Byzantine Historians, The
Byzantine Historians, The
I. General Classification. — This is the name habitually, but inaccurately, applied to the long succession of authors, of diverse merits and of diverse aims, who record or illustrate the course of the Roman empire in the East, from the accession of Constantine till after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans. By some authorities, the term is restricted to the writers subsequent to the accession of Justinian. It is a loose name, and there is least hazard of misapprehension in its widest employment. The designation has been bestowed upon those writers by modern editors, who have associated their, works in grand collections, under the title of Corpus Scriptorusm Historice Byzantince, in consonance with the convenient appellation given to the biographers of the emperors from Hadrian to Diocletian, and who are known as the Scriptores Historice Augustce. The assimilation of the titles, and the distinction of the collections, are principally due to the general similarity of design and the difference of the languages employed by the respective authors. The Byzantine and the Augustan historians alike record the reigns of the Roman emperors; but the latter compose their works in Latin; the former write almost exclusively in Greek, and the empire of the West is not distinctly contemplated by them. Yet even this ground of discrimination is, in some degree, deceptive.. Claudian and Ammianus Marcellinus are excluded from the Byzantines. Both write in Latin. The former is occupied with the Western emperor, Honorius; but his diatribes on Rufinus and Eutropius throw much light, upon contemporaneous affairs in the East. The latter treats mainly upon Eastern transactions, but the earlier part takes in the previous series of emperors. But Merobaudes and Corippus, who are Latin poets, like Claudian, are admitted into the Catena Byzantina, though Merobaudes devotes himself to a Western hero. Eusebius is scarcely included in the' fraternity, though he writes in Greek, and has left a Life of Constantine.
Zosimus embraced the entire history of the imperial rule down to his own day. The exclusion of Claudian and Ammianus Marcellinus is to be explained, not by the Occidental character of the one, nor by the Latin phrase of both, but by the existence of critical and annotated editions of each author, which dispensed with; the necessity of their reproduction in a collection inevitably extensive, and so ample that it may never be fully completed. The same reason may be assigned for the omission of Eusebius.
Thus the term Byzantine Historians is unavoidably indistinct and wavering. It has been determined by the compass of the collections, not by any definite principle beyond the requirement that the subject-matter of the accepted treatises should be connected with the story, the institutions, or the characteristics of the empire of the East. Many of these writers, like the monastic chroniclers of the West, begin with the creation of the world, and either write brief annals of the generations, or introduce by such dry notices contemporaneous or recent history. Many of the writers are of the priestly easte, or are inclined to theological disputation.. Thus, they often notice, with peculiar diligence, the succession and years of the patriarchs, and plunge with zest into religious controversies; but professedly ecclesiastical history does not fall within 'the scope of these collections, though we find in the Bonn edition the Historia Patriarchica Constantinopolitana. Several treatises, too, not formally historical, are admitted. Provision is made for such comprehension by the title attached "The Body of Byzantine Writers." All render important service to the historical appreciation of the times and countries.
Notwithstanding the heavy expenditure by Louis XIV on the first edition of this great Corpus Scriptorum-notwithstanding the vast and various labor of Du Cange, Labbe, Possinus, Banduri, Niebuhr, and other collaborators, upon the editions of Paris, Venice, and Bonn-this long series of writers has been little regarded, Ultil very recent times, except by professed historians of the empire, like Cousin, Mulatori, Gibbon, Le Beau, and Finlay. Yet they merit wider and closer consideration. They have an interest and a value of their own, unlike any derived from other sources or periods. Nowhere else do the records of the world present twelve centuries of continuous history, written, in great measure, by contemporaries, with fulness and discernment. Nowhere else do we find such various illustrations of the political, .social, military, and ecclesiastical life of one organic system. Nowhere else is it possible to study the processes of natural decline and decrepitude, and the change from bad to worse, from worse to worser still, in so many and in such minute particulars. Nowhere else are the phenomena of the internal and of the external dissolution of a civilization presented in so many aspects, and in such diversified detail. Nowhere else are the authorities of higher rank, or more intimately. associated with the events described. Nowhere else are incidents more startling, more strange, or of more romantic character accumulated, than in the obscure pages of these unnoted writers. These circumstances may have enhanced the recently renovated interest in these little-read authors, which has been so marked of late years, especially in Germany. These attractions have been the rewards of increased study, not incitements to it. The true cause of renewed regard may be assigned to the growing gravity of the perilous and perplexed Eastern question, Which has drawn the .eyes of all to the beautiful city on the Golden Horn, and to the remnants of the vast empire of which it is the capital. The expiring agonies of a mighty system, which only two centuries ago was the terror of Christendom, and which, at the time of the discovery of America, threatened to obtain universal dominion, possess a portentous fascination for the student of human affairs. Exactly the same mortal change pursued its languid course a thousand years ago, in the same regions, and under the operation of similar influences. The best commentary upon the morbid conditions now prevailing, and the clearest insight into their progress and tendency, may be derived from the phenomena of the earlier age. Hence, partly by conscious determination, mainly by that curious instinct which guides the vocations of the ages, an earnest and rapidly growing attention has been attracted to the Byzantine historians.
