BMCR 2006.04.37

Images and Insults: Ancient Historiography and the Outbreak of the Tarentine War. Historia Einzelschrift, 187

, Images and insults : ancient historiography and the outbreak of the Tarentine War. Historia. Einzelschriften, Heft 187. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2005. 168 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3515086897 €34.00.

In Images and Insults: Ancient Historiography and the Outbreak of the Tarentine War, Christopher L. H. Barnes (hereafter B.) examines the ancient literary accounts of the outbreak of hostilities between Rome and Taras in 282-281 BC, which led to the Tarentine decision to seek military assistance from Pyrrhus of Epirus. As the title suggests, this work is focused on historiography. Sources for the Tarentine War range chronologically from the second century BC to the twelfth century AD and vary greatly in the information they contain. B. explores these variant narratives to uncover the process of inventio. While B. does ultimately try to locate a historical “core,” he is more concerned with comparing the various accounts to understand better how and why different authors presented the outbreak of the Tarentine War the way that they did.

Taken together, the ancient sources present a series of odd episodes and flamboyant individuals that set Rome on the path to war with Taras and eventually Pyrrhus: the demagogue Philocharis stirred up anti-Roman sentiment and convinced the Tarentines to attack a Roman fleet sailing nearby; when a Roman legate sought redress for this act, a drunk named Philonides soiled the legate’s toga in front of the assembled citizenry of Taras; and finally, a certain Meton cautioned his countrymen in vain against inviting Pyrrhus, all the while wearing a garland and accompanied by a flute-girl. But not every episode appears (or appears in the same way) in every ancient source, and synthesizing them tends to obscure the differences. B. takes another approach, looking at each ancient account of the Tarentine war individually, from the relatively lengthy passages in Appian and Dionysius of Halicarnassus to the brief notices in Florus and Eutropius, in order to draw these differences into sharper focus. This is a slender book, arranged into eleven equally slender sections, an introduction, nine chapters (the longest of which is 29 pages; most are shorter than ten), and a brief conclusion. The first eight chapters offer close readings of the relevant accounts in their chronological order of composition, starting with Polybius and concluding with Zonaras. The vocabulary used, rhetorical and literary devices employed, word play, narrative structure and emphasis, and the addition or suppression of specific details are all closely examined.

Some ancient historians have held out hope that at least a few variant details are remnants of now lost ancient sources that the surviving authors consulted. For example, Plutarch’s version (discussed in Chapter 3, pp. 60-67), embedded in his Life of Pyrrhus, mentions details of Tarentine domestic affairs and the increasingly strained relationship between Pyrrhus and the people of Taras. This information, unique to Plutarch, is sometimes thought to be derived from a lost Tarentine source.1 Likewise, Appian (Chapter 5, pp. 84-104) is the only ancient author to claim that the Tarentines attacked the Roman fleet because it sailed beyond the Lacinian promontory in contravention of an otherwise unknown “ancient treaty” between Rome and Taras, perhaps a fortunate leftover from an alternate annalistic tradition.2 However, B. prefers not to see such variations as evidence for alternate (and possibly more historically accurate) traditions. Rather, a well-rehearsed theme emerges: additional or unique details in an extant source are more likely the product of that author’s innovation — his practice of inventio — than a piece of historical information from now-lost sources.

At the same time B. is not content to dismiss the practitioners of inventio as sloppy copyists, bad historians, or bald-faced liars. Indeed, B. is sympathetic to and laudatory of the authors he studies. Inventio, properly practiced, did not mean simply making things up or lying; the ancient author was expected to operate from a historical core and elaborate his account through a rich variety of allusions and innovations in order to make his own version stand out. “Thus, when Appian provided a new name, or Cassius Dio added that the Tarentines were drunk in the theatre, it is important to ask why they introduced these new details. Rather than being incompetent, careless, or negligent, their accounts may assume a knowledge of earlier historiographers as a prerequisite for detecting how they adorned their works in new, interesting ways, not just through speeches.” (p. 19)

Any attempt to figure out why an ancient author adorned his work in a particular way ventures into the murky waters of authorial intent. B. does not present a formal discussion of the theoretical assumptions in trying to recover ancient authors’ intentions. This does not bother me, but more theoretically minded readers may be disappointed. Be that as it may, B.’s close readings yield interesting observations and unpack notable features of the narratives, whether the ancient authors intended them or not. At its best, Images and Insults presents convincing arguments for what overall effect a given author was trying to achieve by recasting the narrative in his particular fashion. At other times, mainly when examining the briefer accounts, B.’s analysis is much more speculative.

