Scholia Reviews ns 20 (2011) 16.

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones and James Robson, Ctesias’ History of Persia. Tales of the Orient. Oxford: Routledge, 2010. Pp x + 253, incl. 8 black and white illustrations, 3 family trees, 1 map and 3 appendices. ISBN 978-0-415-36411-6. US$120.00/UK£60.00.

Brian Sheridan
Department of Ancient Classics, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland

It is not very often, this is a first for me, that one picks up a book which undersells itself. The authors, Llewwellyn-Jones and Robson (henceforward LJR) cite two objectives in the opening pages: ‘to raise awareness of Ctesias’ and to ‘address the hindrance faced by students by providing an English-language translation of all the available material from the Persica.’ However, any potential reader be they student, professional academic or layman with an interest in Greek and/or Persian history and/or historiography and/or Greek literature more generally should add Ctesias’ History of Persia: Tales of the Orient to their reading list or even to their library.

‘Ctesias of Cnidus is a little known figure’ (p. 1), we are told at the outset of the introduction. While it may be a little pedantic we should probably add the caveat ‘ . . . in the Anglophone world’. Though, LJR do go on to stress the availability of translations of the Persica in languages other than English. German readers could turn to Jacoby’s extensive entry in the RE (1922) and his collection of the fragments of Ctesias in volume IIIC of Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (1958) or, more recently, König’s, Die Persika des Ktesias (1972) while French readers have Lenfant’s Ctésias de Cnide (2004). Finally, it would be unfair to forget the efforts of J. M. Bigwood who, in a series of articles, devoted much energy to developing our understanding of this ‘little known figure’. More recently, indeed it may have been a dead heat with the book currently under review, Stronk produced Ctesias’ Persian History: Introduction, Text and Translation (2010).[[1]] Notwithstanding those comments Ctesias remains shrouded in mist. Such, however, is the fate of any Greek historian who is not part of the gang of four (Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon or Polybius) who have dominated the field almost from the beginning. If I may digress momentarily, LJR name Plutarch as one of the ‘four “greats” of Greek history writing’ (p. 1). I can only assume that Polybius has morphed somehow into Plutarch. Plutarch was many things but he did not write history as he himself explains in his Alexander (1.2).

The book opens with an extensive introduction and an outline of the History of Persia which is then followed by a translation of the testimonia on and fragments from Ctesias’ Persica. Three appendices bring the book to a close. Indeed, if they achieved nothing more than providing a modern English translation of Ctesias’ Persica LJR would deserve credit. In fact, they have achieved much more. Not only do we have a new translation but, in the introductory material, LJR provide an excellent overview of scholarship on Ctesias which will be of benefit to anyone who is new to this particular area. Without wishing to undermine the value of the introduction as a whole I would suggest that the most useful aspect of the introduction is the reappraisal of the most basic assumptions concerning Ctesias and his work. Very often it is from these most basic assumptions that misunderstandings flourish. LJR have achieved much in assembling material from which new readers of the Persica will be able ‘to draw their own conclusions about the validity of his history’ (p. 7).

The text on which the translation is based is on that of Lenfant in the Budé series. While it may at first seem a little tangential some discussion of this edition is necessary. Lenfant’s edition of the text is now considered the editio maior.[[2]] In addition she did utilise the numbering found in Jacoby though as LJR state ‘the text cited by Lenfant is sometimes more protracted than that found in Jacoby’ (p. 93). Beneath this brief statement is a minefield. Lenfant added a number of fragments most of which derive from Nicolaus of Damascus. However, Ctesias is not mentioned in any of these passages and as Romm has stated[[3]] some contrast with attributed fragments which are found in Diodorus or Plutarch. It was on this basis that they were excluded by Jacoby. LJR have, however, made some additions to the text as it is set out by Lenfant which is highlighted in their text. The authors also mark out those sections which are ‘dubious’. While LJR do refer to Lenfant’s inclusion of the new fragments (p. 21) I am not sure that they tell the full story and the impression is given that there is no question mark over any of these fragments and, moreover, that Jacoby had mistakenly omitted them. Such is not the case and this is an issue that should have been discussed at further length. The difficulty is understandable. The text of Ctesias is greatly increased by their inclusion and thus the possibility to develop our knowledge of Ctesias as an author. However, a little more clarity on this issue would have been welcome.

Another important section of the introduction: ‘Filtering Ctesias’ (pp. 35- 45) provides a very useful discussion of those authors from whom the extant fragments of Ctesias are drawn. At the end of the discussion of Diodorus Siculus (p. 45), for example, we are told that ‘Diodorus is not an accurate reflection of Ctesias’. While this is undoubtedly true, students of Ctesias need not be too disconcerted as greater understanding of Ctesias is possible once we keep such a caveat in mind when reading the fragments which are drawn from authors such as Diodorus.

Turning to the translations of the testimonia and fragments LJR achieve a reasonable balance between fidelity to the original Greek while providing a readable English rendering of the Greek. One might quibble over this phrase or that but such an exercise would be of benefit to very few prospective readers. In that context, this reader for one, thinks that LJR have been rather modest. They apologise in the ‘Translators Preface’ and describe their translation as ‘close’ (p. 92), which I take to be a euphemism for ‘literal’. While this may be the case I do not think that much fluency has been sacrificed and they are to be commended for being so faithful to the Greek.

This brings us to another point which is raised in the introduction (pp. 18-22) and the ‘Translators Preface’ (p. 92): ‘few of the sentences translated here come directly from Ctesias’ Persica . . . ’ (p. 92). This is a welcome admission and while it might be obvious to the more experienced reader, it is an important qualification to be borne in mind by readers who are not used to working with fragmentary historians. Indeed, I would recommend that both the preface to the translation and the section on ‘The Text’ (pp. 18-22) are read by all who have an interest in working with those historians who are preserved only via later writers.

I will end by returning to the introduction. Purely by chance I turned on the television one night to find myself watching The Last King of Scotland. The comparisons which are drawn by LJR between Ctesias and Nicholas Garrigan, who was the personal doctor to Idi Amin, add depth to both. It is often difficult to draw analogies between figures from across the ages but LJR have done so with subtlety and without pushing the analogy too far.

Finally, Ctesias’ reputation as an historian has suffered for many reasons though the ciritical comments of Felix Jacoby who described Ctesias, rather pejoratively, as ‘one of the fathers of the historical romance’ (p. 7; trans by LJR) may be partly to blame. However, another and rather more sympathetic reader of Ctesias came to a different conclusion. Photius, the Byzantine scholar, summed up Ctesias as ‘very clear and simple’ and as a result ‘his writing is enjoyable’ (p. 7 = T13). The same might be said of LJR’s admirable work.


[[1]] In an unpublished dissertation submitted to the University of Florida, Andrew Nichols provides an English translation and commentary on the fragments of Ctesias (2008). It is a little surprising that this work is not cited in the bibliography.

[[2]] Any estimation of this particular edition must be set in the context of Lenfant’s discussion of what constitutes a fragment (CLXXV-CLXXVI).

[[3]] Romm, J., review of D. Lenfant (ed.),  Ctésias de Cnide. La Persie. L'Inde. Autres fragments. (Paris 2004) in CR n.s. 56 (2006) 38-40.