Archive for April 13th, 2011

Lucius Cassius Dio – Roman History Volume 6

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Usually historical works by classic authors have some titles to cover the topic. The edition of the Roman History by Lucius Cassius Dio as published by the Echo Library, is made cheap to allow access to rare works and thus not much effort is made for the publication of the book. Although a new and nice typeset is used they take up more longer lines on the pages so they take up less space. There are no introductions, maps or glossaries, except for some footnotes that usually are related to translator notes or explaining some detail mentioned.

Of the six volumes in which the Roman History has been divided I have only bought the last as I already possessed very beautiful editions of the most complete parts, covering the period 45 to 9 BC. There are more (partially) complete books of the period until 54 BC but as I already have works by other authors on this period I haven’t decided if I want to buy them also. That this edition is currently unavailable also helps, although I know it is around.

Cassius Dio wrote a complete history from 753 BC until 229 AD but as usual most has been lost except for many fragments and the last four books, which are partially complete. Those last four books, covering the period 211 until 229, are in Volume 6 and that was the reason why I wanted to buy it, especially as Cassius Dio was a contemporary of the time. It ends in 229 because he probably died soon after that time (he was already of high age).

In contrary to what I hoped, which was a detailed account of the events of the time, it actually wasn’t as Cassius Dio spent most of his time away from Rome as governor in several provinces. Not uncommon for the great Roman historians, Cassius Dio also had a successful political career.

The history told in four rather short books is mostly from second hand hearsay and tells about the horrible reign of two young and rather twisted emperors. How they survived for several years can be seen as a mystery. Somewhat problematic in the books is that the names used by Cassius Dio are not the same as they have survived history (it was not unusual to give emperors a different nickname after they died, in East Asian culture it was also common to do so), but because of adoptions and name changes to raise the stature of emperors or their children, confusion can arise easily, especially as Cassius Dio does not stick to a single name. One can understand I had some troubles keeping focus on the story. As all the books are also incomplete this means there are parts with lacuna (small gaps) or large gaps, but most of it seems rather whole. Still, the events told seem rather more hearsay or gossip than actual historical research. This might be influenced by the high age of Cassius Dio when he wrote the last books and the fact that he lived outside Rome.

The four books only cover a third of Volume 6. The other part is filled with fragments of the earliest books, basically covering the period 753 until 146 BC. Here it is quite clear that these fragments are no more than that. Many are just one or a few lines of which it is hard to make sense. As I’ve already read the rather complete early Roman history by Livius (see those reviews) I rather skipped the period 753 until about 287 BC as those would not tell me nothing new and the parts that I read were just too fragmentary for a nice read. There were a few larger fragments but most were very small. Some fragments were clearly copied many times as certain events that I remembered from Livius were clearly deformed in the fragment.

The period 287 until 264 BC (the start of the First Punic War, which is well described by the World History of Polybios) can be considered a gap in the Roman History. The only other source I possess is the biography of Pyrrhus (the one whose name is connected to the Pyrrhic victory), which partially involves wars against Rome. The fragments by Cassius Dio that survived are good enough to get a fair picture of what happened in this period when Rome had gained dominance over Italy and was obtaining influence over Greek who lived in the south of Italy. Even as they are fragments there is much more clarity in the story than that of the last four books. The contrast is quite clear.

After 264 BC the history becomes even more fragmentary. There is little on the First Punic War and the period until the Second Punic War. Of the latter more has survived, but with the extensive accounts by Livius and Polybios which I’ve read already I was less interested. I did read some of the early parts explaining the beginning of the war, which contained some large fragments.

The last part of the fragments, covering the period 167 until 146 BC caught my interest again as these are less wel documented, but these were too fragmentary to make much of an impression.

A lengthy review for a rather short book, but the fact that when I bought it I had no idea what it really contained made me feel like providing this information. The most interesting part, the last four books, is unfortunately somewhat confusing and as the events described are so extreme they make hardly a sensible history. They are not that easy to read. The fragments of the early books provide an interesting comparison for the histories by Livius and Polybios, but most parts are just that and lack sufficient context for a decent read. In contrast the larger fragments are very readable, compared to the last four books.

Should one read or even buy this? Only a die-hard like me perhaps, but it is not really a worthwhile addition to my collection of classic histories.