Conspiracy narratives and authorial intervention in the Roman Archaeology of Dionysius of Halicarnassus

  Androulakis, Panagiotis. “Conspiracy narratives and authorial intervention in the Roman Archaeology of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.” CHS Research Bulletin 10 (2022).

Pre-doctoral Fellow in Hellenic Studies 2021–22

The aim of my proposed research during the pre-Doctoral fellowship on Hellenic Studies was the investigation of the authorial interventions of Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the narration of the conspiracies throughout the Antiquitates Romanae; mainly the first eleven books, because of the fragmentation of the rest of the oeuvre. Dionysius’ theoretical remarks stated in the Epistula ad Pompeium Gemimum (3) demand that an historian should choose a pleasant topic, and –if that is impossible– to expand only the positive facts and scale down the negative ones. The narrator of the Antiquitates Romanae seems to be unable to wholly implement these principles in accounts such as the conspiracies. This is based on the conspiracies’ nature which is overall obscure and negative, apart from the punishment of conspirators, if they get arrested.

Part I

The first part of my research focused on Dionysius’ criticism on historical sources, his intratextual references, and his comments on his methodology on narrating the conspiracies. Dionysius’ tendency to cite alternative sources during the narration of a conspiracy is his way to indicate lack of bias towards individuals or situations, such as in the case of Ilia’s defilement or of the alleged conspiracy of Tarpeia (II.38-40). In the latter case, two of Dionysius’ sources –Quintus Fabius Pictor and Lucius Cincius Alimentus– narrate that Tarpeia fell in love (ἔρως εἰσέρχεται) with the Sabines’ jewellery, while Calpurnius Piso (Dionysius’ trusted source) states that the young girl demanded the Sabines’ shields, which they carried on the same hand, where they wore their jewels. Dionysius does not adopt the victim-blaming stance of Pictor and Alimentus. In contrast, he decides to follow Piso’s account on the girl’s bravery and he bases his opinion on a rational argument founded on the religious practice of the annual libation-offering on Tarpeia’s tomb.

In general, the historian expresses his opinion either by silently agreeing or disagreeing with the sources he cites. When he stays neutral, out of reverence or unknowledge of an event, he puts his readers in a position to decide themselves.  On other cases, when he uses logical argumentation to support his views, he indirectly drives his readers to assume the same point of view as his. For example, Dionysius shows a certain reverence when narrating Amulius’ conspiracy against Ilia’s vestal honour (I.77-79), but it is noteworthy that he does not hesitate to neglect Romulus’ abduction by his father, Mars, and adopt a more rational explanation for his disappearance, such as a conspiracy formed by mortals (II.56).

As it concerns his methodology, Dionysius explains twice while narrating conspiracies why he narrates an event extensively. In the first case, the historian decides to narrate the counter-conspiracy of Camerinus against Mamilius and the Tarquins (V.53.3) at length. Dionysius justifies his lengthy narration, by attributing it to his readers curiosity about the outcome. I suggest that he must, also, have thought of the greater importance of the interception of the conspiracy against tyranny than the actual conspiracy for the restoration of the latter. I found this on that counter-conspiracies highlight the ‘civil spirit’, which contradicts the discord produced by a conspiracy. In the second case, Dionysius wishes to show the differences between Romans of the past and the present, through the narration of Cincinnatus’ somewhat forced election (which derived from a positive conspiracy on the part of the Senators) while he was working at his fields (X.17). This is how the historian reveals his true interest in his readers: he shows how a tyrannical regime can be stopped and how true Roman ancestors acted, wishing that Cincinnatus’ example should be a good example to be imitated by his contemporaries.

His interest in his readers is also apparent if someone pays close attention in the intratextual references. With these references, Dionysius manages to connect chronologically distant events or references in conspiracies. Thus, when he says e.g. ‘which I have narrated a while ago’, it is not a mere intratextual reference, but a memo to remind his readers where to look for details, if they need any. There are, also, two instances (III.26.6 and V.3.2), where Dionysius uses proleptic intratextual references to excite his readers’ suspense on conspiracies to be narrated, after a delay of one chapter. On the first case, Dionysius informs his readers that he shall narrate Tullus Hostilius’ speech before the allied council ‘in a while’. It takes chapter III.27, where he expounds Tullus’ counter-conspiracy against Mettius Fufetius, before reaching the aforementioned speech.

