Friday, December 3, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Dino Ambaglio (ed.), Diodoro Siculo: Biblioteca storica: libro XIII: commento storico. Storia. Ricerche. Milano: Vita e Pensiero, 2008. Pp. xiv, 241. ISBN 9788834315774. €20.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Catherine Rubincam, University of Toronto

This is the second volume to appear in the projected set of commentaries on the whole of the Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus — an ambitious scholarly undertaking announced in an introductory volume by the same author, in collaboration with two other members of the team (D. Ambaglio, F. Landucci, L. Bravi, Diodoro Siculo, Biblioteca storica. Commento storico. Introduzione generale, Milan: Vita e Pensiero 2008 — reviewed BMCR 2009.12.03).1 The first to be published was the commentary on Book 18 (by F. Landucci Gattinoni — reviewed BMCR 2009.03.45). As noted in both the above cited reviews, this projected comprehensive commentary on Diodorus' World History is indeed breaking new ground, inasmuch as only isolated volumes of commentary, along with several comprehensive translations, of this long and complex work, were produced in the 20th century. This volume needs, therefore, to be assessed from several points of view. How does its treatment of this text compare with the treatment given to the same book of the Bibliotheca in the comprehensive translations published during the past half-century? How useful will it be to its intended users (scholars looking for guidance in their reading of Book 13 of the Bibliotheca)? How well does it work as a part of the whole comprehensive commentary project?

The volume opens with a brief Introduction (pp. VII–XIV), providing summary comments — for fuller discussion the reader is referred to the separate Introduzione generale— on the most important aspects of the contents of Book 13 and the major issues discussed in its scholarship. Ambaglio singles out several elements that make this book particularly interesting and important among the 15 surviving books of the Bibliotheca: the level of detail (indicated by the relatively short timespan included — only 11 years [415–405 BCE], as compared with 35 years in Book 12 and 18 in Book 14), the momentous nature of its contents, especially for a historian born in Sicily (the second half of the Peloponnesian War, including the Athenian expedition against Syracuse, as well as the significant offensive by Carthage against Greek Sicily, and the beginning of Dionysius I's career), the presence of several very famous individuals (e.g., Alcibiades, Nicias, Hermocrates, Theramenes, Hannibal, Hamilcar), and the rich historiographic tradition of the period (comprising Thucydides, Xenophon, the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, Philistus, Ephorus, Timaeus, and Plutarch), which has given rise to an unusually rich scholarly literature on both history and historiography.

In addition, brief general treatment is given here to some subjects of importance to the whole commentary on this book, principally, Diodorus' sources and how he used them. Ambaglio reiterates the traditional judgment that, as an "epitomator", Diodorus observed "an iron-clad principle of economy" in the use of sources, "almost never us[ing] more than one source at a time" (IX). He admits, however, that Diodorus' narrative of the Athenian expedition against Syracuse appears to be a blend, made at least in part by Diodorus,2 of the accounts of Ephorus and Timaeus. This, like some other unusual features of Book 13 (e.g., its concentration on a relatively short period of history [see above], the degree of coherence of its battle narratives, and the presence in it of a pair of speeches longer than any others in the Bibliotheca), Ambaglio is inclined to attribute to Diodorus' "local patriotism", which made him especially interested in the subject he was writing about and therefore more inclined to indulge in detail and to dress up his narrative with speeches.

The Commentary itself occupies close to 200 pages (3–200), and is followed by an 18-page bibliography (201–219), and three indexes: of names (221–227), of sources (228–238), and of modern authors (239–241). Thus the extent of the supplementary material it offers to someone reading or studying Book 13 of the Bibliotheca far exceeds, as one would expect, that contained in the principal published translations of this book: Oldfather's Loeb edition (1962),3 the German translation of Veh-Will (1998),4 and Green's very recent English translation (2010).5 As far as its content is concerned, the Commentary shows the same preoccupations as are expounded in its Introduction: preeminently the sources of information and methods of Diodorus, and the negative consequences of these, such as the afore-mentioned sporadic duplication of information, lack of proper introduction of certain individuals, and fairly frequent distortion of chronology. Ambaglio also notes, however, elements in the content of this book that are unusual, such as the presence of the long speeches in 13.20–32, as well as of significant amounts of unique detail concerning Sicilian and Carthaginian affairs.

