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For others with this name, see Arrianus (disambiguation).
Lucius Flavius Arrianus
Born c. 86
Nicomedia, Bithynia, Asia Minor
Died c. 160[1]
Ethnicity Greek
Occupation Historian, public servant, military commander and philosopher

Arrian of Nicomedia (/ˈæriən/; Latin: Lucius Flavius Arrianus; Greek Ἀρριανός c. AD c. 86 – c. 160) was a Greek historian, public servant, military commander and philosopher of the Roman period.[2]

The Anabasis of Alexander is perhaps his best-known work, and is generally considered one of the best sources on the campaigns of Alexander the Great. Its title and style are designed to evoke the Anabasis by Xenophon, for which reason Arrian became known by the surname Xenophon after the older author. Arrian's other works include Discourses of Epictetus and Indica.

As other authors of the Second Sophistic, Arrian wrote primarily in Attic (his philosophical works in Koine Greek, but Indica is in Herodotus' Ionic dialect).

Arrian's life[edit]

Arrian was born in Nicomedia (present-day Izmit), the provincial capital of Bithynia, probably a few years before AD 90. His family was from the provincial aristocracy of Greek stock, and his full name, L. Flavius Arrianus, indicates that he was a Roman citizen, suggesting that the citizenship went back several generations, probably to the time of the Roman conquest some 170 years before.[2]

He studied philosophy in Nicopolis in Epirus, under the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and wrote two books about the philosopher's teachings. At the same time he entered the Imperial service, and served as a junior adviser on the consilium of Gaius Avidius Nigrinus, governor of Achaea and a close friend of the future Emperor Hadrian, around 111-114. Very little is known about his subsequent career. It is probable that he served in Gaul and on the Danube frontier, and possible that he was in Baetica and Parthia before he was made consul in 129 or 130. In 131 he was appointed governor of the Pontic province of Cappadocia and commander of the Roman legions on the frontier with Armenia. It was unusual at this time for a Greek to hold such high military command.[citation needed]

In 135, Cappadocia was threatened by an Alan invasion. Arrian later wrote a military treatise called Acies contra Alanos (Ektaxis kata Alanōn "Array against the Alans") and the Ars Tactica (Τέχνη Τακτική Technē Taktikē) in which he described how he would organise the legions and auxiliary troops at his disposal, among which legions XII Fulminata and XV Apollinaris. He deployed the legionaries in depth supported by javelin throwers, archers, and horse archers in the rear ranks to defeat the assault of the Alan cavalry using these combined arms tactics. However, Arrian's work may have been entirely hypothetical, because there is no historical record of a battle between Romans and Alans that year.

He also wrote a short account of a tour of inspection of the Black Sea coast in the traditional periplus form addressed to the Emperor Hadrian, the Periplus Ponti Euxini or "Circumnavigation of the Black Sea".

Arrian left Cappadocia shortly before the death of his patron Hadrian, in 138, and there is no evidence for any further public appointments until 145/6, when he was elected Archon at Athens, once the city's leading political post but by this time an honorary one. It was here that he devoted himself to history, writing his most important work, the Anabasis Alexandri or "The Campaigns of Alexander". He also wrote the Indica, an account of the voyage by Alexander's fleet from India to the Persian Gulf under Nearchus. He also wrote a political history of the Greek world after Alexander, most of which is lost. His year of death is unknown, it is mostly assumed he died around AD 160 in Athens.


The Anabasis of Alexander[edit]

Main article: Anabasis Alexandri

Arrian is an important historian because his work on Alexander is the widest read, and arguably the most complete, account of the Macedonian conqueror. Arrian was able to use sources which are now mostly lost, such as the contemporary works by Callisthenes (the nephew of Alexander's tutor Aristotle), Onesicritus, Nearchus and Aristobulus. Most important of all, Arrian had the biography of Alexander by Ptolemy, one of Alexander's leading generals and friend from childhood until Alexander's death.


