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15.09.29, Kaldellis, A New Herodotus

15.09.29, Kaldellis, A New Herodotus

This volume is the first full-length study of Laonikos Chalkokondyles, an historian from Athens writing in classicizing Greek in the 1450s and early 1460s. His sprawling Histories, which have been translated by Kaldellis in two volumes for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (hereafter DOML, vols. 33-34; published simultaneously in 2014 with the volume under review), is a surprisingly impartial work, in that it chronicles without derision or slander "the ruin of his own people, whom he calls the Greeks, and the rise of their conquerors, the Ottoman Turks" (x). After surveying the origins of the Greeks and the Turks in the first book of the Histories, Laonikos devotes the remaining nine books to the character and military exploits of Ottoman rulers from 1389 to 1464. Throughout the main narrative, he interspersed long digressions about foreign peoples and their customs in Europe and Asia, which comprise roughly one third of the text. Long overlooked and inaccessible due to the difficulty of its language, the Histories of Laonikos is a wonderfully rich and provocative text, a draught of fresh air in a period frequently characterized from a western perspective as the end of an epoch and invariably as a time of decline.

In his preface to this study, Kaldellis lays out the value of the Histories to scholars in a variety of academic disciplines: classicists will find here an author who self-consciously emulated the methodology and narrative structure of Herodotus while couching his narrative in the style of Thucydides; historians of early Ottoman history will discover a Greek historian who made use of Turkish sources and who provides some of the earliest information on the organization of the Ottoman imperial system; scholars of western perceptions of Islam will marvel at Laonikos's objective evaluation of Muslim culture, which is informed not by Christian polemical traditions of the Middle Ages, but rather by Herodotus's respect for foreign cultures; historians of fifteenth-century Europe will meet an intelligent and interested outside observer, "the first Greek author to try to make sense of emerging Europe in the early modern period" (xi); and lastly, specialists in modern Greek studies will admire an early advocate of Neohellenism who played an important role in framing a point-of-view that heralded modern Greek identity.

Kaldellis's book comprises six chapters of unequal length. Chapter 1 ("From Nikolaos to Laonikos") introduces us to the life and family of Laonikos and the context of the composition of his work. Born around 1430, he was the son of a prominent Athenian family. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 inspired him to write, for as he states in his preface the theme of the Histories was first and foremost "the fall of the Greeks and the events surrounding the end of their realm, and the rise of the Turks to great power" (Histories 1.1). While scholars have dated the work as late as the 1490s and set its composition in Venice, Crete, or Athens, Kaldellis argues that Laonikos researched and wrote it in the 1450s and early 1460s "close to the centers of Ottoman power, most likely in Constantinople" (15). Chapter 2 ("The Marriage of Herodotos and Thucydides") shows how the structure and style of the Histories are "a hybrid fusion" (23) of the ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides. Like Thucydides, Laonikos wrote in an unadorned style; Kaldellis calls the prose difficult and "desiccated" (33). Like Herodotus, Laonikos compiled his information primarily from oral sources and indulged in long digressions on foreign peoples and cultures. He also modeled many of his historical episodes on Herotodean tales. Kaldellis closes out the chapter with a discussion of the manuscript of Herodotus belonging to Laonikos, which still survives. Chapter 3 ("Geography and Ethnography") examines the digressions in the Histories, which are primarily ethnographic discussions of a wide range of peoples from England to India. For geographical information, Laonikos seems to have relied on oral reports and on information he had read in Herodotus. His ethnographic terminology comes from Herodotus as well. His evaluations of other peoples are unusual in that they highlight the strengths of each nation he discusses. While Laonikos's sources for the peoples and recent history of western Europe were primarily oral, Kaldellis believes that the author may well have been familiar with the French roman tradition. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Laonikos's digressions on Venice, Genoa, and Florence, which are perhaps the first instances of a Greek author writing about the government of the Italian republics. Chapter 4 ("Religion, Islam, and the Turks") explains how Laonikos could paint a balanced and unpolemical portrait of Islam. According to Kaldellis, we should not consider him to be a Christian author, but rather "an author from a Christian society" who wrote "what he imagined Herodotos would have written about Islam" (102). Laonikos's religious outlook is elusive, but in all likelihood he was a Neoplatonist, like his famous teacher Georgios Gemistos (Plethon). Kaldellis makes a strong case for considering the Histories as one of the earliest works of Ottoman history, for Laonikos "offers us a view of early Ottoman history that comes from Turkish oral sources, and this at a time before that history had really begun to be written down by the Ottomans themselves" (126). Chapter 5 ("Between Greeks and Romans") attempts to unravel how Laonikos attempted to create a new Hellenic identity by undermining the Roman identity that was persistent in the Byzantine tradition. Although "Romans" are mentioned several times in the Histories, they are impossible to isolate as a distinct people with discernable customs and characteristics; for the most part, the name represented an old ideal rather than a present reality. The Greeks themselves are subject to criticism throughout the Histories--they continuously fail in the present to measure up to their past glory--yet it is clear, as Kaldellis argues, that Laonikos was writing for a Greek audience adjusting to a new world order in which they are ruled by the Ottomans. Chapter 6 ("Plethon, Laonikos, and the Birth of Neohellenism") underscores the novelty of the claims made by Plethon and his pupil Laonikos that the Byzantines were Greeks rather than Romans and traces the influence of this late Byzantine Neohellenism on the formation of Greek identity in the modern period. A short epilogue surveys the translations of Laonikos's Histories into Latin and vernacular languages and the influence of this text on western humanists writing about the problem of the Turks in the sixteenth century.

Kaldellis has done an immense service not only by translating Laonikos's Histories into English, but also by providing scholars and students with a volume that will provide the first point of reference for all future studies of this fifteenth-century historian. He has produced an introductory book that is clear and accessible, couched in a style that is direct and often refreshingly punchy in its presentation of argument. In a sense, Kaldellis has almost done his job too well. He persuasively argues that Laonikos's repurposing of Herodotean ethnography to narrate the events of his own time goes beyond mere classicizing, so much so, in fact, that the Histories represents an important new view of the world that is neither Christian nor Byzantine. In the end, I was left with the lingering impression that this was not a medieval text at all. Rather, one could argue that it represents one of the very first post-medieval histories, in that it purposefully jettisons the millennium-old historical traditions of the Middle Ages and reaches much further back in time for its approach and structure, which its author applies with a new purpose that no medieval person would have recognized. What would James Loeb have thought? A century ago, the founder of the Loeb Classical Library (hereafter LCL) shared his vision of the scope of his series in the preface he included to its earliest published volumes. His original idea for LCL is much broader than most people realize. In his preface, Loeb stated his desire that "the Series is 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." The medieval component of the LCL was quietly abandoned early on in the project, and left unrealized until the foundation of the DOML in 2010. Of the nearly forty volumes published in DOML, Kaldellis's contributions on the Histories of Laonikos--both his translation volumes and this supplement--come closest to pushing the boundaries of our definition of a "medieval" canon of texts. For this reason and many others besides, these books are by far the most innovative, surprising, and exciting contributions to the DOML catalogue.