magnanimity and generosity.5 This of course represents a widespread, almost universal, attitude in the 4th cent., to which both Isocrates and Polybios furnish excellent parallels:6 D. is not beholden to any specific source. An identical moral assumption underlies his reversal of feeling towards both Sparta and Thebes, over which the text of xv displays a neat chiasmus. Up to Leuktra, as has often been remarked, Sparta is criticised and Thebes praised; from 370 on the roles are reversed. In both cases, good innate qualities are contrasted with specific bad actions. Similarly with Athens: her laudable past is acknowledged, her current imperial pretensions are attacked. Needless to say, these shifts of appraisal, perfectly compatible in the light of their author’s mind-set, have been pounced on by source-critics as prime evidence for the mindless D. changing horses in mid-journey and being too dumb to cover his tracks. Such vehement denigration has, not unnaturally, produced a counter-trend, of which the most thorough-going example is Sacks’ monograph referred to above. Sacks (p.5) characterized the Bibliotheke as ‘a document substantially reflecting the intellectual and political attitudes of the late Hellenistic period’. This I find a shrewd and well-balanced assessment. Viewed in such a context D. comes over as the Will Durant, so to speak, of the mid-first century B.C.E. Unfortunately Sacks then went on to make over-sanguine claims for D.’s intellect and originality, which St. in his review had no trouble in dismantling.

As that review suggested, and his present magnum opus amply confirms, St. is a Gelehrte of quite exceptional diligence, industry, thoroughness, and historical acumen. His mastery of the ancient sources (epigraphic and numismatic no less than literary) is only equalled by his close familiarity with the scholarly tradition from the 18th cent. onwards (for me one benchmark in Diodoran studies is the regular consultation of Peter Wesseling’s great edition of 1746, preferably in the eleven annotated volumes edited by Eyring, 1793-1807: St. passes this test with flying colors). On all the great cruces of the period his commentary is full, penetrating, and eminently well-balanced. He dates the foundation of Athens’ Second Sea-League to early 378, before the raid of Sphodrias, pointing out, with refreshing common sense (p.250) that ‘Sphodrias’s very objective, the capture of the [ sic ] Piraeus, points to the foundation of the Confederacy having been set in motion’. While having no illusions about Athenian renascent imperialism, he emphasizes, correctly (pp. 270-2), the voluntary accession of the Euboian cities. His chronological arguments are sharp but never try to prove too much: his assignment of the 375/4 peace to the summer of 375 (pp. 349-351) is a textbook exercise in moderation (this applies a fortiori to his general excursus, pp.446-445, on the chronology of the 360s). He agrees with Cawkwell, sensibly again, that the Peace of 366/5 was a genuine koine eirene rather than, as Xenophon alleged, ‘a very limited peace between Boeotia and a few north-eastern Peloponnesian states’ (p.485). Here, as over the Second Sea-League, it’s worth noting, he prefers D.’s version of events — though Xenophon gets his nod over Epaminondas’ attempts on Sparta and Mantinea (pp. 507 ff.). But unquestionably the chef d’oeuvre in this massive commentary is St.’s analysis and reconstruction, keeping the best till last (pp.522-48), of the Satraps’ Revolt of 362/1, a most delicate interweaving of diverse shreds of evidence (largely epigraphic) with D.’s unique narrative. Once again that narrative is by and large vindicated. Examples could be multiplied, but I hope I have said enough to indicate the wide-ranging and solidly based excellences of the work under review.

This is important, because there is one feature of St.’s approach to his author and subject which, on the face of it, gives some cause for alarm. In brief, he not only is out of sympathy with D., but displays an almost visceral contempt for him. He refers to him as ‘a mere epitomizer and an incompetent one at that’ (p. 49) and ‘a historical compiler of low stature’ (p. 139). He never tires of commenting on his ’empty and inept rhetoric’ (p. 15), his ‘slipshod methods’, his ‘incompetence, lack of care, and ignorance’ (p. 137), his muddles (p. 136), his blunders (p. 138). A scholar so confident of his own superiority to his author needs very careful watching: all the more so since, as we have seen, he not seldom supports D.’s findings. How, it may be asked, does he reconcile these opposites? Very easily: he is a traditionalist who believes, with almost religious fervor, in the one-main-source-at-a-time theory for D.’s historiography; and for the first half of the 4th cent. conventional wisdom, from Volquardsen to both Hornblowers, has pronounced that source to be Ephoros. For long stretches of his commentary, as a result, we keep reading about what sounds like a textually extant Ephoros, when in fact what we’re dealing with is the much-maligned D. Thus at the many points where D.’s text gives him what he wants, St. can, and does, argue that D. is merely transcribing Ephoros’s narrative; but when it doesn’t, then of course the fault lies with D.’s own stupidity, laziness, or unwillingness to revise obvious errors. He has it both ways.

