Monday, April 24, 2017


Jan P. Stronk, Semiramis' Legacy: The History of Persia according to Diodorus of Sicily. Edinburgh studies in ancient Persia. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016. Pp. 552. ISBN 9781474414258. £120.00​.

Reviewed by Christopher Tuplin, University of Liverpool (

Version at BMCR home site

This book consists of annotated translation of 178 non-contiguous sections of Diodorus I-XL, four discursive chapters, bibliography, and indexes of classical sources, modern authors and general themes. The Diodorus sections are those that deal with what Stronk defines as "Persian history".

After general remarks about Diodorus' enterprise and a useful description of salient MS traditions, the bulk of the introduction is devoted to sources. Stronk is a source-maximizer, arguing that Diodorus produced his text by a process involving more than one principal source per book, several secondary sources, personal additions and the imposition of stylistic unity: he was not Stylianou's "epitomator [who] would always seek to simplify his task". The impression created is a far cry from e.g. the view that non-Sicilian bits of XI-XV are essentially Ephorus.1 But how far a genuinely alternative view of Diodorus as weaver of multiple sources can be demonstrated remains moot: with only 55 pages, Stronk does not have space to show much working or offer many proofs. The survey is a valuable starting point for those wishing to pursue the topic and the recent scholarship, but it functions less as a framework for annotation of the translation than as an ostensive demonstration of Stronk's vision of Diodorus' intellectual enterprise. It is an intellectual enterprise for which Stronk has some respect. As in his work on Ctesias, Stronk is dealing with an author whom he considers to have an unjustifiably low reputation. It is certainly true that no other single Greek work contains such a wide range of Persian history, and there is merit in having this brought home by presentation of the material between the covers of a single book.

But what is Persian history? Stronk defines it as "the vicissitudes of all empires or reigns of which, one way or another, either real, alleged, or implicated, the area of Persis and/or Iranian tribes was/were a part" (p. 3)—essentially events in Asia, Egypt or Europe which are part of the story of those who control Persia and/or the Iranian plateau. Asia is the principal focus, and, in defining the story, the sense of interconnection between Asia and elsewhere that a modern historian might have is trumped by Diodorus' explicit packaging of things into Asiatic and European/Macedonian events; and, where the packaging is less clear-cut, relatively restrictive criteria of pertinence are applied. Inevitably there are questions about omissions, both in basic narrative (e.g. 14.28, 10.34.2-9, 11.62.3, 18.24) and non-moralizing digressive material (e.g. 15.44, 17.47.1-6, 18.26-28, 19.94-100). There is also an issue about evaluative material that is either omitted or retained within double-brackets. If the latter "indirectly provide some information on Diodorus' aims and methods" (95) and/or offer a moral reaction to a narrative that is part of Persian history, sidelining them seems at odds with the validation of Diodorus as an autonomous historian, and the same goes for complete omissions in e.g. 2.29.5, 11.11.1-6, 12.1, 17.38.4-7, 18.5.1, 18.59.5-6, 30.15, 37.1.1-4. Much of the moral framework Stronk considers an important part of the Library appears in book introductions that lack Persian aspect and are naturally excluded: it seems a pity to lose points at which that moral framework does touch the Persian material.

The translation reads as well as can be expected. I do not like the idea of substituting barbaroi with an ethnonym (7 n.15): this conceals something about Diodorus' style—something pertinent since Stronk claims Diodorus is comparatively race-blind (541-542). On the other hand, transliteration of aretê does underline the relative frequency with which Diodorus uses this concept. I have not systematically checked for accuracy, but "throughout Asia" (18.50.1) misrepresents kata de tên Asian (which should be "in Asia": the phrase simply marks the shift from the events "in Macedonia" in 18.48-49), I doubt that epi + accusative in 11.44.3 means "beyond" (the LSJ entry adduced in support refers to epi in compounds), I wonder whether "Pharnabazus' staff officers" (15.42.4) is appropriate for hoi peri Pharnabazon stratêgoi, and I am sure that translating philoi or epitropoi as "trustees" (e.g. 12.4.4; 17.30.1; 30.15.1) strikes a false note. At 17.30.2 Stronk oddly follows the Loeb in rendering epitêdeumatôn as "successes", as though it were epitukhêmatôn.2