The Commentary is most successful in dealing with the source traditions that underlie the Bibliotheca. Book 13 is particularly complicated in this respect, involving as it does (a) substantial sections of Sicilian narrative for which we have no surviving source besides Diodorus (13.20–33; 43–44; 54–62; 79–96; 108–114), (b) Peloponnesian War narrative for which we have parallel accounts in Thucydides and Diodorus, as well as in some of Plutarch's Lives (1–19; 34–42), and (c) Peloponnesian War narrative beyond the end of Thucydides, for which we can compare Diodorus with Xenophon and the fragments of the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia (45–53; 64–75; 76–70; 97–107). An especially complex situation exists in that part of (b) that concerns the Athenian expedition to Sicily (13.2–19), where the otherwise largely separate source traditions of Sicilian and Mainland Greek historiography intersect. At each stage Ambaglio painstakingly compares the details and identifies and comments on the discrepancies among the surviving texts, before summarizing the scholarship on the contributions of important lost authors (such as Philistus, Ephorus, and Timaeus) to the different traditions, and giving his opinion on the most plausible answers to the question who was responsible for originating the information reproduced by Diodorus, and how far it is to be trusted. Ambaglio's long experience in working on Diodoran source criticism enables him to explain effectively the very complicated web of argumentation that sustains the consensus of scholarly opinion.

Discussion of sources inevitably involves discussion of historiographic method. Ambaglio's statements on this subject seem to me too rigidly dogmatic: first, "On his method of working with the sources, it is my opinion . . . that he [Diodorus] applied an iron-clad principle of economy, or rather of saving himself work, in accordance with which an epitomator . . . almost never uses more than one source at a time;" and then, more specifically, "it is not the practice of an epitomator to have on his table two rolls of history at a time" (IX). A paragraph further on, in discussing the "doublets" in the text of this book, he suggests: "The fact that Diodorus did not realize he was copying the same piece of information twice from two diverse authorities renders plausible the deduction . . . that he had temporarily replaced on the shelves the first roll" (X). Thus he paints a picture of Diodorus working, like a modern scholar, in a research library that contains a copy of each of his chosen sources. Diodorus takes one bookroll at a time to his writing-desk and proceeds to copy out excerpts from it, making the necessary adaptation of the excerpted material to fit the annalistic format of the Bibliotheca as he goes. This has the effect of denying any significant use of memory or the possibility of any intermediate document (hypomnemata) between the source and Diodorus' own MS. Ambaglio argues that "someone like Diodorus, who did not remember even things that he had written a few chapters earlier [he refers here to the case of the "doublets" in Book 13]" could not possibly have made significant use of memory in composing his Bibliotheca. This seems to me misguided. There is now considerable scholarly support for a two-stage process of composition, in which Diodorus spent most of the first 15 years (i.e., c. 60–45 BCE) of the 30-year period he alludes to (1.4.1) in gathering the material for the work, and planning its organization in some detail, and the subsequent 15 years (c. 45–30 BCE) putting it into literary form.6 If this is accepted, it surely follows that Diodorus must have composed some kind of intermediate document, in the form of notes (hypomnemata) on the works he had perused in various libraries. He would then have read through the portions relevant to each book of the Bibliotheca before writing (or perhaps dictating to a scribe?) his own narrative. A process of this kind, which puts some distance (in both time and space) between the reading of the original sources and the composition of his own work, would make it much easier to comprehend the kinds of errors and confusions Diodorus appears to have made, and the ways in which he reworked his material.

How useful will this commentary be to its intended users? Most 'readers' of the Bibliotheca are likely to be scholars using Diodorus' account of some historical event or situation as a means to the end of reconstructing what may have happened and understanding its historical significance. What they need is: (a) a clear elucidation of the purport of Diodorus' narrative (including, where relevant, discussion of variant readings in the text), (b) some authoritative guidance on where the information Diodorus is passing on originated, and (c) advice on how far Diodorus' account of events can be trusted. It will be clear from the description above that Ambaglio spends most of his time on (b), a certain amount on (c), and rather little on (a). This can best be illustrated by comparing his comments with the notes to the Veh-Will and Green translations. Diodorus 13.2.3ff. recounts the famous incident of the mutilation of the herms on the eve of the departure of the Athenian expedition against Syracuse. Ambaglio briefly elucidates the nature of the herms, but devotes most of his comment to detailing all the variant versions of the event in question and trying to identify their sources, with a final reference to the Gomme-Andrewes-Dover Historical Commentary on Thucydides for a "molto accurato" reconstruction of the history; Veh-Will's brief note simply lists all the relevant ancient texts, with a reference to Busolt's discussion of the incident. Green elucidates the nature of the herms, attempts to explain what is happening in Diodorus' narrative, and offers an opinion (with supporting references to modern authorities) on what may actually have been behind this incident. A clear difference is thus apparent between Ambaglio and Green: the former is most interested in reconstructing the historiographic tradition that lies behind the Bibliotheca, his assumption apparently being that this will provide a sufficient basis for gauging the trustworthiness of the narrative; Green's primary interest, on the other hand, is in reconstructing the actual history, for which purpose he evidently believes it important to devote some attention to Diodorus' narrative for its own sake.

