Appian of Alexandria (c.95-c.165): one of the most underestimated of all Greek historians, author of a Roman History. The part on the Roman Civil Wars survives in its entirety while substantial parts of the remainder survive as well.


Roman, second quarter of the second century
Roman, second quarter of the second century

Appian of Alexandria wrote an autobiography, but it is almost completely lost, and consequently we hardly know anything about the historian from Alexandria. We have to distill information about his life from his own writings and a letter by Cornelius Fronto, a famous littérateur living in Rome in the mid-second century, and the tutor of the future emperor Marcus Aurelius.

In spite of this lack of information, it is certain that Appian was born in c.95 in Alexandria, the capital of Roman Egypt, and belonged to the wealthy upper class. After all, his parents were Roman citizens and could pay for their son's formal education. He became a barrister and boasted in the introduction to his Roman History "that he pleaded cases in Rome before the emperors".

This must have happened after c.120, because Appian states in one of his surviving fragments that he managed to escape from a band of Jewish looters who pursued him in the marshes of the Nile (more). This strange piece of information can only be dated to 116-117, when the Jews of the Cyrenaica and Egypt revolted, believing that one Lukuas was the Messiah (more...). As Appian was still in Egypt by the end of the reign of Trajan, he must have moved to Rome at a later date, and the emperors whom he claims to have addressed must therefore have been either Hadrian and Antoninus Pius or Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.

The Roman History was finished before 165, because Appian mentions the river Euphrates as the eastern frontier of the Roman empire, which was no longer true after the campaigns of Lucius Verus. Perhaps we can be a bit more precise. Appian mentions that during the reign of Hadrian, parts of Italy were ruled by a proconsul (13.38). He adds that this policy was reversed by Antoninus Pius, but is unaware of its reintroduction by Marcus Aurelius in 162. This suggests that the Roman History was completed during the reign of Antoninus Pius. This does not exclude the possibility that Appian pleaded cases before Marcus Aurelius, who was co-emperor with Antoninus Pius after 147.

Fronto's letter, a request on behalf of Appian to give him the rank of procurator, can be dated during the coregency, i.e., between 147 and 161. It is interesting that he applied for this office, because it means that he belonged to the equestrian class, the "second class" of Roman citizens (after the senatorial order). We know that Appian actually won his office, but it is not certain whether it was merely a honorific or a real job.

This is all we know about Appian of Alexandria: born as a member of a wealthy family in c.95, working as a barrister in Rome after 120, becoming procurator after 147, he published a Roman History that appeared before 162.

The Roman History

    The table shows the survival of Appian's Roman History. Yellow means that the book survives in its entirety; pink that Byzantine excerpts have come down to us.  
  Early history of Rome
  Conquest of Central Italy
  Samnite wars
  Wars against the Gauls
  Conquest of Sicily and other islands
  Wars in Iberia
  War against Hannibal (in Italy)
  The Punic Wars (against Carthage)
       with an appendix on the Numidian war
  Macedonian wars
       with an appendix on the Illyrian wars
  Hellenic Wars (in Greece and Asia)
  Syrian War
       with an appendix on the Parthian wars
  Wars against Mithridates VI of Pontus
  Civil wars 1 (Sulla)
  Civil wars 2 (Julius Caesar)
  Civil wars 3 (War of Mutina)
  Civil wars 4 (War against Brutus and Cassius)
  Civil wars 5 (War against Sextus Pompeius)
  Egyptian war 1
  Egyptian war 2
  Egyptian war 3
  Egyptian war 4
  Wars of the empire
  Trajan's conquest of Dacia
  Trajan's campaigns in Arabia and Mesopotamia

The most remarkable aspect of this work, as Appian announces in his Preface, is its division. For example, Book 4 describes the wars against the Gauls from the very beginning, the sack of Rome in 387/386 BCE, to Caesar's conquest of Gaul, more than three centuries later. Although this organization is sometimes confusing (e.g., when Appian ignores Caesar's creation of a power base in Gaul in his account of the civil war against Pompey), the advantage of his system clearly outweighs these minor irritations. Appian offers much more topographical clarity and gives us a better look on the strategic choices made by commanders. His account of the Mithridatic Wars is a case in point.

Moreover, Appian is not faced with the problem that historians who strictly adhered to the chronological sequence of events had to cope with: if an enemy of Rome has a specific custom, they had to explain it twice or leave it unexplained.

Finally, it should be noted that this way of arranging the subject matter prevents the story from becoming too much centered on Rome. This might have been fine with earlier historians (e.g., to Livy), but in the second century, the provinces of the Roman empire were almost equals of Italy, and a Rome-centered narrative was no longer acceptable.

Although Appian uses a geographical division of his subject matter, the people whose subjection he describes are mentioned in chronological order. He places the various people who fought against Rome in the order in which they first made contact. Only Books 13-17 do not fit in this scheme: Romans fighting against Romans. These books are the first ones of the second half of the project, and this is no coincidence. In the first twelve books, Rome has conquered the world; now it, has to fight its most formidable opponent - itself.

The next four books continued this story: the war against the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII Philopator was, of course, a civil war between the two leaders of the faction of Julius Caesar, Octavian and Mark Antony. In calling these books "the Egyptian war", Appian followed the official propaganda of Octavian. He treated the subject matter at great length - one sixth of the total Roman History -, not because he thought that the conquest of his own native country was important, but, on the contrary, because he understood that it was more than just another foreign war.

Like his younger colleague Cassius Dio, Appian rarely mentions his sources, and probably for the same reason: he does not follow one single source, but has checked more than one older text. His contemporary Arrian of Nicomedia did the same in his book on Alexander the Great: where his two main sources agreed, he accepted their story as the truth, mentioning divergences only when they seemed important. Ancient historians did not often check the sources of their sources (which meant a visit to an inaccessible archive, if there was an archive at all), but there is one instance where we can see Appian paraphrasing an original document (Mark Antony's funeral speech of Julius Caesar; text) and there are no doubt other instances, which we do not recognize.

Appian is a far better historian than most twentieth-century classicists have been willing to accept. He identified good sources and used them with due criticism (e.g., using the Commentaries on the Illyrian wars by the emperor Augustus, and complaining about their incompleteness). It must be stressed that he is the only ancient author who recognized the social causes of the Roman civil wars, for which Appian remains one of the most important sources. He is also a fine writer, who can vividly describe events, and knows how to evoke the smaller and larger tragedies that are history. He includes nice digressions, has an eye for the better anecdote, and does not ignore the interesting detail. Never has the stylistic device of repetition been used more effectively than by Appian in his shocking account of the persecution of the enemies of the Second Triumvirate, which belongs to the finest that was ever written in Greek. In other words, Appian falls short of no meaningful standard, except that of the hyperprofessionalized study of history of our own age.


There is an excellent Penguin edition of the Civil Wars, translated and introduced by John Carter.

This page was created in 2003; last modified on 16 October 2019.