The treatment of the fragmentary account of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Chapter 2, pp. 30-59) will suffice as an example of B.’s approach and methodology. In one fragment we hear of a certain licentious Tarentine nicknamed Thais. Although he is not explicitly implicated in the Tarentine War, B. hypothesizes that this character is modeled both on the Athenian prostitute Thais who encouraged Alexander to burn Persepolis and on the Roman prostitute Larentia. Dionysius names the Roman ambassador, Postumius (probably L. Postumius Megellus), whom the Tarentines mock for his poor Greek when he addressed their assembly in the theater. B. rejects the historical plausibility of this detail [ contra Cornell (1995)], preferring to see it as an allusion to A. Postumius Albinus’ apology for any mistakes he may have made when he wrote his history in Greek, c. 150 BC. Through this allusion Dionysius “wittily demonstrated his knowledge of Roman historiography” (p. 38). Further details show Dionysius recasting the event to play up its theatricality as well as the shameful nature of the people of Taras. The assembly met in the city’s theater, and they listened intently and laughed at the performance of the Roman Postumius Megellus. The exiting Roman is then confronted by a certain Philonides, the town drunk whose nickname was Κοτύλη (drinking cup), who proceeded to soil the Roman’s toga to the laughter and applause of the spectators. The names? B. suggests Philonides is a pun on Philoneidos (lover of reproach), while Κοτύλη and the related Κότυλος both may refer to deep cups sacred to Dionysus. Finally, we are introduced to Meton (according to B. a pun on the Latin metuere), who, wearing a garland and accompanied by a flute girl, came to the theater to caution the assembly/audience, unsuccessfully, against inviting Pyrrhus.

A convincing example of intertextuality is found in Cassius Dio’s version, discussed in Chapter 6 (pp. 105-121). Dio states that the Tarentines were emboldened to go to war with Rome because they were “sheltered from fear” ( ἐν σκέπῃ τοῦ φόβου), the exact same phrase, B. observes, that Herodotus (1.143) uses to describe the Milesians. According to B., Herodotus’ Milesians were wealthy and encouraged revolt, and the “parallels with Taras were obvious,” so an attentive contemporary audience “who caught the reference to Herodotus could meditate on the parallels between the Tarentines and the Milesians and why the Greeks did not hesitate to initiate hostilities” (pp. 105-106). This sort of learned reference is a perfect example of skilful inventio.

Less persuasive is B.’s discussion of Appian. As mentioned above, Appian reports that the people of Taras decided to attack the Roman fleet sailing by because the Romans had violated a treaty not to sail past the Lacinian promontory — the only record of this treaty. B. argues against its historicity, preferring to see the detail as, of course, Appian’s inventio. When the false treaty is invoked by a certain demagogue, Philocharis, as justification to attack the Romans, the people of Taras are duped into a devastating war. According to B., Appian’s audience would have known that the treaty did not exist, and thus Appian’s tinkering with the narrative (the addition of the treaty) reshaped the episode for his knowledgeable audience into a critique of Taras’ democratic mob.

B.’s arguments (summarized on pp. 88-89) against the treaty’s historicity, and so the subsequent explanation of why Appian included it, fail to convince. First, Appian is the only source for the treaty, casting instant doubt on its historicity. However, another unique Appianic detail — that the Tarentines drove a Roman garrison from Thurii after the naval engagement — forms the cornerstone of B.’s reconstruction of events in Chapter 10 (pp. 140-141). Second, the treaty features odd vocabulary, namely, a difficult usage of the preposition πρόσω meaning ‘beyond.’ However, one need look no further than the awkward vocabulary in the roughly contemporary third treaty between Rome and Carthage for a comparandum.3 Third, Appian has Philocharis describe the treaty as “ancient,” but there is no record of a prior Tarentine defeat when such a treaty would have been imposed, nor does the “ancient” treaty seem to correspond to another event in the late fourth or even early third century. But a treaty need not have resulted from hostilities. Indeed, there were no reported conflicts for the first and second Carthago-Roman treaties, nor for the so-called Ebro Treaty, all of which restricted movements and placed geographic limits on one or both parties. Fourth, B. finds it “puzzling” that Taras would agree to the Lacinian promontory as a geographic limit to Roman movements, since Taras was the hegemon of a league that included Neapolis, lying well beyond this boundary. But such a decision makes perfect sense if we consider that Rome had interfered with Neapolis, to the chagrin of Taras in 327, which B. accepts as historical. If we place the “ancient treaty” after 327, it is plausible that the people of Taras would have sought to limit Roman movements in response to growing Roman influence among southern Greek cities. Finally, the treaty gave the Tarentines a legitimate reason to attack the Roman fleet. B. considers this the “most problematic” aspect of the notice, since the annalists from whom Appian derived his account were pro-Roman. This last argument seems potentially circular, and in any case it can be turned on its head. That such an idiosyncratic and embarrassing detail made its way into the pro-Roman annalistic tradition might suggest it is a historical remnant from a hostile source tradition rather than a clever Appianic device to make fun of the Tarentines.

