BMCR 2020.07.14

Paradigmatische Geschichte: Wahrheit, Theorie und Methode in den Antiquitates Romanae des Dionysios von Halikarnassos

, Paradigmatische Geschichte: Wahrheit, Theorie und Methode in den Antiquitates Romanae des Dionysios von Halikarnassos. Palingenesia, Band 113. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2019. 169 p.. ISBN 9783515122504 €44,00 (pb).

Eduard Schwartz’s negative assessment of Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Roman Antiquities is well known.[1] In summary, he believed that valuable historiography could be produced only in ages of great political and moral struggles: thus, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War remained unsurpassed in antiquity. The consequence is that in times of peace, historiography could only be rhetorical, classicizing, which for Schwartz is the worst kind of history-writing. Dionysius’ Roman Antiquities, influenced by and embedded in rhetoric, is the product of a hollow imitation of classical models.[2]

Since the publication of Schwartz’s Realencyclopädie entry, scholarship on Dionysius has radically changed, and rightly so. The publication in 1991 of Emilio Gabba’s Sather Lectures, Dionysius and the History of Archaic Rome, paved the way for a thorough reconsideration of this Greek historian in Augustan Rome,[3] and recent years have seen a surge of books and articles on Dionysius’ Roman Antiquities, his rhetorical treatises, his relationship to classical rhetoric, ancient historiography, Augustan poetry, archaic Rome, and many other topics. Emanuele Santamato’s voluminous Dionigi il Politologo appeared in 2018, followed in 2019 by Richard Hunter and Casper C. de Jonge’s edited book Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Augustan Rome.[4] This brings us to the book under review, Friedrich Meins’ Paradigmatische Geschichte, based on the author’s 2014 Leipzig dissertation.

The book consists of an introduction, four main chapters, concluding remarks (including a useful Zusammenfassung), a bibliography and a list of abbreviations of ancient authors and their works with references to editions and translations used throughout the text. The absence of one or more indexes is regrettable (even a list of passages of Dionysius might have sufficed): it would have made Meins’ views on specific passages of Dionysius’ work more accessible.

The introduction sets the book in the proper scholarly context: from the unavoidable Schwartz and Gabba to Fox, Schultze, Delcourt and Wiater, from (rather obscure) 19th-century German dissertationes to Goudriaan’s (difficult to access) PhD thesis in Dutch.

Each chapter begins with a treatment of previous scholarship: these sections are certainly useful in a PhD thesis, where the candidate is supposed to display their knowledge of other scholars’ works, but they appear at times rather redundant and repetitive in a published book.

In chapter 1, Meins tackles the fundamental issue of Dionysius’ theory of historiography with regard to his own efforts as a historian. In the Epistula ad Pompeium (which incorporates a section on historiography from his now lost De imitatione) and in the De Thucydide, Dionysius presents his own views on the best ancient Greek historians, their style and the content of their works.[5] Dionysius rejects Polybius’ assertion that only contemporary history is worth pursuing in order to justify his own treatment of ἀρχαῖα ἱστορία (Frühgeschichte or prehistory): for Dionysius, even those ancient deeds include a set of examples that are useful for his readers in the first century BCE. In one word, they are paradigmatic. Meins also tackles various concepts that Dionysius discussed in the rhetorical treatises and then used in his own attempt at history-writing, for example: ἦθος (the disposition of the historian towards his theme); ἠθοποιία (the representation of characters within the narrative and especially in speeches); ἀκρίβεια (precision in dealing with mythical and historical details); οἰκονομία and τάξις (arrangement and organization of the material); τεκμήρια, μαρτύρια and σημεῖα (evidence, testimonies and signs that supports the narrative). A fundamental issue for a historian dealing with blurry and uncertain events that occurred many centuries earlier is the rationalization of myths. Here Dionysius’ treatment of Thucydides represents a starting point: the Athenian historian rejected the mythical (τὸ μυθῶδες) in order to focus on contemporary events (De Thuc. 6-7), while Dionysius is confident that he can master the ancient legends through exhaustive study of the evidence (AR 1.8.1). In order to show the practical side of Dionysius’ theoretical principles, Meins chooses to discuss Dionysius’ section on the Aborigines (esp. AR 1.10.2).

