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.


The Bibliotheca's history runs to sometime between 36 and 30 BC, in the reign of Octavian.

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.


In the Bibliotheca historica, Diodorus covers world geography and history.


The first five books are geographical in theme. They describe the history and culture of different regions as follows.

Book I: Egypt[edit]

This book on Egypt covers the origin of the world, the land of Egypt, the River Nile and its annual floods, the kings, customs and religion of the country.

Book II: the East[edit]

In this book Diodorus describes the geography of Mesopotamia, India, Scythia and Arabia.

Book III: North Africa[edit]

Fire-setting in a mine, as shown by Georg Agricola in his De Re Metallica, 1556

In this book, Diodorus describes the geography of North Africa including Ethiopia, the gold mines of Egypt, the Persian Gulf and Libya, where he sites mythical figures including the Gorgons, Amazons, Ammon and Atlas. Based on the writings on Agatharchides, Diodorus describes gold mining in Egypt, with horrible working conditions:

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 ... 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.[1]

Diodorus mentions a mining method called fire-setting to weaken and break down hard gold ores by thermal shock. The hard ores were then crushed manually and then ground to a fine dust in querns, and washed to extract the gold dust. The Book of Job mentions mining processes almost identical to that described by Diodorus, indicating a Jewish acquaintance with the Egyptian mining industry.[2]

Book IV: Greek mythology[edit]

In this book, Diodorus describes the mythology of Greece. He narrates the myths of Dionysus, Priapus, the Muses, Herakles, the Argonauts, Medea, the hero Theseus and the Seven against Thebes.

Book V: Europe[edit]

In this book, Diodorus describes the geography of Europe. He covers the islands of Sicily, Malta, Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands. He then covers Britain, 'Basilea', Gaul, Spain, and the regions of Liguria and Tyrrhenia in the Italian peninsula. Finally he describes the islands of H|iera and Panchaea in the southern ocean, and the Greek islands.


In books VI - XVII, Diodorus recounts the history of the World starting with the Trojan War, down to the death of Alexander the Great. Books VI - X survive only in fragments, which cover events before and after the Trojan War including the stories of Bellerophon, Orpheus, Aeneas, and Romulus; some history from cities including Rome and Cyrene; tales of kings such as Croesus and Cyrus; and mentions of philosophers such as Pythagoras and Zeno. Book XI covers the history of Greece from 480 BC with the attempted invasion by Xerxes, and describes the Athens of Themistocles. Book XII, from 450 BC, covers wars of Athens, including the Peloponnesian War. Book XIII, from 415 BC, tells of the defeat of Athens at Syracuse, the subsequent war with Sparta, and the war between Carthage and Sicily. Book XIV, from 404 BC, covers the thirty tyrants of Athens; the death of Socrates, and the capture of Rome by the Gauls. Book XV covers wars in Greece including the Boeotian War and wars with Thebes. Book XVI, from 360 BC, describes Philip of Macedon and Artaxerxes. Book XVII covers Alexander the Great from his rise to power to his campaigns in the East and his death in Babylon.

The last section (volumes XVIII to the end) concerns the historical events from the struggles of Alexander's successors, through the wars between Rome and Carthage, down to either 60 BC or the beginning of Caesar's Gallic War in 59 BC.


Ancient and mediaeval[edit]

Diodorus is mentioned briefly in Pliny the Elder's Natural History as being singular among the Greek historians for the simple manner in which he named his work.[3]


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"[4][5] (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.

Editorial history[edit]

The earliest extant manuscript of Bibliotheca historica is from about 10th century.[6] 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. ^ The Library of History of Diodorus Siculus, Vol II, Book III, Chapter 13-14. Loeb Classical Library (1935)
  2. ^ "Mines and Mining". Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906. Retrieved 8 March 2014. 
  3. ^ Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Preface 25
  4. ^ Lloyd, A. B. Herodotus Book II Volume 1. Leiden. pp. 47, note 187. 
  5. ^ Robinson, Eric W. (1999). "Thucydidean Sieges, Prosopitis, and the Hellenic Disaster in Egypt". Classical Antiquity 18 (1): 132–152. 
  6. ^ "Diodorus Siculus: the Manuscripts of the "Bibliotheca Historica"". Retrieved 23 October 2015. 

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]