Back to Rome’s Roots: The ‘Antiquities’ of Dionysius of Halicarnassus

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Antiquitatum sive Originum Romanarum Libri Decem (Ten Books About the Antiquities or Origins of the Romans)

translated into Latin by Sigismund Gelenius. Printed in 1563 by Antoine Vincent from the printer Symphorier Barbier in Lyon.

Communities are held together by shared history – by legends. These legends are linked to morals and values, which form the basis for laws and regulations. If a nation wants to get stronger and finds itself unable to start a war, building a national identity based on some revamped myths is a great option. The ‘Roman Antiquities’ by Dionysius of Halicarnassus are a perfect example of this. This 1563 edition shows just how much people kept coming back to the ancient world as a social model. After all, what could have been a better blueprint for a stronger community than the history of Rome? Much like the ‘rags to riches’ myth in the USA, a legend spread throughout 16th-century Europe; the legend of the little village on the river Tiber that, within a few centuries, had fought its way up and into the elite circle of global powers.

Sigismund Gelenius (1497–1554) in a lithograph, probably by Roland Weibezahl (1817-1871).

Gelenius: Master of Ancient Languages and Printing

Let’s start with our tiny, pocket-sized edition – or ‘duodecimo’ size, to use the technical term. The book was printed in 1563 in Lyon by Antoine Vincent from the printer Symphorier Barbier, as revealed by the so-called ‘colophon’, the printer’s mark on the last page.

It is a complete edition of the ‘Roman Antiquities’ by Greek scholar Dionysius of Halicarnassus (be careful: we’re talking about Dionysius here, not Dionysos – this name has nothing to do with the Greek god of pleasure!). We’re calling him a scholar for now, as he doesn’t really fit neatly into any one category. The work was translated from Greek into Latin by another, equally impressive scholar: Sigismund Gelenius (1497–1554), a Bohemian philologist, who was one of the greatest Humanists of his time and a close collaborator of Erasmus of Rotterdam. As was customary at that time, luminaries of his rank were not to be found teaching at universities, but rather in schools or printing houses, where their work often included publishing or translating ancient texts.

Gelenius died in 1554, but in 1549 he was able to publish his Latin edition of Dionysius’s work in Lyon. Our edition is a reprint that bears witness to how well this work sold.

As Gelenius correctly states on the front cover, he translated the first 10 books himself; for the 11th book, of which only fragments remain today, he used the older translation by Lapus Biragus, the very first Latin translation of the work, from 1480. Let’s take that as a discreet reminder that this was a time long before the introduction of copyright laws. So, when a writer or translator named the scholar they had taken some of their work from, it was a mark of real honesty…

A taler of Abbot Johann Rudolf Stör of Störenberg (1542-1570) from 1551, by which time the abbey was already a princely abbey. From Künker Auction 261 (2015), No. 5587.

In the introduction, Gelenius dedicates the book to Johann Rudolf Stör of Störenberg, who was Abbot of Murbach Abbey, located at the foot of the Grand Ballon in southern Alsace, from 1542 to 1570. The Vosges aren’t far from Basel; perhaps the Abbot had been a patron before. Or perhaps Gelenius had simply hoped to win the Abbot’s favour in future. Murbach Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, was actually elevated to the rank of Prince-Abbey by Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I in 1548, one year before the work was published: this new status meant the abbey now had a seat and a vote in the Imperial Diet. Currying favour with someone like that certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea…

This is how people used to imagine Dionysius writing.

History, Reinterpreted

So, what about Dionysius and his work? The writer was probably born around 54 BC in the Anatolian city of Halicarnassus. That meant he lived during a very eventful period, namely right in the middle of the Roman Civil War, which broke out again after the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BC. As a young man, Dionysius experienced Octavian’s rise to power and saw him become ‘Augustus’. By then, Dionysius probably already lived in Rome.

