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Diodorus Siculus
by Vincenzo Salerno

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his name in Greek.Realistically speaking, he was not the greatest of historians. His work often combined fact and fancy in a confusing manner. Even so, Diodorus Siculus (or Diodoros Siculos to his Greek contemporaries), left a wealth of writings which have added to our knowledge of Sicily and the eastern Mediterranean during the "Roman" age. His work has been characterised as uncritical but we are reasonably certain of some details. He was born during the first century BC at Agyrium, in central-eastern Sicily, of a Greek family, and spent some time in Rome, Greece and Egypt, visiting the last around 60 BC. The most recent historical event mentioned in his works occurs in 21 BC. His Bibliotheca Historica ("Historical Library") includes numerous surviving texts, some fairly reliable --particularly those "borrowed" from authors such as Apollodorus and Timaeus. The problem, as we have implied, is that Diodorus does not always differentiate historical events from historical legend, even though some historians of his era managed to do so. It's one thing to repeat that the mythical hero Heracles (Hercules) visited your hometown (Agyrium was east of Enna toward Mount Etna), but quite another to attribute actual events to people who could not possibly have been present to participate in them.

In considering his monumental work, the first portion deals with history until the destruction of Troy, the second segment with the death of Alexander, and the third, turning an eye westward, with the period leading up to Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul. Of the forty books, volumes 1 through 5 exist, and volumes 11 through 20 (inclusive) have also been preserved. Only those texts recounting events during the author's own lifetime may be said to be truly original. It is thought that Hieronymus of Cardia and, for earlier periods, Ephorus, were the sources of his knowledge of Greek history.

Certain passages of Diodorus' "missing" books are cited by other authors, such as Photius. That Diodorus' work itself has preserved the earlier writings of several historians is important. His "mythic" treatment of Egyptian, Ethiopian, Assyrian and Persian history is relevant to studies of these civilizations. However, he did not necessarily travel to every place he wrote about. His description of Mesopotamia's legendary Babylonian rulers is probably based on those of Ctesias.

As regards Sicily, Diodorus chose to live in larger cities rather than the isolated Agyrium. His geographical observations are useful in identifying ancient communities and their relative importance. In general, his work is valuable if read critically and considered in its proper historical context. Diodorus remains the most famous Sicilian historian of the classical age.

About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

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© 2004 Vincenzo Salerno