Chapter 2 deals with plausibility and appropriateness as criteria of truth. According to Meins, Dionysius does not express a general theory of historical μίμησις as a faithful imitation of truth and nature, but he does employ it in his speeches. τὸ πρέπον (‘appropriateness’) is another concept valued by Dionysius and thoroughly discussed by Meins. Dionysius’ criticism of Thucydides famously focuses on the Melian dialogue (Thuc. 5.84-114) and on Pericles’ speech in Book 2 (Thuc. 2.60-64), both considered inappropriate for the historical circumstances in which they are represented. Through these examples Meins identifies two domains where τὸ πρέπον is essential for Dionysius’ theory of historiography: in the rhetorical creation of characters within the speeches, and in the representation of specific historical circumstances.

Chapter 3 focuses on Dionysius’ ‘idealized history’. It opens up with references to Matthew Fox’s contributions, but then sets out to explore the relationship between Dionysius’ ‘Ästhetisierung der Geschichte’ and the contents of his work. For Dionysius, the narrative of historians should display κάλλος (Schönheit or beauty). In fact, he calls both Herodotus’ and Thucydides’ histories ‘beautiful works of poetry’ (καλαὶ μὲν αἱ ποιήσεις ἀμφότεραι, Dion. Hal. Pomp. 3.21), highlights the importance of ‘beautiful subjects’ in historiography (καλαὶ ὑποθέσεις, AR 1.2.1), and repeatedly emphasizes, both in the Roman Antiquities and in the rhetorical treatises, the use of ‘beautiful examples’ (καλὰ παραδείγματα). This Schönheit des Kunstwerkes – Dionysius himself compares prose texts with works of art – can be reached through eclectic imitation (μίμησις) and emulation (ζῆλος) of models of style and deeds of great, or at least noteworthy, men. This means that, on the one hand, Dionysius extols the previous ‘canonical’ historians, Herodotus and Thucydides in the first place, and, on the other hand, he relies on notable historical examples and political theories to teach and instruct his readers. The second section of chapter 3 deals with the representation of Rome within this concept of beauty. Through a complex, but exhaustive analysis, Meins concludes that Dionysius’ engagement with the figure of Romulus was influenced by Plato’s ideal state combined with Dionysius’ attitude towards religion as a fundamental feature of any political organization.

In chapter 4, Meins finally tackles the paradigmatische Geschichte of the title, i.e. the exemplary character of Dionysius’ conception of historiography. His eclectic treatment of rhetoric as a pedagogical and political tool is traced back to Isocrates’ πολιτικοὶ λόγοι (‘political discourses’): a rhetoric that contributes to the moral and political progress of the citizens, the polis and the Greek world as a whole.[6] For Dionysius, Isocrates philosophical and political rhetoric is implemented by the Greek historian Theopompus, one of Isocrates’ pupils (see Dion. Hal. Pomp. 6). Dionysius’ agenda for a revival of ancient moral and political ideals in Augustan Rome is clearly set out in the programmatic treatise De oratoribus veteribus, where he clarifies his approach to ancient rhetoric and its usefulness in the new Roman political environment. Dionysius is contextualized between Cicero, ‘the last genuine representative of Roman rhetoric’ (p. 116), and the decadence of Roman political rhetoric in the imperial age deplored in Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria and Tacitus’ Dialogus. Meins argues that Dionysius does not yet succumb to a contemplative, formal rhetoric: instead, his agenda has a practical application in the political and cultural life of the early Roman empire. There is no regret for the Republican age: on the contrary, Dionysius exalts the present Augustan age as a period of peace and prosperity that will lead to a renaissance in both literature and politics.

