BMCR 2005.10.46

Lecture des Antiquités romaines de Denys d’Halicarnasse. Un historien entre deux mondes

, Lecture des Antiquités romaines de Denys d'Halicarnasse : un historien entre deux mondes. Mémoire de la Classe des lettres. Collection in-8o, 3e sér., t. 34. Bruxelles: Classe des Lettres, Académie Royal de Belgique, 2005. 419 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN2803102145 €32.00.

Recent scholarship on Dionysius of Halicarnassus has brought about a substantial reevaluation of his oeuvre. Most important, Dionysius’ interpretation of the Romans and Roman culture as Greek is no longer regarded as resulting from his “totally uncritical admiration of Rome at the cost of Greece”1 but has been recognized as a conscious attempt to reinterpret Roman institutions and customs from a Greek point of view.2

Anouk Delcourt’s (D.) book is the first comprehensive and systematic attempt to analyze which strategies Dionysius employed to create this Hellenized image of Roman culture, thus uniting these two cultures and making early Rome a city on which Greek cultural models have had a lasting influence (pp. 12f.). So D. defines her book as a reconstruction of “the Weltanschauung [la vision du monde] held by a Greek historian living in Rome during the beginning of the Principate” (p. 13) but not a historical study aiming at exploring the realia behind Dionysius’ Antiquitates.

D. has divided her book in three major sections. In the first section, “Parcours dionysiens” (pp. 21-76) she attempts to situate the Antiquitates in their immediate cultural and historical context. She reassesses the scarce information available about Dionyius himself and gives a brief interpretation of the role of historiography in Dionysius’ rhetorical works and his historical method in general. The section ends with a brief survey of the reception of the Antiquitates from Photios to central works of modern scholarship.

In the second section, “Denys et le monde grec” (pp. 77-218), D. explores the role of Greece in the Antiquitates. Since, as D. affirms, Dionysius’s idea of Greece serves as an underlying structure of his representation of the history of early Rome as originally Greek, the image of Greece in the Antiquitates provides the key of interpreting his historical oeuvre (p. 79).

In the third section, “Denys et le monde romain” (pp. 219-360), D. interprets Dionysius’s presentation of the Roman regal period on the basis of her analyses of the preceding sections. In a first step, she analyzes Dionysius’s treatment of Romulus and his interpretation of Romulus’ political decisions and institutions and the presumed Greek influence upon them. Afterwards she deals with Dionysius’ interpretation of the decadence of Roman kingship.

After a brief conclusion, which reassesses the question of Dionysius’s attitude towards Augustus and his politics, the book ends with an extensive and very useful bibliography.

In general, the lucid structure of the book and especially the summaries of the author’s main arguments after every section, as well as short introductions to every section, provide an agreeable and interesting read.

D. begins the first section of her book with a brief survey of the available biographical data about Dionysius’ life. Because of the scarcity of material, new conclusions or insights cannot be expected. In general, D.’s occasional speculations about Dionysius’ life and character to fill up the lacunae are not wholly improbable but do not seem very helpful since no positive evidence is available to confirm her assumptions (cf., e.g., pp. 36f). From the beginning, D. convincingly states that the underlying idea of the Antiquitates, viz. that Romans and Greeks are ethnically, culturally and politically united, is not only central for an interpretation of Dionysius’ historical work but also makes him “the first theorist of a Greco-Roman world” (p. 38) and paves the way for the Second Sophistic (p. 38).

Quite fruitful is D.’s analysis of the principles of historiography Dionysius develops in his rhetorical works (chapter II, “L’atelier de Denys d’Halicarnasse: conceptions et pratiques historiographiques”, pp. 39-69). Of special importance is her statement that Dionysius’ historical and rhetorical works must not be treated separately but are intrinsically intertwined and therefore provide the interpretive frame in which the Antiquitates must be read (p. 40). Unfortunately, in her subsequent discussion D. singles out only “imitation” ( μίμησις) as playing a crucial role in Dionysius’ rhetorical doctrine (pp. 43-45) and applies this concept to Dionysius’ history. The Antiquitates, she states, aimed at the moral edification of all Romans by providing them with models for their behaviour. They thus secured an infinitely ongoing reproduction of the same core values of Roman society from the past via the present into the future and thereby created a historia perpetua (pp. 45-47, on the histora perpetua cf. pp. 50-53). Thus, since in Dionysius’ view all Romans have a Greek origin, the Antiquitates, according to D., establish the permanent continuation of Greek identity in Roman history (“permanence identitaire”, p. 52) by combining Greek and Roman history.3 Furthermore, D. convincingly connects Dionysius’ interpretation of the history of early Rome with the importance the Romans attributed to their ancestors when Dionysius wrote the Antiquitates : Dionysius thereby inserts his history in a significant contemporary intellectual movement (p. 63).

