Diodorus Siculus and the First Century


Living in Rome during the last years of the Republic, Diodorus of Sicily produced the most expansive history of the ancient world that has survived from antiquity—the Bibliotheke. Whereas Diodorus himself has been commonly seen as a "mere copyist" of earlier historical traditions, Kenneth Sacks explores the complexity of his work to reveal a historian with a distinct point of view indicative of his times.

Sacks focuses on three areas of Diodorus's history writing: methods of ...

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Living in Rome during the last years of the Republic, Diodorus of Sicily produced the most expansive history of the ancient world that has survived from antiquity—the Bibliotheke. Whereas Diodorus himself has been commonly seen as a "mere copyist" of earlier historical traditions, Kenneth Sacks explores the complexity of his work to reveal a historian with a distinct point of view indicative of his times.

Sacks focuses on three areas of Diodorus's history writing: methods of organization and style, broad historical and philosophical themes, and political sentiments. Throughout, Diodorus introduced his own ideas or refashioned those found in his sources. In particular, his negative reaction to Roman imperial rule helps to illuminate the obscure tradition of opposition historiography and to explain the shape and structure of the Bibliotheke. Viewed as a unified work reflecting the intellectual and political beliefs of the late Hellenistic period, the Bibliotheke will become an important source for interpreting first-century moral, political, and intellectual values.

Originally published in 1990.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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From the Publisher
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 1991
An historical survey focusing on seminaries training diocesan clergy (this aspect of the Catholic seminary tradition originated with the Council of Trent's seminary decree of 1563) and not priests of religious orders. The author traces the formation of traditions, the Americanist era, and the Roman direction. During the last years of the Roman Republic, Diodorus penned the Bibliotheke, viewed as a unified work reflecting the intellectual and political beliefs of the late Hellenistic period, and the most expansive history of the ancient world that has survived from antiquity. Sacks focuses on three areas of Diodorus's history writing: methods of organization and style, broad historical and philosophical themes, and political sentiments. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691600345
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/14/2014
  • Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
  • Pages: 254
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

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Diodorus Siculus and the First Century

By Kenneth S. Sacks


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03600-7



All studies of Diodorus have been dominated implicitly or explicitly by the overarching concern to identify the sources behind the Bibliotheke. Still influenced by nineteenth-century methodology, scholars believe that Diodorus followed previous histories so closely that through diligent inquiry the original authors can usually be identified. Plagiarism, too strong a term in its modern sense to use in judging ancient practices, is, in fact, the word customarily applied to Diodorus's method of composition. In particular, the prefaces to the individual books of the Bibliotheke are mechanically ascribed to Diodorus's sources. With few exceptions (books ii, iii, and xi have only tables of contents), every completely extant book of the Bibliotheke contains a full prooemium, as do a few of the only partially preserved books. The proems generally concern either moral and didactic questions pertaining to the books they introduce or historiographical questions. Rich in pronouncements on history and philosophy, the prologues contain some of the most important nonnarrative material in the Bibliotheke. A study of the prooemia is an appropriate place to begin examining the degree of Diodorus's own invention.

The proem to book i is the longest passage in the extent Bibliotheke in which are found discourses on the nature of history and history writing. Much of it must certainly be Diodorus's own creation, for it includes a discussion of the efforts required in composing his work and the resources available to him (4.1–5), a brief outline of events contained within (4.6–5.1), and the argument that the summary of contents is intended to discourage the cannibalization of work by others (5.2). All of this pertains to his work specifically. The authorship of the first part of the proem, containing discussions of a general nature, is, however, more open to question. It begins with a praise of history and historians, particularly universal historians: history teaches by vicarious experience (1.1–5); historians (of universal histories) reflect Divine Providence, which has been moving toward a commonality of mankind (1.3); and history, by judging historical figures, can affect future actions (1.5, 2.1–5). It concludes with a chapter devoted to the advantages of the genre of universal history (3.1–8).

