Diodorus Siculus – The Persian wars to the fall of Athens

There are not many famous classic historians. Once you have read the limited material available and you want to read more you get to the lesser known historians and these often cover similar periods. This is certainly the case for Diodorus Siculus who like many of the classic historians cover a great period of time. So what has survived over time is what gathers interest and also the reason for a translation. The work that has survived is that from The Persian wars to the fall of Athens (ca. 30 BC), the title for this particular translation, which covers the period from 480 to 401 BC. This is basically the end of the history by Herodotos and much of those by Thucydides and Xenophon. These three names also form the problem many contemporary historians have had with Siculus. He is actually not much of an original historian. He is a copyist, mainly using other works to compose one of his own. As a result this particular translation holds numerous sections based on the work of these three historians. I have read them all before, so why would I want to read it all again?

One reason is that neither of the three cover the full scope of the period. Each chose their own starting and ending points. So one could basically say Siculus has merged them all into a greater narrative. This actually the weakest of the four reasons to be named. The others are much more significant.

The first is that the three aforementioned historians cover the period until 480 BC and from 431 to 401 BC. There is thus a gap in Greek history for almost 50 years which basically covers the period of the hegomony of Athens in the Mediterranean. Siculus is the only surviving source to cover this period. Here I do have to mention that this is a relatively peaceful period. There are not that many events to record. Compared to the material for the other periods this period is not that extensively described as Siculus focuses mostly on military achievements. While it mentions the fall of Themistocles, the victorious general of the Persian Wars, and the rise of Pericles as Athens’ dominant figure, the latter is not as present as I had been taught in history. The cause, as mentioned is obvious, as Siculus does not seem to have any material on political developments or simply ignored them. Siculus certainly has more interest in military affairs. As he lived and wrote during the period in which powerful generals expanded Roman power and changed the republic into an empire, the interest in political affairs may be low.

The other reason what makes Siculus’ history worthwhile is that because he was a native of Sicily his history also covers the history of Sicily during that period extensively. Again he copies from another greater source, but his copy is the only one to survive. While some events are connected to other Greek events, the Greeks in Sicily and southern Italy cover a mostly independent history. The power of Rome was still limited to its near vicinity so the Greek only had to deal with each other and another power, Carthage. The Carthage presented in the fifth century BC still seems very similar to that of the third century BC when it clashed with the growing power of Rome. Siculus does not provide much background information on Carthage, but its weaknesses seem not to be so different as they were later. Either way it makes for some interesting comparisons.

The last reason why Siculus’ history is interesting to read is because he sometimes presents alternative versions to the histories of Thucydides and Xenophon. Both historians do have some colored perspective to events, either diminishing them or giving more credit or blame than where it is due. Siculus also had access to Persian histories and could thus shine some different lights on affairs. Siculus is thus not a simple copyist. At times he makes choices of what he believes to be a more accurate description.

As a historian Siculus does not venture much into digressions or orations, which makes his history easier to read than others as he keeps a tigher focus. His history thus also progresses a bit faster. His chronological accuracy is much criticized, but for the reading experience you don’t really notice it. As he shifts focus to different locations and events frequently, keeping track of what happened when is not easy.

The translation is done well, making the history easy to read. I do have to admit I abused the frequent source references in the text. I was more interested in the new or different material, so if there were paragraphs that were virtual copies from Thucydides or Xenophon I did not read them that attentatively. Even so I enjoyed this history as it shines new lights on many less known events.

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