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Damasce'nus, Nicolaus

Νικόλαος Δαμασκηνός), a famous Greek polyhistor, who lived in the time of Herod the Great and the emperor Augustus, with both of whom he was connected by intimate friendship. He was, as his name indicates, a native of Damascus, and the son of Antipater and Stratonice. His parents were distinguished no less for their personal character than for their wealth, and his father, who was a highly esteemed orator, was not only invested with the highest magistracies in his native place, but was employed on various embassies. Nicolaus and his brother Ptolemaeus were instructed from their childhood in everything that was good and useful. Nicolaus in particular shewed great talents, and even before he attained the age of puberty, he obtained the reputation of being the most accomplished among the youths of his age; and at that early age he composed tragedies and comedies, which met with general applause. But he soon abandoned these poetical pursuits, and devoted himself to rhetoric, music, mathematics, and the philosophy of Aristotle. Herod carried on his philosophical studies in common with Nicolaus, and the amicable relation between the two men was strengthened by these common pursuits. In B. C. 14, he prevailed upon Herod to interfere with Agrippa on behalf of the citizens of Ilium, who were to be severely punished for having been apparently wanting in attention to Agrippa's wife, Julia, the daughter of Augustus. It was about the same time that he used his influence with Herod to prevail upon Agrippa to put an end to the annoyances to which the Jews in lonia were constantly exposed. In a conversation with Herod Nicolaus once directed his attention to the advantages which a prince might derive from history; and the king, who was struck by the truth of the observation, entreated Nicolaus to write a history. Nicolaus complied with the request, and compiled a most voluminous work on universal history, the accomplishment of which, in his opinion, surpassed even the hardest among the labours of Heracles. In B. C. 13, when Herod went to Rome to pay Augustus a visit, he took Nicolaus with him, and both travelled in the same vessel. On that occasion, Nicolaus made Augustus a present of the finest fruit of the palm-tree, which Augustus henceforth called Nicolai, a name by which that fruit was known down to the middle ages. Some writers speak of cakes (πλακοῦντες) which Nicolaus presented to Augustus, but this is evidently a mistake. (Suid. s. v. Νικόλαος; Athen. 14.652; Plut. Sympos. 8.4; Isidor. Orig. 17.7; Plin. Nat. 13.4.) When Herod, by his success against some Arab chiefs, had drawn upon himself the enmity of Augustus, and the latter declined to receive any ambassadors, Herod, who knew the influence which Nicolaus possessed with the emperor, sent him to negotiate. Nicolaus, by very skilful management, succeeded in turning the anger of Augustus against the Arabs, and in restoring the friendship between Augustus and Herod. When Alexander and Aristobulus, the sons of Herod, were suspected of plotting against their father, Nicolaus endeavoured to induce the king not to proceed to extremities against his sons, but in vain: the two sons were put to death, and Nicolaus afterwards degraded himself by defending and justifying this cruel act of his royal friend. On the death of Herod, Archelaus succeeded to the throne, chiefly through the exertions of Nicolaus. We have no account of what became of Nicolaus after this event, and how long he survived it.

Plutarch (l.c.) describes Nicolaus as possessing a tall and slender figure, with a red face. In private life, as well as in intercourse with others, he was a man of the most amiable disposition: he was modest, just, and liberal in a high degree; and although he disgraced himself by his flattery and partiality towards Herod, he neglected the great and powerful at Rome so much, that he is censured for having preferred the society of plebeians to that of the nobles. The information which we have here given is derived partly from a life of Nicolaus, written by himself, of which a considerable portion is still extant, from Suidas, and from Josephus. (Antiq. Jud. 16.15, 16,17, 17.7, 11.)


The writings of Nicolaus were partly poetical, partly historical, and partly philosophical. With regard to his tragedies, we know only the title of one, called Σωσανίς or Σωσάννης (Eustath. ad Dionys. Perieg. 976), but no fragments are extant. A considerable fragment of one of his comedies, which consists of 44 lines, and gives us a favourable opinion of his poetical talent, is preserved in Stobaeus. The most important, however, among his works were those of an historical nature.


The first is his autobiography, which we have already mentioned.

2. A
universal history

The universal history consisted of 144 books. (Athen. 6.249.) Suidas states, that it contained only 80 books, but the 124th is quoted by Josephus. (Antiq. Jud. xii.


The title ἱστορία καθολική, under which this work is mentioned by Suidas, does not occur elsewhere. As far as we can judge from the fragments still extant, it treated chiefly of the history of the Asiatic nations; but whether the Ἀσσυριακαὶ ἱστορίαι of which Photius (Bibl. Cod. 189) speaks is the same as the universal history, or only a portion of it, or whether it was a separate work, cannot be determined with any certainty. The universal history was composed at the request of Herod, and seems to have been a hurried compilation, in which Nicolaus, without exercising any criticism, incorporated whatever he found related by earlier historians. 3. A life of Augustus. This work is lost, like the rest, with the exception of excerpta which were made from it by the command of Constantinus Porphyrogenitus. These excerpta shew that the author was not much concerned about accuracy, and that the biography was more of a eulogy than of a history. Some writers have been of opinion, that this biography formed a part of the universal history; but there seems to be no ground for this hypothesis.

4. A life of Herod.

There is no express testimony for a separate work of this name, but the way in which Josephus speaks of the manner in which Nicolaus treated Herod, and defended his cruelties, or passed them over in silence, if he could not defend them, scarcely admits of a doubt as to the existence of a separate work on the life of Herod.


Ἠθῶν παραδόξων συναγωγή, that is, a collection of singular customs among the various nations of the earth. It was dedicated to Herod (Phot. Bibl. Cod. 189), and Stobaeus has preserved many passages from it. Valesius and others think that these passages did not originally belong to a separate work, but were extracted from the universal history.


Of his philosophical works, which consisted partly of independent treatises and partly of paraphrases of Aristotle's works, no fragments are extant, except a few statements in Simplicius' commentaries on Aristotle. The extant fragments of Nicolaus were first edited in a Latin version by N. Cragius, Geneva, 1593, 4to. The Greek originals with a Latin translation were first edited by H. Valesius in his "Excerpta Polybii, Diodori," &c., Paris, 1634, 4to. The best and most complete edition, with Latin translations by Valesius and H. Grotius, is that of J. C. Orelli, Leipzig, 1804, 8vo. It also contains a good dissertation on the life and writings of Nicolaus by the Abbe Sevin, which originally appeared in the Mémoires de l'Acad. des Inscript. vi. p. 486, &c. In 1811, Orelli published a supplement to his edition, which contains notes and emendations by A. Coray, Creuzer, Schweighäuser, and others.


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