As early as 1746, Wesseling, noting the correspondence between certain of these sentiments and material in Polybius, suggested that Diodorus drew his material from that historian. While Polybius long remained a favorite candidate for much of Diodorus's main proem, the case was also frequently made for Ephorus and Posidonius. Echoes of various Hellenistic philosophies are certainly evident in the Bibliotheke; still, the past few decades have witnessed a growing realization that a specific and direct influence is impossible to identify. Diodorus may have drawn on one or several historians for inspiration, but modern authorities now generally concede that the substance of the prooemium is his own.

The shift in opinion has come about because, once scholars put aside the belief that Diodorus could not possibly have taken the trouble nor had the talent to compose the main prooemium, they discovered, through study of syntax and vocabulary, that indeed he must be its author. The language is representative of the late Hellenistic period and, therefore, generally similar in vocabulary to that of the rest of the Bibliotheke. Numerous phrases of philosophical import found in the proem are echoed throughout the Bibliotheke, and, it will be argued in Chapter 3, the central points of the proem establish the most significant tenets of Diodorus's historiography. Although scholars remain heavily influenced by the belief that Diodorus is merely a compiler, investigation into the authorship of this prologue has suggested differently.

If the main prooemium to the Bibliotheke is finally being attributed to Diodorus, the proem to book xxxvii—frequently termed the "second main prooemium" because of its length and the obvious energy Diodorus puts into it—has long been considered his work. An introduction to the Italian Social War, it compares that conflict with the preceding wars of Greco-Roman history in order to show its magnitude. The proem is customarily attributed to Diodorus because it is thought that its arguments are too specious to have been composed by Posidonius, who is the source for the narrative part of that book. For example, the assertion that the Italian Social War was the greatest conflict of all time is crude and embarrassingly reminiscent of Thucydides' opening remarks. But a better reason for attributing the proem to Diodorus is the similarity of sentiment between it and other parts of the Bibliotheke in which Diodorus is not following the account of Posidonius. And in the references to Gelon's great victory over the Carthaginians in 480, all three figures for troops, ships, and casualties accord perfectly with Diodorus's earlier description of the event in book xi.

It is for the other prooemia that the question of authorship remains unresolved. In nearly every instance, the notion persists that Diodorus copied these passages from the historians on whose narrative material he was also drawing. The charge of plagiarism rests substantially on Diodorus's use of the fourth-century historian, Ephorus of Cyme. Writing a history of Greeks and barbarians, from just after the Trojan War to around 340 B.C., Ephorus composed what may be called the first universal history. Within that tradition of universal-history writing stand Diodorus and some of his most important sources: Posidonius, Polybius, and Agatharchides. Ephorus is Diodorus's main source for books xi–xv and, it is often argued, a source for book xvi. Because Diodorus seems to have followed him closely in constructing much of the narrative of these books, it is assumed that he also used the Cymean for the prooemia to these same books. And because Ephorus wrote an epideictic prooemium for each book of his thirty-volume world history, Diodorus could have drawn on many of those prologues when he was writing on a period not covered by Ephorus. Even in cases where the prooemia do not seem to be the work of Ephorus, Diodorus might still have been inspired by Ephoran material or practice.

The attribution to Ephorus of most of the Bibliotheke's proems is an extreme version of early source criticism. A subtler interpretation is that Diodorus took the prooemia not solely from Ephorus, but from any of the various sources he used throughout the Bibliotheke. This random procedure created contradictions between the narrative of a book, which might be based on one tradition, and its prooemium, which could be taken from another source detailing different events. This hypothesis has proved particularly influential and needs to be tested first.

The prooemia that supposedly involve the most flagrant contradictions with their narratives are those to books xvi and xvii, books that contain the lives of Philip II and Alexander the Great respectively. It is argued that the proems promise that the books they introduce will contain material that is not in fact found there. Consequently, Diodorus must have drawn his prooemia from a different source than that from which he took his narrative.