Under this name are included several distinct classes of writers, and some who cannot be reduced to any class. About one half are systematic historians; others are meagre annalists; some are simple chronographers. There are biographers, and memoir writers, and panegyrists. Some describe edifices, ceremonials, or institutions. There is a reporter of scandals and tattle. A few note only a single transaction. Many discharge more than one of these functions. Among the authors are emperors, as Constantine Porphyrogenitus and Joannes Cantacuzenus; members of imperial houses, as Anna Comnena and Ducas; patriarchs and bishops, as Photius and Eustathius; statesmen and diplomatists, as Georgius Pachymeres and Nicephorus Gregoras; high officials and legists, as Georgius Codinus and Joannes Lydus; and secretaries, as Procopius and Joannes Cinnamus. Logical classification of such a promiscuous assemblage of ranks, vocations, and topics is impossible. The members are accidentally brought together, and are connected by community of country and purpose-not by similarity of subject or treatment. Relation to the life of the Byzantine empire is the only intrinsic connection. In style they differ widely from each other, passing from the semi-Attic propriety of Procopius and Agathias to the Latinisms of Theophanes, the extravagant rhetoric of Anna Gomnena, the dense obscurity of Nicephorus Gregoras, the neologisms of Ducas and Phrantzes, and the utter corruption of the Historia Patriarchica. They write according to the changing tongues and fashions of more than thirty generations. In despite, however, of multitudinous discrepancies, a serviceable arrangement of these works may be proposed.
The Byzantine writers are over seventy in number. Several of them have not been published, or have been published only in part. Critobulus was first given to the public by Muller, in his Fragmenta Historicorum Grcecorum, as late as 1869. They may be divided into two great classes, the miscellaneous writers and the historical writers. The subjects treated by the former are various and distinct. We have treatises by Constantine Porphyrogenitus on the conduct of the empire, on ceremonials, and on the provinces; by Nicephorus Gregoras on the statues, pictures, etc., destroyed by the Franks of the fourth crusade; by Lydus, on magistracies; by Codinus Curopalata, on officials;' by Procopius,,on public buildings; by Paulus Silentiarius, Descriptio Sanctce Sophice. It is much to be regretted that the monograph of the emperor Alexius I, on the finances of the: empire, has not yet been edited.
The most important and instructive of these writings are Joannes Lydus on magistracies, and Constantine Porphyrogenitus on the conduct of the empire. The one gives a graphic and needful view of the judicial machinery; the latter, a curious and suggestive account of the relations of the empire, in the 10th century, with surrounding races and contemporaneous states. The' trickery, the deception, the meanness, the unblushing fraud which are recommended, reveal conscious imbecility without diminution of arrogance, vanity, and pretension. Strange glimpses, too, are afforded of the condition of rude tribes and incipient kingdoms. The tinsel splendor and empty stateliness of the formal court are illustrated by the same emperor's formulas of ceremonial, and, at a later date, by the roll of dignities prepared by the grand master of the household, Georgius Codinus.
II. The Historical Writers. — Of these, the earliest in date is Praxagoras; the latest, Critobulus, and the author or authors of the Historica Politica et Patriarchica. The work of Praxagoras was composed, as he tells us, in his twenty-second year, and his date is assigned to the reign of Constantine or of his successor. There is only one fragment extant, and that is brief and unimportant. It has not been inserted in the editions of the Byzantine historians, but is given in Moller's Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum. Many of the earlier historians, as Dexippus, Priscus Panita, Malchus, exist only in fragmentary form, and gratitude is due to the patriarch Photius and to the emperor Constantine VII for preserving what remains of them. The latest writers of this class extend beyond the duration of the empire, and connect the Roman world with the modern age.
These historians may be conveniently but loosely distributed into three classes: (1) panegyrists; (2) chroniclers, chronographers, and annalists, more or less dry and jejune; (3) historians, general, particular, or incidental, represented respectively by Zonaras, Cinnamus, and Eustathius, De Excidio Thessalonicensi.
1. The panegyrists are Merobaudes, who leaves a broken and unintelligible eulogy on Aetius, and belongs to the Western empire; Procopius and Priscian, on Anastasius; and the encomium of Corippus on Justin II, which is a metrical history of that monarch, like the " Robert Guiscard" of William of Apulia.
