12.01.05, Macrides, History as Literature in Byzantium

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Catherine Holmes

The Medieval Review 12.01.05

Macrides, Ruth. History as Literature in Byzantium. Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies Publications. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishers, 2010. Pp. xxv, 324. ISBN: 978-1-4094-1206-9.

Reviewed by:
Catherine Holmes
Oxford University

Historical writing was one of the most significant forms of cultural production in Byzantium. Certainly there were times of fat and times of thin, with some periods (e.g., the late eleventh century) rich in historical narratives, and others (especially the seventh and eighth centuries) rather more impoverished; but despite these ups and downs, it is clear that histories were compiled, annotated, simplified, complicated, reissued and updated across the Byzantine centuries. That there was variety, quantity, and sometimes real quality in Byzantine history writing is not in dispute. More curious, however, is the fact that Byzantine historiography has received so little sustained scholarly analysis. Social and political historians have habitually approached Byzantine histories with the rather limited aim of sifting solid nuggets of "fact" out of a superfluous chaff of literary allusions, digressions and distortions (a point made forcefully by Ruth Macrides in the preface to the collection of essays under consideration here). Those scholars who have been willing to approach historiography as literature have often been preoccupied with taxonomising sub-genres rather than with investigating issues of composition, intertextuality, and the relationship between text and context. As a result, compared with classical antiquity and the medieval west, analysis of Byzantine historiography is at a very embryonic stage: some key texts still lack modern editions; much scholarly energy is expended on producing modern language translations, almost always the first of their kind; devotion to uncovering lost sources remains ubiquitous.

All is not gloom, however. Over the past three decades a number of important analyses have been produced about particular Byzantine histories and historians (e.g., Prokopios, John Malalas, Michael Psellos, and the anonymous author of the "Chronicle of Morea"). As Macrides, the editor of this collection points out, the barriers once assumed to have existed between high-style literary histories written by learned imperial court officials and low-style world chronicles composed by monks have been stormed and demolished. The challenge is now twofold: first, to subject more individual texts and writers to detailed scrutiny; and second, to adduce general points of principle from these individual studies, a process which inevitably requires active comparison and connection. This important volume of essays makes significant contributions to both of these challenges, although the lack of a detailed introduction means that the onus is on the reader to pick up the connecting threads and the most fruitful points of comparison between the different chapters. But if the reader has patience, then there are many fascinating leads to follow.

At a very basic level, there are plenty of new readings of particular texts and authors. Some are already relatively well studied. They include Prokopios (Kaldellis), John Malalas (Odorico), Theophylact Simokatta (Efthymiadis) and Michael Psellos (Jeffreys). But others are as yet very under-researched: Theophanes the Confessor (Calofonos, Scott, Afinogenov), George the Monk (Afinogenov), the "Vita Basili" and Leo the Deacon (Hinterberger), as well as John Skylitzes and Constantine Manasses (Boeck). As befits a volume edited by Ruth Macrides, a scholar of the historical literature and history of the late Byzantine period, the historiography of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is fully represented, with substantial discussions of the "Synopsis Chronike" (Zafeiris) the "Chronicle of the Morea" (Shawcross), the "Alexander Romance" (Trahoulia) and the late-medieval metaphrastic versions of the earlier and more elaborate histories of Anne Komnene and Niketas Choniates (Davis). Indeed, a number of the volume's contributors (Croke, Davis, and Angelou) pick up either directly or in passing on Choniates, the principal Byzantine witness to the events of the second half of the twelfth century and the Fourth Crusade of 1204; a historian who, despite his centrality to our understanding of the territorial and political collapse of Byzantium in this period and his evident influence on later generations of history writers, has only recently begun to attract the scholarly attention his rich and multi-layered text deserves.

