Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Byzantine Historians

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BYZANTINE HISTORIANS. The historians who have related the transactions under the Eastern, Greek, or Byzantine empire, for the millennium intervening between the death of Theodosius and the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, are collectively classed together under the above designation. Until, however, the middle of the 6th century, they are, with one conspicuous exception, too merely fragmentary to deserve special notice. This exception is Procopius, the Polybius of his age, whose histories are of such importance as to demand a separate article. We shall arrange his successors in chronological order, distinguishing between the historians properly so called and the chronologers.

Historians.—I. Agathias of Myrina in Ætolia, was born under Justinian, about 536 A.D., and is believed to have died under Tiberius the Second, about 580. His character as an epigrammatist and an editor of poetry has been already considered under the head Anthology. We are indebted to him in his historical capacity for an extremely valuable narrative of six of the most eventful years of the Greek empire, 553558. The first book details the conquest of Italy from the Goths by Justinian's general Narses; the remainder describe, along with other incidents, the Persian war of 554556, the two great earthquakes of 554 and 557, the great plague, the rebuilding of St Sophia, and Belisarius's last exploits against the Bulgarians. The history terminates abruptly, and was probably left unfinished. As a narrator, Agathias is sensible and impartial, but deficient in general knowledge, and far below the standard of a philosophic historian. His style is rhetorical, but not unpleasing. II. Menander Protector, the far inferior imitator of Agathias, lived under Mauricius, whose reign began in 581, and continued the history of Agathias to the date of the accession of that emperor. His work was comprised in eight books, which are entirely lost, with the exception of numerous extracts relating to embassies preserved in the collection Περὶ πρεσβειῶνthe 27th and only existing book of the extensive compilation of historical excerpts made by the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus. III. Theophylactus of Simocatta, a sophist and civilian of Egyptian extraction, wrote the history of the Emperor Mauricius (582602) in eight books, all of which are preserved. The work seems to have been completed under Heraclius. Theophylactus lived until 628 or 629. He is an accurate and not inelegant writer, but frequently trivial and frigid. IV. Joannes of Epiphaneia, a contemporary of Theophylactus, wrote the history of the wars of the Greeks and Persians from the latter part of Justinian's reign until the restoration of Chosroes II. by Mauricius (591). His history has never been printed, but is said to exist in MS. at Heidelberg. V. The Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (reigned 911959). Among the many services rendered to literature by this learned sovereign is to be enumerated his history of his grandfather Basil the Macedonian, emperor from 867 to 886. VI. Genesius, who lived in the time of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, wrote by his order the history of Basil II. and of his four immediate predecessors (813886). The work is brief and meagre, but is almost the only authority we possess for a portion of the period described. VII. Joannes Cameniata, a native of Thessalonica, and cross-bearer to the archbishop, wrote an account, which has been preserved, of the sack of that wealthy city by the Saracens in 904. Cameniata himself was one of the captives, and his narrative is very lively and valuable. VIII. Leo Diaconus, an ecclesiastic in the latter half of the 10th century, is the author of an indifferently written, but honest and instructive, narrative of the remarkable period of national recovery under the emperors Romanus II., Nicephorus Phocas, and John Zimisces, when Crete was reconquered, Syria invaded, and the Russians driven out of Bulgaria (959975). Leo wrote at least as late as 993. IX. Nicephorus Bryennius, the son-in-law of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus, and one of the first statesmen and generals of his time, wrote in four books the history of the empire under the Comneni from 1057 to 1081. X. His still more celebrated wife, Anna Comnena, daughter of the Emperor Alexius, and the marvel of her sex at that extremely low period of female education, wrote (1148) the history of her father in fifteen books. The period of Alexius is peculiarly interesting as that in which the barrier of Byzantine isolation was broken down, and the East and West brought into contact by the encroachments of the Normans on the Eastern empire and by the Crusades. We cannot be too grateful to the Princess Anna for her vivid sketch of the arrival of the Crusaders at Constantinople, and the relations between them and the Byzantine court. Her work, however, must be used with great caution. Gibbon's employment of it is an example of his usual discernment. XI. Her history was continued by Joannes Cinnamus, one of the in most eminent of all the Byzantine historians. He was one of the imperial notaries under the reign of Manuel Comnenus (11431180), an office nearly corresponding to that of a modern secretary of state. He had, consequently, great administrative experience, and a thorough knowledge of the relations of the empire with foreign states, and of the internal affairs of the latter. He is thus in an excellent position for writing history, besides which his own judgment and sagacity are of a very superior order, and his style is commonly terse and clear. Like most writers who have themselves participated in the transactions they describe, he is not altogether exempt from partiality. His history comprehends the period from the death of Alexius Comnenus in 1118 to the siege of Iconium by Manuel Comnenus in 1176, four years before the death of that emperor. There is little doubt that Cinnamus brought his work down to the close of Manuel's reign, and that the conclusion is lost. XII. Nicetas Acominatus, or Choniates, a patrician and holder of many important public offices under the emperor Isaac Angelus at the beginning of the 13th century, described the same period as Cinnamus, but continued his narrative to 1206. The latter books of Nicetas's history possess especial importance, inasmuch as they contain the Byzantine account of the taking of Constantinople by the Latins in the fourth crusade (1204). Nicetas's own palace was burned and plundered, and he escaped with difficulty to Nicæa, where he composed his history under the protection of the emperor Theodore Lascaris. His narrative, though too rhetorical, is striking and pathetic; it necessarily requires careful comparison with the Latin accounts. The remainder of his history is also valuable. He is also said to be the author of an account of the statues destroyed by the Latins, which, however, is thought to have been interpolated by a later writer. It has been published by Wilken (Leipsic, 1830). XIII. Georgius Acropolita, an eminent scholar and diplomatist, who lived from 12201282, wrote the history of the Eastern empire during its subjugation by the Latins (12041261). The work is so brief that it has been regarded as merely an epitome of Acropolita's original history. XIV. Georgius Pacymeres, a priest and ecclesiastical jurist under Michael and Andronicus Palæologus, wrote the history of these emperors (12581308) in thirteen books. Pachymeres is one of the best of the Byzantine historians ; his style is singularly good for his age, and his tone dignified and impartial. XV. Nicephorus Gregoras, a man of great learning, but passionate and untrustworthy as an historian, wrote the history of his country from 12041358, in thirty-eight books, the last fourteen of which remained unpublished until 1855, when they were edited at Bonn by Immanuel Bekker. After the recovery of Constantinople by the Greeks in 1261, Byzantine politics entered into a new phase; the feeble and distracted empire, unable to make head against the Turks, was compelled to lean for support upon the European powers, which it sought to obtain by patching up the long-standing religious schism. Greeks and Latins, however, were equally resolved to concede nothing save in appearance, and the history of the time is to a great extent that of hollow negotiations, meant only to deceive. In these Gregoras had a considerable share; he also took an active part in the internal religious controversies of his church, and his personal knowledge of affairs imparts considerable value to his history. He was at one time a favourite of the Emperor Cantacuzenus, but was subsequently persecuted by him. He possessed extensive attainments, and is especially celebrated for having anticipated the astronomers of Pope Gregory XIII. in the correction of the Julian Calendar. XVI. The Emperor John Cantacuzenus, after his abdication, wrote the history of his times from 13201357, including the fifteen years of his own eventful reign. This “is written,” as Dr Plate observes, “with elegance and dignity, and shows that the author was a man of superior intelligence, fully able to understand and judge of the great events of history;” but Gibbon's remark is no less just that Cantacuzenus “presents, not a confession, but an apology of the life of an ambitious statesman. Instead of unfolding the true counsels and characters of men, he displays the smooth and specious surface of events, highly varnished with his own praises and those of his friends.” The truth is arrived at by a comparison of Cantacuzenus with the rival and inimical narrative of Nicephorus Gregoras, so far as they cover the same ground. XVII. Joannes Cananus wrote an account of the siege of Constantinople by Amurath II. in 1422; and XVIII. Joannes Anagnostes described the capture of Thessalonica by the same Sultan in 1430. XIX. Michael Ducas, the chief historian of the fall of the Greek empire, escaped from the sack of Constantinople to Lesbos, where he entered into the service of the prince of that island, and wrote his history after the reduction of Lesbos by the Turks in 1462. It commences in 1342, aud goes down to the conquest of Lesbos. Ducas is the most difficult and barbarous of all the Byzantine historians, and the only one who appears entirely unacquainted with classical models. At the same time he is among the most intelligent, impartial, and sagacious. The ruin of the Greek empire has also been recorded by XX. Georgius Phrantzes and XXI. Laonicus Chalcocondyles. Both of these were eminent among the states men of their disastrous period, and Phrantzes in particular played a very important part in diplomacy. Broken hearted at the capture of his native city and the death of his son and daughter in slavery, he retired to a monastery in Corfu, where he wrote his Chronicon about 1477, to which year it extends. It commences at the year 1259, but by far the most valuable portion is that which records the transactions of the author's lifetime, and the value of this is very great. Chalcocondyles, beginning at 1298, brings his history down to the invasion of the Morea by the Turks in 1463. He also is an accomplished man, of much experience in. public business; and although his digressions respecting the affairs and manners of other nations are irrelevant, and betray ignorance, they are interesting as an index to the knowledge possessed by his countrymen at his time.

