Nicolaus of Damascus
c. 64 BC
|Died||after 4 AD|
Nicolaus of Damascus (Greek: Νικόλαος Δαμασκηνός, Nikolāos Damaskēnos; Latin: Nicolaus Damascenus) was a Jewish historian and philosopher who lived during the Augustan age of the Roman Empire. His name is derived from that of his birthplace, Damascus. He was born around 64 BC. Nicolaus is known to have had a brother named Ptolemy, who served in the court of Herod as a type of book-keeper or accountant.
He was an intimate friend of Herod the Great, whom he survived by a number of years. He was also the tutor of the children of Mark Antony and Cleopatra (born in c.68 BC), according to Sophronius. He went to Rome with Herod Archelaus, to defend the young man's claim to the throne upon the death of his father Herod the Great.
Given that Book 4 of his History was on Abraham, Nicolaus was most likely a Jew, though one who had been thoroughly Hellenised. As such, he may well have known his contemporary Philo of Alexandria. Since Nicolaus wrote a work On the Psyche, he may well have been, like Philo, in the school of the Pythagoreans or Platonists and been part of the syncretisation of Judaic monotheism with the monotheism (the Monad/The Good) of those two schools.
His output was vast, but is nearly all lost. His chief work was a universal history in 144 books. He also wrote an autobiography, a life of Augustus, a life of Herod, some philosophical works, and some tragedies and comedies.
Towards the end of his life he composed a Universal History in 144 books, although the Suda mentions only 80 books. But references to books 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, (8), 96, 103, 104, 107, 108, 110, 114, 123 and 124 are known.
Extensive fragments of the first seven books are preserved in quotation in the Constantinian Excerpts, compiled at the order of Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. These cover the history of the Assyrians, Medes, Greeks, Lydians, and Persians, and are important also for Biblical history.
Josephus probably used this work for his history of Herod in his Antiquities of the Jews (Ant. 15–17) because where Nicolaus stops, in the reign of Herod Archelaus, the account of Josephus suddenly becomes more cursory.
For portions dealing with Greek myth and oriental history he was dependent on other, now lost works, of variable quality. Where he relied on Ctesias, the value of his work is slim. Robert Drews has written:
There exist considerable remains of two works of his old age; a life of Augustus, and his own life.
He wrote a Life of Augustus (Bios Kaisaros), which seems to have been completed after the death of the emperor in AD 14, when Nicolaus was 78. Two long chunks remain, the first concerning Octavius' youth, the second Caesar's assassination; both survive because they are quoted in the Constantinian Excerpts, a Greek anthology of excerpts commissioned under Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus.
He also wrote an autobiography, the date of which is uncertain. It mentions that he wanted to retire, in 4 BC, but was persuaded to travel with Herod Archelaus to Rome.
The fragments that remain deal mainly with Jewish history, focusing on the events at the court of Herod the Great and the succession crisis involving Herod's sons and sister.
He composed commentaries on Aristotle. A compendium of excerpts from these is extant in a Syriac manuscript discovered in Cambridge in 1901, (shelfmark Gg. 2. 14). This dates later than 1400, was acquired by Cambridge in 1632, and is very tatty and disarranged. The majority of the manuscript is a work by Dionysius Bar Salibi. The work was probably written in Rome ca. AD 1, when he attracted criticism for being too involved in philosophy to court the wealthy and powerful.
Porphyrius in On the Faculties of the Soul mentions that Nicolaus of Damascus wrote a book On the Psyche, which stated that the division of the psyche-soul was not founded on quantity, but on quality, like the division of an art or a science. Clearly, by ‘parts’ of the psyche-soul, Nicolaus meant its different faculties.
He composed some tragedies and comedies, which are now lost.
One of the most famous passages is his account of an embassy sent by an Indian king "named Pandion (Pandyan kingdom) or, according to others, Porus" to Augustus around AD 13. He met with the embassy at Antioch. The embassy was bearing a diplomatic letter in Greek, and one of its members was a sramana who burnt himself alive in Athens to demonstrate his faith. The event made a sensation and was quoted by Strabo and Dio Cassius. A tomb was made to the sramana, still visible in the time of Plutarch, which bore the mention "ΖΑΡΜΑΝΟΧΗΓΑΣ ΙΝΔΟΣ ΑΠΟ ΒΑΡΓΟΣΗΣ" (Zarmanochēgas indos apo Bargosēs – Zarmanochegas, Indian from Bargosa):
The Jewish historian Josephus references the fourth book of Nicolaus' history concerning Abram. Josephus also references Nicolaus’ history of the Jewish King David in book 7 of Antiquities of the Jews.