Bibliotheca historica

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Herma of Alexander (Roman copy of a 330 BC statue by Lysippus, Louvre Museum. According to Diodorus, the Alexander sculptures by Lysippus were the most faithful.

Bibliotheca historica (Βιβλιοθήκη ἱστορική, "Historical Library"), is a work of universal history by Diodorus Siculus. It consisted of forty books, which were divided into three sections. The first six books are geographical in theme, and describe the history and culture of Egypt (book I), of Mesopotamia, India, Scythia, and Arabia (II), of North Africa (III), and of Greece and Europe (IV - VI). In the next section (books VII - XVII), he recounts the history of the World starting with the Trojan War, down to the death of Alexander the Great. The last section (books XVII to the end) concerns the historical events from the successors of Alexander down to either 60 BC or the beginning of Caesar's Gallic War in 59 BC. (The end has been lost, so it is unclear whether Diodorus reached the beginning of the Gallic War, as he promised at the beginning of his work, or, as evidence suggests, old and tired from his labors he stopped short at 60 BC.) He selected the name "Bibliotheca" in acknowledgement that he was assembling a composite work from many sources. The authors he drew from, who have been identified, include: Hecataeus of Abdera, Ctesias of Cnidus, Ephorus, Theopompus, Hieronymus of Cardia, Duris of Samos, Diyllus, Philistus, Timaeus, Polybius and Posidonius.

Diodorus' immense work has not survived intact: we have the first five books and books 11 through 20. The rest exists only in fragments preserved in Photius and the excerpts of Constantine Porphyrogenitus.


An Ancient Egyptian figurine of a cat, from the Louvre museum.
A statue of Octavian, c. 30 BC

The earliest date Diodorus mentions is his visit to Egypt in the 180th Olympiad (between 60 and 56 BC). This visit was marked by his witnessing an angry mob demand the death of a Roman citizen who had accidentally killed a cat, an animal sacred to the ancient Egyptians (Bibliotheca historica 1.41, 1.83). The latest event Diodorus mentions is Octavian's vengeance on the city of Tauromenium, whose refusal to help him led to Octavian's naval defeat nearby in 36 BC (16.7). Diodorus shows no knowledge that Egypt became a Roman province—which transpired in 30 BC—so presumably he published his completed work before that event. Diodorus asserts that he devoted thirty years to the composition of his history, and that he undertook a number of dangerous journeys through Europe and Asia in prosecution of his historical researches. Modern critics have called this claim into question, noting several surprising mistakes that an eye-witness would not be expected to have made.

Critical reception[edit]

Diodorus' liberal use of earlier historians underlies the harsh opinion of the author of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article on Bibliotheca historica :

The faults of Diodorus arise partly from the nature of the undertaking, and the awkward form of annals into which he has thrown the historical portion of his narrative. He shows none of the critical faculties of the historian, merely setting down a number of unconnected details. His narrative contains frequent repetitions and contradictions, is without colouring, and monotonous; and his simple diction, which stands intermediate between pure Attic and the colloquial Greek of his time, enables us to detect in the narrative the undigested fragments of the materials which he employed.

As damaging as this sounds, other more contemporary classical scholars are likely to go even further. Diodorus has become infamous particularly for adapting his tales ad maiorem Graecorum gloriam ("to the greater glory of the Greeks"), leading one prominent author to refer to him as one of the "two most accomplished liars of antiquity"[1] (the other being Ctesias).

Far more sympathetic is the estimate of C.H. Oldfather, who wrote in the introduction to his translation of Diodorus:

While characteristics such as these exclude Diodorus from a place among the abler historians of the ancient world, there is every reason to believe that he used the best sources and that he reproduced them faithfully. His First Book, which deals almost exclusively with Egypt, is the fullest literary account of the history and customs of that country after Herodotus. Books II-V cover a wide range, and because of their inclusion of much mythological material are of much less value. In the period from 480 to 301 BC, which he treats in annalistic fashion and in which his main source was the Universal History of Ephorus, his importance varies according as he is the sole continuous source, or again as he is paralleled by superior writers. To the fifty years from 480 to 430 BC Thucydides devotes only a little more than thirty chapters; Diodorus covers it more fully (11.37-12.38) and his is the only consecutive literary account for the chronology of the period. ... For the years 362-302 BC Diodorus is again the only consecutive literary account, and ... Diodorus offers the only chronological survey of the period of Philip, and supplements the writers mentioned and contemporary sources in many matters. For the period of the Successors to Alexander, 323-302 BC (Books XVIII-XX), he is the chief literary authority and his history of this period assumes, therefore, an importance which it does not possess for the other years.

