Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.17

Michael Grünbart, Epistularum Byzantinarum Initia.   Hildesheim:  Olms-Weidmann, 2001.  Pp. 43* + 372.  ISBN 3-487-11462-3.  EUR 99.80.  

Reviewed by Niels Gaul, University of Cologne (
Word count: 2526 words

Almost fifty years after Chrysostomus Baur's imposing Initia Patrum Graecorum (1955) and thirty-five years after Enrica Follieri's even more monumental Initia Hymnorum Ecclesiae Byzantinae (1960-66), a new list of initia has made a distinguished appearance in the field of Byzantine studies. Just in time for the twentieth Congrès international des études byzantines convened in Paris in the autumn of 2001, Michael Grünbart has presented the admirable results of his devotion to the genre of Byzantine epistolography, a devotion which manifests itself in an impressive collection of some 15,480 initia drawn from about 260 letter-writers of the Byzantine period, roughly the millennium from the Greek Fathers to the humanists of Renaissance Italy (letters in Greek by, e.g., Leonardo Bruni and Francesco Filelfo have survived). Because of its more 'economical' method of printing and its 'extension' of layout -- Grünbart offers an average of about 45 initia per page -- the Epistularum Byzantinarum Initia appears slightly less stunning in outward appearance than its earlier siblings mentioned above. It almost goes without saying that so vast a task does not allow for more sophisticated methodological approaches comparable to those recently applied to, e.g., Byzantine funeral orations and autobiographical texts.1

Grünbart's (hereafter G) collection is divided into three sections: a succinct introduction (5 pp.) is followed by an extensive bibliography (36 pp.), basically a "Who's Who" of Byzantine letter-writers, before the bulk of initia starts (363 pp.). The volume concludes with an "Index locorum" (10 pp.), assembled by G himself wherever an outdated edition failed to provide one. Laudably, even indirect quotations and allusions have been registered. This review will look at the three major sections in sequence. Quite obviously, though, a collection of initia, of which the supreme virtue should be completeness, cannot be dealt with in quite the same manner as a monograph dedicated to a specific topic or with a consistent line of argumentation. (For this reason I shall refer to a 'user' rather than a 'reader'.) The reviewer may thus be forgiven a probably unexpected amount of detail, especially while discussing the list of initia proper.

The introduction rather concisely describes the aim, scope and, of course, limits of this major undertaking. By means of carefully selected examples, G demonstrates the huge advantages of the Epistularum Byzantinarum Initia (henceforth EBI). (A wider range of examples was offered in an earlier announcement of the project, published in the 2000 volume of Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik, pp. 1-4, as well as in the 2001 volume of Göttinger Beiträge zur Byzantinistik und Neogräzistik, pp. 47-9.)

Further corroboration of the usefulness of G's undertaking can easily be added: if we turn to N. Wilson's 1978 description of MS Barocc. 131, we encounter a number of letters which were then unidentifiable. G's EBI facilitates the discovery that Michael Psellos (s. XI) is the author of these.2

As to the limits of his study, G clearly states which sort of letters he does not take into account (p. 3*): letters forwarded in connection with ecclesiastical councils, imperial missives and pittakia (imperial judgements of an epistolary sort), letters 'integrated' into other literary genres like high-brow romances and historiography, and letters in the vernacular. One need think only of the epistolary love-story in the Livistros and Rhodamne romance to find an example that perfectly fits the last two exceptions.

One feels inclined to agree with all of these criteria but the first. The Clavis Patrum Graecorum, vol. V,3 to which G refers the reader striving to learn more about letters connected with councils, obviously becomes less comprehensive as it progresses through this period. Thus a number of Greek letters related to the later unionist councils, such as the formally successful one of 1438/39, for instance, are missing from the Clavis and unfortunately that gap is not filled by the EBI (see the case of George Amiroutzes, below). Also, G does not strictly adhere to this criterion, given his inclusion of, e. g., Basileios Pediadites' letter to Pope Innocent III, which was written early in 1214 in connection with the Fourth Lateran Council.

Somewhat regrettably (since G himself occasionally verges on theoretical discussions) in the introductory chapter there are only a few hints of the current scholarly debates about Byzantine epistolography. Even a few references to P. Hatlie's comprehensive survey of recent scholarship on Byzantine epistolography4, for instance, or A.R. Littlewood's contribution to the 1998 Symbolae Osloenses debate about Byzantine literature, pp. 40-2, would have sufficed.

The bibliography that follows this introduction, resembling a list of Byzantine epistolographers in alphabetical order, is organized according to transliterated Christian names, e.g. 'Ioannes' for 'John'. It includes about 265 epistolographers, states the number of letters written by each, and is lavishly cross-referenced. It must be emphasized that, much to G's credit, great effort has gone into incorporating hitherto unpublished corpora of Byzantine letters, especially the so-called 'Florentine corpus', commonly and convincingly attributed to George Oinaiotes (s. XIV in.); the letters of the twelfth-century monk Iakovos of Kokkinobaphos; and the letters of the monk Hierotheos (also s. XII). Helpful notices concerning forthcoming editions are usually included.5

While a few minor omissions are discussed below, the only, rather insignificant, confusion the reviewer noticed is the double reference to the fourteenth-century epistolographer Thomas Magistros, once under his baptismal name of Thomas, once under his monastic name of Theodulos. In the case of Staphidakes, a minor scholarly figure of the fourteenth century, one would definitely have appreciated a suggestion as to how the latter's tentative identification as author of two letters transmitted among those of the 'Anonymus Florentinus', i.e. George Oinaiotes, came about.6

A minor point of criticism involves the occasional omission of the number of letters written by a certain epistolographer, as in the cases of Andronikos Kallistos (first entry), 'Anon HERO', Demetrios Chalkokondyles (third entry), Georgios Oineiotes (first entry), John Apokaukos (first to third entries), Leon Bardales (two letters altogether), and Symeon Magistros.

