BMCR 2021.06.27

Appian. Roman history

, Appian. Roman history, volume IV-VI: Civil Wars, books 1-5; fragments, (3 vols.). Loeb classical library, L005, L543, L544. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019. 3 volumes. ISBN 9780674997295 $28.00.

In an undergraduate introductory Roman history class many years ago, I was handed a list of ancient Roman historians from which I was to choose two to read in their entirety. The list was in alphabetical order, and in what seemed to me the height of efficiency, I chose the name at the top: Appian. When I politely inquired as to what translation I should use (none was listed), I was informed, unhelpfully, “There is only one, Mr. Gowing.” Some two hours later I emerged from the library with the four volume Loeb edition by Horace White. White was quite an interesting character. A respected journalist and financier, he served as editor at the Chicago Tribune and from 1883 until 1903 he worked at the New York Evening Post, eventually becoming that paper’s editor-in-chief. White had studied Classics at Beloit College, earning his BA there in 1853, an experience that equipped him with a passion for the subject that stayed with him throughout his life. Indeed, his Loeb translation of Appian was published in 1899, a project at which he clearly toiled during the height of his career as a respected journalist and financial guru.

Given Appian’s indisputable importance to our understanding of Roman history, it is astonishing to realize that it took nearly a century for Appian to be translated into English again. John Carter’s 1996 Penguin translation of the Civil Warswas and remains first-rate. The new Loeb edition by Brian McGing, however, offers not only a superb, nuanced translation, but of course an up-to-date Greek text as well. Basing his text on the current Teubner text of Appian (volume 1, Viereck and Roos 1939, corrections and additional notes by Gabba 1962; volume 2, Mendelssohn 1881, revised by Viereck 1905), McGing also draws on work done on Appian’s text by Paul Goukowsky for his recent Budé editions. In short, McGing’s Greek text incorporates advances in the establishment of Appian’s text that have occurred since White published his Loeb well over a century ago. This exponentially increases the value and importance of McGing’s achievement.

The three volumes under review here – Volumes IV-VI – encompass Appian’s Civil Wars; the previous three volumes (I-III, LCL 2-4, which appeared in 2019) feature the Foreign Wars. Volume I includes, however, a substantial, first-rate Introduction as well as a General Bibliography. These are of course not repeated in Volume IV, and for those wanting a good, up-to-date discussion of Appian, his work, and bibliographical guidance, Volume I is indispensable.

But to get to the heart of the matter: the translation. While one should not misjudge the quality of his predecessor’s translation or the magnitude of his achievement, about which McGing is rightly very respectful (and he will here and there preserve his predecessor’s translation where improvement is not really necessary, e.g., BCiv. 1.6.24), to say that McGing’s represents a dramatic improvement over White’s would be an understatement. It is not simply that McGing updates the translation to reflect contemporary idiom; he also breathes new life into Appian’s prose on almost every page. The fact is that Appian’s Greek can in places be a pleasure to read (take a moment, for instance, to work through his account of Spartacus’ last stand at BCiv. 1.120 or a few of his more poignant chapters on the proscriptions at 4.14-16), and even those whose eyes will never drift to the left-hand page of a Loeb will gain an appreciation for Appian’s (usually) clearheaded prose from McGing’s version.

A couple of examples will suffice to demonstrate how McGing improves on White. At 5.92.386 Appian reports the moment when, following a particularly serious setback, news reaches Octavian that Antony will assist him after all in his war with Sextus Pompey:

οὕτω δ’ἀθύμως ἔχοντι αὐτῷ ἀγγέλλεται ὁ Ἀντώνιος συνθέμενος συμμαχήσειν καὶ νίκη κατὰ Κελτῶν τῶν Ἀκυιτανῶν ἐπιφανής, ἣν Ἀγρίππας ἄγων, ἐφάνη. οἵ τε φίλοι καὶ τῶν πόλεών τινες αὐτῷ ναῦς ὑπισχνοῦντο καὶ ἐποίουν. ὁ μὲν δὴ καὶ τῆς λύπης ἀνίη καὶ λαμπροτέραν τῆς προτέρας παρασκευῆς συνεπήγνυτο.

