by Jennifer Gerrish
New York: Routledge, 2019. Pp. x, 158.
Notes, biblo., index. $155.00. ISBN: 1138218561
Writing History in an Age of Upheaval
The Roman historian Gaius Sallustius Crispus (fl., c. 86-35 BC) wrote three books. Two of these survive, short works on the conspiracy of Catiline and the Jugurthine War. The third, titled simply Histories, was modeled on the style of Thucydides, and covered Roman political and military life during the decade or so after the death the dictator Sulla in 78 BC. Alas for scholarship, the Histories exists today only as a great many fragments, from several pages to a line or so or even a clause, preserved because they were cited in later works, that have survived. These offer some interesting information about the period, but also suggest the extent of the loss to history of the full work, as parts of this period are not well covered by other sources, yet involved major campaigns in Spain, the East, and against piracy, as well as much domestic political turmoil.
In this book, the first about Histories in any language, Prof. Gerrish (Charleston), argues that while Sallust, seems to have done a good job of recounting the events during this period, he did so as a way of critiquing the events that were unfolding in his own times, in the aftermath of the slaying of Julius Caesar, during which the fate of the Republic had fallen into the hands of the Second Triumvirate. Gerrish’s argument is that Sallust’s work has to be seen as “analogical historiography. As she put is, “The Histories narrate the years following Sulla’s death, but Sallust always writes with an eye on contemporary affairs” (p. 35),
In this light, as we read about the rise of Pompey the Great, the “adolescent butcher” who burst upon the scene during the civil war of 84-82 BC, Sallust has in mind Octavian – the future Emperor Augustus – who also at a young age burst upon the scene with bloody consequences in the aftermath of the death of his great uncle Caesar.
There’s much more to Gerrish’s analysis, of course, but she does make an interesting case. Sallust’s Histories and Triumviral Historiography, a volume in the Routledge series “Studies in Ancient History”, is an important work for those interested in the final age of the Roman Republic, but also for anyone interested in the uses and abuses of history, and how contemporary events affect the interpretation of earlier ones; consider how the image of Napoleon was affected by that of Hitler in both popular culture and scholarship during and after the Second World War, or the negative impact of Italian Fascism on the perception of Roman history.
An excellent book.
Note: Sallust’s Histories and Triumviral Historiography is also available in several e-editions.
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