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13.04.09, Kaldellis and Krallis, eds., The History of Michael Attaleiates

13.04.09, Kaldellis and Krallis, eds., The History of Michael Attaleiates

Among Byzantine texts that had not yet been translated into English, the history of Michael Attaliates was certainly a high priority. With the exception of the unfinished history of Nicephorus Bryennius, available in a French translation, the rest of the eight major contemporary histories of the middle Byzantine period were already available in English: those of Leo the Deacon, Michael Psellus, Anna Comnena, John Cinnamus, Eustathius of Thessalonica, and Nicetas Choniates. Without ranking alongside Psellus, Anna, and Nicetas as one of the world's great historians, Attaliates compares favorably with the four others, all of whom have real merits. Attaliates' history, which covers the years from 1034 to 1079, is almost entirely independent from that of his contemporary Psellus and extends several years later. Attaliates was a skillful writer, an intelligent man, and in his later career a senior official. His experiences included accompanying the emperor Romanus IV on his campaigns against the Seljuk Turks that ended with the disastrous battle of Manzikert (1071), which Attaliates witnessed. We are fortunate to have in the histories of Psellus and Attaliates well-informed parallel accounts of a crucial period in which Byzantium, which had been expanding strongly during the two preceding centuries, suffered setbacks from which it never completely recovered.

Therefore this translation, which is generally both accurate and readable, is extremely welcome. The introduction, notes, glossary, bibliography, and indices are concise but adequate. Since one of the translators has just published a monograph on Attaliates (Dimitris Krallis, Michael Attaleiates and the Politics of Imperial Decline in Eleventh-Century Byzantium, Tempe, AZ, 2012), readers who want more information can seek it there. The maps, though helpful for locating places mentioned in the text, are problematic in two cases. The map of "The Byzantine Empire 1081" on p. 619 is a misjudged attempt to assign frontiers to the empire at a time when its internal and external upheavals were so chaotic that it cannot really be said to have had frontiers at all. Much worse, the map of "Themes of the Byzantine Empire 1040" on pp. 620-621 is grossly inaccurate, since it leaves out more than half the themes (i.e., military provinces) that existed at that date and assigns arbitrary and extended boundaries to the themes that do appear. For example, the region labeled "Mesopotamia" comprises the territory of more than a dozen themes besides the Theme of Mesopotamia.

Attaliates' history is studiously objective, or at any rate ambivalent, about all the emperors it describes except Nicephorus III Botaniates (1078-1081), whom it flatters shamelessly. As the translators note in the introduction, "Botaneiates was the dedicatee of the History and someone from whom Attaleiates was probably seeking favors and offices...[Botaniates'] heroic appearances prior to the 1070s are obvious later additions to the narrative..., suggesting that Attaleiates had been working on the History before Botaneiates' accession, which required retroactive insertions" (xvi). They rightly add, "The sincerity of all this praise is doubtful" (xvii). I would go further than this. The History as we have it seems to me to represent two separate editions, an objective one written around 1075 on events up to 1071 (ending with p. 303 in this translation), and a revised and continued edition praising Nicephorus III and written in 1079. For this second edition, Attaliates rather clumsily inserted the "obvious later additions" (see p. 597 n. 72 and pp. 598–599 n. 98) to the first edition. This hypothesis explains why the history has two prefaces, the first (3-7) eulogizing Nicephorus and belonging to the second edition, and the second (9-11) promising an objective narrative and belonging to the first edition. I make this case in more detail in a book (The Middle Byzantine Historians, Palgrave Macmillan, in press), where I also argue that by "Michael of Nikomedeia" (pp. 329, 541) Attaliates means Michael Psellus, an identification that the translators consider "impossible" (p. 604 n. 230 and p. 609 n. 338).