Arrian says that Alexander's greatness is worthy of praise and glory, and should be known by future generations. It seems that he wanted to make Alexander's life a legend—which it is today—through his book. Not all historians agree with this goal. A. B. Bosworth, an expert on Greek history,[3][4] criticized what he viewed as Arrian's hagiography in 'Errors in Arrian' (1976)[5]

Bosworth, in line with the epigraphic tradition of modern classical studies, points out that Arrian is a secondary source of Alexander's biographical data: "Arrian is prone to misread and misinterpret his primary sources, and the smooth flow of his narrative can obscure treacherous quicksands of error". One of his principal sources, Ptolemy, was an interested party. Bosworth writes that "not only has it been virtually disproved that Ptolemy constructed his history from archival material, but it appears that he inserted his own propaganda to exaggerate his personal achievements under Alexander and to discredit those of his rivals". Bosworth alleges that "Arrian was prone to the errors of misunderstanding and faulty source conflation that one would expect in a secondary historian of antiquity".

Bosworth further points out that "Arrian makes it quite plain that his work is designed as a literary showpiece. Alexander's achievements, he says, have never been adequately commemorated in prose or verse. The field is therefore open for him to do for the Macedonian king what Pindar had done for the Deinomenid tyrants and Xenophon for the march of the Ten Thousand". Bosworth states that "Arrian has in mind Thucydides' famous strictures of histories of the pentekontaetia,[6] on which the passage is patently modelled". The charge is that Arrian has written a panegyric rather than a work of serious history.


Alexander was a controversial figure in antiquity, as he is today. A favorable biography of him was thus bound to be controversial from the start. In response to criticism, Arrian had this to say about his work:

"No matter who I am that make this claim. I need not declare my name- though it is by no mean unheard of in the world; I need not specify my country and family, or any official position I may have held. Rather let me say this: that this book of mine is, and has been from my youth, more precious than country and kin and public advancement- indeed, for me it is these things."[7]

Language and style[edit]

At the time of Arrian's daily life, the koine, or "common Greek" of the Hellenistic and Roman periods was in universal spoken use. As a writer, Arrian was obliged by the prevailing literary mores of his time to compose his works in "good Greek," which meant imitating as closely as possible the grammar and literary style of the Athenian writers of the 5th century BC. In Arrian's case this meant following the Attic style of Xenophon and Thucydides. His account of India, the Indica, was written in an equally wooden imitation of the language of Herodotus.

The result is a work which was inevitably stilted and artificial, although Arrian handled the strain of writing 500-year-old Greek better than some of his contemporaries. Xenophon was a good model of clear and unpretentious prose, which Arrian was wise to follow. He considered his Cynegeticon, ("On Hunting"), as an addition to the work of the same name by Xenophon. Modern historians may regret that so many of the earlier works on Alexander have been lost, but many of them are grateful to Arrian for preserving so much.


The scholarly consensus is that Arrian's work is to a considerable extent a reworking of Ptolemy; albeit with material from other writers, particularly Aristobulus, brought in where Arrian thought them useful. Ptolemy was a general, and Arrian relied on him as a professional of military science and hence for details of Alexander's battles, on which Ptolemy was certainly well informed. Details of geography and natural history were taken from Aristobulus, although Arrian himself had a wide knowledge of Anatolia and other eastern regions.

Today more interest focuses on Alexander as a man and as a political leader, and here Arrian's sources are less clear and his reliability more questionable. Probably it was not possible for Arrian to recover an accurate picture of Alexander's personality 400 years after his death, when most of his sources were partisan in one way or another. Aristobulus, for example, was known as kolax (κόλαξ), the flatterer, while other sources were hostile or had political agendas.

Arrian was in any case primarily a military historian, and here he followed his great model (from whom he earned his nickname), the terse and narrowly focused soldier-historian Xenophon. He has little to say about Alexander's personal life, his role in Greek politics or the reasons why the campaign against Persia was launched in the first place. More than 1800 years later, Mary Renault, an admirer of both Alexander and Arrian, wrote an acclaimed biography of Alexander, "The Nature of Alexander," drawing heavily on Arrian's work, as well as the few other sources which are still extant. Renault's work focuses on Alexander's character, motivations, strengths and weaknesses. With its similar title and prominent mention of Arrian in the preface, it may have been intended as a sequel to Arrian's "The Campaigns of Alexander," or simply to fill in the gaps in his account.