Translation presupposes a Greek text, and Stronk pays attention to this by reporting on the MSS of Diodorus, the Excerpta Constantiniana and Photius and including nearly a hundred notes about textual issues. The default text is the third Teubner edition (although there is no apparatus in volume 6 of that edition, it is the only more or less uniform presentation of the whole Library), but Stronk has sought to be judiciously independent. Limitation of space precludes further discussion here. I simply note that I disagree with Stronk's treatment at 11.10.4, 11.36.1, 14.21.4, 14.25.4, 17.57.7, 19.30.4,19.85.4, 20.47.5, 20.107.4, 30.15.1, 31.27a.1, that the famous confusion of Pharnabazus and Tissaphernes is dealt with rather haphazardly, and that Geraistou might be better than the MSS reading or Knoepfler's Euboias at 14.79.1.

Stronk stresses that non-textual annotation is limited and not replete with modern scholarly literature, and many notes simply refer to the appropriate Budé or Loeb volume. Perhaps this is reasonable. Even so, 104n.89 needs post-1987 bibliography on Xerxes' destruction of Babylon (and 159n.90, 179n.176 are out-of-date on Babylonian revolt), and 110n.116, 121n.158, 202n.31 and 216n.74 could be more aggiornato on qanats, the Sacaea, the chronology of 424 and Thapsacus. It seems odd to say (89n.14) that Ninus' empire (including the Troad, Phrygia, Propontis and Bithynia) resembles the real Neo-Assyrian empire in extent. 201n.25 is a strangely perfunctory annotation on the Peace of Callias, and 201n.28 does not recognize Diodorus' proleptic allusion to the King's Peace. 262n.267 is ill-formulated: there was a previous defeat of Ochus in 351/0 from the perspective of the real date horizon of 16.44.1. The unique statement about crews and hulls in 11.3.7 deserves attention, while a nine-line note on salpinx (252 n.230) makes more noise than is strictly necessary.

In what sense is Diodorus' account of Persian history distinctive? Stronk's answer lies in the concept of Semiramis' legacy. Stronk holds that Ctesias created the Ninus-Semiramis story to prefigure the Achaemenid Empire (the geography of Achaemenid inscriptions prompting Indian and Ethiopian elements). By virtue of using Ctesias, Diodorus was heir to this enterprise, one to which the Alexander historians also contributed (Semiramis consults Ammon), in part because Alexander himself treated Semiramis (and the Elder Cyrus) as an inspiration or challenge. From that perspective, the Alexander story was part of the Semiramis legacy. But the question remains whether there is any perspicuous sense in which Diodorus' treatment of Alexander or other elements of Persian history is specifically marked by this fact.

We are hampered in responding by the lacuna at 17.83/84 which makes it impossible to know whether Semiramis' Indian campaign was mentioned when Alexander decided to mount one of his own. There is certainly no reference in the description of Alexander's return from the Indus to Carmania and Persia.3 But, in any case, Stronk does not articulate a claim that Diodorus XVII is historiographically marked by "Semiramis' legacy" in any way beyond whatever was implicit in Clitarchus' historiographical choices. One cannot see that Diodorus has moulded his narrative in the light of a larger thesis about Persian history. Nor is any such claim advanced about Achaemenid, Diadochic or Seleucid history.

