14.12.08, Simpson, Niketas Choniates

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Martios Philippides

The Medieval Review 14.12.08

Simpson, Alicia. Niketas Choniates: A Historiographical Study. Oxford Studies in Byzantium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xvi, 372. ISBN: 9780199670710 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Martios Philippides
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Alicia Simpson's thorough, meticulous, and thoughtful study of the works of Nicetas Choniates is a major contribution of this scholar to the field of Byzantine historiography; based on her dissertation, this book is a welcome addition to the prestigious series Oxford Studies in Byzantium. It is indeed a most careful and complete study of an otherwise difficult and idiosyncratic author within an interesting clash of cultures that brought the Greek Middle Ages into a confrontation with the west, which resulted in the disastrous Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople.

In this monumental confrontation, Nicetas Choniates was a well-educated author, courtier, orator, and theologian from a distinguished family; his elder brother Michael Choniates was the learned bishop of Athens, who was responsible for Nicetas' education. Nicetas' life and works are treated in the long, informative Chapter 1, which places Nicetas' life and works within the proper environment of the period. Chapter 2 focuses on the History by Choniates and includes a section on the difficult manuscript transmission of this important work and further deals with the difficult subject of various contributors to the text and the interference by later hands, while paying detailed attention to revisions and later rephrasing of the text. References and evaluations of modern scholarship are also taken into account, especially when the synopsis of the Histories is also encountered; Simpson studies closely both surviving forms of Choniates and concludes with insightful remarks on the possible readership of this work, which necessarily assumes educated readers; according to Simpson's evaluation, however, the synopsis may have reached a wider audience.

Chapter 3 is concerned with a discussion of the work's historical nature and its placement within the genre of biography, with a detailed study of its narrative structure and an examination of its historical characters (Manuel I Komnenos, Andronikos I Komnenos, Isaac II Angelos, and Alexios II Angelos), while secondary historical characters are treated in a separate sub-section. Chapter 4 moves on to a consideration of possible written sources (John Kinnamos, Eustathios of Thessalonica, and, more generally, with the panegyric and encomiastic genres), while the possibility of contributions from oral sources is also examined. The section that deals with eyewitness testimony is interesting. Moreover, Simpson examines Choniates' skills in storytelling, as well as the problem of fictitious speeches within the narrative, while a meticulous study of the author's ornaments, such as digression, excurses, proverbs, generalizations, citations, and allusions are also examined. Finally, Choniates' assumptions of operating forces within history, such as divine providence, are considered.

A short conclusion follows, and three appendices complete the study. Appendix 1 lists the surviving manuscripts of the long and short versions of the History, while Appendix 2 produces a very useful analytical summary of the History's contents. Appendix 3 deals with Nicetas' treatment of the Latins, the Turks, and the Vlach-Bulgarians. The appendices are followed by two genealogical stemmata of Alexios I Komnenos and Constantine Angelos, the panhypersebastos who married the daughter of Alexios I, Theodora Komnene, and by two maps of Asia Minor and the Balkans in the twelfth century.

While this study is admirable in its scope and produces a model for writing the historiography on Byzantine authors, there are a few problems, which required a more meticulous editor. Thus, for example, there are numerous errors in quoting Greek texts in orthography, which could have easily been prevented. To cite one example on pages 82-83, which include quotations from the text of Choniates: the Greek text abounds in accentuation errors, where grave pitch marks have been placed instead of the proper acutes and vice versa; a neuter article is cited instead of the proper masculine accusative article; and a circumflex is placed on the antepenultimate. There are some exaggerations as well. In spite of the confident statement in the conclusion (298), Nicetas Choniates was not the "the very best of Byzantine historians"; nor was he "perhaps the greatest of all Byzantine historians," as stated in the introduction (1). Nicetas Choniates is important and notable but there were others that Choniates could compete with for such lofty positions within Byzantine historiography; this remains a debatable matter and is subject to a scholar's personal taste.

In spite of these minor shortcomings, this study is admirable, will of great use to graduate students and to scholars interested in Byzantine history and historiography. The scholarly world is indebted to Simpson for producing an informative, authoritative, and complete study of a notable and interesting Byzantine historian.

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Author Biography

Martios Philippides

University of Massachusetts, Amherst