BMCR 2020.12.21

Cassius Dio

, Cassius Dio. Ancients in action. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2020. Pp. viii, 133. ISBN 9781350033399. $25.95 (pb).


As part of a remarkable recent increase in the volume of scholarship on Cassius Dio, we can now count the first ever English-language study of that author aimed at the non-specialist classically oriented public.[1] Jesper Madsen’s short, inexpensive and accessible book represents an important step toward expanding understanding of Dio as a political and historical analyst. It is a forceful and often persuasive exposition of a particular reading of Dio’s massive history, though a not uncontroversial one among Madsen’s fellow Dio scholars.

Madsen has not written an overview designed to introduce readers to all aspects of Dio’s work. Rather his book is a focused argument for a single thesis that applies to Dio’s whole 80-book history of Rome from its foundation to 229 CE: in Madsen’s view, the Roman History is a work of political advocacy. Dio has a deep antipathy toward ‘democracy’ (which includes Republican Rome) because it leads to anarchic competition among the elite and eventually civil war. He favors a strong form of monarchy and admires Augustus for introducing such a system, though in Dio’s view emperors should be selected from and advised by the senatorial order.

This is a view of Dio that Madsen has also argued in some of his many recent specialist contributions.[2] This volume, which includes an introduction, three chapters and a conclusion, constitutes a reading of the whole of Dio, emphasizing key episodes from the fully preserved text of Books 36 to 56, describing the years from the mid-60s BCE to Augustus’ death in 14 CE. The book is targeted toward a wide range of readers, including undergraduates, with a mainly historical interest in Dio. It contains only minimal endnotes, a selective bibliography and no Greek text. It assumes no previous familiarity with the author but some general knowledge of Roman history and geography.

The introduction begins with a biographical sketch stressing Dio’s career achievements, followed by a strong section on the historian’s background in Bithynia (3-9). There is then a brief summary of the content of Dio’s work and the state of its preservation. After briefly surveying earlier approaches to Dio, Madsen then introduces his own thesis (13-18) and some consideration of Dio’s context in Severan Rome.

The first chapter, “In Search of the Ideal Form of Government,” looks at Dio as a theorist of Roman politics and an advocate of monarchy. For Madsen’s Dio, monarchy is the only effective check on inter-elite competition, which Dio, in a Thucydidean vein, sees as an inevitable constant stemming from an unchanging human nature, worsened by the tendency of elites in democracies to compete destructively for popular favor. The long middle section of the chapter deals with the famous episode in Book 52 where Dio imagines a set-piece debate after Actium, with Agrippa favoring restoration of the Republic, while Maecenas advocates and describes a monarchical state. Madsen (36-43) sees the latter speech as Dio’s argument for quasi-absolute monarchy. He then (43-50) examines the episode in Book 53, where Octavian in 27 BCE makes a show of renouncing power, only to have it voted back to him by the Senate. Madsen reads this as an episode of genuine consensus that gave the new Augustus a legitimating “mandate” for his monarchical regime. Dio’s ideal version of this regime (50-56) involves no formal constitutional power for the Senate, but rather an advisory role, and also that emperors should be selected from among its own most distinguished members (as under the Antonines) rather than by dynastic succession.

The second chapter on “Roman Narratives” deals with how Dio articulates his thesis about political power in the form of a thousand-year historical narrative. After discussion of early-and-mid republican fragments of Dio, the key section on “Democracy fails” deals mainly with Dio’s fully extant narrative starting in the mid-60s. It includes a crucial analysis of the character of Octavian/Augustus, particularly in the civil war years. In Madsen’s view, Dio simultaneously accepts the ‘official’ characterization found in the Res Gestae, in which Octavian is motivated by a patriotic desire to end civil war, and a ‘realistic’ view of the triumvir’s brutal actions. Dio, according to Madsen, has three major contentions about Octavian: “that the young triumvir had the right to fight the civil wars and that his acts in the course of the conflict were measured and necessary; that he obtained a clear mandate from Rome’s political institutions to govern as a sole ruler; and that he had the right kind of character to rule in a fair and balanced manner.” (84) The chapter concludes (88-92) with a brief assessment of Dio’s narrative of the imperial period, and documents his tendency to praise emperors who came to the throne from the senate as adults and displayed moderation in their rule, and to vilify those who display the opposite characteristics.

The third and last chapter is devoted to assessing the value of Dio’s history for readers in general, but especially historians trying to reconstruct the events it describes. Madsen then (101-106) revisits Dio’s portrait of Augustus and brings up several examples of inconsistency and inaccuracy that stem from Dio’s argument about Augustus’ establishing a stable, moderate monarchy. Dio, having sharply criticized Julius Caesar for accepting extravagant honors after defeating the Pompeians, omits any negative judgement of the similarly extravagant honors paid to the victor of Actium (102-103), and Dio’s statement that Augustus avoided receiving cult in Italy during his lifetime is shown as incorrect on its face (103-105). Madsen continues to what he sees as the positive aspects of Dio’s work, which he illustrates by three examples: the narrative in Book 48 of Octavian’s apparent human sacrifice of Roman nobles after the Perusine War; the account of Sejanus’ fall in Book 58; and the treatment of Hadrian’s reign in Book 69. For Madsen it is the analytical skills and historical balance shown in these passages that represent Dio at his best as an analyst of monarchy and political conflict comparable to Machiavelli or Hobbes (113-14).

