Arrian Criticism - Essay

H. F. Pelham (essay date 1896)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Arrian as Legate of Cappadocia,” in The English Historical Review, Vol. XLIV, October, 1896, pp. 625-40.

[In the essay below, Pelham surveys Arrian's works, noting ways in which Arrian's military experience informed his writings.]

That Arrian, the historian of Alexander the Great and the disciple of Epictetus, was also for a time governor of the important frontier province of Cappadocia is a fact which, though long known as well established, has received much less attention than it deserves. Yet it is remarkable enough that a Greek philosopher and man of letters should have been entrusted by a Roman emperor with a first-rate military command. It was, indeed, no uncommon thing, in the second century a.d., for Greeks to find admission into the Roman senate, and to be decorated with a consulship. More rarely a distinguished Greek was given some administrative post in a peaceful province, such as Asia.1 But I know of no other instance, before the third century, in which the command of Roman legions and the defence of a Roman frontier were placed in Greek hands. And the significance of Arrian's appointment becomes greater when it is remembered that it was the doing of Hadrian, the emperor who, though by temperament and policy a lover of Greeks, was of all the Caesars the most solicitous for the efficiency both of the imperial army and of the frontier defences.

The interest attaching to Arrian's legateship does not, however, stop here. What we know of Roman frontier life and of the duties and difficulties of Roman frontier officers is mainly derived from the monuments, for it is a subject on which the literature is provokingly silent. Unless startled into attention by some serious reverse or brilliant success the world of letters knew little and cared less about what was passing in the distant camps and forts where the imperial troops kept constant watch and guard against the outside barbarians. To this prevailing indifference Arrian was naturally an exception, and he has given us from his own pen a unique glimpse of Roman frontier life, and of a Roman frontier force in the first half of the second century of the Christian era, at a period which marked an epoch in the history of the Roman frontier system. Nor is this all; Arrian was not only a trusted officer, but the intimate friend of Hadrian, and in the writings of Arrian the character and policy of Hadrian are reflected almost as clearly as the character and policy of Trajan in the letters of the younger Pliny.

We have no means of knowing how Arrian's appointment to Cappadocia (131 a.d.) was received in official circles, but some explanation of Hadrian's choice is supplied by what is known both of Arrian himself and of Hadrian's policy. The literary materials for a biography of Arrian are somewhat scanty, and have until quite recently been very badly used.2 They consist chiefly of incidental notices in Arrian's own writings, in those of his friend and protégé Lucian, and in Dio Cassius, and of the meagre summaries of his career supplied by Photius and Suidas. A few additional facts and some important dates are furnished by inscriptions.

It should be noticed in the first place that Arrian, though by descent a Greek, and of a good family at Nicomedia, in Bithynia, where, as he tells us, he was born and bred, was also a Roman citizen, and that not, as is constantly stated, by the grace of Hadrian, but by birth. Both his nomen, Flavius, and his cognomen, Arrianus, are Roman, and the former proves that the Roman franchise came into his family as the gift not of Hadrian, but of one of the Flavian emperors. Now Domitian, the last of the Flavii, died in 98 a.d., when Arrian, who did not become legate of Cappadocia till 131 a.d., and who was still living in 171 a.d.,3 must have been a mere boy in his father's house at Nicomedia. It must therefore have been Arrian's father who received citizenship, possibly from Vespasian. It is moreover conceivable that Arrian not only inherited the Roman citizenship, but had Roman blood in his veins. His cognomen, Arrianus, certainly suggests the conjecture that his mother was a Roman lady belonging to the gens Arria,4 a family famous in the annals of Roman Stoicism. Such a connexion may well have influenced Arrian's philosophic views, and would certainly have been of service to him in his official career. In any case no one can read Arrian without being struck by the unusual combination in him of Roman and Greek. With the versatility, grace, and intellectual keenness of the latter he unites a genuinely Roman sobriety and capacity for affairs.

