Monday, January 31, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Cassius Dio!

Some Penguin Classics leave you yearning for more - well, a great many of them do, but few more than the 1987 volume selection of the second century Greek historian Cassius Dio, here translated by the always-reliable Ian Scott-Kilvert. The book doesn't leave you yearning for more in the sense that it has any shortcomings (as with so many Penguin Classics, I'd be hard-pressed to find any critical or rhetorical shortcomings - I think these things are fairly well vetted before they ever see library shelves) but rather in the sense that's evoked by that dismaying word 'selection.'

Cassius Dio (or, as he's known to those of weak moral fiber, Dio Cassius) is the best ancient historian nobody's ever heard of. Oh, professional historians have cherished his work for centuries, but your average educated layman, somebody who might be able to rattle off 'Livy,' 'Tacitus,' and maybe even 'Suetonius' will draw a blank with Dio. Great dramatists (and melodramatists!) have delved in his text to fill out their own works, mainly because he provides them with ample raw material for speeches (we'll get to Dio's speeches in a moment), and to historians he's always been invaluable.

Such was his own goal from the outset. He was born around 163 in the provinces and came to Rome on the strength of his family's money to enter politics and begin climbing the civil ladder. His climb was quick - he entered the Senate under Commodus and became consul under Septimius Severus. He was an important functionary in the reign of Septimius' son Caracalla but disliked the new emperor (as, indeed, did practically everybody else) and took to spending more and more of his time researching and writing his epic Roman History, which began with Aeneas and crept forward, book after book, to the year 229 when he himself was consul again, this time with the emperor Alexander Severus as his fellow consul.

This was a monumental task, and he looked to some great examples - Thucydides and Polybius are his models, and an engaging cogency is his goal. This is annalistic history in the grand Roman manner, full of character portraits, carefully weighed evidence, moral lessons, and often masterful rhetorical exercises in the form of speeches put in the mouths of his characters - speeches that were either wholly invented or greatly elaborated from what Dio found in the records. A first-time reader of Dio will notice the speeches before anything else, and the more ideologically flexible of those readers will start to look forward to them, because Dio pours quite a bit of art into them. Even in Ian Scott-Kilvert's careful, particular translation for this Penguin edition, something of their fascinating 'what if?' nature comes through, as when clever young Octavian is exhorting his fellow Romans to turn against Marc Antony:
To sum up, if it were a matter of being called upon to cavort in some ridiculous dance or cut some erotic caper, Antony would have no rival - for these are the specialities in which he has trained himself. But when it comes to weapons and fighting, what has anyone to fear from him? The fitness of his body? But he has become effeminate and his homosexuality has worn him out. His piety towards our gods? But he has declared war upon them and upon his native land. His loyalty towards his allies? Everyone knows how he tricked and then imprisoned the king of Armenia. His kindness to his friends? We have all seen the men who have died a cruel death at his hands. His popularity among his troops? But who, even among them, has not condemned him? The evidence for this is the number of his soldiers who join us every day. I believe that all our citizens will do this, just as happened once before, when he was on his way from Brundisium to Gaul. So long as they hoped to get rich without danger, some where happy to take his side. But they will not choose to fight against us, their own countrymen, for what does not belong to them, least of all when by joining us they can protect their lives and their property without risk.

But even for those more fastidious modern readers who want such speeches left in historical novels where the last 200 years of historical practice have said they belong, there's plenty in Dio to give satisfaction. He's a conscientious writer, and like Livy long before him, he views it as his duty to report on the existence of wild theories regarding his topics, even if he himself doesn't believe those theories. He can exercise a very light touch in such matters, as when he arrives at the death of Augustus:
So Augustus fell sick and died. Some suspicion attached itself to Livia concerning the cause of his death, because he had secretly sailed over to the island of Planasia to visit Agrippa Posthumus, and it appeared that he was about to become completely reconciled with him. Livia was afraid, some people allege, that Augustus might bring him back to make him emperor, and so she smeared with poison some figs which were still ripening on the trees from which Augustus was in the habit of picking the fruit with his own hands. She then ate those which had not been smeared, and offered the poison fruit to him. At any rate, he fell sick from this or from some other cause. Then he sent for his associates, and told them all that he wanted to be done. Finally he declared, "I found Rome built of clay: I leave it to you in marble." In this saying he was not referring literally to the state of the buildings, but rather to the strength of the empire. And when he asked them for some applause, as comic actors do at the end of the mime, he was in fact mocking very aptly the whole life of man.

You have to love that 'at any rate'! A workhorse phrase, and yet it speaks volumes here! Scott-Kilvert is to be commended for preserving so subtle an effect.

No, the problem with this Penguin edition of Cassius Dio is that it tries for theme over thump. This volume covers the reign of Augustus only - books 50-56 of Dio. But the whole Roman History spanned some eighty books, of which at least a dozen more survive more or less intact - and we have excellent Byzantine summaries of most of the rest. Reading and re-reading this present volume, I can't help but yearn for more, for a Penguin Classics Cassius Dio that's a 'Steve book' - 1500 pages long, lovingly annotated, absolutely as much of Dio as the unkind fates have seen fit to leave us. When I look over at the monster edition Penguin put out a few years ago of Domesday Book (and don't worry, all of you who've requested that I write about that volume - it's coming! they're ALL coming!), when I consider how that same printing-run and forests of paper could have been used instead for just the Dio mega-volume I'm imagining ... well, when I think of those things, I school myself in patience. It could happen, some day. I'd buy it.


Greg said...

You're totally right. I finished Dio wanting more, and wondering what the hell was wrong with Penguin (same thing with Polybius). Still, reading Tacitus next was no small consolation!

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