Rather like his translator Gelenius, Dionysius was also a language fanatic. He gained fame through his treatises on rhetoric. At that time, there was a fierce debate raging about which Greek linguistic style was the most elegant and should therefore be favoured by orators and writers; Dionysius strongly advocated the Atticistic style. The Atticism movement

favoured the literary greats of Athens as a stylistic model. And his carefully honed Attic Greek henceforth became his hallmark. As a private scholar and tutor, he published many eloquent and opinionated works on the topic. As a result, modern philologists have placed him firmly in the ‘rhetorician’ category. Just try looking for his ‘Antiquities’ in any handbook on the history of Greek literature. In most cases, all you’ll find is a little note in brackets mentioning that this great rhetorician and critic also wrote this book. But this work comprised twenty books and paved the way for whole generations of historiographers like Cassius Dio, Appian and Plutarch. And, on top of all that, it is one of the very few written sources that we have on early Roman history.

The image of their city’s founder and first king Romulus as a wise lawmaker immediately appealed more to the Roman people than that of a chief of robbers. It didn’t really matter which image was closer to the truth. Engraving by Bernard van Orley (approx. 1491/92-1542).

In the Late Republic, Greek was very much en vogue on the Tiber. The Roman aristocrats had, among other things, found ways to ennoble themselves and outdo each other: they suddenly ‘discovered’ Greek ancestors through intensive genealogical research (and a little bending of the truth); at best, your family tree would then lead back to an A-list hero like the Trojan demigod Aeneas, as in the case of the Julian family. Julius Caesar and Octavianus/Augustus were then able to exploit the ‘fact’ that they had descended from Aeneas’s mother, the goddess Aphrodite/Venus, very effectively as propaganda.

But that wasn’t all. The Roman community as a whole was still very much entrenched in the Italic lifestyle, and with it the rustic habits of provincial life. Dionysius’s ‘Antiquities’ blew all that away. ‘Roman Antiquities’ comprised twenty books; books 1 to 10 have been preserved to this day, as well as parts of the 11th book and a few fragments. The work focusses on the early period, which was shrouded in legend – or, to put it in more precise terms, the early period, whose legends still needed to be woven and canonised. If, until recently, every child knew the tale of Romulus and Remus, with the she-wolf and the abduction of the Sabine Women, it was thanks to Dionysius’s story-telling. He gave the Roman people a respectable origin story to believe in. He turned the abduction of the Sabine women from a mass kidnapping of women by a band of robbers to an entirely consensual and ultimately peaceful campaign aimed at forging an alliance with neighbours, to their mutual benefit. Romulus, the fratricide, was a wise lawmaker who established a system of order that was still in place in Dionysius’s lifetime – and which, as modern historians realised relatively recently, could not actually have been established when Rome was founded, but had to have been developed much later. It’s just like in the film ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’: ‘When legend becomes fact, print the legend!’ Dionysius turned the legend into fact. He systematically linked Greek and Roman history and worked tirelessly to establish why Rome rose to the status of global power: it was all down to the Romans’ streamlined organisation, iron will and unrelenting drive. Of course Rome had become a powerful empire – it couldn’t have gone any other way!

The Renaissance of Smoke and Mirrors

At the time of the Humanists, Dionysius was a widely read author. But very few readers were a match for his challenging Attic Greek. Gelenius helped readers out by translating the work into the lingua franca of the educated classes. And the handwritten notes in the endpaper reveal that this book was, in fact, read by educated people. In 1782, one owner explained that he noted down the page numbers of the Friedrich Sylburg edition in the margins. Historians and philologists still know and work with this kind of parallel numbering today. In the past especially, people did not always cite books by the generally recognised sections, as you may have seen the Bible cited, for example, but rather by the page numbers of a famous edition. However, Sylburg’s edition from 1586 was printed in a larger size than ours, specifically ‘octavo’, so it wasn’t a case of simply counting the pages. So if a writer in another book had cited Dionysius using the widely read Sylburg edition and our owner wanted to find that same place in his equally solid Gelenius edition, these parallel numbers in the margins came in very useful. Alongside the page numbers, we also see the Latin titles of sections as they were added by early modern editors, which made it easier for readers to see what that part of the book would be about.

It is therefore clear to see that this edition was used for philological and scholarly purposes. But this use only allowed for secular exploitation: there are few other books that provide such a clear and instructive lesson in smoke and mirrors; a lesson on how to distract your readers from moral weaknesses in their own history, to polish up their origin stories and use these to build a national identity. This may still prove a valuable lesson in the age of nation states.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

Our edition is not available online, but you can find the older edition by Friedrich Sylburg here on Google.

If you’re a regular reader of our newsletter, you might remember Sigismund Gelenius as the publisher of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.