History and Chronicle

Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State is justly regarded as the standard for Byzantine History. It is both readable and comprehensive. What I most appreciate though is the section at the beginning of each chapter called “Sources.” For me, this is the best part of the book. If you read the actual primary sources I find they tell a fascinating story that I don’t see fully reflected in most secondary source readings.

According to Ostrogorsky “The early Byzantine state had clung with astonishing tenacity to Latin as the official language… Heraclius put an end to this state of affairs and Greek, the medium of the people and the Church, became the official language of the Byzantine Empire.” (106) When I first read this I wondered why the switch from Latin to Greek paralleled a serious decline in the use and style of Greek prose. While it seems obvious in retrospect, it was a puzzle to me at the time. Then I realized the order of causation was reversed. A decline in learning and education most likely led to a decline in the use of all archaic languages both Latin and formal Attic Greek. As a result of this decline Heraclius was forced to switch to a greater use of the common Byzantine Greek, as there were fewer people who could understand and use Attic Greek and Latin. This decline was not all bad however. A few centuries of somewhat weak prose in common Byzantine Greek and highly conventional Christian forms led to the liberation of Byzantium from merely copying classical models and allowed writers like Michael Psellos and Anna Comnena to develop a very original and Byzantine style of writing.

The Age of Historia
While Herodotus was the one of the earliest to write a historia, it was Thucydides who defined the genre. He viewed history as the result of human choices and actions. He worked from experience, his own or others that he knew. He looked for naturalistic causes and effects, and tried to maintain a neutral or objective point of view. And he wrote in the Attic Greek dialect native to classical era Athens. This style was highly influential and was imitated by Xenophon, Polybius, and many Byzantine historians.

Classical models Part 1–Roman/Latin History
Our first important source for Byzantine history was Ammianus Marcellinus’ Res Gestae. It was written by a Greek writer in Latin, the language of Imperial administration. The original 31 books (only 18 survive) were a continuation of the Roman historian Tacitus, in his language and style. It has generally been regarded as comprehensive and objective. His narrative style is easy to follow and enjoyable to read.

Classical models Part 2–Attic-influenced Greek
Procopius’ Hyper ton polemonand and Agathias’ Historia continue the tradition of Thucydides in the era of Justinian. They wrote analytic narratives of their times and used Thucydides same Attic Greek dialect, more than eight centuries later. They avoided the “barbarisms” of current Byzantine Greek and when forced to use contemporary terms followed them with explanatory definitions.

Theophylact Simocatta’s Historia attempts to continue this tradition in the early 7th century but he no longer seems able to master the archaic style of Attic Greek. He still adopts an objective and naturalistic approach to events of his time, but his style is no longer clear and direct. This could result from some combination of the Byzantine temperament, changes or lack of skill in the language, or personal idiosyncrasy.

Classical models Part 3– Decline and Fall
Historia syntomos, by Nicephorus I Patriarch of Constantinople, reads a bit like a chronicle, other times like a highly biased religious polemic. The narrative is sometimes disconnected, there are frequent gaps in chronology, and causal connections are often weak or supernatural. He describes with increasing frequency volcanoes, earthquakes, unusual weather conditions, famine, plague, portents, and prodigies. This gives a sense of impending doom usually associated with the evil Emperor and his Iconoclasm. “These misfortunes were inflicted by God’s wrath in as much as the godless and impious ruler of the day… dared to lay their hands on the holy images to the disgrace of Christ’s Church.”

Cyril Mango points out that the only thing missing in Nikephoros is autopsy, (“see for yourself”) meaning that most historians had written primarily about events that they had seen or participated in. He seems to forget that a more objective, naturalistic, critical and rationalistic approach was also an important attribute of most classical historians.

The Chronicle of Theophanes, a continuation of an earlier Chronicle, abandons the objective and critical style as well as the name historia. Where he lacks critical insight and accuracy he makes up for it with sensational propaganda. “Constantine’s actions were impiously carried out… for he was a totally destructive bloodsucking wild beast who used his power tyrannically and illegally. He was against our God and Savior Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mother and all the saints. He was deceived by wizardry, licentiousness, blood sacrifices of horses, dung, and urine… ever since he was a boy he had partaken of absolutely every sort of soul-destroying practice. What can I say?” (104-105)

Theophanes and Nikephoros often appear to be working from the same sources and include many of the same events interpreted with a similar Iconodule perspective.

The Age of Chronikai
After Nikephoros, the Historia will disappear and the Chronikai, written in the current dialect of common Byzantine Greek, will dominate historical prose for the next two and a half centuries. The Chronicle is a chronological account of events. It does not try to create a narrative or context for the events and important and trivial events often receive the same weight and treatment. It tends to be a Christian genre of writing, often beginning with the creation and presumably leading up to the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. In this era there is a great profusion of chronicle writing, some of the more useful and interesting are by Symeon Logothetes, John Scylitzes, Leo Grammaticus, Joseph Genesius and John Zonaras. They can provide information for a period lacking other sources but they tend to make for very dry reading.

The Age of Innovation
Suddenly, in the 11th century we see a great resurgence of historical Greek prose writing. Nikephoros Bryennios’ Historia imitates the style and the language of Xenophon with some degree of success. His writing is direct and clear, avoids the excess of earlier Byzantine writers and returns to a more objective and analytic narrative. But it is the creativity and invention of his wife, Anna Comnena, and her mentor, Michael Psellos that take Byzantine historiography beyond the imitation of classical models. They combine the approach and style of classical Greek narrative with a form based in Christian didactic hagiography to develop an entirely new and truly Byzantine approach to history.

English: Michael Psellos (left) with his stude...

Michael Psellos (left) with his student, Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas. Ελληνικά: Ο Μιχαήλ Ψελλός (αριστερά) με τον μαθητή του, αυτοκράτορα Μιχαήλ Ζ’ Δούκα Παραπινάκη. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Psellos’ Chronographia uses a biographical form derived from Plutarch’s Bios and Christian hagiography. This biographical form does not attempt a comprehensive account of important life events, but a condensed outline of events that define character and demonstrate moral values. Psellos combines this form with the analytic narrative style of Thucydides, Polybius and Xenophon and a moral/political philosophy derived from Plato and Thucydides instead of Church doctrine.

Anna Comnena’s Alexiad follows Psellos’ example, but in her own highly personal execution. She too creates a series of biographies using a narrative style based in Thucydides, Polybius and Xenophon. But instead of the political philosophy of Michael Psellos she excels at a kind of emotional pathos learned from reading Greek literature, especially Homer and the tragedians. She uses this to create very moving portraits that more than compensate for her return to an Attic-style Greek, which at this point seems highly artificial and awkward.


~ by severalfourmany on February 11, 2008.

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