Within these individual contributions there are a number of arresting themes. Brian Croke's bold and innovative sketch of the audience of Byzantine historiography from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries may in places be a little conservative (e.g., in its traditional reading of the collapse of learning in Byzantium after the Muslim and Bulgar invasions), but it contains so many thought-provoking suggestions about such an important and hitherto neglected feature of Byzantine historiography that it will be the standard point of departure for the study of this issue for some time to come. Likewise Michael Jeffreys' interpretation of Michael Psellos may be open to criticism, most notably for the methods it uses, the assumptions it makes about dates of composition and contexts, and for its reluctance to spell out the implications of its principal conclusions; but Jeffreys' decision to read the content of the Chronographia in the light of Psellos's extensive epistolary collection opens up the possibility that the historian on whom we all rely for appraisals of the strengths and weaknesses of Byzantium in the eleventh century was far more distant from the epicentre of imperial power than he alleges in his own historical narrative; this reading has enormous implications for our apprehension of Byzantine politics in the eleventh century.

Jeffreys is not the only contributor to cross genres in fruitful ways. Konstantinos Zafeiris' study of the 'Synopsis Chronike' invokes the late thirteenth-century revival in hagiography to suggest that the chronicle's anonymous author had an ecclesiastical background. Martin Hinterberger looks across a very wide variety of tenth-century genres in his comparison of the "Vita Basili" and the history of Leo the Deacon in order to tease out the significance of the use of classical terminology in Middle Byzantine historiography and other literary productions. Meanwhile, in a very rich article, Stephanos Efthymiadis demonstrates how the early seventh-century historian Theophylact Simocatta skilfully drew inspiration from a bouquet of different genres to craft a series of political warnings for the Emperor Heraclius, a didactic reading of Theophylact's text which distances it from accusations that it is a feeble and confused panegyric of the emperor Maurice. And, as Nicolette Trahoulia and Elena Boeck reveal in their submissions, images as well as written text could be integral components to Byzantine history writing, although as both are keen to stress, depictions require careful decoding; they cannot be considered simply as illustrations of the action described in the narrative. Moreover, Boeck's analysis of the images which accompany the narrative of Skylitzes in the famous twelfth-century Escorial manuscript from Norman Sicily and her assessment of those depictions which appear in the Slavonic translation of Manasses from late-medieval Bulgaria draw our attention to the fact that Byzantine historiography was porous; it was never solely written in Greek for the consumption of those who only spoke and read Greek. A host of other languages could also be implicated. Teresa Shawcross's contribution on the "Chronicle of the Morea" makes a similar point in demonstrating how the historian's decision to narrate his story using the voice of a "singer" may be related to the ubiquity of such versifiers in both the Greek and Frankish societies which co-existed in the late- medieval Peloponnese. Even in earlier periods, cross-fertilisation was important as Dmitry Afinogenov's discussion of the Slavonic version of George the Monk in his reconstruction of the lost biography of the eighth-century emperor Leo III indicates.

Just as this volume offers a gateway to a wide-ranging and provocative series of interpretations of different authors and texts, so it also provides a series of important insights into a number of concerns integral to the enterprise of reading Byzantine history as literature. Some of these concerns are made manifest by the section titles into which the different essays are organised: thus, the chapters are grouped under the headings of "aesthetics"; "audience"; "narrator"; "story-telling"; "classical tradition reinterpreted"; "sources reconfigured"; "structure and themes". But, in truth, many of the most important themes of the book transcend these divisions and can be picked up in several different places, if the reader is willing to look for such connections. In this sense, the volume has much to say about how historical texts were constructed, especially in the case of the deployment and significance of different narrative devices, including images as well as verbal formulae (Shawcross, Trahoulia, Croke, Boeck, Scott). The importance of rhetoric as a shaper of narrative presentation is also widely acknowledged (Papaioannou, Croke, and particularly Athanasios Angelou in his dissection of Choniates). Metaphrasis, or translation from one register to another, a widely practised Byzantine literary technique, is examined by Davis and Papaioannou. Orality is a prominent theme (Shawcross, Trahoulia, Efthyimiadis and Angelou). Audience is explored not only by Croke, but also by Efthymiadis, Trahoulia, Shawcross, and Jeffreys. History as collective memory is invoked by Scott, Papaioannou and Shawcross. Finally, the practical uses of history writing, whether to vilify, magnify, instruct, warn and, perhaps most important, to legitimise are given very thorough airings (most notably by Scott, Calofonos, Trahoulia, Efthymiadis, Boeck, and Davis).