The same happens in the second case, when the historian informs us that he shall narrate who the agents of the conspiracy to bring back Tarquinius are and what happened exactly. Dionysius forestalls the narration for chapter V.4, where he enumerates Tarquinius’ deeds and whereabouts after his expulsion from Rome. The pause of the main narrative, i.e. the conspiracy, for a chapter paves the way for the conspiracy to unfold. In the passage, the deeds and whereabouts of Tarquinius illuminate the main conspiracy narrative, because the information included in both are interrelated. The first passage perplexes the narrative: even though someone might have expected Dionysius to cite Tullus’ speech first in order to justify the counter-conspiracy against an alleged ally, here he reverts the logical order in order firstly to highlight Tullus’ character (act first, then speak) and secondly to keep the suspense heightened, about the reaction of the allied council.

Part II

For the second part of my research, I occupied myself with the study of the supplementation of the content of aconspiracy narrative. Specifically, I tracked down and analysed Dionysius’ explanations of Roman culture and his references to his present. Two points should be noted here. Firstly, most of the cases were grouped in the footnotes in order to save space in the original draft posted in the FirstDrafts@Classics@, and secondly the historian’s references to his present are sometimes interrelated to his explanation of the Roman culture to his Greek readers, always in the context of a comparison between past and present.

For example, Dionysius points out the timelessness of Roman hegemony (up to his present times) by stressing Divine Providence’s protection of Rome in ancient and contemporary times, e.g. during the narration of multiple conspiracies (III.72.2, V.3–13.1, V.53.1–55.4, XV.3.1, XX.5.1–5). Dionysius even puts in the mouths of Tullus Hostilius (IV.26.2) and Aulus Verginius (X.10.2) the same idea in order to stress the need of divine intervention during times of crisis, such as a conspiracy against the state.

This continuity of Roman sovereignty is also shown through the maintenance either of institutions or the proves of law enforcement which are explained during the narration of conspiracies. As mentioned above, the explanation given is sometimes mandatory due to change of the institution through the years, up to Dionysius’ present. One such case is the punishment of the defiled Vestal Virgins, which changes in the timespan of the historical text (II.67.3–4, III.67.3 and IX.40.3) with the first mention in the conspiracy of Amulius against Ilia (I.79.2). In other times though, there is no change: conspirators’ confiscated fortune remains as such for centuries. Cassius’ house (VIII.59.3) and Maelius’ residence (XII.4) stay confiscated and demolished up to Dionysius’ time as a punishment for their alleged involvement in conspiracies.

Another case of an unchanged institution is the full account on the Roman military oath from X.18.2, which is later recalled in XI.40-44. In the latter passage, Verginius bids his soldiers break their military oath, in order to plot to take down Appius Claudius and the rest of the Decemvirate. It is rather odd that the explanation is not given in the conspiracy narrative per se, but it is traced back in the previous book. Without the former explanation, Dionysius would have felt obliged to explain the military oath in the conspiracy narrative, thus to highlight more the perjury Verginius suggests to his soldiers. An echo of the actual oath (intratextual reference) suffices to just remind his readers what was the nature of Verginius’ request.

Dionysius, also, translates and explains Latin to his Greek readers, in order to make things clearer for them, even though Greece was already conquered since 146 BCE. A distinctive case is that of the explanation of Junius Brutus’ cognomen (lat. Brutus, gr. ἡλίθιος) which gives the chance to Dionysius to forestall the narration of the arrangements of the conspirators against Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (IV.67.4). In this way, he does not only sketch Brutus’ true character by eliminating him of all past accusations of stupidity, but he also delays the conspiracy narrative and excites the readers’ suspense.