Of course, any serious argument tending toward D.’s rehabilitation will threaten to knock this crutch from under him, which may in part explain the extraordinarily combative tone of the pro-Ephoran polemic dominating his introduction. It was lucky for him that Sacks (see above) went a good deal too far in promoting D. as an original and independent historian. More dangerous are the less extreme claims made by Chamoux, Vial, Goukowski, and other contributors to the Budé Diodorus project, e.g. on the vexed question of D.’s prefaces. As Chamoux observes7 apropos those to Bks xiv and xv, D. had, in both of these, easy and obvious pegs — the regime of the Thirty, Sparta’s brutal postwar politics — on which to hang a moralising exordium in line with his general attitude throughout the Bibliotheke : he didn’t need to crib them from other sources. But of course the central problem here is St.’s confidence in Ephoros as D.’s main, indeed near-unique, source for Bk xv: how well does the claim stand up? If no worse, certainly no better than any other exercise in Diodoran Quellenforschung. As Delfino Ambaglio recently remarked,8 though the practice has its uses, nevertheless when one passage of D. can be claimed for no fewer than five different sources, it’s hard not to conclude that at least four-fifths of the industry is going nowhere. When we consider the specific case of Bk xv and Ephoros, this suspicion is amply confirmed. Indeed, it might be thought that it is only the distinguished list of scholars who have bought into it — more often, one suspects, by trusting each other’s auctoritas than by reading D. with care — that has kept the theory alive.

The extreme fragility of this house of cards can be gauged at once from a perusal of Jacoby’s collection of Ephoran texts ( FGrH IIA 70, pp.37-109). There are few unquestionable fragments, and such as there are come from sources like Athenaeus and Stephanos of Byzantium rather than D. It is clear that D. did use Ephoros, but hard evidence for Ephoros being his constant source simply does not exist: D. does no more than mention him, casually and infrequently, just as he mentions other writers for Bk xv, including Aristotle, Duris, Philistos and Xenophon (comparable to the naming of Herodotos, Thucydides, Theopompos and Timaios in Bks xi-xiv). The passion for source-hunting has produced a whole linked chain of speculation based on nothing more solid than debatable probabilities. St. is arguing, like a Greek speech-maker, ἀπὸ τῶν εἰκότων : I lost count of the times in his commentary that he backs up arguments for Ephoros with phrases such as ‘almost certainly’, ‘may well have occurred’, ‘can hardly have been absent’, ‘obviously’, ‘indubitably’, ‘cannot possibly’, etc., etc., those tired old concomitants of unprovable dogma. The irony is that all this huff-and-puff over Quellenforschung makes scarcely any difference to the high value of St.’s Historical Commentary as such, and thus becomes, in essence, disregardable. It would be a pity if potential readers were to be put off using what is fundamentally a splendid work of scholarship by St.’s curious (if traditional) obsession, which, to our great good fortune, leaves the main body of his penetrating historical research untouched.


1. Jonas Palm, Über Sprache und Stil des Diodors von Sizilien: Ein Beitrag zur Beleuchtung der hellenistischen Prosa (Lund 1955), 62-63. See also Chamoux (below no.2, xxv-vi) for a useful bibliography.

2. See, e.g., François Chamoux’s remarks in his general introduction to the Budé Diodorus project, Diodore de Sicile: Bibliothèque Historique, Livre I (Paris 1993) liii: ‘Il n’y a aucune raison, sinon le préjugé défavorable qui entretient à son sujet une défiance de principe, pour prétendre que cette affirmation est mensongère.’

3. Claude Vial, Diodore de Sicile, Bibliothèque Historique Livre XV (Paris 1977), xv. Vial also observes, with good reason (p. x), that ‘les recherches sur l’origine du texte de Diodore doivent céder le pas à l’étude de ce texte, considéré comme une source pour l’historien d’aujourd’hui.’

4. ibid. p. xiii: ‘[C]es omissions sont beaucoup moins nombreuses et moins graves que celles que l’on peut relever dans la partie correspondante des Helléniques de Xénophon.’ Her overall analysis of Bk xv is admirably balanced, and I am much indebted to it.

5. xv.63.2: o( gar tw=n *)Aqhnai/wn dh=mos, megalo/yuxos w)n kai fila/nqrwpos, thn men tw=n *Qhbai/wn i)sxun ou) katepla/ghsan

6. See Isocr. 8.117-9 for a moralising theory of why the Megarians, lacking good land, were so wealthy ( σωφροσύνη again); and Polyb. 5.88.4 for a similar explanation of the general readiness to spend large amounts on helping Rhodes to recover after the 227/6 earthquake.

7. Chamoux (above, n. 2), pp. xxxix-xl: ‘Il n’y a aucune raison pour supposer que Diodore était incapable de les concevoir par lui-même: elles répondent parfaitement à l’inspiration générale de son oeuvre.’ cf. also p. lvii.

8. Delfino Ambaglio, La Biblioteca Storica di Diodoro Siculo: Problemi e Metodo (1995) p. 9: ‘… di fronte all’ attributazione di uno stesso passo a cinque fonti diverse … sembra difficilmente evitabile la conclusione che per un (probabile) pezzo di Quellenforschung buona ce ne sono quattro (sicuri) di cattiva.’