Nevertheless, Arrian's work gives a reasonably full account of Alexander's life during the campaign, and in his personal assessment of Alexander he steers a judicious course between flattery and condemnation. He concedes Alexander's emotionality, vanity, and weakness for drink, but acquits him of the grosser crimes some writers accused him of. But he does not discuss Alexander's wider political views or other aspects of his life that the modern reader would like to know more about.

Other works[edit]

Arrian's other works preserve the philosophy of Epictetus in Discourses of Epictetus (c. 108 AD), and include the Indica a description of Nearchus' voyage from India following Alexander's conquest, the Ars Tactica, and other short works.

Other surviving classical histories of Alexander[edit]

  • The Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus wrote Historiae Alexandri Magni. a biography of Alexander the Great in Latin in ten books of which the last eight survive.
  • The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote Bibliotheca Historia in forty books; of which book seventeen covers the life and conquests of Alexander.
  • The Greek historian/biographer Plutarch of Chaeronea wrote the On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander the Great and "Life of Alexander" in his "Parallel Lives" series, paired with "Life of Julius Caesar"
  • The Roman historian Justin wrote an epitome of the Historiae Philippicae written by Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus, in 44 books. Of these books 12 and 13 cover Alexander.


  1. ^ "Arrian". Retrieved 2010-01-07. Arrian born c. AD 86, Nicomedia, Bithynia [now İzmit, Tur.] died c. AD 160, Athens? [Greece]. 
  2. ^ a b "Arrian". Retrieved 2010-01-07. Arrian (born c. ad 86, Nicomedia, Bithynia [now İzmit, Tur.] died c. 160, Athens? [Greece]) Greek historian and philosopher who was one of the most distinguished authors of the 2nd-century Roman Empire.  Wolfgang Haase, Hildegard Temporini (1990). Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt: Geschichte und Kultur Roms im Spiegel der neueren Forschung, Volume 2;Volume 34. Walter de Gruyter. p. 228. ISBN 3-11-010376-1. Arrian was of Greek stock, from the provincial aristocracy of Bithynia. His full name, L. Flavius Arrianus, demonstrates that he was a Roman citizen and suggests that the citizenship went back several generations, probably to the triumphal period. Arrian’s home city was the Bithynian capital, Nicomedia, where he held the priesthood of Demeter and Kore, its patron deities.  Arrian; Sélincourt, Aubrey De (1971). The campaigns of Alexander. Penguin Classics. p. 13. ISBN 0-14-044253-7. Flavius Arrianus Xenophon, to give him his full name, was a Greek, born at Nicomedia, the capital of the Roman province of Bithynia, probably a few years before A.D. 90.  Grant, Michael (1992). Readings in the classical historians. Scribner's. p. 544. ISBN 0-684-19245-4. ARRIAN: GREEK HISTORIAN Arrian was an approximate contemporary of Appian, born about AD 95. Like him a Greek, he came from Nicomedia ( Izmit ) in Bithynia (north-western Asia-Minor) where his family was prominent. 
  3. ^ Brian Bosworth is a retired Professor of Classics and Ancient History, at University of Western Australia
  4. ^ Alexander the Great and the mystery of the elephant medallions, pp 74, by Frank Lee Holt, Edition: illustrated, Published by University of California Press, 2003.
  5. ^ Errors in Arrian, Author(s): A. B. Bosworth, Source: The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1976), pp. 117-139, Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association, Stable URL:
  6. ^ Thuc., 1. 97. 2
  7. ^ Arrian (1976) [140s AD]. The Campaigns of Alexander. trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044253-7

Further reading[edit]

  • Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, Penguin Classics, 1958 and numerous subsequent editions.
  • Phillips, A.A., and M.M. Willcock, (eds.). Xenophon & Arrian On Hunting with Hounds. Cynegeticus. Oxford: Aris & Phillips, 1999. ISBN 0-85668-706-5.
  • P. A. Stadter, Arrian of Nicomedia, Chapel Hill, 1980.
  • R. Syme, 'The Career of Arrian', Harvard Studies in Classical Philology vol.86 (1982), pp. 171–211.
  • E. L. Wheeler, Flavius Arrianus: a political and military biography, Duke University, 1977.nn
  • Cartledge, Paul; Romm, James S.; Strassler, Robert B.; Pamela Mensch (2010). The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander. New York: Pantheon. ISBN 0-375-42346-X. 

External links[edit]

Texts online