Book xvi begins:

In all historical expositions it is incumbent upon the historian to include in his books events about cities or kings that are [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] from beginning to end.... For events that are [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and are not continuous from their beginnings to their conclusion interrupt the attention of avid readers; but actions [that are [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]], encompassing a continuity of narrative up to the conclusion, achieve a complete exposition of events. Whenever the very nature of the events cooperates with the historian, then most of all he must not deviate in any way from this principle. For this reason, we too, arriving at the actions of Philip of Amyntas, shall try to include the deeds performed by this king within the present book, (xvi 1.1–3; my translation)

To many, this proem suggests that the life of Philip and, whenever possible, all other single, self-contained themes should be the lone subjects ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of entire books, to the exclusion of all other material. Because the narrative of book xvi does include material that has nothing to do with Philip, Diodorus would then be guilty of a contradiction. This would reflect Diodorus's practice of mechanically copying the prooemium from one source and his narrative from another.

Such an interpretation, however, rests on a misunderstanding of the term [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Rather than suggesting events that preclude the detailing of other material, it describes events with well-defined end points—that is, ones that can be told completely in a single book. Diodorus uses the term that way in the prooemium to book i, and here he states that the historian should not deviate from the principle "whenever the very nature of the events cooperates with the historian." Any material could, of course, be narrated continuously and without interruption, if the author so chose. Consequently, the notion of events that lend themselves to being [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] must mean something else. And when Diodorus concludes with his promise to "try to include the deeds performed by this king within the present book," it is clear that he has in mind stories that are brought to completion within one book. In that way, the reader can appreciate the full significance of Philip, whose life begins with the proem and ends with the conclusion of the book. Elsewhere Diodorus indicates that synchronized events are included within the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] deeds of that monarch. At the very end of book xv, in a passage demonstrably of Diodorus's own composition, he announces that in the next book he will include "all the achievements of [Philip] until his death, encompassing also the other events in the known parts of the world" (xv 95.4); and the beginning of book xvii (1.1) confirms that he had accomplished his plan. It seems certain that Diodorus, at least, thought that the proem to xvi was consistent with the narrative contents of that book.

The second important contradiction between prooemium and narrative involves the opposite organizational philosophy. In the prologue to book xvii, Diodorus promises to include the life of Alexander the Great, from his accession to his death, but also contemporaneous events occurring throughout the known world (xvii 1.2). Yet, in the narrative of book xvii Diodorus includes only the events surrounding Alexander, leaving aside the usual coverage of Sicily and Italy. Thus again Diodorus is alleged to have drawn his proem and his narrative from different sources. Such a contradiction, admittedly present, pales, however, in light of Diodorus's general practice in the selection of material for his history. The approximate number of chapters devoted to the various spheres of interest in each of Diodorus's completely extant historical books is given in Table 1. Egyptian and Persian affairs are included with the Greek category, as the events recorded inevitably affected Greece, and the chapters concerning Greek Italy alone or the Sicilian invasions of Italy are listed under Sicilian affairs.

As the table shows, until the third century, Rome held little interest for Diodorus (see also Chapter 5). Additionally, Diodorus tended to include Sicilian affairs only at sensational moments: the material in xiii–xiv (excepting the Athenian expedition) pertains to the Carthaginian invasion, accompanied by the rise of the tyrant Dionysius; book xvi contains the exploits of Dion and Timoleon; and books xix and xx refer to events surrounding Agathocles. Only in book xi and the first part of book xii does Diodorus attempt a more synchronic account, recording Sicilian material that lacks a central theme. Otherwise, as in book xv, he virtually ignores Sicily.