II. Chroniclers and Chronologers. The chronologers usually published in the Byzantine collection are frequently very valuable, but neither their lives nor their writings need detain us long. They are I. Georgius Syncellus, the attendant (syncellus) upon the patriarch Tarasius, about the beginning of the 9th century. His unfinished chronicle extends from Adam to Diocletian, and was continued to 813 A.D. by II. Theophanes Isaurus, a martyr in the cause of image worship. III. Leo Grammaticus and IV. Georgius Monachus continued Theophanes to 948 and 944 respectively. V. The chronicle of the Syrian Joannes Malalas extends from the beginning of the world to the year 566. Malalas is usually supposed to have lived in the 9th century, and to have left his work incomplete, but some regard him as contemporary of Justinian. VI. Nicephorus Patriarcha, Patriarch of Constantinople under Leo the Armenian, early in the 9th century, compiled a chronological history from the murder of the Emperor Mauricius to his own times, and an abridged chronological manual of events from the Creation. VII. Julius Pollux, a writer of the 10th century, compiled a chronology, chiefly of ecclesiastical occurrences, to the year 963, which has only been printed as far as the death of Valens (377). VIII. The contemporary chronicle of Hippolytus of Thebes is of little value. IX. The valuable Chronicon Paschale, which extends to 1042, is the work of three anonymous writers. There has been considerable difficulty in settling the respective claims to originality of X. Joannes Scylitza and XI. Georgius Cedrenus, but the latter was probably the copyist. The contrary opinion has prevented the publication of Scylitza's work, with the exception of the portions not transcribed by Cedrenus. These extend from 1057 to 1080. The chronicle of Cedrenus reaches from the Creation to the former of these dates. XII. The chronicle of Constantine Manasses is written in political verses, and extends from the beginning of the world to the accession of Alexius Comnenus in 1281. XIII. Michael Glycas, a writer of uncertain date, published a general chronology down to the year 1118. XIV. The abbreviated chronicle of Joel reaches the capture of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204 XV. The chronicle of Georgius Codinus, a writer of the 15th century, comes down to the capture of Constantinople, and is associated with a compilation respecting the antiquities of the city, which is of much greater value.

