Appianus – The Civil Wars

This review only covers about half of the book The Civil Wars (c. 165) by Appianus. Reason for this is that the book is about the period 133 until 35 BC of the history of Rome and I already have read histories covering the period after 50 BC. As historians in those days had no problems with plagiarism, differences will be minor, even as the introduction of the book mentions that Appianus did not use many sources that have survived until this day. I’m not planning to read the rest any time soon and half should still be fairly sufficient for a review.

Appianus tried to be different from other historians by writing thematic histories in which he focused on one great event or several events that were closely related. Obviously those were the great conflicts. Among those conflicts the civil wars of Rome form the most interesting topic as they describe the transition of the Republic of Rome to the Roman Empire.

The Civil Wars consists of five books of which I have read the first two. The first book covers the period 133 till 70 BC (until the formation of the first Triumvirate) and the second the period 70 till 44 BC (until the death of Julius Caesar). Of the second book I skipped some small parts describing the period after 50 BC, mostly speeches that usually don’t add much extra value for today’s readers.

As the first book covers many years Appianus does not go into very much detail. He picks the most important events and he ignores all other big events that are not related to the theme of civil war. He keeps his focus and surely manages to select the right events, but he does little explanation or theorizing about their importance. They are simply mentioned and the reader has to recognize why they are important. Also notable about the first book is that there are no speeches.

The second book covers a shorter period and describes how Julius Caesar, Pompeius and Crassus controlled the Roman state until their quest for greatness lead to their doom. The main part is about the actual civil wars between 49 en 45 BC which was fought all over the Roman Empire. The pace slows here and Appianus goes into much more detail. The last part during which Julius Caesar ruled as victor until his assassination is described more shortly.

Appianus’ work is more of a pure history. He sometimes comments on events but overall he leaves it to the reader to interpret what he has read. Where possible he goes into detail, but as the history is thematic, he skips a lot of events. Appianus also rarely mentions dates or something to match the dates on. I already knew when all the events happened so it didn’t bother me, but for a new reader it can be quite confusing to find out the period of time and the years when events happen. Luckily there are plenty of notes to compensate for this lack.

The prose was easy to read. If this was because of a modern translation by the translator I don’t know. I’m familiar to translators trying to uphold the style of writing as much as possible, leading to a prose that I have defined as typical latin. However, those have been mainly for Dutch translation. This was actually my first English translation of a classic latin work. I did not notice a typical style and it read like a modern (well-written) history book. As the last three books go into much more detail with a lot slower pace I cannot say how well this opinion will remain, but I think it will.

So why recommend this book? This is actually the only remaining history covering the whole period between 133 and 65 BC. It does leave out a number of great events as it focuses on the theme of civil war, but for those who want to know more about those I refer to Plutarchus’ biographies of the important men of those times. These also provide some extra background, as Appianus is not a historian to add those for extra information.

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