The Library of Diodorus the Sicilian – The First True World History


“Of the works of this class – World Histories proper – the oldest one that has come down to us is at the same time probably the most comprehensive in scope, and the most extensive in point of matter, of any that was written in ancient times. This is the so-called Library of Diodorus the Sicilian…who lived during the time of Julius Caesar. He set himself the explicit task of writing a comprehensive history of the world, and he devoted thirty years to the accomplishment of this task. This history, as originally written, comprised forty books, which treated the entire history of mankind from the earliest times to the age of Augustus Caesar.”

“Diodorus recognized the vagueness of early chronology, and he made no attempt to estimate the exact age of the world, but he computes the time covered by what he considers the historic period proper, [which he reckons from the Trojan War until the beginning of the Gallic War] – so that [the] whole (comprehended in forty books) is an history which takes in the affairs of 1,138 years besides those times that preceded the Trojan War.” […]

“Of those forty books only fifteen have come down to us intact…[the] remaining books are represented by considerable fragments.” […]

“Considering the time when it was written, this work of Diodorus was really an extraordinary production… It is quite true that he made many mistakes… But consider the task he had set himself. He was endeavoring to write a history of the entire world so far as it was known in his day and generation, including within the scope of his narrative all the leading events of all the nations of the globe as known in that day. No man can perform such a task, even in this day of multiplied records and edited authorities, without making mistakes.” […]

[From] prejudices and preconceptions Diodorus was, of course, not free. He looked out upon the world with the eyes of the 1st century B.C., not with the eyes of the 20th century A.D. …the superstitions of the Greek and Roman were not our superstitions. In judging Diodorus, then, one must judge him as a Roman of the 1st century B.C., not as an [American in the 21st century A.D.].”

Afterthought: Despite the fact that the great bulk of Diodorus’ 40 volume history is lost to us, still he leaves us more text to read than any other classical writer, save Plato and Aristotle, those giants of Greek philosophy. When we consider how much other writing has been simply lost to history, and when we further consider how much work it was to save and recopy these works, surely that is a testimony to the respect which scholars have had for Diodorus throughout the ages.

"It is nothing against the merit of Diodorus, then, to reflect that half his work is lost; the wonder is rather that so much of it has been preserved."

Historiographical Note: The idea of a world history implies that the history is not limited to one national group or dominant world power; but rather, sets for itself “the explicit task of dealing with the history of all nations at all times.”

Excerpted from: The Historians' History of the World: Prolegomena; Egypt, Mesopotamia edited by Henry Smith Williams, Volume 1, 1907. (14-18)

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