Because of the identity of Romans and Greeks propagated in the Antiquitates, D. persuasively concludes that Dionysius did not address an either exclusively Roman or exclusively Greek readership. Instead, according to D., the Antiquitates were addressed to all Romans and Greeks alike who had an adequate education ( παιδεία), independent of their nationality or social status (pp. 68f.). Thus, besides “imitation” as the guiding principle of both Dionysius’ rhetorical and historical writing, I would like to propose one further point of contact between Dionysius’ rhetorical doctrine and his history to supplement D.’s discussion: Hidber has shown that Dionysius supposed his critical works not only would provide his readers with rhetorical technique, but also would impart to them a much more general cultural knowledge (the φιλόσοφος ῥητορική, cf. Hidber, Manifest, pp. 44-56). Thus it seems not far-fetched to assume that Dionysius may have thought of his rhetorical doctrine as providing the παιδεία, i.e. the cultural knowledge, that was necessary to understand the Antiquitates appropriately. This seems all the more probable as Dionysius in the preface to “On Ancient Orators” expressly stresses the cultural unity of Greeks and Romans for which the Antiquitates are supposed to give the historical explanation.

To sum up, in the first section of her book, D.’s conclusions about the interrelations of Dionysius’ rhetorical and historical writings are convincing and further our understanding of the Antiquitates considerably. However, since some of her main ideas, esp. concerning the role of the “imitation” in the Antiquitates, have previously been explored in an essential chapter by Hidber (Manifest, pp. 75-81), a discussion of this scholar’s ideas would have been very valuable.

The second main section explores more closely the role of the Greeks in the Antiquitates, whom Dionysius uses to inscribe Roman history in a Greek framework (p. 80). The section begins with a survey about the development of Greek attitudes toward Rome and the Romans from Hesiod to Polybius (pp. 81-115).

D. then shows how Dionysius consequently “proves” that Rome is neither a barbarian nor an Etruscan, but an essentially Greek, city. Even in conflicts with Greek colonies such as Naples in Southern Italy in the fourth century B.C., it is Rome that represents genuinely Greek values while other originally Greek towns are portrayed by Dionysius as degenerated from their genuine Greek culture and identity (pp. 105-113). D. stresses the originality of Dionysius’ position since in his Antiquitates he systematically disproves all the hypotheses advanced by other historiographers to affirm the Greek identity of Rome and the Romans: “The historian from Halicarnassus therefore is not only a witness of the relationship of Greeks and Romans; he is also above all the inventor of a new and, so to speak, teleological representation of this concept. This is without doubt the cornerstone of his whole work” (p. 115).

In the following chapter (pp. 129-195), D. shows that Dionysius represents only a very selective portrait of Greece in the Antiquitates : he in fact concentrates on Arcadia on the one hand, and Athens and Sparta on the other (p. 129). Dionysius thus sets an idealized picture of Greece in a mutual relation with Rome. He explains Roman history from a Greek point of view and employs Roman history to praise Greece and eternalise its fame (p. 130).

D. then explores first the role of Arcadia (pp. 130-156) and afterwards the role of Athens and Sparta in the Antiquitates (pp. 156-195). Dionysius concentrates on one aspect of Arcadia only: he stresses that it is the oldest part of Greece and, therefore, the purest representation of Greek identity. It is thus particularly suitable to form the origin of Roman history (pp. 144f.). A similar selective idealization takes place with Athens and Sparta, which Dionysius uses to “provide the Urbs with a foundation of eternal Hellenism” (p. 156). D. shows how Dionysius reinterprets Roman institutions as modelled according to typical political institutions of these two model-cities. But Rome becomes not only the heir of Greek culture but also its perfecter. To give but one example, Rome not only adopts an Athenian core value like φιλανθρωπία and makes it the basis of the Roman patronage system but also corrects several defects of the Athenian political system (p. 169). Dionysius even shapes his descriptions of existing Roman customs according to his (idealized) idea of the allegedly underlying Greek institutions, e.g. in the case of Romulus’ alleged borrowings from Lycurgus’ Spartan constitution (pp. 181-184). Thus Dionysius creates an image of Rome as superior to Athens in many respects: it adopts, modifies and even diffuses Greek customs, institutions and values all over the whole oikumene through its spatial and temporal expansion.