The second part of chapter 4 focuses on Dionysius’ claim for the usefulness of the study of history. Meins is very careful in examining all the moral and political concepts that contribute to display Dionysius’ idea of the exemplarity of history: from know-how and practical wisdom in politics and government (φρόνησις and σοφία) to the significance of the Roman pax deorum for political harmony. Three examples of constitutional change from the Roman Antiquities – Romulus’ foundation of the city, the expulsion of the Tarquins in 510 BCE, and Manius Valerius’ speech to the Senate in 494 BCE (pp. 132-135) – display the stages of development of the Roman polity, as well as the deeds and judgements of notable ancient characters, both positive and negative. For Dionysius, the political awareness of his contemporaries should be informed by the examples of Roman history. In the last section of chapter 4, Meins considers the educational value of Dionysius’ own comments on the speeches that feature in his Roman Antiquities.

This book offers a thorough investigation of the relationship between the theory of historiography expounded in Dionysius’ rhetorical treatises and his attempt at creating an instructive and paradigmatic history with the Roman Antiquities. Readers of the book will not find much on the intellectual context in which Dionysius thrived or on the readers’ responses to both his rhetorical treatises and historical work, even though the treatment of these topics would have offered some more insights on the exemplary nature of Dionysius’ historiographical production.

In sum, Meins’ work revolves around the question of Dionysius’ history-writing as rhetorische Geschichtsschreibung, which he addresses head-on near the end of the book, in two-and-a-half packed pages (pp. 157-159). Meins acknowledges the central role of rhetoric in Dionysius’ (and, we might add, his audience’s) conception of historiography, and the fact that his idea of truth (Wahrheitsbegriff) in the writing of history is quite different from the criteria of modern Wissenschaft(which should not be at all surprising). However, Dionysius’ representation of the past does not simply rely on plausibility or on hollow rhetorical devices. Instead, Meins’ study shows that Dionysius’ paradigmatische Geschichte is rooted in his political and educational agenda.[7]


[1] See E. Schwartz, ‘Dionysios (113) von Halicarnassos’, RE V, 1903, 934-961.

[2] Most of Schwartz’s entries on ancient Greek historians in the Realencyklopädie, and collected in Griechische Geschichtsschreiber, Leipzig 1957, are informed by this general idea of history and historiography. Cf. E. Gabba, ‘Eduard Schwartz e la storiografia greca dell’età imperiale’, Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, 9, 1979, 1033-1049. For Schwartz’s relationship with contemporary scholarship and politics, see S. Rebenich, ‘Eduard Schwartz und die Altertumswissenschaften seiner Zeit’, Hyperboreus 20, 2014, 406-435.

[3] E. Gabba, Dionysius and the History of Archaic Rome, Berkeley, 1991 (translated into Italian as Dionigi e la storia di Roma arcaica, Bari, 1996).

[4] E. Santamato, Dionigi il Politologo. Ragionamenti politici e società augustea, Milan, 2018; R. Hunter, C.C. de Jonge (eds.), Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Augustan Rome. Rhetoric, Criticism and Historiography, Cambridge, 2019.

[5] I have discussed Dionysius’ judgements on previous historians in I. Matijašić, Shaping the Canons of Ancient Greek Historiography. Imitation, Classicism, and Literary Criticism, Berlin-Boston, 2018, esp. chapters 3 and 4.

[6] The relationship between Dionysius and Isocrates has already been extensively treated by N. Wiater, The Ideology of Classicism. Language, History, and Identity in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Berlin, 2011.

[7] A few marginal quibbles. The text includes some misspellings and misquotations, especially in the verbatim citations of previous scholarly works. Hidber’s Das klassizistische Manifest, Stuttgart, 1996, is omitted in the bibliography and appears in the footnotes as ‘Hidber, Manifest’, whereas the usual quotation form includes the name of the author and the year of publication in brackets. Luraghi (2003) is also omitted from the bibliography, where it should have appeared as N. Luraghi, ‘Dionysios von Halikarnassos zwischen Griechen und Römern’, in U. Eigler, U. Gotter, N. Luraghi, U. Walter (Hrsg.), Formen römischer Geschichtsschreibung von den Anfängen bis Livius: Gattungen Autoren Kontexte, Darmstadt, 2003, 268-286.