The boyhood and youth of the future legate were passed at Nicomedia. Like his favourite hero, Xenophon, he was already devoted to hunting, to the art of war, and to study,5 a combination of tastes which no doubt aided him in winning the favour of Hadrian. Of hunting, as practised by himself and his companions, and of a favourite hound, he tells us something in his treatise on hunting, which, though rewritten in later life, seems to have been partly at least composed in his younger days. It is possible too that his interest in the adventures and exploits of a famous Mysian brigand, whose history, according to Lucian, he afterwards wrote, may date from this period of his life.6 From Nicomedia Arrian passed, after the fashion of his day, to complete his education by a course of philosophic study. In going to Nicopolis and to the lecture room of Epictetus he was not improbably influenced by the traditions of his mother's family. His teacher, who had seen his sect persecuted, and had lived to see it patronised by the Caesars, was the most prominent representative of a Stoicism in which very little remained of the impracticable arrogance and contumacy of the days of Thrasea, and which aimed only, to quote Arrian's description of Epictetus's discourses, at raising men to better things.7 How long Arrian remained at Nicopolis it is impossible to say, but long enough certainly to become known as the most devoted and loyal of Epictetus's disciples. It may well have been during this period that he became a familiar figure at Athens, and it was conceivably by the wits of Athens that he was christened the younger Xenophon, a nickname of which he was evidently proud, and which was certainly justified by the strong similarity in tastes and accomplishments which existed between the disciple of Socrates and the disciple of Epictetus.

So far Arrian's career had differed but little from that of other young provincials of good family and fortune. As a Roman citizen, and probably of equestrian rank, he no doubt looked forward to a term of military service, and then to the customary round of municipal duties and honour in his native town. But at some date which cannot be precisely fixed an event occurred which altered his whole prospects in life. His introduction to Hadrian probably took place early in that emperor's reign—certainly several years before Arrian's consulship in 130 a.d. It was the beginning of a close friendship between the two men, and Hadrian's favour opened to Arrian a new career. As a Roman knight he might have risen to high place in the household of Caesar as a procurator or prefect. But the ancient magistracies of the state, and the great provincial commands to which they led, were reserved for men of senatorial rank, the homines laticlavii (‘the men of the broad stripe’). Senatorial dignity was not Arrian's by right of birth, and he must have received it from Hadrian. He may have been granted the ius lati clavi, and thus enabled to offer himself as a candidate for the quaestorship, an office through which the ordinary road lay to a seat in the senate and to the higher honores, or he may have been directly admitted to the senate with quaestorian rank (allectus inter quaestorios). In either case his promotion was assured and seems to have been rapid, though of his official career up to 130 a.d. no record remains. That he held the praetorship may be taken for granted, and he very probably gained useful experience as a legate of a legion and legate of a praetorian province. He obtained the consulship, as consul suffectus, in 130 a.d.,8 and in 131 a.d.,9 was made legate of the consular province of Cappadocia, a post which he held for at least seven years.

The new legate had unquestionably much in common with his master. Both were enthusiastic sportsmen, and zealous students of military tactics. That Hadrian, in pursuance of his policy of strengthening the defences of the empire, was bent on increasing the efficiency of the frontier troops is well known, and the combination in Arrian of scientific knowledge with practical ability may well have marked him out as a valuable ally in the work. Arrian moreover was a student of philosophy, a scholar, and a connoisseur. Hadrian at least aspired to be all three. But, apart from this congeniality in tastes and pursuits, there may have been weightier reasons for Arrian's appointment. Hadrian aimed above all things at the consolidation of the empire. He was consequently opposed not only to ambitious schemes for its expansion, but to the old-established view of the empire as a federation of allied communities under the leadership of Rome. The differences of race and political status, which the federal theory helped to keep alive, Hadrian did his best to sink in a sense of common citizenship. It was a policy which has often been called cosmopolitan, but which might more properly be described as imperialist. With such aims before him Hadrian would naturally welcome the chance of promoting to high office a man who was in many ways the ideal citizen of a united empire, a man who was Greek by descent, but born a Roman citizen, and probably with Roman blood in his veins.