Chapter 9 (pp. 140-147) reconstructs the events leading up to the war between Rome and Taras in light of the ancient historiography discussed in the previous eight chapters and the Roman ideal of the bellum iustum. B. argues that the real reason for the Bellum Tarentinum was the installation of the Roman garrison in Thurii, which the author dates to 282 rather than the usual 285. The ancient sources obscure this casus belli, instead emphasizing the unjustified (from the Roman perspective) Tarentine acts and thus validating the Roman response. Indeed, B. argues that over time the sources become more sympathetic to the Roman position, a conclusion that stands only if one accepts B.’s arguments about the Romano-Tarentine treaty in Appian. B. invokes the seemingly obligatory modern analogy to the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s justifications (for example, see my review of Chaniotis, War in the Hellenistic World at BMCR 2005.08.20). A brief Conclusion (pp.148-151) follows, in which B. notes (rightly, in my mind) that “[i]n the end, we are better at observing how the exaedificatio shifted and changed than at always determining precise sources, or the specifics of the historical ‘core’ about the war’s beginning.”

This monograph covers much of the same ground as Hof, Die römische Aussenpolitik vom Ausbruch des Krieges gegen Tarent bis zum Frieden mit Syrakus (281-263 v. Chr.) (2002). Scholars who found Hof too trusting of the ancient sources should appreciate B.’s more critical approach.4 In fact, there is currently strong interest in early republican history and historiography, reflected in more general works such as Cornell, Beginnings of Rome (1995); Beck and Walter, Die Frühen Römischen Historiker, 2 vols. (2001); Forsythe, Critical History of Early Rome (2005) (BMCR 2005.08.40); Raaflaub, Social Struggles in Archaic Rome, second edition (2005); and Oakley, Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X, 4 vols. (1997-2005). Images and Insults should also be added to the blossoming list of titles on southern Italy in the pre-Roman and early Roman periods.4

Overall, I found the argumentation a bit disjointed, and the book reads more as a collection of observations, some of them quite interesting, than as a sustained thesis. Whether one accepts all of B.’s specific arguments will likely be a matter of individual disposition. The Tarentine War and the subsequent war between Rome and Pyrrhus occurred at the end of a transitional period from Rome’s prehistory (or perhaps proto-history) to its historical era. Scholars who study this period tend to fall into two camps, those (such as Cornell) who are inclined to accept, though not uncritically, more of the narrative structure and details in the ancient sources, and those (such as Forsythe) who tend to be much more skeptical of sources and assume specific details are later fabrications and elaborations. In whatever camp one finds oneself, Images and Insults stands at least as a close reading of the ancient sources for the Tarentine War.5


1. Hoffman, Hermes 71 (1936); Walbank, Historical Commentary on Polybius (1957-67), cited by B. (p. 62 n. 6).

2. Brauer, Taras: Its History and Coinage (1986), Franke, CAH, second ed. 7.2 (1989), and Lomas, Rome and the Western Greeks (1993), et al., cited by B. (p, 88 n. 10); see also Fronda, Historia 30 (2006) forthcoming.

3. Plb. 3.25.3-5; according to the treaty the Carthaginians promised the Romans naval assistance if either Carthage or Rome made a συμμαχίαν πρὸς Πύρρον. See Walbank (1957-67) 1.350-351 for debate over how to translate this enigmatic phrase.

4. Hof’s operating assumption is that ancient authors did not intentionally write falsifications, and that the sources are, in general, fully reliable in the absence of counter-evidence; see Beck’s review in Klio 87 (2005).

5. The bibliography of monographs, collections of essays, and articles dealing with Roman imperialism, Hellenization, Romanization, “native” identity, topography, and ancient historiography of southern Italy is daunting. Of particular relevance to Taras/Tarentum: Brauer, Taras: Its History and Coinage (1986); Tagliente, Italici in Magna Grecia (1990); Osanna, Chorai Coloniali da Taranto a Locri (1992); Lomas, Rome and the Western Greeks (1993); De Juliis, Taranto (2000).