BMCR 2023.01.03

Arrian the historian: writing the Greek past in the Roman Empire

, Arrian the historian: writing the Greek past in the Roman Empire. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021. Pp. xii, 180. ISBN 9781477321867.



The chief aim of this book is to understand Arrian as a historian of the Greek past in the Roman Empire.[1] The past in question is primarily the campaigns of Alexander as related in the History of Alexander, or the Anabasis, which was Arrian’s most significant historical work.[2] This was one of the key questions when Leon wrote the dissertation from which this book developed. Previous scholarship had mined Arrian’s History of Alexander for historical information, as it was regarded to be the best narrative source for Alexander. Other scholars had analysed it to extract the now lost primary sources on which Arrian based his narrative. Others, including Peter Brunt, the Loeb editor of the Anabasis, had failed to take Arrian seriously as a historian. Still others had dismissed Arrian’s portrait of the Macedonian king as an exercise in imperial apologetics. Arrian’s long-standing commentator, Brian Bosworth, acknowledged such faults and, late in his career, encouraged the next generation of scholars to employ more literary approaches to Arrian.[3] The request prompted a steep rise in the study of Arrian’s Alexander-history.[4] Leon’s dissertation can be counted as one of the first works to heed the call.

While Leon’s Arrian the Historian now appears among many such studies, it remains original in its emphasis on historical writing. His focus on how Arrian operated as a historian in the context of Greek historiography is one of its most significant contributions, not least because Leon’s detection of hitherto unnoticed patterns enriches our understanding of Arrian and the genre. These are not only brought out by comparative readings of a broad range of ancient Greek historians from Herodotus to Herodian, but also through literary analysis using narratology and reader-response criticism.

Brevity may be considered a virtue of this slim volume. A concise introduction reviews previous scholarship, outlines Arrian’s career, reviews the approach, and summarizes the book’s chapters. Leon first situates Arrian in the wider context of the Second Sophistic, arguing that he writes history as a sort of counterculture to sophistic performance. Secondly, Leon turns to Arrian’s authorial craft, proposing that his principal way of creating novelty for contemporary readers was historical revisionism. This feature is explored across Arrian’s oeuvre, even the non-historical writings. Chapters 3 and 4 are case studies of how this novel revisionism manifests itself in Arrian’s portrait of Alexander. The former focuses on Arrian’s representation of Alexander’s political actions, whereas the latter explores Arrian’s accounts of the king’s personal virtue in the face of illness and death. The conclusion effectively sums up the entire argument in just two pages. Leon appends a brief discussion of the problematic evidence for the date of the Anabasis, possibly AD 120s, reiterating the idea that this was one of Arrian’s early works and thus pivotal in catapulting him to fame.

The first chapter—“Amateurs, Experts, and History”—attempts a reconstruction of Greek historiography’s place in imperial intellectual culture. Accordingly, it also advances the most wide-ranging conception of historical writing. Leon argues that in the imperial period, historians produced counterculture to showy sophists, who used the past only superficially. The sophists performed historical declamations in public and were thus separate from the historians on an epistemological level. Accordingly, it would seem as if historians’ words on their intellectual independence are taken at face value. This is risky, considering that it was regular practice for historians to define their activities through polemics against prevailing literati from poets to philosophers and sophists. Such polemics were authorial claims that historical writing matters as much as other genres of artistry and knowledge production, but they do not mean that historians were independent or immune to influences from elsewhere.

Leon makes the case based on passing remarks excerpted from mainly imperial Greek historians, but also earlier historians, such as Thucydides. The selected evidence does not seem sufficient to establish Leon’s argument in wholly satisfactory fashion. Take Leon’s main case of Arrian himself. When we consider that Arrian wrote about Alexander in a similar way to that in which contemporary orators spoke about him, including Aelius Aristides,[5] Arrian does not seem to be as reactionary as he is made out to be. Of course, orators did not talk about Alexander for seven books, a companion piece, and a ten-book sequel, but that does not change the fact that the Alexander theme had content that one had to cover, regardless of intellectual background. This is apparent even in Arrian’s methodological statements, such as his remarks on the killings of Clitus and Callisthenes (Arr. Anab. 4.14.4). Arrian claims to have arranged these murders together for narrative reasons, but most of his predecessors and contemporaries had done this too, and so had already created expectations that Arrian fulfilled rather than invented. Arrian’s frequent recourse to rhetorical topoi ties him to intellectual currents instead of separating him from them.

In Chapter 2—“Novelty and Revision in the Works of Arrian”—Leon postulates that Arrian generally represented himself in the role of historian across his works. Comparison is drawn between Arrian’s technical works, such as the Cynegetica, and several treatises by other writers, including Xenophon of Athens. Phraseology and literary features, such as prefatory statements, are interpreted as interacting with each other. Leon then compares these readings to historiographical features of the Anabasis, from which common strategies of knowledge production are derived, such as Arrian’s wish to update existing literature because of uncertain information or unreliable sources. This is a very ambitious line of reasoning and perhaps not fully convincing. In some works, there was a real need to renovate. For instance, the point of Arrian’s Periplus is that the author has to travel around to restore defunct areas, buildings, and sites on the coastline of the Black Sea, all for the glory of Hadrian, the dedicatee of the work. In the Anabasis, however, I would argue that  Arrian used historical revisionism because he was writing about the distant past, and so historical revisionism was the most appropriate for this particular literary persona. Leon’s excellent discussions of historiographical topoi, such as the treatment of falsehoods, narrative uncertainty, and the involvement of readers, reinforce such a view of Arrian the historian rather than distort it. It might have been helpful to explore whether a similar revisionism would apply to the rest of Arrian’s historiographical output, including his works of contemporary history.

