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19.06.04 Németh, The Excerpta Constantiniana

19.06.04 Németh, The Excerpta Constantiniana

This book looks into the content, structure and methods of the Excerpta Constantiniana (hereafter EC), a collection of historical passages distributed into fifty-three predefined subject categories. The deconstruction of complete historical works and the classification of extracted textual units in thematic collections was supplemented with a system of indices in the margins of the final deluxe copies resulting in the compilation of a "dynamic retrieval facility" (88). The final copies of the EC, which were probably executed under the supervision of Basil Lecapenus, resided in the palace library and became available only to a small number of court officials.

In this book, Németh, one of the two curators of Greek manuscripts at the BAV, unfolds his eminent expertise in the field of manuscript studies. His outstanding knowledge of the content and layout of the codices discussed in his study allows him to pursue his arguments throughout the book. In this book, Németh revisits, amplifies and expands on his view of the innovative structure and function of the EC, presented in a series of articles he published in distinguished journals or volumes in the course of the last decade.

Németh's introduction puts forward the sources the team working under the supervision of Constantine VII drew from. Németh rejects the restrictive label "encyclopaedia" for the EC and restricts the phenomenon of creating a collection of historical excerpts to the 10th century Byzantine court. The concept of sylloge introduced by P. Odorico to demarcate the phenomenon of selecting, re-copying, synthesising and presenting older textual material does not satisfy Németh, as he thinks that the EC is still of a "distinctive nature" (14). The chapter summaries closing the introduction are welcome and instructive.

Chapter 1 considers the systematization of knowledge as a defining feature of the so-called Macedonian dynasty. Compilation literature was used by the tenth-century emperors to enhance their authority and promote ideology. Németh shares Magdalino's view that emperors of the Macedonian dynasty relied on the legal projects of Theodosius II and Justinian in terms of ideology, content and method (26-28). Macedonian emperors' efforts towards systematising knowledge become apparent, according to Németh, in the production of manuscripts of shared themes (44-45). The intended readership of this production was a small "circle of warrior aristocrats," a fact that explains the small number of such manuscripts (44).

Chapter 2 reflects on the theory and practice of producing a collection of thematically connected passages in tenth-century Byzantium. Németh introduces and discusses the term "appropriation"; the term refers to the classification of carefully selected passages according to specific themes. In the EC the arrangement of passages by topic was accompanied by auxiliary material such as a proem, headings, marginal indices and cross references which enable the EC to function as "a dynamic research engine for pinpointing specific details" (57). Németh also provides translations and an analysis of the proem and the poem preceding the excerpts in each volume of the EC (60-71). The proem and the poem supply us with the theoretical principles underlying the production of the EC. According to Németh's line of thinking, the excerptors of the EC first created copies of the complete works of the historians to be excerpted. Thus, the fifty-three collections covered entire works "without losing text in the process of classification" (59, 60, 68-70). Németh justifies the number fifty-three for the EC volumes on the grounds of numerological, mathematical and ideological grounds (71-77).

Chapter 3 considers the working method applied by the team compiling the EC. Németh identifies three procedures of redacting the EC: (1) The content of complete historical works was classified into the fifty-three predefined topics. Passages were selected from the text and marked with symbols. (2) Bindings of the codices were removed and the marked fascicles were distributed to copyists who created additional fascicles containing series of passages pertinent to each of the fifty-three subject-volumes of the EC. (3) Copyists were assigned to assemble and classify the fascicles by topic and compile the final deluxe manuscripts of each of the fifty-three subject categories. These final copies were executed after Constantine VII's death possibly at Basil Lecapenus' direction (99). Stage 2 and 3 were executed by different group of scribes (103).

Chapter 4 suggests that the appropriation of the past, which characterizes the production of the EC, has parallels in other works produced at the imperial court at Constantine VII's and Basil Lecapenus's initiatives. The selection of texts in the De Thematibus, the De Administrando Imperio, and the De Ceremoniis was determined by similar preoccupations and ideological motives. These texts continued to be updated, revised and supplemented with new material for decades after their first redaction (130, 133, 137). Németh argues that their compiler's conceptual approach, textual practice and methods coincide with those detected in the EC (131, 139).

Chapter 5 argues that the EC provided a renewed stylistic model for court historians in the second half of the tenth century (144). At that time, historiography broke with the traditional unbroken historical narrative and begun to be written in the form of historical biography. The new historiographical trend at court favored the personal voices of individuals, digressive adornment and rhetorical embellishment of the narrative, and dialogues by ancient historians (163-164). The Theophanes Continuatus (books 1-4), the Life of Basil, the so-called book 6 of Theophanes Continuatus and the historical works by Genesius and Leo the Deacon are set out as prime examples of historical writings compiled at the imperial court and influenced in terms of structure and content by the EC.