Extravagant as this last claim may seem, Madsen does make a strong case for Dio as a discerning analyst of his own political culture. One point on which Madsen is undoubtedly correct is that Dio’s view of Octavian/Augustus has had far more influence than is generally acknowledged on the modern historiography of that figure. Teleological readings abound that see the triumvir as already the conscious architect of stable monarchy, give him a lesser share of the guilt for the proscriptions and other atrocities, and accept the premise that monarchy was “the only option” for post-civil-war Rome. Dio’s account comes the closest of our ancient sources to delivering that narrative in an acceptably analytical rather than encomiastic mode. Madsen positions his own analysis against earlier scholars who “see Dio as too caught up in his own age and its political chaos, civil war and violence to write about the past in its own right.” (12) He finds the historical argument of Dio’s late Republican and Augustan books more compelling than the contemporary reportage of his Severan narrative. However, Madsen’s Dio is unusually decontextualized, and seems at times to be making his arguments into a discursive vacuum. When Madsen suggests (48) that “the remarks that Dio has Octavian offer in his speech to the senators [in Book 53] may also be read as a reminder to readers in Dio’s own contemporary years not to abolish monarchical rule,” one asks why such a reminder would be needed in the 200s, or what alternatives anyone might have envisioned. Madsen argues that the tyranny and incompetence of Commodus, Caracalla and Elagabalus might have led to anti-monarchical stirrings, but does not cite contemporary evidence of Severan-era discussion of the principle of monarchy. He acknowledges (50) that “essentially, all other political thinkers in Imperial Rome would agree that monarchical rule is the only form of government to ensure peace and stability,” but cites Pliny the Younger (Pan. 66) and Tacitus (Hist. 1.2) as, unlike Dio, advocating “a form of constitution where the Senate has a say in the decision-making process and is free to take part in the government.”

Madsen’s interpretation can function without a major focus on Severan history, however, and captures well what makes Dio’s work distinctive. He makes a solid case for reading the Roman History as a unified rhetorical whole built around the centerpiece of the monarchy’s foundation. He does it in a straightforward and clear style that is well geared to an undergraduate or generalist readership. To do this in 120 pages, however, requires a good deal of simplification, and there are many points where Madsen omits nuances or alternative interpretations in his text and has no scope to include them in his notes and bibliography. He gives slim evidence for his contention that Dio makes Octavian superior to the other civil war leaders in his motivation and justification for fighting, and the complex relationship in Dio between the first princeps’character and historical significance is lost. Madsen’s argument (84) that Dio’s Octavian has “the right to fight the civil wars” rests on two relatively isolated passages (43.44.2-3; 45.1.2) that do not add up to an explicit authorial statement on the question. Maecenas’ speech is not as unambiguous an endorsement of strong monarchy as Madsen makes out, given the monopoly he gives the senate on high administrative and military offices. The book presents an oversimplified version of the “adoptive system of succession under the Antonines, and of Dio’s commitment to it (though with some qualifications at p. 52-53). The book is also not free of careless errors and typos.[3]

These concerns aside, this book fills a crucial need. It makes Dio a more teachable author and will give scholars in many areas of Roman history an entree into critical engagement with Dio as something other than a source of facts. It provides important insights into the possibilities of Greco-Roman historiography as political analysis and the origins of our modern metanarrative of the late republic and Augustan periods. Those who go from this book to a more extensive reading of Dio will naturally discover complexities beyond what Madsen has been able to present in this volume. They will also discover a good deal of high-quality recent scholarship to which Madsen has contributed. Scholars and teachers of Roman historiography and political thought, as well as historians of the Augustan period, should welcome this study warmly.


[1] Fergus Millar’s A Study of Cassius Dio (Oxford, 1964) remains indispensable, but assumes knowledge of Greek and significantly more historical and philological background than the book under review.

[2] See particularly Madsen’s “Like Father Like Son: The Differences in How Dio Tells the Story of Julius Caesar and His More Successful Son,” in J. Osgood and C. Baron, eds., Cassius Dio and the Late Roman Republic (Leiden and Boston, 2019), 259-81; “From Nobles to Villains: The Story of the Republican Senate in Cassius Dio’s Roman History”, in C. Burden-Strevens and M. Lindholmer (eds.), Cassius Dio’s Forgotten History of Early Rome (Leiden and Boston, 2019): 99-125; and “In the Shadow of Civil War: Cassius Dio and His Roman History,” in C. H. Lange and F. Vervaet, eds., The Historiography of Late Republican Civil War (Leiden and Boston, 2019), 467-502. Madsen was from 2015 to 2019 a leading organizer of the scholarly network Cassius Dio: Between History and Politics, of which I was also an organizer. He is the co-editor of one published and two forthcoming volumes of essays on Dio and of a projected Brill companion to that author.

[3] E.g. Dio’s second consulship is dated to 228 rather than 229 (2) and Nerva is said to be the last emperor of Italian origin before Dio’s time (40). On p. 83 we are told that Augustus claimed in the Res Gestae to have “freed the city from the fractions.”