Book Review: The Fragmentary Latin Histories of Late Antiquity (AD 300–620): Edition, Translation and Commentary


by Lieve Van Hoot and Peter Van Nuffelen

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. x, 332. Notes, biblio., index. $115.00. ISBN: 1108420273

Overlooked Resources in Ancient History

While a great many ancient works of history are known by name, the number that survive more or less intact is pitifully small. Many others come down to us as fragments, usually excerpts cited by other historians whose works survive intact or even by grammarians and literary critics, using passages to illustrate usage. There exist several compilations of such fragments from both Greek and Roman authors which are of considerable value to scholars. The principal compilations of such fragments, however, generally don’t cover material from works produced later than the early Fourth Century. In this work, Van Hoot and Van Nufflen have made an important contribution to the literature by looking at fragments from Latin works composed from the fourth through the seventh century.

The authors open with an introduction discussing their methodology, stressing that “the aim of this collection is to give the reader a clear sense of what we know and what we do not know” (p. 6) about this lost literature. They go on to explain the various genres of historical literature as the ancients saw it, the ways in which the fragments survived, and the social and political background of the original works.

Van Hoot and Van Nufflen then examine the works of over a score of authors, each of whom gets a chapter. Some of the authors were fortunate to have a few of their works survive intact, but not all, and those often not necessarily the most valuable to scholarship. Three of the authors are classed as “Spuria et Dubia” – bogus – perhaps invented by later authors to pad their bibliographies, but still possibly of some interest.

Some of the authors were noted figures in their day, such as Symmachus the Younger (grandson of the famous pagan senator), who was Consul in 485, and wrote a history of Rome now largely lost, and Cassiodorus, the sixth century historian who served as consul and minister to Theoderic, King of the Ostrogoths, and wrote a now lost history of the Goths. Most of the other authors were grammarians, government officials, clergymen, gentleman scholars, and the like, and some are wholly unknown -- often lacking even a name -- but for the surviving fragments.

Each chapter gives us a summary of what is known or can be conjectured about the author’s life and career. There follows the provenance of each of the fragments of the author’s works, with the Latin text as edited by the authors and their English translation. The entry concludes with a critical commentary on the circumstance of the composition of the work, possible influences – literary, political, etc. – on the author, and so forth. Chapters often include discussion of the influence of the author’s work on other authors.

Although bits and pieces – occasionally lengthy – of now lost works, these fragments can be used to help fill in important gaps in our knowledge of the times, supplying additional evidence for certain events, confirming known details of those events or even offering us some alternative perspectives.

While The Fragmentary Latin Histories of Late Antiquity will be of immense value to the serious student of ancient history, even the armchair scholar of ancient history may find material here of interest.




Note: The Fragmentary Latin Histories of Late Antiquity is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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