Friday, June 3, 2011


Kai Brodersen (ed.), Polyainos. Neue Studien / Polyaenus. New Studies. Berlin: Verlag Antike, 2010. Pp. 176. ISBN 9783938032398. €26.90.

Reviewed by Philip Rance, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (;

Version at BMCR home site

At the outbreak of the Parthian War of 161-166, Polyaenus, a rhetor of Macedonian descent, compiled an eight-book collection of stratagems, which, presumably in the hope of preferment, he addressed to Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus as a guidebook in the impending conflict. The c.900 assembled exempla, arranged prosopographically or ethnographically, catalogue ruses and aphorisms devised by generals and rulers of the past, predominantly Greeks of the classical and Hellenistic age, but including gods, heroes, women and barbarian nations. This stratagemical anthology, conventionally styled Strategemata but more authoritatively Strategika, is familiar to most ancient historians as an occasional repository of historical fragments, and by far the greater part of previous scholarship is devoted to Quellenforschung and related issues. In the past two decades the text has become available to a wider readership through translations into Spanish (Vela Tejada/Martín García 1991); English (Krentz/Wheeler 1994), Italian (Bianco 1997) and Russian (Nefëdkin 2002), and a new Greek edition with German translation is in preparation (Geus/Herrmann). A monograph by Schettino (1998) focused primarily on compositional and historiographical questions, while a scattering of articles in periodicals mostly concern aspects of the author's biography. If Polyaenus is not exactly neglected, important perspectives and contexts have drawn little or no scholarly attention, notably the significance of the Strategika as a specimen of Greco-Roman military literature and Polyaenus' engagement with the intellectual and cultural currents of the Second Sophistic. The seven contributions collected in this volume (four English, three German) address these and other topics. In the absence of a preface or introduction, a Nachwort/Afterword (160) clarifies that the chapters originated as papers presented at an international conference at the University of Erfurt in 2009.

Everett L. Wheeler, 'Polyaenus: Scriptor Militaris' (7-54) offers an extended consideration of the military perspectives of Polyaenus' work. Wheeler's contribution, which is typically learned, insightful, and replete with bibliography old and new, constitutes one third of the volume, a proportion reflected in this review. In part reprising his previous publications on ancient military thought, including Polyaenus, Wheeler presents an interpretation of the Strategika that differs markedly from the overwhelmingly negative assessments that characterise earlier scholarship. He examines the politico-military context of its eight books, matching statements or allusions in the prefaces with a detailed chronology of the Parthian War to deduce a publication history (the evidence is differently interpreted by Klaus Geus below). He traces potential connections between Polyaenus and Lucian, one of several literati in Verus' entourage, and the upsurge of historical writing occasioned by renewed hostilities with Parthia. At the core of Wheeler's paper is a lengthy treatment of the genre of stratagem collections, which, beyond its focus on Polyaenus, will be read profitably by anyone interested in military handbooks or ancient technical literature. Wheeler charts the pedigree of stratagem/exempla collections, unravelling constituent strands of sophistic/philosophical, literary and rhetorical tradition, along with thoughts on Polyaenus' possible military sources. Following a brief exploration of the origins of 'stratagemic doctrine' in antiquity, comparison of Polyaenus and Frontinus, his principal antecedent, leads Wheeler to a more nuanced assessment of Polyaenus' aims and priorities (literary and careerist), and especially his choice of a prosopographical/ethnographical format in contrast to Frontinus' situational/thematic approach. Wheeler argues, against previous scholarship, that Polyaenus knew and responded to Frontinus' Strategemata. Wheeler revisits his previous work on the terminology and conception of 'stratagem' in light of recent publications (principally Schettino) and successfully bats away criticism. He reaffirms that the most authoritative title of Polyaenus' work is Strategika, as witnessed by the unique manuscript prototype and a late Byzantine testimonium, and suggested by the heading of the earliest excerpta, against conventional Strategemata found in the vulgate tradition.1 The argumentation cannot prove that Strategika itself is authorial and not Byzantine editorial intervention, especially given the widespread and fluid Byzantine usage of Strategika, Taktika and cognates as both titles and generic labels for works of military content.2