The translators laudably resist the temptation to overrate their author. They acknowledge that his coverage is uneven and his prose not especially elegant: "Attaleiates' style is not the most flowing. It is sometimes slow-going or obscure, and while it can be startlingly direct at times, it can also hide a specific sense behind abstract, even vague terminology" (xvii). The translation does as well as could be expected in pursuing the not entirely compatible aims of faithfulness and clarity. The translators follow the present fashion of spelling Byzantine names according to the reconstructed ancient Greek pronunciation that had disappeared before the beginning of the Byzantine period (e.g., "Byzantion" for Byzantium), though in the Byzantine period something close to modern Greek pronunciation prevailed (e.g., "Vizandion" for Byzantium). They nonetheless attack the practice of Anglicizing or Latinizing Byzantine names (e.g., "Byzantium") as "a form of distortion and insensitivity that is currently inflicted on virtually no other past or present foreign culture (except ancient Greece, of course)" (xviii). As one of those who uses such forms, I can assure the translators that we mean no disrespect to the Byzantines, but are simply recognizing their links with ancient Greece and Rome. Was Attaliates subjecting ancient Roman culture to "distortion and insensitivity" when he Hellenized the names of Nicephorus III's supposed Roman ancestors as the "Phabioi" and "Aphrikanos Skepion," which the translators (sensibly) Latinize back into "Fabii" and "Scipio Africanus" (397-399)? For that matter, were Attaliates and other learned Byzantines showing insensitivity to their own culture when they used ancient Greek names that had long passed out of use, like Byzantium for Constantinople or Epidamnus for Dyrrhachium?

The translators say that their translation, and presumably the book as a whole, is "meant primarily for historians" (xviii). It fails them in two important respects. First, all the notes are printed at the end, though all are short and would have been far more conveniently positioned at the bottom of the page. I doubt that one historian in a hundred would approve of this decision. Second, and much more seriously, the translators reprint as their Greek text the most recent edition, by Immaculada Pérez Martín (Miguel Ataliates: Historia, Madrid, 2002), adding chapter and paragraph numbers, making eighteen changes to her text that they explain in endnotes, but omitting all of her textual apparatus, with its multiple manuscript variants, emendations, and parallel passages on every page. As a result, the present text falls short of even the lowest scholarly standards for a critical edition, and every professional Byzantinist who uses it ought to check the original edition of Pérez Martín before citing or commenting on Attaliates' work. In practice, some probably will not bother, and may make serious errors by not considering different readings and relevant parallels. If the apparatus had been included, the new chapter and paragraph numbers would have allowed scholars to use them conveniently to cite Attaliates; but as it is, citing these numbers would be very inconvenient, forcing scholars to compare both the edition of Pérez Martín and this mutilated form of her edition. Yet including her apparatus, avoiding all these disadvantages, would have added no more than twenty pages to the book and no additional labor. Again, I doubt that one historian with Greek in a hundred would prefer a text without an apparatus. Of course, for those unable to read Greek, the Greek text is useless anyway.

The main blame should be assigned to Dumbarton Oaks and its Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series, which has begun publishing all its Greek and Latin texts with endnotes and without a textual apparatus. In this it has ignored the precedent set by its sister series, the Loeb Classical Library, which has always included footnotes and at least a simplified apparatus with its texts and translations. The original aim of the Loeb Classical Library was "to include all that is of value and of interest in Greek and Latin literature, from the time of Homer to the Fall of Constantinople." In practice, however, with a few partial exceptions (e.g., the Greek Anthology), the Loeb texts exclude works later than the sixth century A.D. Yet new Loeb texts of later Byzantine works would satisfy a real need. The ongoing series of editions of historical texts of the Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantianae has progressed slowly, is usually exorbitantly expensive, and seldom includes English translations. It has yet to include important historians like Leo the Deacon, Michael Psellus, Eustathius of Thessalonica, or Attaliates himself, and is not even supposed to include texts that are not mainly historical sources, like most poems, orations, saints' lives, satires, and novels. The series of Dumbarton Oaks Texts has published just twelve volumes since 1967, most of them as part of the Corpus Fontium series. Moreover, if the aim were not just to produce translations "primarily for historians" but to bring Byzantine literature to a wider audience, the Loeb Classical Library is a much better-known imprint than the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Attaliates' history would seem easily to qualify as a Greek text "of value and of interest," and would surely have found more readers in the Loeb series, especially because more scholars would have bought it if it met minimal scholarly standards.

Around 1980, when Dumbarton Oaks abolished its Center for Byzantine Studies and dissolved its research faculty, many Byzantinists warned that it would cease to serve the best interests of Byzantine studies without serving the best interests of Western medieval studies. Yet its endowment, about $60 million in 1980, given the general rise in the Harvard endowment in which it holds shares, should now total around $1 billion, entailing a heavy scholarly responsibility. Perhaps for the sake of full disclosure I should mention that, as a persistent critic of its lack of direction, despite several attempts I have received no funding from it since a junior fellowship in 1977, published nothing with it since my first book in 1980, and faced so many obstacles in using its library that I gave up some years ago. I also find that its new publications have become steadily less useful, presumably because no one at Dumbarton Oaks has been giving serious thought to the needs of scholars working on Byzantium and the Middle Ages in general. This book, welcome though its translation is, is a case in point.