The last chapter of the second section, “L’horizon grec des Antiquités romaines” (pp. 197-225) is dedicated to a comprehensive survey of Dionysius’ idealized concept of Hellenism and its political and cultural implications. As D. shows, Dionysius’ definition of Roman culture and society as Greek is based on mainly four constituents: language, ethnic origin, Greek culture ( παιδεία), and the antiquity of Roman institutions. Because they have been shaped by Greek models from the beginning, they can thus justly be called Greek (pp. 198-210).

But D. also notes that Dionysius limits this positive influence of Greeks upon Rome to “classical Greece”: all references to Greeks who come in direct contact with Rome in later times portray them as degenerated from their genuine identity. D. convincingly connects this observation with Dionysius’ rhetorical writings, where reference is made equally exclusively to “classical” Greece (pp. 206-210), and at the same time connects this insistence on “classical Greece” with Augustus’ cultural politics. When Dionysius lived in Rome, the Romans themselves made claim to classical Greek culture to incorporate it into their own cultural identity. Dionysius’ rhetorical and historical writings thus both aim at “an elaboration of a culture which shall be common to all parts of the empire (i.e., κοινότης) and is based on true humanism (i.e., φιλανθρωπία). Dionysius expects the Roman authorities, who he knows are sensitive to the powerful symbolic capital of fifth and fourth century Greece, to take the measure of what is at stake and advance consciously a renaissance they have initiated” (pp. 214f.).

This second section of D.’s book is particularly valuable since up to now the role of Dionysius’ ideas of Greece in the Antiquitates has not been explored systematically. Her conclusions about Dionysius’ idealized Hellenism and its role for the “hellenization” of the whole Roman history from the beginning to the times of Augustus are totally convincing. Of particular importance is her observation that Dionysius had Greek and Roman history influence one another mutually: Greek history is employed to create an image of early Rome, and Roman history is employed to perpetuate and magnify Greek history.

Since Dionysius’ history thus seems to include interpretations of two different histories, i.e. an explicit interpretation of early Roman history and an implicit interpretation of the Greek past, it might have been useful also to explore the question which image of his own past a Greek reader would have created when reading the Antiquitates.

In the third section, D. applies the results of the former sections to interpret Dionysius’ description of the Roman regal period. As D. states, a comprehensive treatment of the Antiquitates would be impossible because of the abundance of material. Her examination therefore will be limited to the regal period, in which, in her opinion, Dionysius’ structuring and reshaping of his historical material according to his overall view of Roman history is most obvious (pp. 222f.). Furthermore, the regal period is of particular interest because of the Romans’ intimate, but somewhat paradoxical, relationship to their kings (p. 223).

After a thorough study of Dionysian usage of the key terms μοναρχία, βασιλεία and τυραννίς (pp. 227-239) D. turns to a closer examination of Romulus. She first singles out three constitutive elements of the legend of Romulus and Remus—their fraternal relation (pp. 241-245), the fratricide (pp. 245-248) and Romulus’ death (pp. 248-255, including a section on Romulus as paradigm for Caesar and Augustus)—and then explores Dionysius’ treatment of the subject in comparison with Livy’s version. D. convincingly shows that Dionysius portrays this “super-king” (cf. the title of the chapter “Romulus, le plus que roi,” p. 241) after the model of Greek founding fathers ( οἰκισταί) (p. 269). Dionysius’ description of his political constitution, the constitution Romuli, corresponds to the Greek ideal of the “mixed constitution” and establishes concord ( ὁμόνοια) among Roman citizens (p. 284). D. shows that core virtues of Roman citizens established by Romulus’ constitution, i.e. piety, justice, moderation and nobility ( εὐσέβεια, δικαιοσύνη, σωφροσύνη and γενναιότης, pp. 291f.), are also drawn from the ideal virtues of citizens common in Greek political writings. But at the same time they resemble Augustan civic ideals (p. 297). Although D. rightly excludes the possibility that Augustus’ political ideals were the direct model of Dionysius’ constitutio Romuli (p. 297), these resemblances nonetheless seem to me important for Dionysius’ conception of history as historia perpetua : the very fact that Dionysius’ reader could find resonances of Dionysius’ Romulus and his constitution in contemporary politics probably would suffice to make him interpret contemporary Roman history as a reflection both of Greek virtues and of the constitution of Rome’s first “super-king”. He could thus interpret contemporary politics as a proof of the unity of Greek and Roman culture.