This is the major question that divides traditional from revisionist scholarship on Diodorus: does the nineteenth-century assumption of a robotic Diodorus — it is significant that Ambaglio refers to him as an "epitomator" —, who transmitted information from his various sources with sufficient faithfulness to facilitate confident reconstruction of these lost works enable us to make the most judicious use of the Bibliotheca as a historical source? or is it necessary to open our minds to the possibility that Diodorus' reworking of his source material to make it fit the needs of his World History had effects on its content that historians need to take into account? Ambaglio is clearly in the traditional mindset, whereas Green represents the newer view.

The comparison instituted above of this Commentary with the treatment of Book 13 in the three translations mentioned (those of Oldfather, Veh-Will, and Green [see notes 2–4]; unfortunately, the Budé translation of this book has still to be published) also highlights some interesting differences in the supplementary material each supplies. Ambaglio's Commentary has, as one would expect, by far the longest bibliography. Two of the three translations (Oldfather and Green), however, contain maps, while the third (Veh-Will) has a chronological table formatted so as to facilitate comparison of Diodorus' chronology with those of the other major sources (Thucydides and Xenophon) and with modern reconstructions of the history. The fact that Ambaglio offers no such aids underlines his rather narrow interpretation of the purpose of his "commento storico".

Reviewing the first of the individual volumes of this Commentary, on Book 18 (BMCR 2009.03.45), Alexander Meeus complained that it said "conspicuously little . . . about Diodorus himself", and went on to plead, "Surely a historian who is an indispensable source for so much of Greek history from 480 until 302 B.C., and on whose independence and working methods scholars nowadays hold extremely opposite views, deserves more attention in a commentary on his text." My own BMCR review of the Introduzione generale of this comprehensive Commentary expressed the hope that "later volumes of the commentary might attempt a better balance between the traditional and the revisionist poles of Diodoran scholarship". It will be apparent from what I have written here that this volume, for all its depth of scholarship, fails to fulfil that wish.


1. The untimely death of Professor Ambaglio in 2008 has sadly put an end to his contribution to the project.
2. The second paragraph on p. IX argues that the cases where contradictory details from Timaeus and Ephorus are reported do not require the assumption that Diodorus himself drew these contradictory reports from the two books concerned; in the following paragraph, however, it is accepted that the "notorious doublets" (pairs of passages where the same information is given twice in different places, such as 12.84.3 cf. 13.2.1; 12.84.2-3 cf. 13.2.5) are evidence that Diodorus sometimes did draw material from two different sources, while a little later the unevenness of detail in some parts of Book 13 (e.g., the narrative of the Athenian expedition against Syracuse) is cited as additional evidence of his having used both Ephorus and Timaeus here.
3. C.H. Oldfather, tr., Diodorus of Sicily, vol. 5, Books 12.41–13, Cambridge, MA and London 1950. This volume, which contains the whole period of the Peloponnesian War (i.e., half of Book 12 plus the whole of Book 13), has no introduction, very minimal footnotes, a 5-page index of names, and three maps relating to Sicilian history.
4. O. Veh, tr., and W. Will, ed., Diodoros. Griechische Weltgeschichte. Buch XI–XIII. Stuttgart 1998. This edition has a 6-page introduction, 156 brief endnotes, two chronological tables (one relating to the Peloponnesian War), a 4-page list of scholarly works cited, and a 22-page "Register" of proper names. The 6-page introduction to the whole volume (which contains the translation of DS 11–13) deals mostly with Sources and Chronology. The two useful chronological tables, of events mentioned by Diodorus in the Pentecontaetia and in the Peloponnesian War, have a five-column format, displaying for each event the appropriate text references in Diodorus and Thucydides, the Diodoran date, and the Thucydidean date (translated into the conventional archon-year equivalents in the modern Julio-Gregorian calendar).
5. P. Green, tr., Diodorus Siculus. The Persian Wars to the Fall of Athens. Books 11–14.34 (480–401 BCE), Austin 2010. This edition has a 6-page introduction (to the whole volume), 134 footnotes (to just over 100 pages of translation), a 4-page bibliography, and a 24-page index, as well as three maps relevant to Sicilian history. Green's notes and index are considerably fuller and more wide-ranging in subject matter than those of Veh-Will.
6. See M. Sartori, "Note sulla datazione dei primi libri della Bibliotheca Historica di Diodoro Siculo", Athenaeum 71 (1983) 545-552; C. Rubincam, "The organization and composition of Diodoros' Bibliotheke", Classical Views NS 6 (1987) 313-328; eadem, "Cross-references in the Bibliotheke of Diodoros", Phoenix 43 (1989) 39-61; K.S. Sacks, Diodorus Siculus and the First Century, Princeton 1990, 169-172.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.