Chapter 6 puts forward the idea that selection criteria in terms of topics and organisational principles of treatises compiled under Constantine VII were shaped by the notion of cyclical history (166). Németh claims that the ideology of the Macedonian's emperors was determined by the rejection of iconoclasm and the use of the cultural values of the Roman past (172-173). At the same time, the selection of texts for inclusion in the EC betrays Constantine's special interest in Roman imperial history and the period between Justinian I and Heraclius (175, 177).

Chapter 7 explores the classification system applied to the EC. Németh argues that the titles of the EC collections reflect the practical interest of courtiers or "an appreciation of classical rhetoric and poetry" (187). According to Németh, the topics of the thematic collections of the EC are possible to be identified on the basis of the priorities of interest in the court treatises compiled on the mid-tenth century under the supervision of Constantine VII and Basil Lecapenus.

Chapter 8 revisits the so-called "paratexts" or "auxiliary texts," that is, textual material added in the margins of the manuscripts of the EC by the redactors or scribes of the thematic volumes.

The body text of the volumes is supplemented with topic titles, position numbers, references to the original authors of the extracts, cross-references to other thematic collections of the EC, and indices, namely names of the principal figures of the extracts or words pointing to the content of them (220-231). Some of the auxiliary texts facilitated the reader's consultation of the various topics included in the EC and some others could be seen as part of the various stages in the redaction of the EC.

Chapter 9 focuses on the so-called Suda, which according to Németh was compiled concurrently with the execution of the final deluxe copies of the EC (240). Németh thinks that the compilers of the Suda had access to the final deluxe copies of the EC deposited in the imperial library. The Suda drew directly on the body text of the thematic volumes of the EC as well as on the marginal indices added during the redaction process of the EC (243, 245, 248-249). The "auxiliary" texts presented in chapter 8 facilitated the compilers of the Suda in the selection of lexical and biographical headwords (245-255).

The book is amplified with appendices: (a) editions of the proem and the dedicatory poem appended to the volumes of the EC, and (b) a list of the historians excerpted in the surviving manuscripts of the EC. The book contains also seven illustrations including a family tree of the Macedonian dynasty and folios of manuscripts discussed in the book; five tables exhibiting passages excerpted or omitted in the EC as well as in manuscripts closely associated with the imperial court; and three maps figuring Byzantine territories in the tenth century. The book is also supplied with indices of manuscripts, names and subjects plus a detailed bibliography.

Two critical observations can be made. First, Németh is at times speculative about texts possibly excerpted in the EC, such as the Ecclesiastical Histories of Theodoret, Sozomenus and Philostorgius (8) or about the selection criteria of the "mastermind" behind the project. The fragmented nature of the EC prevents us from drawing definite conclusions on such matters. Second, "appropriation," a term important to Németh's argument, remains unclear until the end of the book. The term sometimes refers to the classification of the excerpted passages into fifty-three subject categories (55, 68, 185) and at other times to the textual adaptation of selected passages to fit the needs of contemporary readers (66, 121). The second meaning has been applied to the term οἰκείωσις in Németh's doctoral dissertation. [1] Németh argues that extracts from earlier historians have been copied verbatim into the collections. His assertion runs counter to the examples presented in chapter 2: the extracted passages from Procopius discussed in chapter 2 show that the original text underwent textual modifications (omissions and additions) before its inclusion in the EC (77-83). The term οἰκείωσις, therefore, does not strictly exclude any intervention in the text whatsoever, although it ensures the original narrative sequence. The term οἰκείωσις allowed the excerptors to adapt the original material, through the process of editing, to the socio-political context of the tenth century. Finally, the Excerpta Salmasiana is not a reworked version of John of Antioch (10). U. Roberto had proposed this in an attempt to explain the obvious discrepancies between the Exc.Salm.II (which he mistakenly attributes to John of Antioch) and the excerpts of the Historia chronica incorporated into the EC in terms of style, language and historiographical tradition. [2]



1. András Németh, "Imperial Systematization of the Past: Emperor Constantine VII and his Historical Excerpts" (PhD thesis, Central European University, 2010), 259-261.

2. Umberto Roberto, Ioannis Antiocheni fragmenta ex Historia Chronica, Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Altchristlichen Literatur 154 (Berlin-New York, 2005), LXII; Sergei Mariev, Ioannis Antiocheni Fragmenta quae supersunt omnia, CFHB 47 (Berlin, 2008); Bruno Bleckmann, “Review of Roberto,” Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft 9 (2006): 1071-1075; Peter Van Nuffelen, “John of Antioch, Inflated and Deflated. Or: How (not) to collect fragments of early Byzantine historians,” Byzantion 82 (2012): 439-440.