The second part of the third section is dedicated to the decline of the regal period, which, D. says, does not correspond to either modern or Livy’s reconstruction of the period, in which the beginning of the decline usually is identified with the first Tarquinius’ ascension to the throne. Dionysius, on the contrary, portrays this king as a genuinely Roman (and not Etruscan) successor of Romulus, continuing the traditions and customs as established by his predecessor (pp.302-322). Instead, D. shows that, according to Dionysius, the decisive rupture lies with Servius Tullius: he is portrayed as an essentially ambiguous personality oscillating between the realization of his personal interests and the establishment of a democratic constitution that could not satisfy either the people or the aristocracy (pp. 327-337). From this point onwards, as D. shows, Roman kingship in the Antiquitates declines towards what Dionysius describes according to Greek ideas of tyranny (pp. 337-354).

Compared to the enlightening foregoing two sections, the third section seems to me to have some problems. First, although D.’s choice to concentrate exclusively on the regal period is understandable methodologically, it disregards D.’s own convincing observation that Dionysius wrote his Antiquitates to provide an interpretative framework for the whole of Roman history. Therefore an examination of the development of Roman history and of the role of Greek models and key values in it seems to me indispensable for a comprehensive understanding of Roman history as interpreted by Dionysius.

Furthermore, although D. stresses that her book is not supposed to explore the realia behind Dionysius’ narrative, the third section makes very much the impression of doing so. For example, her extensive discussion of modern opinions about the Tarquinian dynasty and the decline of Roman kingship are without doubt very interesting. But in my opinion they could have been reduced considerably since the knowledge that Roman history as described by Dionysius does not correspond to modern opinions about it does not help much to understand the interpretive strategies and the Geschichtsbild of the Antiquitates. The same is true for her extensive discussion of the source value of the constitutio Romuli (pp. 272-278). Her conclusion that Dionysius did not re-elaborate a piece of political literature but is the genuine creator of this Romulean constitution seems to me absolutely justified but, methodologically does not contribute very much to the exploration of its function in the context of the Antiquitates.

Instead, what it might confirm is a certain originality of Dionysius’ which D. stresses at several places in her book (cf. e.g. pp. 60f., 138f., 151, 225, 363) and the proof of which appears to be a second aim of her book. But, I wonder, is an author’s proved originality really an essential prerogative of interpretation? D. has shown convincingly that the Antiquitates present a consistent interpretation of Roman history — the question whether he achieved it by simply compiling historical material or whether he was the first or even only historiographer to do so seems of minor importance.

Thus the third section makes the impression that the emphasis of D.’s examination has switched from Dionysius’ interpretation of Roman history in Greek terms to the question of this interpretation’s historical worth. It therefore does not seem to me to be wholly consistent with her methodological claims at the beginning.

Finally, I would like to add one further general remark. In the last decades, extensive scholarship has been done about history as narrative and the complex interrelation of “historical truth” (if something like this has ever existed) and the historiographer’s interpretation of the historical material to make it correspond to his ideas of history.4 Unfortunately, in D.’ book there is no discussion of these theoretical approaches, though this might have been useful for own work.

To sum up, in my view D.’s book is one of the best and most thorough ones on the guiding principles of Dionysian historiography. It certainly is a must for everyone interested in early imperial Greek historiography and Greek construction of identity under Roman rule. A more comprehensive discussion of the relations of Dionysius’ critical writings and the Antiquitates would have been valuable and still seems necessary fully to understand Dionysius’ writings in their complexity. The third section discusses Dionysius’ interpretation of Roman history but also shows that more work is required which, on the basis of D.’s analysis, can produce a more comprehensive study of the Antiquitates. A chapter discussing the theoretical aspects of her work with regard to recent theoretical scholarship would have been desirable.


1. Otto Lendle, Einführung in die griechische Geschichtsschreibung. Von Hekataios bis Zosimos. Darmstadt 1992, p. 242. All translations from works of secondary literature are mine.

2. Cf., for example, Thomas Hidber, Das klassizistische Manifest des Dionys von Halikarnass. Die Praefatio zu De oratoribus veteribus : Einleitung, Übersetzung, Kommentar. Stuttgart/ Leipzig 1996, pp. 75-81 (henceforth Hidber, Manifest); Matthew Fox, Roman Historical Myths. The Regal Period in Augustan Literature. Oxford 1996, pp. 49-95, esp. p. 74; and, in general, Matthew Fox, History and Rhetoric in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, JRS 83, 1993, 31-47; id., Dionysius, Lucian, and the Prejudice against Rhetoric in History, JRS 91, 2001, 76-93; Emilio Gabba, Dionysius and the History of Archaic Rome. Berkeley 1991 (Sather Classical Lectures 56).

3. Cf. on these points already Hidber, Manifest, pp. 79-81.

4. Cf., for example, Hayden White, Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe. Baltimore/ London 1973; id. The Content of the Form. Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore/ London 1987; Dominick LaCapra, History and Criticism. Ithaca/ London 1985.