ElAnt v4n2 - Reviews - The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor:Byzantine and Near Eastern History AD 284-813

Volume 4, Number 2
April 1998

The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor:
Byzantine and Near Eastern History AD 284-813

(transl. Cyril Mango and Roger Scott)

Cyril Mango and Roger Scott
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997, pp. 744
ISBN 0-19-822568-7. AUD$240

Reviewed by:
Andrew Gillett,
School of History, Philosophy & Politics
Macquarie University,
NSW 2109,
email: agillett@ocs1.ocs.mq.edu.au

The Chronicle of Theophanes is the last and most extensive work in Greek in the genre of chronographic narrative established by Eusebius in the early fourth century AD. The work covers more than half a millennium from the accession of Diocletian down to the Byzantine emperor Michael I, but the Chronicle arose from an even more ambitious project: a complete account of universal history from the Creation, conceived and carried as far as Diocletian by Theophanes' friend George Synkellos. Theophanes, according to his introduction, completed the remainder, using materials gathered by George, after George's death. The narrative of Theophanes' contribution therefore runs from the Roman imperial restoration of the Tetrarchs to the world of the iconoclast Byzantine emperors, the Abbasid caliphates, and the Carolingian emperors. Though the bulk of entries concerns imperial and ecclesiastical politics in Byzantine Constantinople, events in the late- and post- Roman West, Sassanian Persia, and Islamic Syria feature regularly. Theophanes covers much of the geographical and temporal spread of late Antiquity, and his Chronicle is a valuable companion to the study of the period. Much of the material in the latter part of the Chronicle is unique, but the earlier section, up to the beginning of the seventh century, consists largely of selections from sources (some of the most important of which were in turn compendia of earlier works) which are either extant or for which close comparanda exist. The whole is a rich and diverse mine of data. Despite the difficulties in using Theophanes, whose chronography is often brave but flawed, the Chronicle is a constant point of reference for much work in late antique or early Byzantine history if only because of its compass alone.

The great value of Mango and Scott's version is to provide not only a translation and a detailed technical introduction to the Chronicle but an authoritative, point-by-point guide to matters of chronology, sources, and historical context for every entry in the entire work. Theophanes arranged his chronicle in annual entries, under the rubrics of the annus mundi. Two sets of apparatus accompany each year entry. The apparatus fontium includes works used verbatim or summarised, and comparanda. The explanatory notes offer corrections and additions to chronological and narrative details, more extensive discussion of use of sources, modern bibliography, and observations on the composition of the Chronicle. The range of topics addressed in the explanatory annotations is most impressive, and itself constitutes a handy manual of Byzantine ecclesiastical history, politics, and topography as well as early Islamic history. M. and S. state that `[the] study [of the Chronicle] is in a very real sense the study of its sources: before he can use any part of it the historian must attempt to determine the origin of each entry and the degree of deformation it has undergone at the hands of its medieval editor or editors' (lxxiv). The commentary presented by the parallel apparatus, authoritatively guiding the reader through the apparent chaos of fact and error, performs this task of rendering the information of the Chronicle accessible and useful.

M. and S.'s introduction and commentary (the division of labour is defined at p. vi) provide a review of the current position of the considerable bibliography on Theophanes, and offer new observations. The degree to which the authorship of the work can be attributed to Theophanes, whose career as abbot of the monastery of Agros is known from other sources, or to George Synkellos, his predecessor as a chronicler, is discussed at length (li-lxii passim, lxxxv). Though in the final analysis the exact share of work cannot be determined, it seems very likely that the access to Syriac sources evident in the Chronicle and other matters of outlook reflect the work of George, not Theophanes (the implication that Theophanes' character -- described by contemporaries as easy-going, generous, and somewhat self- indulgent -- makes him unlikely to have been the author of a scholarly historical work, is perhaps rather disheartening to those of us in the profession). The work appears to have been published posthumously, in 842 or after (Theophanes died in 818, an exile on account of his iconodule beliefs), in an incomplete or at least unrevised state, but to have then achieved immediate wide circulation, copies perhaps being produced at his own monastery (lxii-lxiii, xcviii). Theophanes's identifiable sources, the most complex issue in the study of his work, are laid out systematically but with brevity in twenty pages (lxxiv-xcv). Theophanes was almost the archetypical medieval compiler, drawing from sources which, generally, he changed as little as possible. The complexity of the quellengeschichte is intimidating; several of the main identifiable sources, such as the ecclesiastical histories of Theodore Lector, were themselves compendia of earlier works and are now extant only in fragments. Theophanes gives witness to a number of important lost works, and for some he is almost the sole preserver. These include not only Greek works such as a fourth-century Arian church historian and the fifth-century historian Priscus, but also, as M. and S. reveal, a Greek translation of a Syriac chronicle (or chronicles), covering most of the seventh and eighth centuries with some possible earlier extracts from the fourth century (lxxxii- lxxxvii). The use of this source gives the Chronicle a unique horizon, embracing the Caliphs of Damascus and Baghdad and their Christian subjects. The use of several extant sources, including some books of Procopius' Wars (Theophanes, like Photius, does not seem to have had access to the Gothic Wars or to Agathias, but did have the Vandal Wars) and Theophylact Simocatta, act as a control, indicating that Theophanes was generally faithful to the original when extracting from or summarising a source. Identifiable intrusions by Theophanes, which are few, are discussed in the introduction and noted in the apparatus to the translation. The apparatus also contains additions or corrections to the sources listed in the standard, Bonn series edition by Carl de Boor (Leipzig 1883, 1885), the basis for the translation (e.g. anno mundi 5898 n. e; anno mundi 5950 n. 4; several possible fragments of Priscus, annis mundi 5961 n. 7, 5962 n. 2, 5964 n. 2). The apparatus constantly provides direction around the vagaries of Theophanes' chronology, pointing out, for example, the many instances in which the rubrics for each anno mundi entry are at variance with the text of the entry (e.g. bishops and secular rulers, whose years in office are tabulated under the anno mundi date before each entry, often appear in the rubrics long after the text has recorded their death); the appearance of doublets; the redistribution of material from years with generous sources to more exiguous neighbours; and instances in which, though the anno mundi year for an entry may be evidently wrong, another temporal indicator within the text itself, such as indiction years, has a high probability of veracity.

