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Appian's Roman History


The historian, Appian, was a native of Alexandria, Egypt. All that we know about him as an individual is gleaned from his own writings and from the letters of Fronto, the tutor of Marcus Aurelius. It is supposed that he was born about A.D. 95 and that he died about A.D. 165. A fragment of his works found in recent years speaks of a war against the Jews in Egypt in which he had an adventure. This was probably the war waged by the Emperor Trajan to suppress the Jewish insurrection in that country, A.D. 116. In the preface to his history he says that he reached a high station in his own country and afterwards became a pleader of causes in the court of the emperors at Rome (probably as advocatus fisci) until he was appointed procurator by them. In order to be qualified for the latter office he must have been a Roman citizen of equestrian rank. The time of writing the preface is indicated as 900 years from the founding of the city, which would be during the reign of Antoninus Pius. A letter of Fronto to Antoninus is extant asking the appointment of his friend Appian as procurator, not to gratify his ambition, or for the sake of the pay, but as a merited distinction in his old age. Fronto vouches for his friend's honour and integrity. Appian says also in his preface that he had written an autobiography from which persons wishing to know more about him could obtain information. This work was not known to Photius in the ninth century, although Appian's historical works were all extant at that time.

Appian's plan is sketched in section 14 of the preface. It was not chronological but ethnographical, being in detached parts, corresponding to the wars carried on by the Romans with other nations and among themselves. The earliest detailed account of his works that has reached us is that of Photius, patriarch of Constantinople, who died A.D. 891. He wrote an encyclopedia of literature entitled the Myriobiblon, containing notices of 280 authors whose works were then extant. Those of Appian which he recorded were twenty-four in number, of which eleven have come down to us complete, or nearly so, namely: the Spanish, Hannibalic, Punic, Illyrian, Syrian, Mithridatic, and five books of the Civil wars. Extracts from other books have been preserved in two Byzantine compilations made by order of the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus about A.D. 950, one entitled Concerning the Embassies and the other Concerning Virtues and Vices. Each of these books contains extracts from Appian and other ancient historians on the subjects named. Those of Appian from the former of the two compilations were first collected in a slovenly manner by Fulvio Orsini (Ursinus) in Rome and published in Antwerp in 1580. Those from the latter were reproduced with great fidelity by Henryº de Valois at Paris in 1634, from a MS. belonging to his friend Peiresc. A few detached sentences have been found in the lexicon of Suidas and elsewhere. The history terminates at the death of Sextus Pompeius in the year 35 B.C., shortly after the division of the Roman world between Antony and Octavian.

The first publication of any of the works of Appian in modern times was a Latin translation by Petrus Candidus, private secretary to Pope Nicholas V in 1452. The first printing of the Greek text was done by Carolus Stephanus at Paris in 1551. The most important critical revision and collation of the manuscripts was made by Professor J. Schweighäuser, of the University of Strassburg, published in 1785. The text used in the present translation is in the main that of Professor L. Mendelssohn, of the University of Dorpat, Russia, being the Teubner edition, Leipzig, 1879‑82. An important edition is that of Didot, Paris, 1877, which has a Latin version facing the text.

As the events recorded in Appian's history took place long before his own time, it is important to know what authorities he used. He makes mention of Polybius, Paulus Claudius, Hieronymus, Caesar, Augustus and Asinius Pollio as authors, in a way which implies that he is quoting from them. He mentions casually the names of Varro, Fabius Pictor, Cassius Hemina and Rutilius Rufus, but not in terms which imply any use of their works. He does not mention the writings of Livy, Sallust, Dionysius, or Diodorus,º although the works of all these authors must have been within his reach. We are not without the means, however, of testing his narrative by those of other ancient writers. This has been a favourite hunting ground of German scholars for more than a century, and many learned treatises on the sources of Appian have resulted from their labours. That of Professor Schwartz, of the University of Göttingen, in the Classical Encyclopedia of Pauly-Wissowa, is the latest and best, and is a monumental work of its kind, but its author is more successful in demolishing the conclusions of his predecessors than in pointing out the true sources himself. He inclines to the opinion that they were Latin chiefly if not exclusively, and that for the republican era they were the official annalists whom he describes as "high born amateurs in whose hands historiography was placed," and says that "whenever they turned their leisure to give information to a public, ignorant and incompetent for criticism, to these amateurs, lying, particularly in a patriotic cause, was permitted even more than to the rhetorician."

Appian was a narrator of events rather than a philosophic historian. His style is destitute of ornament, but in the rhetorical passages, which are numerous, it is animated, forcible and at times eloquent. Occasionally he rises to the dignity of the best writers of the ancient world. The introduction to the history of the Civil Wars is an example of this kind. Here the events leading up to the tragedies of the Gracchus brothers move forward with a dignified and measured tread which has been imitated by later historians but surpassed by none. It is the only account of the agrarian controversy by an ancient historian giving both sides of that question.

The first book of the Civil Wars is perhaps the most valuable of the Appian series, since it spans the "twilight period" between Polybius and Cicero. Next to this in point of value is the history of the third Punic War and the destruction of Carthage. It is the only detailed account of those events which has come down to us, and it is dramatic in a high degree. The source of this part of Appian may have been the lost books of Polybius, from whom a quotation is given in section 132 of the Punic Wars.

Appian has been severely censured for want of accuracy in details. According to modern canons of criticism accuracy is the first and indispensable requisite of the historian, but it was not so in the ancient world. General conformity to facts was, of course, necessary, but in most cases the aim of ancient writer was to make an interesting book or to furnish a setting for the political ideas, or the moral principles, which he entertained. Appian was neither better nor worse in this respect than the average historian of his time. Professor Schwarz says truly that Appian's account of the struggle between Antony and the Senate in book iii. of the Civil Wars is not history but "historical novel writing," but he adds that "with all its disfigurations and inventions the great lines are worked out correctly and keenly, the inventions contributing in part to that very end." This criticism may be safely applied to a large part of Appian's writings.

It was the habit of ancient historians to put speeches into the mouths of their leading actors in order to present the ideas that moved peoples or political parties or factions, and sometimes to deliver the author's moral lectures to mankind. Thucydides did so, and his example, as Professor Gilbert Murray says, was "a fatal legacy to two thousand years of history-writing after him." Appian followed the fashion. The speeches which he delivered in this way are the best part of his work in point of style. We feel that here we are listening to the practised debater, the trained pleader of causes in the imperial courts. Professor Schwartz even puts the edict of proscription of the triumvirs (book iv, sec. 8‑11 of the Civil Wars) in that category, although the author says that he has translated it from Latin into Greek.

In conclusion it may be said that the writings of Appian embrace matter of exceeding interest that no student of Roman history can afford to overlook.

To Theodore Lyman Wright, Professor of Greek in Beloitº College, the translator is deeply indebted for helpful service in the revision of his work, and for numerous suggestions for bettering the phraseology.

H. W.

Thayer's Note: The following note remains under copyright (© Harvard University Press 1972 or 1982). It is so brief as surely to fall under fair use.


Appian Bell. Civ. Book 1 ed. E. Gabba, Florence, 1958; ed. 2 1967; Book 5 ed. and translated E. Gabba, Florence, 1970.

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Page updated: 6 Aug 03