Now Diodorus deals exclusively with Greek affairs not only in book xvii, but also in book xviii (perhaps acknowledged at xviii 1.5). He returns to Sicilian events at the beginning of xix, when he reviews the early life of Agathocles. Possibly Diodorus began book xvii as he did xvi, intending to include a central and completed character, but also other non-related material. In fact, xvii begins with Alexander's accession, rather than his boyhood, indicating that Diodorus thought of it as a history of a period rather than a complete biography of the Macedonian. But as he notes, Alexander conquered much of Europe and nearly all of Asia. And, as it turned out, aside from what concerned Alexander and mainland Greece, nothing of note occurred in the period covered by book xvii, the same being the case for the diadochoi and book xviii.

There may be an even simpler explanation. Twice at the beginning of book xix (3.3, 10.3), Diodorus alludes to his discussion of Syracusan and Italian affairs in the previous book. Book xviii, however, contains no material at all on Sicily or Italy. Some believe that the references in xix were in Diodorus's source, which he mindlessly copied into his own narrative. But, compared with other contemporary authors, Diodorus was especially precise with his cross-references, and allusions to earlier discussions in the Bibliotheke are nearly always accurate. More likely, then, book xviii originally contained material on Sicily and Italy, which Diodorus later eliminated, forgetting at the same time to remove the references in book xix. The same might be the case for book xvii, where the prooemium refers to material in the narrative that may later have been excised.

Contradictions between prooemia and narrative, then, do not prove Diodorus's dependence on various sources. The other, more long-standing theory is that Diodorus took most or all of his prologues from Ephorus alone. Yet even in those books for which Ephorus is his main source, such an attribution of proems is far from certain. No one should want to claim credit for the proem to xii. In introducing a book that covers the Pentekontaetia, the author includes among the most illustrious men of that extraordinary half-century Aristotle, Isocrates, and his students (xii 1.5). It is doubtful whether Ephorus, a fourth-century historian who may well have been Isocrates' student (see Chapter 2), would have written this. Indeed, in the later narrative for the year 366/5, for which Ephorus is almost certainly the source, the place of Isocrates, his disciples, and Aristotle is put correctly (xv 76.4). Moreover the theme of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], on which this proem is based, pervades the Bibliotheke and may be Diodorus's own sentiment.

The prooemium to book xiii, attributed to Ephorus, contradicts Ephoran methodology. Its author asserts that the practice of writing long prooemia is incompatible with his attempt to include as much factual information as possible within each book. Since Ephorus was famous for his elegant prooemia, as Diodorus testifies, it is doubtful whether he composed the statement. If anything, the proem to xiii may be a polemic against Ephorus.

Finally, the ascription to Ephorus of the prologues to books xiv and xv faces a major hurdle: both prooemia discuss and moralize on combinations of events found in their respective books, although in Ephorus's work these events were spread throughout many different books. For example, the prooemium to xiv declares that the actions of the Thirty Tyrants of Athens and the life of Dionysius I confirm the author's sentiments on tyranny; these events of Athens and Sicily are naturally contained within book xiv of the Bibliotheke, but were not so combined in Ephorus's work. Moreover, the sentiment found in the prooemium to xiv—that ruling states that treat their subjects unjustly risk losing their empires (xiv 2.1)—is part of a model for empire found throughout the Bibliotheke and attributable to Diodorus himself (see Chapter 2). And the first sentence of the prologue to book xv, that the author has been employing frank speech ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) for the betterment of society, is also a Diodoran topos.


Excerpted from Diodorus Siculus and the First Century by Kenneth S. Sacks. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION: The Argument, 3,
CHAPTER ONE. Prooemia, 9,
CHAPTER TWO. Themes in Historical Causality, 23,
CHAPTER THREE. Culture's Progress, 55,
CHAPTER FOUR. Aspects of History Writing, 83,
CHAPTER FIVE. Diodorus on Rome, 117,
CHAPTER SIX. Diodorus in the World of Caesar and Octavian, 160,
APPENDIX ONE. Sicilian Enfranchisement, 207,
APPENDIX TWO. Posidonius on Italian Knights, 211,

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