Friday, October 16, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Andrea Primo, La storiografia sui seleucidi: da Megastene a Eusebio di Cesarea. Studi ellenistici 10. Pisa/Roma: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2009. Pp. 390. ISBN 9788862271264. €140.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Michael Weiskopf

Primo has constructed a clearly written, judicious account of the historiography of the Seleucid Empire, offering a sober assessment of a now-fragmentary record which is often based upon truncated or misleading ancient citations. Jacoby's FGrH provides the framework for Primo's selection and analysis. But the FGrH remains a work in progress: Jacoby did not comment on all fragments collected1. Brill, with the assistance of Ian Worthington, has endeavored to expand both the print and the newly reworked ethereal (online) versions. Thus, Primo's work can provide an excellent snapshot of the state of the empire's historiography.

His first chapter, politics and culture at the Seleucid court (pp. 19-52), establishes a workable tripartite division to summarize the historiography. First, the time of the Founders, Seleucus I and Antiochus I. During this period, represented now by only fragmentary survivals from 'ethnographers' (whose careers I find now paralleled by the officers and explorers familiar to the nineteenth century), interest focused on the empire's extent. In the second phase, the reign of Antiochus III, focus was on the Founders as models for that king's revival of the Empire. Treatments were encomiastic or were designed to counterbalance Ptolemaic and, later, Roman accounts. Third, historiography existing outside the immediate Seleucid court. Here Seleucid origins were held in respect (e.g. in Nymphis and in Memnon), save for Phylarchus' criticism of the Seleucids as a dynasty unable to match the kingly (!) qualities of Cleomenes (Primo p.122 later uses the term 'disellenizzazione' in reference to Phylarchus' opinion of the Seleucids). But for the intermediate and late phases of the dynasty's history the footprints of Polybius and Posidonius leave deep marks on the accounts of a state supposedly unraveling.

Primo's remaining chapters expand the discussions of the literary sources, but in a more chronological form. First, those contemporary with the empire: historiography at the court (chapter 2, pp. 53-108) and the Seleucids as viewed by those living outside the empire (chapter 3, pp. 109-178). Second, the historiography of the Seleucids written after the dynasty's collapse (chapter 4, pp. 178-307; particularly valuable are the presentations in sections 10, 11, and 12 on later authors and chronographers, materials rarely discussed in standard studies of the Hellenistic period). The presentation is similar to that found in the written continuation of Jacoby. For each author the major source problems are stated and previous approaches intelligently summarized. Although not every fragment or testimonium receives detailed attention, Primo does offer valuable suggestions. Berossus FGrH 680 F 8a may have shaped his narration of Nabokodrosoros to prefigure the role played by Antiochus I in the later years of Seleucus I (pp.69-71). Patrocles FGrH 712 is shown to have introduced detailed biographical data about his own role in the Seleucid defense of Babylon (p. 77-78). Regrettably, Primo should have cited the texts (although fragmentary) of the literary papyri and the verse inscription he discusses on pp. 100-104 (these are difficult to track down).2 Only sporadic reference is made to the epigraphical record as a whole (cf. pp. 377-378), but at least recent studies are cited in his discussion of Polybius' unfavorable treatment of Antiochus III after the king's eastern anabasis 3.

I have a few quarrels with the contents of Primo's work. He argues that 'ethnography' was a concern of the early Seleucid writers, yet I am surprised to see no mention of Kautilya's Arthashastra, the subject of a detailed comparative study with Megasthenes by O. Stein in 1922 which tested the accuracy of the Greek 4. Primo makes too much of Hegesianax' supposed anti-Roman feelings (p. 93, for which Jacoby found no evidence)5. The suggested assignation to that historian of the letter mentioned in Seutonius Claudius 25.3 (pp. 94-95) is ill-advised: both Holleaux and Briant have examined and dismissed this as a Roman-era fabrication.6 Primo, like Homer, nods, failing to cross-reference his discussion of the Simonides elephant-battle poem (pp. 87-88) to his own later reference to Lucian Zeuxis 8.2 (pp. 256-257). The same occurs in the discussions of Mnesiptolemus and of Epinicus' parody (pp. 90, 177). Primo's bibliography, although quite complete, does suffer gaps. Ehling's 2008 study of the later Seleucids, cited in the notes (e.g. p. 179 n. 1),7 is missing, as is Bellinger's earlier work. R. M. Berchman's 2005 edition of Porphyry's fragments (mentioned in the text, p. 299) fails to appear on pp. 310-311, where there are alphabetizing problems. Greater care could have been taken in fully identifying the standard texts of less common sources in the 'indice delle fonti' (e.g Syncellus, Ioannes Malalas).

In sum, Primo did not undertake an easy task. But the near simultaneous appearance of his work, Ehling's, Capdetrey's8, Mittag's9, and Goukowsky's Appian text and commentary means a solid foundation has been laid for future Seleucid studies as numismatics, epigraphy, and excavation continue to deepen our knowledge.


1.   Dritter Teil C Nr. 608a-856, i.e., most of the peoples making up the core and periphery of the Seleucid Empire.
2.   P. Berol. 21 286 is printed on pp. 71-74 of Paul Goukowsky. Ed. Appien. Livre XI. Le Livre Syriaque. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2007.
3.   Principally for the Antiochus-Philip Agreement (pp. 144), most recently treated by A. Eckstein Rome Enters the Greek East. Oxford, 2008.
4.   1922 date provided in preface, otherwise Otto Stein Megasthenes und Kautilya. Wien, 1921.
5.   See Jacoby FGrH Erster Teil a, Kommentar-Nachtraege, Nr. 1-63 pp. 524-526, esp. 526 on (7-10).
6.   M. Holleaux Rome, La Grece et les Monarchies Hellenistiques au IIIe Siecle avant J.-C. (273-205). Paris, 1935 (esp. pp. 46-60); Pierre Briant "Histoire et archeologie d'une texte. La Lettre de Darius a Gadatas entre Perses, Grecs et Romains" pp.107-144 in M. Giorgieri, M. Salvini, M.-C. Tremouille, P. Vannicelli, eds. Licia E Lidia Prima dell'Ellenizzazione. Roma, 2003.
7.   Kay Ehling Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der spaeter Seleukiden (164-63 v. Chr.). Historia Einzelschriften 196. Stuttgart, 2008.
8.   Laurent Capdetrey Le pouvoir seleucide. Rennes, 2007.
9.   Pter Franz Mittag Antiochos IV. Epiphanes.. Berlin, 2006.

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