Gold mining[edit]

Fire-setting underground as shown by Georg Agricola

The book on Egypt is especially interesting for being one of the first records of gold mining in Egypt. Based on the writings on Agatharchides, Diodorus describes conditions that are horrible to the workers:

And those who have been condemned in this way — and they are a great multitude and are all bound in chains — work at their task unceasingly both by day and throughout the entire night, enjoying no respite and being carefully cut off from any means of escape; since guards of foreign soldiers who speak a language different from theirs stand watch over them, so that not a man, either by conversation or by some contact of a friendly nature, is able to corrupt one of his keepers... And the entire operations are in charge of a skilled worker who distinguishes the stone and points it out to the labourers; and of those who are assigned to this unfortunate task the physically strongest break the quartz-rock with iron hammers, applying no skill to the task, but only force, and cutting tunnels through the stone, not in a straight line but wherever the seam of gleaming rock may lead. Now these men, working in darkness as they do because of the bending and winding of the passages, carry lamps bound on their foreheads; and since much of the time they change the position of their bodies to follow the particular character of the stone they throw the blocks, as they cut them out, on the ground; and at this task they labour without ceasing beneath the sternness and blows of an overseer... And since no opportunity is afforded any of them to care for his body and they have no garment to cover their shame, no man can look upon unfortunate wretches without feeling pity for them because of the exceeding hardships they suffer. For no leniency or respite of any kind is given to any man who is sick, or maimed, or aged, or in the case of a woman for her weakness, but all without exception are compelled by blows to persevere in their labours, until through ill-treatment they die in the midst of their tortures. Consequently the poor unfortunates believe, because their punishment is so excessively severe, that the future will always be more terrible than the present and therefore look forward to death as more to be desired than life.[2]

He also mentions a mining method called fire-setting which was used to weaken and break down hard gold ores. It involved building a fire against the rock face containing the ore, followed by quenching with water, the thermal shock breaking up the rock into manageable fragments. Mining in Egypt was very old and highly productive, and his description is probably the oldest dealing with the industry. The conditions of work were poor, with most miners being prisoners of war or criminals. Once extracted the hard ores were crushed manually and then ground to a fine dust in querns. Washing the ore to extract the gold dust was the final step in the extraction process, and required a stream of water. It must have been the most difficult step owing to the desert environment in Nubia, where many of the richest mines were located. The Book of Job mentions mining processes almost identical to that described by Diodorus, indicating a Jewish acquaintance with the Egyptian mining industry.[3]

Diodorus is mentioned briefly in Pliny the Elder as being singular among the Greek historians for the simple manner in which he named his work.[4] Pliny also mentions fire-setting in his Book xxxiii, dealing with mining methods, and the technique continued into the Medieval period, judging by the description presented by Georg Agricola in De Re Metallica together with his illustration of the method. Before the advent of explosives, use of fire-setting was a very hazardous method to use underground owing to the toxicity of combustion products, especially carbon monoxide.

Editorial history[edit]

The editio princeps of Diodorus was a Latin translation of the first five books by Poggio Bracciolini at Bologna in 1472. The first printing of the Greek original (at Basel in 1535) contained only books 16-20, and was the work of Vincentius Opsopoeus. It was not until 1559 that all of the surviving books, and surviving fragments of books 21 to the end were published by Stephanus at Geneva.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lloyd, p. 47[full citation needed]
  2. ^ The Library of History of Diodorus Siculus, Vol II, Book III, Chapter 13-14. Loeb Classical Library (1935)
  3. ^ "MINES AND MINING". Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906. Retrieved 8 March 2014. 
  4. ^ Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Preface 25

Editions and translations[edit]

  • Sordi, Marta, ed. and tr. (1969). Diodori Siculi Bibliothecae liber sextus decimus. Biblioteca di studi superiori 56. Firenze: La Nuova Italia. 
  • Walton, Francis R., ed.; C. H. Oldfather, et al., tr. (1933-1967), Diodorus Siculus. Diodorus of Sicily in Twelve Volumes, London; Cambridge (Mass.) 
  • Booth, G., tr. (1814). The Historical Library of Diodorus the Sicilian in Fifteen Books, to which are Added the Fragments of Diodorus. 2 volumes. London.  Available from Google Books
  • Green, Peter, tr. (2006). Diodorus Siculus, Books 11-12.37.1. Austin: University of Texas Press.  ISBN 978-0-292-71277-5
  • Green, Peter, tr. (2010). Diodorus Siculus, The Persian Wars to the Fall of Athen: Books 11-14.34 (480-401 BCE). Austin: University of Texas Press.  ISBN 978-0-292-72125-8

Further reading[edit]

  • Burton, Anne (1972). Diodorus Siculus. Book 1. A Commentary. Leiden: Brill. 
  • Chamoux, François and Pierre Bertrac (1972). Diodorus Siculus. Bibliothèque historique. Vol 1. Introduction générale (in French). Paris. 
  • Sacks, Kenneth S. (1990). Diodorus Siculus and the First Century. Princeton UP. 
  • Salter, F. M., and H. L. R. Edwards, ed. (1956-1963). The Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus Translated by John Skelton. 2 vols. EETS 233, 239.  ISBN 978-0-19-722233-1 and ISBN 978-0-19-722239-3

External links[edit]