Arrian Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Arrian c. 95?-c. 175?

(Full name Flavius Arrianus.) Greek historian, philosopher, biographer, and treatise writer.

Although he was of Greek descent, Arrian inherited Roman citizenship from his father, and as a Roman citizen, Arrian was able successfully to pursue a political and military career. The highest office he attained was the imperial governorship of Cappadocia. His military experiences informed a variety of historical writings, including his history of Alexander the Great, the Anabasis Alexandri, which is probably the best known of his writings. Little had been written concerning military life on the Roman frontier, and Arrian has been praised for his original approach to historical writing.

Biographical Information

Aside from the dates of his political offices, the facts concerning Arrian's life are sketchy. Scholars conjecture that he was born in the 90s in Nicomedia, in Bithynia. He served as consul during the reign of the emperor Hadrian and from about 130 through 137 he held the post of governor of Cappadocia, defending the province against an attack by the Alans, a Germanic tribe. After travelling extensively on imperial business, Arrian retired to Athens. There, he held a civic office from 147 to 148. Biographers estimate that he died around the year 175.

Major Works

Pursuing his interest in philosophy, Arrian studied under the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. He published the notes he had taken during Epictetus's lectures as Discourses, or Diatribes, and also completed a summary of the philosopher's teaching, Encheiridion, or Manual. Later, Arrian wrote the Periplus Ponti Euxini, a guide to the circumnavigation of the Black Sea. The work incorporated official reports he had written during his governorship. Another work composed at this time was the Tactica, or Techne Taktike (Tactical Manual), written in 136, which focuses on Roman military exercises. Arrian also prepared a report for Hadrian on the Order of Battle against the Alans. After retiring to Athens, Arrian composed a treatise on hunting, Cynegetica, as well as biographies of Dion, Timoleon of Syracuse, and a bandit named Tilloborus. These biographical works are no longer extant. Arrian's most famous biographical endeavor was his history of Alexander. The title, the Anabasis, is uncertain, as scholars point out. The work examines the reign and military campaigns of Alexander the Great and is based heavily on the writings of Ptolemy, as well as on those of Aristobulus. Arrian supplemented the Anabasis with a historical discussion of India known as the Indica. Two other histories, the Bithynica and Parthica,have been lost.

Critical Reception

Modern scholars have shown an interest in Arrian because his works provide a rare glimpse into the life and experiences of the Roman army on its frontier borders. Critic H. F. Pelham has surveyed Arrian's military writings, those he composed prior to his retirement. In discussing Tactica, the Order of Battle against the Alans, and the Periplus, Pelham praises Arrian's versatility, his graceful writing, and intellectual acuity, as well as his strong grasp of Roman military affairs. Ronald Syme has likewise examined the military career of Arrian and the probable order in which he composed his works. Other critics have focused on the Tactica alone. Philip A. Stadter explains that there are two sections of the work: the first closely follows traditional tactical manuals, and the second is an original discussion of contemporary Roman military exercises. Stadter focuses his study on the first portion of the work, noting that, while he makes heavy use of traditional material, Arrian makes significant contributions in clarifying often abstract ideas by citing historical and contemporary Roman experiences. Like Stadter, A. M. Devine analyzes the Tactica, noting as well that the second portion of the work is the more original. Devine describes the work as detailed and colorful, and asserts that, in its comprehensiveness, it is one of the most significant extant Hellenistic tactical manuals.

Many critics have concentrated their efforts on Arrian's histories rather than his military writings. J. R. Hamilton fas focused on the Anabasis, noting that Arrian intended the work to be his masterpiece. Hamilton reviews the use Arrian made of his sources, Ptolemy and Aristobulus, and praises Arrian's keen understanding of human affairs, as well as his patience in addressing his subject. Yet the work is flawed, Hamilton maintains, by Arrian's sometimes “narrow” approach to the topic and lacks a sense of appreciation for larger issues. A. B. Bosworth has also examined the Anabasis, studying Arrian's use of his source materials and his accuracy as a historian. Bosworth states that while Arrian uses source documents in a complex manner, his selection of source material and his own historical knowledge is questionable. Bosworth praises Arrian's conciseness, his adept use of figurative language, and his sophistication as a stylist. Philip A. Stadter offers a discussion of those histories composed by Arrian which have since been lost, including his history of his native Bithynia, a history of Parthica, and another work, Events after Alexander, which describes the power struggles of Alexander's successors after his death. These works, argues Stadter, demonstrate the variety of Arrian's interests and secure his position as the preeminent writer of his generation.