In Chapter 3—“Alexander among the Kings of History”—Leon argues that Arrian uses Alexander as an exemplum to provide an extended commentary on kingship for contemporary readers. Leon sees the development of Alexander’s kingship during the campaign as evidence of Arrian’s revisionism. He argues that Arrian restructured the development into four major phases: (1) Greek king until the final battle with Darius III at Gaugamela; (2) after Babylon, Persian king in spe; (3) beyond Mesopotamia, eastern expansionist in the style of Herodotean Persian rulers, such as Cyrus the Great and Darius I; and (4) divine rivalry with Heracles and Dionysus in India. While the scheme is generally applicable,[6] the analysis does not fully establish the hypothesis of revisionism. For example, how much of this model would Arrian have found in his sources? How similar or dissimilar is Arrian’s version to other representations of Alexander’s decline in the other accounts by Roman authors? What the chapter does do well, however, is to expose the Herodotean homage in terms of content—which perhaps is not surprising, given the subject matter—as well as to highlight many of the less obvious historiographical manoeuvres deployed by Arrian.[7]

In Chapter 4—“Sickness, Death, Virtue”— Leon analyzes Roman and Stoic contexts for Arrian’s representation of virtuous physicality and corporeal deterioration in the Anabasis. Leon’s insightful readings enrich the individual meanings of Alexander’s wounds and illness, the deaths of the followers, and the king’s own demise. Leon primarily seeks to bring out the moral aspects of this theme, such as self-control, which was so crucial in Roman thought. Simultaneously, he also manages to show exactly how Arrian crafted this particular narrative about Alexander’s human limitations. I also appreciate the poetic justice of ending the study with Alexander’s death, which also marks the end of Arrian’s composition.

Although not all parts of Leon’s work are immediately convincing to the present reviewer, it nevertheless raises important questions about the nature of historiography and historical education in the imperial period. The book also contributes to other big trends in this vein of scholarship. For instance, Leon speaks to the scholarly discourse on Romano-Greek reworkings of the figure of Alexander, which venture beyond politics, Latin literature, and material culture.[8] Another significant feat is that, by discussing Arrian as author and literary artist, Leon participates in the breaking down the barriers between historical writing and other forms of literary-text production.[9] There are thus plenty of reasons why Leon’s Arrian the Historian should assist in stimulating further discussion about the intellectual climate of the second century AD.



[1] A substantial revision of Leon’s University of Virginia dissertation (2012), the book nevertheless fails to take into consideration a few important recent contributions, such as J. Carlsen (2014), “Greek history in a Roman context: Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander”, in: J.M. Madsen and R. Rees, eds., Roman Rule in Greek and Latin Writing (Leiden), 210–223.

[2] Collection Budé is releasing a new edition of the Anabasis, the first since Gerhard Wirth edited A.G. Roos’ Teubner. Cf. P. Goukowsky (2022), Arrien, Anabase d’Alexandre. Tome I: Introduction générale. Livres I & II (Paris).

[3] Most reflectively in A.B. Bosworth (2007), “Arrian, Alexander, and the pursuit of glory”, in: J. Marincola, ed., A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography (Oxford), 427–432 (esp. 432). Of course, exceptions to the rule exist, e.g. P.A. Stadter (1980), Arrian of Nicomedia (Chapel Hill, NC); and H. Tonnet (1988), Recherches sur Arrien: sa personnalité et ses écrits atticistes (2 vols., Amsterdam).

[4] See e.g. B. Burliga (2013), Arrian’s Anabasis: An Intellectual and Cultural Story (Gdańsk); V. Liotsakis (2019), Alexander the Great in Arrian’s Anabasis (Berlin/Boston); and N. Militsios (2020), Από τον Αλέξανδρο στον Αρριανό: θέματα και τεχνικές στην Ἀνάβαση (Athens). Cf. H. Schunk (2019), Arrians Indiké: Eine Untersuchung der Darstellungstechnik (Wiesbaden). I also note that the first conference in Arrian studies was held in Innsbruck in December 2019, with the papers available in J. Degen and R. Rollinger, eds., (2022), The World of Alexander in Perspective: Contextualizing Arrian (Wiesbaden).

[5] See e.g. Or. 50.49 Behr (p. 333 Jebb) with Arr. Anab. 1.12.5.

[6] Some of the deviations from the scheme have been pointed out by V. Liotsakis (2022), “Arrian in context”, CR 72.2.490–92 (at pp. 491–92).

[7] Discussed at C. Baron (2022), “A historiographical study of Arrian’s Anabasis”, Histos 16.iv-viii (at p. vi-vii).

[8] See most recently J. Finn (2022), Contested Pasts: A Determinist History of Alexander the Great in the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor).

[9] See e.g. M. Baumann and V. Liotsakis, eds., (2022), Reading History in the Roman Empire (Berlin).