In a legate of Cappadocia this mixture of the Greek and the Roman was especially appropriate, and indeed few provinces of the empire demanded a greater variety of qualifications in their governor For the Cappadocia of 131 a.d. was by no means the Cappadocia which on its annexation in 16 a.d. had been relegated to the care of an imperial procurator. Arrian's province included not only the ancient kingdom of Archelaus, but also the entire district lying between the northern boundary of that kingdom and the Black Sea and in addition the seaboard eastward from Trapezus to Dioscurias. The area was wide, and the population heterogeneous, comprising as it did the scattered pastoral inhabitants of the Cappadocian uplands, the dwellers in the Greek or half Greek towns of Pontus, and then unruly neighbours the tribes of the hills. Cappadocia, again, in 131 a.d. was a frontier province, with legions and legionary camps, and with a chain of frontier stations garrisoned, as elsewhere, by auxiliary troops. The duty of keeping both camps and garrisons in a high state of efficiency was not the least important of the legate's duties, especially under the rule of Hadrian. But on the Upper Euphrates the care of the frontier required more than the strict discipline and constant vigilance which was as a rule sufficient on such frontiers as those of the Rhine or the Danube, where no more serious danger was to be feared than a marauding raid by some restless, half savage tribe. For in this quarter of the empire the frontier question was political as well as military. It was necessary for the legate of Cappadocia to keep a watchful eye on Rome's great rival, Parthia, to check Parthian intrigue in Armenia, and to take care that none of the smaller potentates beyond the frontier, such as the Iberian king, did anything disrespectful to the majesty of the Roman people, or likely to disturb the Roman peace. Nor was this all. As the chief political officer in the near East he was bound to keep himself and his master informed of the movements of the restless peoples beyond the Caucasus, and even, as the Periplus shows, of the attitude and temper of the tribes and princes bordering the Black Sea. A threatened descent of Alans, or the death of a powerful ruler, such as the king of the Cimmerian Bosporus, was equally an event with which the legate of Cappadocia had to deal. In Arrian's own case both the political and military difficulties of the position had been increased by the unsettling effect produced by Trajan's momentary conquest beyond the Euphrates, and by Hadrian's prompt return to a defensive policy.

Three of Arrian's extant works belong to the period of his legateship—the Periplus of the Euxine Sea, the fragment styled The Expedition against the Alans, and the treatise on Tactics. The Periplus, as the reference to the death of King Cotys proves, was written in 131 a.d.—in the first year, that is, of his command. It is a unique specimen of a report made by a Roman frontier officer to his master, the emperor, and ranks with the letters of Pliny to Trajan as a document of the first importance for the history of provincial administration under the Caesars. The Expedition against the Alans describes the composition and marching order of the expeditionary force led by Arrian against the Alans, in 135 a.d., on the occasion of their invasion of Armenia, when, as Dio tells us, they retired ‘through fear of Flavius Arrianus, governor of Cappadocia.’10 It stands alone as a contemporary account by a Roman commanding officer of a Roman frontier force. The treatise on Tactics was written, as its author states, in the twentieth year of Hadrian's reign (137-8 a.d.) and the last year of Arrian's legateship. Its chief value consists in the fact that it is an exposition by one of Hadrian's most trusted officers of the cavalry tactics in use at the time on the frontiers, and of the reforms introduced by Hadrian himself. Outside these three important documents we possess only a few isolated references to Arrian's command. Dio mentions the Alan invasion; a rescript of Hadrian, addressed to Arrian, is quoted in the ‘Digest,’11 and a single inscription records a dedication to Hadrian by the city of Sebastopolis ‘during the legateship of Flavius Arrianus.’ The date is 137 a.d.12 We may, lastly, with some confidence assume that Arrian was the governor of Cappadocia who supplied Lucian with an escort when he went to expose the false prophet Alexander,13 a task which would command Arrian's sympathy both as a Roman official and as a man of letters. Lucian speaks of the governor in question as ‘my friend,’ and nothing is more likely than that the brilliant young provincial, whose native place, Samosata, was on the borders of Arrian's own province, should have sought and won the patronage of a Greek scholar, whom Lucian himself describes characteristically as ‘a foremost man among the Romans.’14

The process of creating a ‘scientific frontier’ along the line of the Upper Euphrates seems to have been gradual. As early as the reign of Nero the imperial government had realised that, for the protection of Eastern Asia Minor, no less than for effective action in Armenia, some nearer base of operations than Syria was needed;15 and the annexation of Pontus and Lesser Armenia, towards the close of Nero's reign, rendered possible the drawing of a continuous frontier line up to the Black Sea. Vespasian took the important step of permanently stationing a legion on the Upper Euphrates,16 and the legionary camp at Melitene probably dated from his time. The roads which, according to an inscription, were made under Domitian in Cappadocia, Lesser Armenia, and Pontus,17 presumably included the frontier road from Samosata northwards to Trapezus, along which Hadrian seems to have travelled in 124, and the line of the road was no doubt guarded by military stations. By the time of the accession of Hadrian a second legionary camp had been formed at Satala,18 and the entire frontier from Samosata to Trapezus, together with the Euxine coast as far as Dioscurias, had been placed under the command of a legate of consular rank. When, therefore, Hadrian visited the frontier, some seven years before Arrian's appointment, he must have found the frontier system fairly well developed. He travelled along the frontier northwards to Trapezus, and possibly visited also some of the Black Sea stations. Here, as on other frontiers, he reviewed the frontier force, the ‘army of Cappadocia;’19 and inspected the military stations; existing forts were remodelled and new forts constructed.20 The Periplus, as will be seen, indicates that Hadrian's reforming activity left its mark on the Cappadocian no less than on the German, British, and African frontiers.