The contribution of the Byzantine historians to literature may be compared with the part enacted by the Byzantine empire in the history of the world. That empire added nothing to the treasures of civilization, but it preserved much. Like the earth in winter, it seemed barren and unlovely, but it kept the good seed hidden in its bosom for better days. Had it perished before the intellectual revival of Western Europe, the solution of continuity between ancient and modern culture would have been irreparable. In like manner the Byzantine historians preserved the traditions of historical composition, while their brethren of the West were merely chroniclers and annalists. They have safely embalmed in their generally unattractive pages a vast mass of most valuable information, for which we are in most cases solely dependent upon them, and they aid us to reconstruct the polity, and to some extent the social life, of what was for several centuries the only really civilized Christian state in the world. They are undoubtedly for the most part perfectly ignorant of the significance of their own times; they have postponed what was really interesting to barren details of battles and court intrigues, and have wasted opportunities which would have been invaluable to a philosophic historian. Cinnamus and Ducas are the only two with any claim to this character, and Anna Comnena is the only artist. When, however, all their disadvantages are taken into consideration, it will probably be deemed that they are much better than might have been expected. They were isolated from all the rest of the known world by prejudice, policy, and religious hatred. There was no scientific or other intellectual movement in their times, no aspiration for liberty, no conception of a more liberal culture; they were crushed by a rigid despotism, and enthralled by an abject superstition. Under these circumstances the good sense and sagacity of many among them are very remarkable, and are chiefly to be explained by the large proportion among them of men accustomed to practical life and public affairs. Their roll includes sovereigns, generals, prime ministers, secretaries of state, diplomatists, and other important public officers; even the ecclesiastics among them are not recluses but men versed in business. The Byzantine civil service was the strong point of the empire, and its solid if prosaic qualities are admirably reflected by its literary representatives.


The first collective edition of the Byzantine historians was published at Paris, 16481702, in 27 volumes, with a preface by Labbe, and notes and translations by Fabrotus, Combefisius, and others. It was reprinted, with additions, at Venice, 172933. These editions are superseded by the great edition of Bonn, 182855, in 48 volumes, undertaken at the recommendation and under the superintendence of Niebuhr, and continued after his death under the patronage of the Royal Prussian Academy. The separate volumes are edited, by Bekker, Dindorf, Hase, and other distinguished scholars; nevertheless, according to Brunet, “de bons textes des historiens byzantins restent encore a donner.” Like former collections it contains several works of value not strictly belonging to Byzantine history, but illustrative of it. No guide to Byzantine history is comparable to Gibbon, whose narrative of this period is an unparalleled literary feat of masterly and impartial condensation. See likewise Lebeau, Histoire du Bas Empire, Paris, 182436. Mr Finlay's volumes are also invaluable companions to the Byzantine historians. Of special works on the subject, the most important is Hankius, De Byzantinarum rerum scriptoribus Græcis Leipsic, 1677, a book distinguished by extensive and accurate erudition, but necessarily deficient as respects the writers not published in the author's day. It contains notices of Byzantine ecclesiastical writers also. Special points of interest are discussed in Von Hammer's essay in the Göttingen Annals, (vol. 6) on the correction of the Byzantine historians from Ottoman sources; in Heyne's Antiquatates Byzantinæ (180811); and in Hullman's Geschichte des Byzantinischen Handels (1808). Sabatier's great work on Byzantine numismatics also affords much illustrative matter, and there is a lively sketch of the general social condition of the Eastern Empire in Augustin Marrast's Esquisses Byzantines (Paris, 1874.)

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