18.09.03, Marjanović, Creating Memories in Late 8th-Century Byzantium

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Warren Treadgold

The Medieval Review 18.09.03

Marjanović, Dragoljub . Creating Memories in Late 8th-century Byzantium: The Short History of Nikephoros of Constantinople. Central European Medieval Studies. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018. pp. 250. ISBN: 978-0-674-05799-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Warren Treadgold
Saint Louis University

All Byzantine histories that recorded events before living memory must have depended almost entirely on written sources, even if those sources are lost today. Modern scholars have traditionally approached such histories by trying to identify and analyze their sources, a process commonly known by the German term Quellenforschung. This approach, without denying that the later authors modified their sources (especially by abridging them), attributes most of the information and opinions in the later texts to their sources, then tries to determine how faithfully the sources recorded historical events. Postmodern scholars dislike this approach because they are uninterested in historical events (if indeed they believe in historical reality at all) and care only about the later historians' "construction of a narrative" by rewriting the sources (if indeed they believe in the existence of sources). Dismissing clear statements by many Byzantine historians that they were merely trying to provide an accurate record of the past, postmodernists insist that what the Byzantines really wanted to do was to comment on their own times by means of oblique allusions in their narrative. Defenders of the traditional approach (including me) admit that the later historians sometimes did allude to contemporary events in recording earlier times, but believe that such allusions were usually explicit and relatively rare.

In the present book, revised from a doctoral dissertation for the University of Belgrade, Dragoljub Marjanović applies a postmodernist approach to the Short History of Nicephorus of Constantinople, which covers the years from 602 to 769. Marjanović gives only an approximate date for Nicephorus' birth, between 741 and 775, though Cyril Mango dates it convincingly to ca. 758 in his edition, translation, and commentary of Nicephorus' history (Washington, 1990). In any case, most of the history describes events for which Nicephorus surely needed written sources. Following the traditional approach, Mango identified three lost sources for Nicephorus' text, of which the first was used only by Nicephorus and the latter two were also used by Theophanes Confessor, whose chronicle often parallels Nicephorus' history but usually includes more information. In my book on The Middle Byzantine Historians (Basingstoke, 2013) I went a bit further than Mango in identifying these three sources as (1) a continuation of the history of John of Antioch from 610 to 641, (2) the history of Trajan the Patrician from 668 to ca. 720, and (3) a continuation of Trajan (perhaps by the future Patriarch Tarasius) from ca. 721 to ca. 781. I agree with Mango that Nicephorus was a rather mechanical and absent-minded summarizer of his sources.

Marjanović declares in his introduction that "the previously dominant issues of the sources which Nicephorus used in creating his work...and the originality of his work...are almost neglected in this book" because of "our full conviction that the Short History should be read as a finished literary work. ... The messages that Nikephoros engaged with in this work...are the main preoccupation of this study" (15). This somewhat vague pronouncement seems to mean that the originality of Nicephorus' history, like the existence of his hypothetical "messages" about contemporary events, must be accepted as an article of postmodernist faith.

As for Nicephorus' possible sources, Marjanović mentions the continuation of John of Antioch only in a footnote (99 n.2) and in another footnote (11 n.11) says erroneously that "Treadgold reconstructed" the continuation of Trajan "only on the basis of Nikephoros' Short History. In fact, Mango and I both argued that Theophanes made much more use of the continuation of Trajan than Nicephorus did and kept using it for the twelve years after Nicephorus' history ended in 769. In any event, the many parallels between the texts of Nicephorus and Theophanes for the period after 720 rule out Marjanović's offhand suggestion that Nicephorus wrote the continuation himself, since no one maintains that Theophanes consulted Nicephorus.

The first chapter after the introduction is entitled "Nikephoros the Layman." Despite its title, it summarizes Nicephorus' whole life, including his tenure as patriarch of Constantinople from 806 to 815 and his opposition to Iconoclasm after he abdicated. (Incidentally, on p. 31, synklētou boulēs means not "by the will of Synkletos," as Marjanović translates it, but simply "of the senate.") The next chapter tries to situate Nicephorus within the Byzantine historiographic tradition, implicitly accepting his use of the lost history of Trajan. Marjanović argues that Nicephorus deliberately omitted Trajan's testimony that the patriarchs of Constantinople Sergius and Pyrrhus accepted the Monothelete heresy. Assuming that Nicephorus was defending his predecessors as patriarch, Marjanović rejects the "classic positivistic approach" of previous scholars who thought Nicephorus was simply unaware of the two patriarchs' Monotheletism (81). Here Marjanović ignores the argument advanced by us "positivists" that up to 641 Nicephorus summarized not Trajan but the continuer of John of Antioch, who since he was himself a Monothelete would naturally not have accused his fellow Monotheletes of heresy.

Then Marjanović discusses the curious fact that Nicephorus says next to nothing about the long reign of Constans II (641-668). Marjanović overlooks another curious fact, that Nicephorus confused and conflated Constans with his father Constantine III (641), as is clearly apparent from Nicephorus' Short Chronography. Marjanović, who never mentions the Short Chronography at all, later makes the same mistake as Nicephorus when he calls Constantine IV (668-685) the "grandson" of Heraclius (154). Constantine IV was actually the son of Heraclius' grandson Constans II, who was the son of Heraclius' son Constantine III. I have no idea what Marjanović means when he says that Nicephorus' virtual omission of Constans' reign, "when analysed in a broader narratological context, is rather an encircled image of a specific account about the events which ensued in 641 after Herakleios' death" (90). In fact, Nicephorus simply blundered when he changed sources after 641 from the continuer of John of Antioch to Trajan, being misled by the fact that Constans is just a diminutive of Constantine, Constans' real name. Finally, on the basis of an inconclusive argument, Marjanović dates the Short History "between 787/797 and 806" (97). (Mango dates it to the 780's and I date it to ca. 791, both of us tentatively.)