McGing translates:

While he was in a state of such dejection, news reaches him that Antony had agreed to give military assistance, and a sparkling victory over the Gauls of Aquitania had been reported, won under Agrippa’s command. His associates and certain cities also promised him ships, and began to build them. So Octavian recovered from his depression, and set about constructing an armament even more splendid than the previous one.


While in this state of dejection the news reached him that Antony had agreed to the alliance, and he heard of a splendid victory over the Gauls of Aquitania, gained under the leadership of Agrippa. His friends and certain cities also promised him ships, and built them. Accordingly, Octavius cast off his despondency, and made more formidable preparations than his previous ones.

McGing, here and elsewhere, tends to preserve tense (ἀγγέλλεται) and to respect aspect (‘began to build’ for the imperfect ἐποίουν); he has a penchant for choosing the more apt word (here, ‘sparkling’ for ἐπιφανής, a more vibrant choice than White’s ‘splendid’) and often the more accurate term (thus rendering λαμπροτέραν as ‘splendid’ in contrast to White’s ‘formidable’, or συμμαχήσειν as ‘give military assistance’ versus White’s somewhat misleading ‘alliance’); and for using more current idiom (‘depression’ strikes me as a more meaningful term for modern readers than White’s ‘despondency’). Elsewhere McGing clearly endeavors to preserve some of the rhetorical flourishes Appian likes (note, e.g., his translation of the vivid description of the fighting at Mutina at 3.69.284, capturing Appian’s use of polysyndeton, unusual phrasing and word order, and striking diction, among other devices. The result is a generally more faithful rendition of Appian’s Greek than that found in White.

Rare are the occasions where I found myself questioning McGing’s translations, and even then only because I favored a slightly different nuance. At 2.2.5, for example, as Appian describes Cicero’s oratorical ability, McGing renders ἥδιστος εἰπεῖν τε καὶ ῥητορεῦσαι as “the best informal speaker and public orator of the day”. I suspect the contrast Appian is aiming for here is simply between judicial and forensic oratory rather than informal and formal speech—a minor point, but it goes to Appian’s admiration for Cicero’s speaking ability. Compare White’s “the most eloquent orator and rhetorician of his day”; McGing himself renders τὸν δεινότατον εἰπεῖν Κικέρωνα at 3.54.222 ‘that most brilliant lawyer, Cicero’. At 3.89.369, as Cicero seems to leave his fellow senators in the lurch following Octavian’s defeat of Antony at Mutina, Appian describes the orator thus: ὃς τέως αὐτοῖς ἐπεπόλαζεν, which McGing translates as “who up to this point had been their most conspicuous performer”. This verb, however, when applied by Appian to individuals, almost invariably denotes a public display of arrogance (cf., e.g., Mithridates at Mith. 75.326 or Antony at BCiv. 3.76.308); that Appian means to characterize Cicero’s action negatively at 3.89.369 seems more in line with his general view of the orator’s recent behavior during this period (cf. 3.74.302). But as I say, these are minor quibbles over nuance (and, I admit, they betray my particular interest in Appian’s Cicero).

McGing’s Loeb does differ from White’s in some practical ways as well, not all necessarily welcome (and some may be a result of the publisher’s policies). He has dispensed, for instance, with the marginal notes White included to orient readers as to what events were being described in the text itself; in White these often provide an easily consulted way to navigate Appian’s narrative. Gone, too, are the chronological indicators in the margins, which can also be quite useful. McGing’s footnotes, on the other hand, tend to be fuller and more informative than White’s. White maddeningly omitted the section numbers in Appian’s chapters, which McGing thankfully includes. He also includes and translates in Volume VI the (mostly unassigned) Fragments of Appian’s work as they appear in the edition of Viereck, Roos, and Gabba and thus not included in White’s Loeb.

In sum, this exceptionally well executed Loeb is a welcome resource that will be deeply appreciated by all those interested in Appian and his remarkable Roman History as well as expand his appeal to a new generation of readers.