Stronk does affirm that "the element of continuity of empire is one of the backbones of Diodorus' history of 'Persia'" (531-532). At first (534-535) this seems to be a proposition about imperial behaviour, not historiographical presentation: Darius engaged with India and established an ideology of world-empire (which is what prompted Ctesias' Semiramis retrojection); the Arsacids were interested in their Achaemenid predecessors. (Nothing is said about Seleucids.) But, then, Diodorus "appears ... to believe in a continuous succession of empires, each one characterised by a more or less identical development of rise, apex, and decline" (535). That is potentially a proposition about historiographical presentation, albeit one not limited to the "Persian" history, since the succession involves Greco- Macedonian and Roman empires, and the dynamic of rise and fall is presumably essentially dictated by the extent to which aretê guides the actions of important individuals. Diodorus, we are told (540), merges Greek traditions, Achaemenid propaganda and Stoic beliefs. But in the exposition of this the connections of thought are impressionistic rather than Aristotelian, and a sense of Diodoran agency in the creation of a specific version of eastern history rather elusive.

Still, one might say that a distinctive vision of Diodorus is on offer. Stronk's Diodorus is a teacher of morality, with Clio as his handmaiden (9-10, 540), and his work is not a proper history but one "in which history has become a tool to teach his audience the merits of a life of aretê" (545); "Diodorus has written an account that is to a large extent focused on the rewards of aretê—and the disasters that may befall someone if he (or she, naturally) does not strive for it... In this account, he attributes a significant role to the Persian world" (544). By way of expansion on that claim all we get is a summary of the Persian contents of the Library and the significant role may, therefore, seem to consist simply in the fact that Diodorus has quite a lot of Persian material—"the only account from antiquity that paints such a comprehensive picture of the Persian world" (545). But the fact that no other extant Greek text preserves elements of such a wide sweep of Persian history does not guarantee that those elements amount to more than the sum of their parts, and the title Historical Library might even be seen as a disclaimer. Still, Stronk's claim could perhaps be phrased somewhat more substantially.

The Library starts with Egypt. But Egyptian history stops with Cambyses (and the last Egyptian lawgiver is a Persian king) and, where non-Greek peoples are concerned, it is the strand started by Ninus-Semiramis that turns out to run most continuously through the work (Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Greco-Macedonians, Parthians, Romans), though full appreciation of that continuity is elusive because the Median and pre-480 Achaemenid narrative is largely lost and we have such a patchy impression of Diodoran post-Ipsus history. In that sense the "Hellenistic view of the world, from its very beginnings to the days of the author himself" (541) is a view of the legacy of Semiramis, not of Osiris or of any of the peoples/places in books I-V who have customs, geography, flora and fauna, but no narrative history. But whether, even so, this is a template that Diodorus has imposed on things or one largely predetermined by the way others had already chosen to write history remains a nice question. (It is also a nice question whether one should perceive a parallel legacy that begins with the gods, demigods and heroes of the Greek tradition.) Still, it was Diodorus' deliberate choice to reject the Ephoran model and go back before the Trojan Wars that brought Ninus- Semiramis into play at all, and to that the extent the question perhaps deserves a positive answer. ​


1.   Incidentally there ought to be a reference to G. Parmeggiani, Eforo di Cuma. Studi di storiografia greca (Bologna 2011) and P. Fidia & C. Calamo, Eforo di Cuma nella storia della storiografia greca (Naples 2014). The "almost obsolete" monograph of Barber (p. 9) is now completely superseded.
2.   I have, incidentally, noticed few typos or other errors: Ecbatana is not Isfahan (106 n.97); 177 S44 is 11.24.1, not 11.34.1; "lectures" should be "readings" (p.21); and "all but flawless" (p.11) should, I take it, be "anything but flawless."
3.   There is an allusion to Cyrus and the Ariaspians/Benefactors in 17.81. But an allusion to Cyrus need not be a product of a distinctive piece of pseudo-history in the way that one to Semiramis is. It is curious that in Diodorus' version of the Ariaspian story, by contrast with those in Arrian and Curtius, Alexander gives rewards to the neighbouring Gedrosians as well as the Ariaspians. But, even if this were the remnant of a tradition that forged a link between the Cyrus-Scythians-Ariaspians story and the Cyrus-India-Gedrosian story, the fact would remain that Diodorus made no use of the link.

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