The next chapter, on Heraclius (610-641), concludes that he was a "model of an emperor," despite his incestuous marriage to his niece and defeats by the Arabs. Heraclius was supposedly a model because he defeated the Persians and cooperated with his patriarchs Sergius and Pyrrhus, whom (as we have seen) Nicephorus does not recognize as the Monotheletes that they and Heraclius really were. This chapter really shows nothing more than that Nicephorus, following the continuer of John of Antioch, realized that Heraclius had both strengths and weaknesses and experienced both successes and failures. As a Monothelete, the continuer of John of Antioch had a somewhat better opinion of Heraclius than strictly orthodox historians did, but still avoided idealizing him.

The next chapter, "The Dark Century," makes a fairly persuasive case that for the years between 668 and 717 Nicephorus, unlike Theophanes, omitted or softened the criticisms of the emperors and patriarchs in their common source, Trajan the Patrician. This case would however be more persuasive if it included an argument against the possible alternative that Theophanes added criticism that was not in Trajan's text. Such an argument can easily be made by observing that Theophanes usually cites specific misdeeds by the emperors or patriarchs that he would have been unlikely to invent. Here Marjanović is right to imply that Nicephorus was trying to compose an objective and dispassionate account of the past, as most Byzantine historians claimed to be doing but postmodernists doubt they did.

The next chapter, "Iconoclasts Restoring Order," argues that Nicephorus was less critical of the emperors Leo III (717-741) and Constantine V (741-775) than might have been expected, given their Iconoclasm. Marjanović argues that in his narrative Nicephorus deliberately separated Leo's defeat of the Arab siege of Constantinople in 717-718 from Leo's later advocacy of Iconoclasm. Here Marjanović ignores Nicephorus' second change of sources around 720, from Trajan, who praised Leo for his victory, to the continuer of Trajan, who condemned Leo for his Iconoclasm. Thus it was Nicephorus' two sources who gave contrasting accounts of the earlier and later parts of Leo's reign, which Nicephorus simply summarized. Marjanović also argues that Nicephorus "shaped and transformed" the image of the Patriarch Germanus by mentioning that he accepted the Monotheletism of the emperor Philippicus but resisted the Iconoclasm of Leo III (188). Again Marjanović overlooks Nicephorus' change of sources, since Germanus' acceptance of Monotheletism was described by Trajan and Germanus' resistance to Iconoclasm was described by Trajan's continuer. Nicephorus merely summarized two different accounts in his sources, one after the other.

Marjanović's contention that Nicephorus omitted an unfavorable account of Leo's death that is found in Theophanes is an obvious error, because the footnote (178 n.16) cites Theophanes' account of the death not of Leo but of Constantine V in 775, after Nicephorus' narrative ends. A particularly implausible idea is that the account of the destruction of the church of St. Irene by an earthquake is "a deliberate allusion by the author that it was Constantine V who destroyed...the ecclesiastical peace of the entire Church of Constantinople" (194) because Irene means "peace." Even more improbably, Marjanović suggests that the reference to the church of St. Irene also alluded to the empress Irene, who restored the icons and brought peace to the Church. As Nicephorus makes clear, the earthquake that destroyed the church of St. Irene occurred under Leo III, not Constantine V; nobody could have blamed it on Constantine. Finally Marjanović suggests several more passages that he somewhat sheepishly concludes "might or might not allude to the contemporary events after 780 in Constantinople," adding surprisingly but correctly, "There is no clear evidence which might point specifically to Nikephoros's display of contemporary political developments through the shaping of the Byzantine past" (230).

Unfortunately, the short conclusion partly withdraws this prudent concession by insisting, "As much as it might seem contradictory, by choosing to write about distant events, Nikephoros actually told us much about his own epoch and about history writing at the end of the eighth century" (231). Marjanović further asserts that Nicephorus' history "was by no means a passive work that merely compiled source material" (232), as most of us think it was. Marjanović's conclusion that Nicephorus' favorable depiction of the Sixth Ecumenical Council of 680-681 foreshadowed Irene's Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 begs the question of why Nicephorus ended his history with 769 instead of extending it to 787 and praising Irene's council explicitly. Yet this is a difficult question for all of us. Mango suggested that Nicephorus simply tired of his task when he reached 769. I suggested that Nicephorus broke off with 769, when Irene married the future Leo IV, because Nicephorus wanted to avoid writing about her either favorably or unfavorably because when he wrote her power struggle with her son Constantine VI was still undecided.

This book seems to me fundamentally misconceived. No doubt, as a practical matter, dissertations are hard to abandon after a good deal of research has been done, even they fail to substantiate their premises. Marjanović should at least be given credit for not making more extravagant claims for his findings than he does. The real culprit in this case is an aging, intellectually bankrupt, but still fashionable postmodernism, which has sent so many young scholars on a futile search for illusory "messages" in histories that were meant mainly to be faithful accounts of past events. Postmodernist distractions are particularly unfortunate in the field of Byzantine historiography, where so much real work remains to be done in identifying sources and stages of composition, understanding prose styles and narrative techniques, editing and translating texts, and explaining the historical events that postmodernists find so tedious.

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