Observations on Polyaenus' selectivity of material identify a curious neglect of some famous military tricksters (e.g. Pyrrhus) in favour of not-so-obvious practitioners, concluding that Polyaenus' criteria for inclusion defy easy explanation. Wheeler's remarks on the historicity of individual stratagems stress their exemplary didactic purpose and minimise Polyaenus' historical priorities, the main target of previously harsh judgements of his work. More subtly, Wheeler traces motifs running through the collection which he links to the specific scenario of eastern warfare in the early 160s, and thus in accord with its professed objective as an imperial vademecum. In doing so, Wheeler explains the paradoxical absence of Parthian-related stratagems (except 7.41) in terms of the conventional chronological horizons of Second Sophistic literature and the character and documentation of previous Roman-Parthian conflict since the late Republic. He also discerns an interest in discipline and training, which he ties to contemporary concerns following recent Roman defeats in the East. Finally, Wheeler considers 'Polyaenus' original contribution to Western military thought' (48), albeit perhaps an unwitting innovation. Wheeler distinguishes an innovative categorisation of 'barbarians' as opponents, arising from Polyaenus' prosopographical/ethnological approach and hitherto lacking in Greco-Roman military theory, at least as conveyed in surviving writings. In this regard Wheeler sees Polyaenus as a forerunner of conceptual developments in Byzantine military ethnography. This leads to a brief assessment of Polyaenus' reception in Byzantium, in which he concludes that Polyaenus became 'a prominent figure in Byzantine military thought' (54). Byzantinists might quibble. The textual evidence, as Wheeler observes, strictly attests to the popularity of the so-called Excerpta Polyaeni (c.500-c.850?), a partly paraphrased abridgement of the Strategika reconfigured into a more user-friendly thematic format, which spawned a succession of adaptations. The reputation and fate of the original Strategika are more ambiguous; certainly one struggles to trace its direct influence in Byzantine military literature 3, while its manuscript transmission is tenuous in comparison to other fashionable or influential military authors (Aelian, Onasander, Maurice) and curiously detached from the textual corpora that transmit all the other surviving specimens of ancient Greek military literature.

The impression pervades throughout that Wheeler has a great deal more to say on Polyaenus, with frequent reference to planned explorations of individual themes, and these and his projected monograph (7 n.5) can only be eagerly awaited. For now, his current contribution becomes the essential point of departure for future research on the military and political dimensions of Polyaenus' work.

Klaus Geus, 'Polyaenus travestitus? Überlegungen zur Biographie des Polyainos und zur Abfassungszeit seines Werkes' (55-68) challenges aspects of the communis opinio concerning Polyaenus' biography and the genesis of his work. Laying aside deficient and/or conflicting external evidence for several Polyaeni, Geus wisely restricts the study to internal evidence. He casts doubt on the thesis that Polyaenus was active as an advocate in Rome and personally pleaded cases before the emperors ( He then presents a carefully argued case for the publication of the Strategika as an integral work, against the prevailing view that its eight books were issued individually or in instalments (whether or not subsequently re-edited). By extension, he disputes the interpretation of that preceding books had been read or favourably received by the emperors. Geus' argumentation makes the evidence adduced for sequential publication and imperial response seem much less secure, but one suspects that he has opened rather than resolved a debate. In conclusion, Geus assesses the value of the Strategika as a source of information regarding contemporary Roman campaigns, which contributes to his attempt to narrow the date of publication to winter 161/2.

Elisabetta Bianco, 'The Third Book of Polyaenus and Ephorus' (69-84) offers an exercise in Quellenforschung. Ephorus has long numbered among Polyaenus' likely sources, especially in Book I. Bianco extends investigation of III, which mostly features Athenian strategoi. She charts a selection of potential correspondences of content, mainly mediated by Ephorus' putative heirs, principally Diodorus. She highlights instances in which Polyaenus supplies important corrective, corroborative or supplementary information on fourth-century warfare, concluding that Ephorus is the most probable candidate for this well-informed Athenocentric source, without excluding Polyaenus' parallel use of other authors (e.g. Theopompus).

Maria Pretzler, 'Polyainos the Historian? Stratagems and the Use of the Past in the Second Sophistic' (85-107) is a sophisticated exploration of historiographic perspectives, focusing on Polyaenus' use of historical exempla or vignettes. Pretzler's survey of the deployment of historical anecdota and apophthegmata in the literary strategies of contemporary Greek authors more satisfactorily aligns the Strategika with the generic concerns of biography, ethnography and history than those of military literature (though a broad category). Her consideration of Polyaenus' likely working methods critiques traditional Quellenforschung, laying alternative emphases on memory, orality and adaptation in the transmission of historical knowledge; here Pretzler's approach and conclusions have implications beyond the study of Polyaenus. She assesses Polyaenus' criteria in selecting and shaping stratagemical vignettes (nuancing Schettino 1998), identifying a consistent template for abridgement and presentation, and attempts the difficult task of charting Polyaenus' compilatory technique(s), 'historical worldview' and cultural priorities. Pretzler concludes with some thoughts on potential readership, military and/or civilian, which seek to avoid anachronistic imposition of modern tastes and attitudes, and posits the work's didactic contribution to a broader paideia.