There is, then, a great deal to feast on in this volume at the levels of the composition and reception of Byzantine history writing; as such, it is a collection which should attract the attention not only of Byzantinists but also those with historiographical interests in other contexts, including western medievalists and Islamic specialists. However, for all that this volume advances our appreciation of Byzantine history writing as literature and justifies its editor's promise that "The work presented in this volume is fundamental to the further study of the main narratives of Byzantine history", one is left with a sense of wanting more; with the strong impression that the materials presented here had the potential to make an even greater scholarly contribution to some really fundamental questions, such as: what was the Byzantine understanding of history and what are the implications for our own understanding of the Byzantine past if we read the Byzantines' historiography as literature? It is a little frustrating that times contributors seem aware of these broader questions only to pull back from offering direct answers. Macrides herself indicates that these more substantial concerns matter as she rounds off her brief preface with the thought that: "For some history studied as literature can be an end in itself. For others, it will be a means of determining how our knowledge of the past changes when the historical sources are read as literature" (xi). Hints of how Byzantinists could move forward with answers to these questions are provided by Anthony Kaldellis in the midst of his discussion of Prokopios: "Moving beyond the limiting concept of the historian's bias, often crudely reduced to social class or political faction, scholars are examining how narratives are structured by literary techniques that subtly encode nuanced reflections on events and personalities as well as by overarching themes that reflect the historian's thoughts on important, large- scale developments" (254). Elena Boeck's explicit use of scholarship from outside the field of Byzantine studies is a model that others could follow when looking at the form and implications of Byzantine history writing: for instance, her radical readings of image and text are framed by Hayden White's definition of narrative as being far from a "neutral discursive form" but rather one which entails "ontological and epistemic choices with distinct ideological and even specifically political implications" (218); also striking is her evocation of the reflections of the western medievalist, Gabrielle Spiegel, that "at work in shaping a literary text is a host of unstated desires, beliefs, misunderstandings, and interests which impress themselves upon the work...[and] which arise from pressures that are social and not merely intertextual" (221). Particularly important in providing a broader socio-cultural context for the production of Byzantine historiography are Stratis Papaiannou's opening thoughts in the very first chapter of the volume: that historiography in Byzantium, as in all societies which produce historical writing, must be seen within a larger framework, namely "the cultural mechanism of the making of "history", the various ways in which a society produces its own past, its collective memory. The main thrust of this production is usually of an ideological nature: it empowers communities, groups and individuals, and is manifested in institutional structures, performed ritual and other forms of representation" (3).

From their brief allusions to broader intellectual trajectories, Macrides, Kaldellis, Boeck and Papaiannou all seem to suggest that one of the principal objectives for scholars now working on Byzantine history as literature is to go beyond simple "ax-to- grind" readings of individual texts; instead, the task at hand is to reveal the much wider ideological preoccupations which were expressed and created by the Byzantines in the course of writing history. Greater awareness of Byzantines aesthetics will, as Papaioannou's contribution suggests, be central to this project, and will require more close scrutiny of the use of rhetoric in Byzantine historiography. But it will also involve incorporation of some important reflections by Paolo Odorico about a form of thinking by association that developed during late antiquity and went on to underpin the rather bewildering achronological structure and sensational content of the from-creation chronicle, the genre of history writing which predominated in Byzantium until the fifteenth century. Clearly a broad cultural approach to the composition and implications of Byzantine historiography carries with it evident dangers, not least the risk of returning to a model of Byzantium as conservative and incapable of innovation; but if Byzantine historiography is to be taken seriously as a field of inquiry, particularly by scholars working in other areas, then Byzantinists now need to take these steps, and to take them with confidence.

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Catherine Holmes

Oxford University