2. No sharp line of discrimination can be drawn between the chroniclers or chronographers and the historians proper, for their characteristics are often blended. The absence of reflection or independent judgment may be made the ground of distinction. The chronographers are about twenty-five in number, and vary in extent and character. The most important are Georgius Syncellus SEE SYNCELLUS, with the continuation of Theophanes and his successors, and the Paschal chronicle.
3. Of the historians, properly so named, there are five who conduct the history of the Roman empire from Augustus to the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. Zosimus begins with Augustus, and comes down to the taking of Rome by Attila. Zonaras opens with a universal chronicle, but gives a fuller account of events from Constantine to the death of Alexius Comnenus. Nicetas Choniates continues the story to the Latin conquest. Nicephorus Gregoras records the transactions down to 1359. Laonicus Chalcocondylas concludes the tale of a thousand years with the history of the Ottoman Turks, and with their overthrow of the Eastern empire. These are writers of considerable but unequal merit. Zonaras is of especial interest, for the long period which he embraces, for his continuous narrative, for his preservation of details otherwise unknown, for his perspicuity and general intelligence. Zosimus has a distinct philosophical aim-the exposition of the causes inducing the decay of the empire. He is accused of prejudice and malevolence-charges easily brought against a pagan of his day-but he writes clearly, forcibly, and well, and reveals the signs and symptoms of the waning majesty of Rome. Nicetas Choniates, or Acominates, and Nicephorus Gregoras are clumsy and tedious writers, but they transmit the account of a dismal period of vice, crime, national distress, and revolution. Laonicus Chalcocondylas records in wretched phrase the rise and progress of the Ottoman Turks, and the last century and a half of the expiring empire.
A livelier interest attaches to those writers who relate the eventful periods in which they were themselves actors, or with which they were intimately and personally acquainted. Procopius, Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Nicephorus Bryennius, and his imperial spouse, Anna Comnena, Joannes Cinnamus, Georgius Pachymeres, Joannes Cantacuzenus, and Georgius Phrantzes, are the most prominent of these. They were all on the scene of action; they were all, at the centre of events. As a historical writer, for style, for vigor, for reach of thought, and for delineation of character, Procopius far surpasses any other Byzantine author. SEE PROCOPIUS. There is no exaggeration in designating him the Thucydides of the empire. His work was continued by Agathias, and further extended by Menander, the Protector. The emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who has contributed in so many ways to our knowledge of Byzantine affairs, is entitled to special regard for his biography of his father, Basil, the founder of the Macedonian dynasty. Nicephorus Bryennius and Anna Comnena were connected, not merely by the bonds of matrimony, but also by community of subject. The husband wrote the history of the Comneni till the acquisition of the throne by Alexius I; the wife took up the pious task at her husband's death, and narrates the reign of her father. Both are among the most entertaining writers of the whole series, but a peculiar interest attaches to Anna's Alexiad, from the rank, abilities, and accomplishments of the princess, and from the attractive topics of that notable period. During that reign occurred the invasion of the empire by Robert Guiscard and the Normans; the exciting incidents of the first crusade; and the manifold other hazards and perplexities of the failing empire. SEE COMNENA, ANNA. Joannes Cinnamus, a confidential officer of high rank, reports with brevity the career of the right-minded Kalo-Joannes, and with fulness and discretion the chivalrous reign of the heroic, but wayward and dissolute, Manuel Comnenus. George Pachymeres, one of the weightiest and driest of these historians, records the fortunes of the Hellenic empire- during the Frank domination, and under the rule of the first Palmeologus Joannes Cantacuzenus, who himself usurped the imperial sceptre, relates, with partial view, and in intricate and inflated phraseology, but with ingenuity and minuteness, the vicissitudes of those troublous years of family and civil discord which compelled him to seize and to abdicate the empire. There is a melancholy fascination in the sorrowful narrative of Georgius Phrantzesa loyal dignitary and a member of the reigning house, Who recounts the story of the Palaeologi, and the hazards, the dismay, the massacre, outrages, and ravage which attended the last struggle, and marked the extinction of Roman suzerainty.
In looking over the course of this long and slow dissolution, there are distinct stages in the descent-,which arrest regard and repay careful meditation. With these successive lines of degradation correspond equally notable changes among other races, promoting a diverse civilization. An acquaintance with the contrasts and reciprocal influences of the contending systems, during the anxious centuries, is only one of the instructive lessons to be gained from the Byzantine historians, who are thus indispensable for an intelligent appreciation of the forces which have built up the modern world on the crumbling ruins of the old.
III. Literature. — The illustration of the Byzantine writers must be sought in the introductions, prefaces, and commentaries attached to individual authors, and especially in the treatises and notes of Du Cange. The only works of a general character to be cited here are, Hankius, De Byzant. Rerum Script. Grcecis (Leipsic, 1677); Nikolai, in Ersch und Gruber's Enkyklopdaie (ibid. 1870), 'Geschichte der Byzantin Literatur. (G.F.H.)