Theophanes' Chronicle was the last work to combine narrative and rigid chronographic form in the tradition of Eusebius (or more accurately, in the tradition of Eusebius's continuators, none of whom other than Jerome attempted to maintain Eusebius's format of parallel columns for coeval kingdoms). Later Byzantine chronicles rediscovered older formats, such as Nikephoros' lists of names from Adam accompanied by numbers of years but no narrative content, or the imperial biographies of Theophanes' anonymous Continuator. The Chronicle is a work used primarily as a source to plunder, rarely as a composition in its own right. The earlier section, to the seventh century, is valuable not only for preserving fragments of otherwise lost authors and for acting as a comparandum to extant contemporary source material, but also for a number of uniquely attested details of greater or lesser length (e.g. the imperial accession of Constantius III, the second husband of Galla Placidia and father of the future emperor Valentinian III, is well attested elsewhere, but only Theophanes preserves exact dates for Constantius's elevation and his death soon afterwards; he is almost unique in stating that Constantius was murdered, which is at odds with other sources, in particular the well-informed Olympiodorus of Thebes, frag. 33.1). For the latter two centuries of coverage, there are few identifiable sources, and none for the final three decades after 780. For this period, Theophanes becomes a primary source, valuable for the court politics of Constantinople and for the relations of the Byzantine empire with the Caliphate, the Bulgarians, and the early Carolingians. His narrative is of interest not only for the details of events it provides, but for glimpses of channels of communication throughout the Mediterranean world of the eighth and ninth centuries. The use of Syriac material is one such sign. Another, noted with interest by students of the West, is the account of the alliance between the Papacy and the Carolingians, resulting in the deposition of the last Merovingian king of the Franks in favour of the new dynasty. Theophanes' record of these western events is less remarkable for factual errors (Pope Stephan II is conflated with Pope Zacharias -- and is wrongly identified by M. and S. as Stephan III, cf. p. lxxi, a very rare error; Pippin III is conflated with his father Charles Martel; and the story of Pope Stephan's crossing of the Alps to Francia is set thirty years too early) than for the exact echo of Carolingian propaganda, justifying Pippin's usurpation by denigrating the Merovingian dynasty. M. and S. suggest that Theophanes' version may have originated in the Greek colony of Rome (lxxxviii, 557 n.2), though it has been more usual to suppose official dissemination of this propaganda via Frankish envoys to Constantinople (e.g. The New Cambridge Medieval History vol. 2 [Cambridge: 1995] 97); either possibility highlights the extent to which both parts of what was still considered to be the Roman empire in the eighth century remained in contact with each other.

M. and S.'s translation and commentary is a welcome addition to a series of recent and excellent works on late antique and Byzantine chronicles (including Michael and Mary Whitby's Chronicon Paschale; the two volumes on Malalas by Elizabeth Jeffreys, Brian Croke, Roger Scott et al.; Brian Croke's Marcellinus Comes; and Richard Burgess's Hydatius), and supplants the widely- available, earlier English translation by Harry Turtledove (Philadelphia: 1982). This weighty book, with its accurate translation, magisterial survey of modern studies, and profoundly informed commentary, is a substantial and useful contribution to the study of late Roman/Byzantine history and historiography, which will be reached for gratefully by all who work in these areas.

Andrew Gillett
email: agillett@ocs1.ocs.mq.edu.au

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 4 Issue 2 - April 1998 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington antiquity-editor@classics.Server.edu.au ISSN 1320-3606

by Kaavya Giridhar