Arrian followed in his master's steps, and evidently inaugurated his command by a tour of inspection along the frontier. Of the earlier part of this tour we have no record, for the Periplus begins at the moment when, on nearing Trapezus from the south, he caught sight of the sea from the spot whence ‘both that other Xenophon and you’ viewed it. The results of the entire tour he embodied in an official report to Hadrian, written, as etiquette required, in Latin. He alludes to it as τα ‘Ρωμαικα γραμματα.21 The Periplus itself is part of a supplementary report, and deals primarily with the Black Sea stations from Trapezus to the limits of the Roman empire at Sebastopolis (Dioscurias). It contains, in addition, a summary account of the...

(The entire section is 7208 words.)

J. R. Hamilton (essay date 1971)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Campaigns of Alexander, by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, rev. ed., Penguin Books, 1971, pp. 13-40.

[In the essay below, Hamilton offers an overview of Arrian's Anabasis Alexandri, discussing the way Arrian used his sources as well as the style and tone of the work.]

Arrian is remembered today only as the author of The Campaigns of Alexander and as the pupil of the philosopher Epictetus who preserved his master's teachings from oblivion. Yet he was a famous man in his own time. The Campaigns of Alexander was only one of a number of substantial historical works, while he held the chief magistracies at...

(The entire section is 8480 words.)

Philip A. Stadter (essay date 1978)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Ars Tactica of Arrian: Tradition and Originality,” in Classical Philology, Vol. 73, No. 2, 1978, pp. 117-28.

[In the essay below, Stadter examines the use Arrian made of traditional tactical manuals in composing his Ars Tactica, arguing that even though his work is a close reflection of his sources, Arrian made a significant contribution to tactical writing through his discussion of contemporary Roman experience.]

The sense of tradition and the rhetorical principle of imitatio were so fundamental to Greek literary production in the imperial period that it is frequently difficult to determine the contribution of an individual...

(The entire section is 6379 words.)

A. B. Bosworth (essay date 1980)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to A Historical Commentary on Arrian's “History of Alexander,” Volume I: Commentary on Books I-III, Clarendon Press, 1980, pp. 1-41.

[In the excerpt below, Bosworth studies several critical issues concerning Arrian's composition of his history of Alexander, focusing on the controversy surrounding the title and dating of the work; the historical method Arrian employed in writing the work; and Arrian's style. Bosworth concludes that while Arrian was a “sophisticated stylist,” his abilities as a historian were somewhat flawed.]


Arrian's major work, the history of Alexander, is...

(The entire section is 17200 words.)

Philip A. Stadter (essay date 1980)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Lost Histories,” in Arrian of Nicomedia, University of North Carolina Press, 1980, pp. 133-63.

[In the essay below, Stadter surveys several of Arrian's no-longer-extant historical works, maintaining that these compositions demonstrate his wide range of interests and reveal him as a writer virtually unrivalled among his contemporaries.]

The Anabasis of Alexander and the Indike reveal the clarity and competence of Arrian as a writer and historian, his straightforward narrative, and his judicious selection of sources. But for a true evaluation of the breadth of his interests, the variety of his works, and his preeminence among the writers of...

(The entire section is 16373 words.)

Ronald Syme (essay date 1982)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Career of Arrian,” in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 86, 1982, pp. 181-211.

[In the following essay, Syme offers an account of Arrian's career as a public official, analyzing the order in which Arrian possibly composed his writings and commenting on Arrian's literary and intellectual development.]


When senators compose history they are not always eager to obtrude their occupations or any travels in foreign parts. Erudite enquiry has to seek after hints or traces in the writings, a seductive pastime but often hazardous and liable to deceive.

Arrian excites curiosity on various counts. It is...

(The entire section is 11427 words.)

A. M. Devine (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Arrian's Tactica,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der röminschen Welt, edited by Wolfgang Hasse and Hildegard Temporini, Walter de Gruyter, 1993, pp. 312-37.

[In the following essay, Devine examines Arrian's treatise on the military tactics of the Roman army, Tactica, discussing the content, originality, and textual history of the work.]


Of all the ancient tactical authors, the career and personal history of Arrian is by far the best known, even though much of his early military career has to be conjectured from geographical or historical allusions in his surviving works....

(The entire section is 10216 words.)