In conclusion, it is proven, then, that conspiracy is a topic worth elaborating on for Dionysius: it can neither be of short extent, nor follow a certain structure. Both the obscurity and the negativity are smoothened out by Dionysius’ narratorial interventions, which delay or detour from the narration and underline his points of interest. In addition, these interventions add information that highlight never-before-narrated aspects of a certain conspiracy due to the secrecy which pervaded the actual historical event. Thus, he seeks to elucidate how and why certain things happened, and to acquaint his readers with the conspiratorial event from as many perspectives as possible.

A didactic and persuasive tone is also apparent in these interventions, since Dionysius –through the reconstruction of a conspiracy– tries to guide his readers through the dark paths of politics in ancient Rome, and highlight the glorious historical figures and ethics of their ancestors. Meanwhile, he offers knowledge of the past and (sometimes) he contributes to the realisation of the connection between Roman and Greek civilizations. Finally, the customs and laws are not referred to as mere expressions of admiration for the Roman culture. On the contrary, comments on details and contemporary facts illustrate the conspirators’ and their victims’ characters and sufferings respectively. In this way, Dionysius manages to indirectly praise distinguished Romans who contributed on Roman dominion’s longevity.


The Pre-Doctoral Fellowship in Hellenic Studies by the CHS has offered many opportunities and experiences to me as a person and a to-be classics professor and a researcher. I, also, had the chance to highly enrich my on-going PhD thesis (which is focused on conspiracy narratives in the Antiquitates Romanae) with the findings of the above-mentioned research, which would not have been completed without the access in the Harvard University Library’s database granted to me as a fellow. In fact, I would not have made it through this year and the research project without the invaluable advices of prof. Spyros Rangos who was my mentor during the fellowship, as well as the insightful guidance of my supervisor, prof. Melina-Eleni Tamiolaki, throughout all stages of my studies.

Among the fellowship’s privileges –apart from the grant– was the all-inclusive trip to the CHS (Washington DC). There I had the chance to visit Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, and be guided around the permanent and temporary exhibitions on byzantine art and literature, by the most welcome and friendly Nikos Kontogiannis. In the campus of the CHS, I found myself wandering around, leading my way through the park of Dumbarton Oaks and from there to Georgetown. All-day-walks were mandatory to get to know Washington DC and to visit its vast museums and galleries, but I could not help myself but stay as many hours as I could in my office offered by the CHS to study and research. For this experience, I would like to thank Evan Katsarelis and Tamela J. Taylor for the arrangement of administrative matters from the very beginning, as well as Mark J. Schiefsky and M. Zoie Lafis, director and executive director of the CHS in Washington respectively, for the constructive conversations on antiquity and modern times. Last, but not least for sure, I would like to express my gratitude to the CHS personnel in general, who cordially welcomed me, and to the other fellows of the CHS who embraced my thinking, not only as colleagues, but as friends as well. These are all memories which I shall keep forever.

Selected bibliography

Bal M. 1985. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Trans. Van Boheemen, Chr. Toronto.

Driediger-Murphy, L.G. 2014. “Theology as a Historiographic Tool in Dionysius of Halicarnassus.” Phoenix 68.3/4: 330–349.

Fox, M. 1993. “History and Rhetoric in Dionysius of Halicarnassus.” The Journal of Roman Studies 83: 31–47.

Genette G. 19873Narrative Discourse: An essay in Method. Trans. Lewin, J. E. Ithaca.

Hill, H. 1961. “Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the Origins of Rome.” The Journal of Roman Studies 51.1&2: 88–93.

De Jong, I. J. F. et al. eds. 2004. Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature: Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative, vol. 1. Leiden.

Pagán, V. E. 2005. Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History. Austin.

Pelling, Chr. 2007. “The Greek Historians of Rome” In A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography, ed. Marincola, J., 244–258. Chichester.

Roisman, J. 2006. The Rhetoric of Conspiracy in Ancient Athens. Berkley.

Thomson, W. N. 1979. “Dionysius of Halicarnassus: A Reappraisal.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 65.3: 303–310.

Usher, St. 2016. “The Style of Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the Antiquitates Romanae” In Teilband Sprache und Literatur(Literatur der augusteischen Zeit: Allgemeines; einzalne Autoren), ed. Haase W., 817–838. Berlin.

Wiater, N. 2011. The Ideology of Classicism: Language, History, and Identity in Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Berlin.

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