James Morton, 'Polyaenus in Context: The Strategica and Greek Identity in the Second Sophistic Age' (108-32) offers a wide-ranging, if in parts rather general, essay on literary and historical contexts with particular attention to cultural identities. Remarks on the contingency of identity in antiquity preface a discussion of Polyaenus' biographical data in relation to Greek elite culture. Morton offers some thoughts on Polyaenus' conception of 'stratagem'; the place of his work within tactical literature, and the diversity of Polyaenus' intellectual and literary concerns, noting parallels with aetiology and paradoxography. Following a broad-spectrum survey of Greek-Roman cultural/political interactions, Morton concludes that the Strategika was a positive assertion of Greek cultural precedence that both reflected and engaged in a process of consolidation in Greek/Rome elite culture.

Veit Rosenberger, 'Die List und das Götliche: Religion bei Polyän' (133-48) assesses the role of religion (broadly construed) in Polyaenus' Strategemata. Rosenberger examines stratagems that feature religious aspects, including gods and divine imagery, temples, rituals and divination. These exempla constitute a tiny fraction of the collection and appear to reflect attitudes (e.g. to impiety) which differ from those expressed by some other ancient authors. Rosenberger contextualises this marginality within the intellectual currents of the Second Sophistic: for Polyaenus knowledge of religion was a facet of paideia and one of many possibilities for illustrating Greek cultural tradition.

Kai Brodersen, 'Mannhafte Frauen bei Polyainos und beim Anonymus de mulieribus' (149-59) concerns an anonymous assemblage of fourteen excerpts relating to stratagems of queens and princesses, transmitted in the same unique manuscript prototype as Polyaenus' Strategika (Laur. gr. 56-1). De mulieribus was the subject of a monograph by Gera (1997) but fundamental questions persist. Polyaenus' inclusion of female stratagems, including five of the same women, begs the question of a potential interrelationship. Brodersen succinctly re-examines the textual history and evidence for date and authorship. He shows that arguments adduced for a later Hellenistic date are at best fragile or demonstrably false. He resists the temptation to identify De mulieribus with one of several collections reported by Photius, and concludes that Polyaenus' direct use cannot be demonstrated. Finally, Brodersen re-edits the text (the sole authoritative edition was previously by Landi 1895), with a German translation that is both close and readable. If Brodersen leaves the time and place of De mulieribus in doubt, readers will at least be more alert to the fragility of the evidence.

There are a fair number of misprints throughout the volume, in English, German, Greek and Latin. Minor quibbles: p.13: Sylloge Tacticorum 'late tenth-century', rather early/mid; p.35 n.110: Parisinus gr. 2522 'fifthteenth-century', more probably early sixteenth; p.52 n.170: Rance (2007) dates Syrianus to the ninth not tenth century; p.85: 'Parthian War (AD 162-166)', rather 161-66. Some cited works are missing from the bibliography: [Vela] Tejada/Martín García 1991 (p.7 n.1); Synkell (p.113 n.24); Fryde 1996 (p.149 n.1).


1.   The significance or otherwise of an earlier and independent witness is not discussed: tenth-century Parisinus suppl. gr. 607 (91r): ἐκ τῶν Πολυαίνου στρατηγημάτων (twice).
2.   By way of comparison: in its manuscript prototypes Maurice's Strategikon is variously entitled Taktika Strategika (M), Taktika (A) and Strategikon (VNP), while an indirect tradition, probably predating all manuscript witnesses, points to Taktika, and closely derivative texts are entitled Taktika and Strategikon. The conventional title depends on the latest and least authoritative manuscripts, as favoured by the humanist co-editors of the editio princeps (1664).
3.   Leo's Taktika exhibits some evidence for his potential familiarity with Polyaenus' Strategika (or a version thereof), but the textual correspondence remains meagre and/or ambiguous: e.g. Leo 20.80 (cf. Polyaen. 8.16.2), 162 (2.10.5), 163 (2.20), 198 (3.10.2). For what it is worth, one family of first ('Laurentian') recension manuscripts (Vári's 'a correctus'/Dain's 'second état') contain a scholiast's marginal source-notice (pr.6) which includes Πολυαίνου.

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