This second section provides a useful bibliographical tool even beyond the immediate purposes for which EBI was produced and comes close to a complete record of epistolary sources covering the Byzantine millennium. The effectiveness of this list would have benefited from the insertion of the approximate lifetime, or at least the century, for every epistolographer, to indicate whether a track may be worth pursuing any further -- especially for a user who is not deeply involved with the topic. Not even a fervent student of Byzantine literature can be expected to recognize Hermaios, Plato, Arsenios the Studite, or the aforementioned Staphidakes, to name but a few, without any further hint of their approximate date.7

In many instances, of course, the subsequently-listed edition provides a rough clue: Ibankos (Ivankos), for instance, will have been a contemporary of Manuel II Palaiologos (s. XIV-XV), given the transmission of his single letter among the letters of the learned emperor. The same can be said about the one letter by an 'Anonymus Protoasecretis,' who proves to be a contemporary of Theodore Daphnopates, which has come down to us accompanied by another fifty letters in MS. Vind. phil. gr. 342. Still, the user will not learn of this whole corpus of tenth-century letters unless he happens to stumble upon a footnote devoted to Theodore Daphnopates (p. 37* n. 41).

Having discussed the wider aspects of G's collection, we may now briefly put it to the test for a certain period of time (much to G's credit, he invites us to do so: see p. 41* n. 27), roughly speaking the first half of the fourteenth century.

The following letters are missing from the EBI if not stated otherwise.

In spite of his being mentioned twice in the bibliography, two of Thomas (Theodulos) Magistros' ten letters are missing from the EBI: the description of his journey to Constantinople, addressed to his spiritual father, Isaak8 (which is possibly a dubious case, as the letter bears a distinct resemblance to a travel description) and an admonitory letter to his spiritual son, Hierotheos.9 Moreover, PG 145 does not offer nine letters by Thomas (so G), but only eight. The ninth is a letter of Nikephoros Gregoras that was re-edited by Leone (correctly included as such in the EBI). Also published by Leone was the one letter attributed by G to 'Theodulos', an answer to Gregoras, rendering the PG edition of this letter obsolete.

A letter from the Florence MS of George Oinaiotes ('Anonymus Florentinus'), published by Sp. Lampros in 1917,10 has not been attributed to the scholar and lexicographer Andreas Lopadiotes, to whom it properly belongs.

The initium of a letter of consolation by Oinaiotes' friend and colleague George Galesiotes addressed to a recipient "from Cyprus", written on behalf of a certain Hyakinthos who later became archbishop of Thessalonica, is given in Codices Vaticani Graeci, vol. I, ed. I. Mercati/P. Franchi de' Cavallieri, p. 135 (MS Vat. gr. 112, ff. 163v-165v).

Thomas' pupil, Philotheos Kokkinos, the later patriarch of Constantinople, sent an extended letter to his flock at Heraclia in Thrace.11 This letter is admittedly a difficult case; its exclusion might be justified because the genre represents a mixture of letter and sermon.

MS Chis. gr. 12 (Vatican Library) provides on ff. 166-172v fourteen letters by the monk Maximos Neomonites, one directed to the famous scholar and statesman Theodore Metochites.12

The single letter of a certain Sophonias to his eminent contemporary Joseph, called the philosopher, is transmitted in the same MS (f. 173v) and was edited by G. Mercati in 1924.13

Slightly later in time, but well connected with Thomas Magistros by means of manuscript evidence, is the figure of Philotheos, the metropolitan of Selymvria, whose six (?) letters have been transmitted in the MS Upsal. gr. 28.14 One letter by Philotheos has creeped into the EBI by means of a Paris MS ('anonymous' according to G).15

The same manuscript from Uppsala preserves a letter by Gregory Palamas, archbishop of Thessalonica.16 (G has included another nineteen of Palamas' letters, though.)

Three letters from the pen of Theophylaktos bishop of Nicaea are published in PG 150, coll. 287-350.

G's 'council criterion' does not entirely justify the omission of an exchange of letters between John Kantakouzenos, formerly emperor of the Byzantines, and Paul, the Latin titular patriarch of Constantinople, which seems to have taken place in Constantinople in the late 1360s. Admittedly, this correspondence does constitute a difficult case. Some of the letters appear to be the minutes of consultations between the former emperor and the Latin cleric, others to have been conceived and sent as letters proper, but in the end these letters are neither immediately related to a council nor actually 'integrated' into another genre, although reworked and edited by Kantakouzenos.17

No fewer than five letters by a certain Gregory Kardames have come down to us, one of them directed to the aforementioned John Choumnos.18

Finally, the fragmentary Copenhagen MS GkS 1900,4o (first half of the fourteenth century; see B. Schartau, Codices graeci haunienses (1994), p. 191) may reveal two hitherto unidentified letters.

This limited survey, most probably still incomplete, could add another eight minor letter-writers to the bibliography and about thirty-five letters to the list.

Moving forwards in time, we can note the omission of two letters, one from George Amiroutzes (s. XV) to Demetrius, duke of Navplio19 (although it theoretically deals with council matters, the reviewer would still argue for its inclusion) and one from Leonardo Bruni, the Florentine chancellor, to the same Amiroutzes20, an introduction to the constitution of the city of Florence.

Finally turning to earlier centuries, the omission of fifteen letters by John Apokaukos, metropolitan bishop of Navpaktos in the early thirteenth century, edited by S. Petridès in 1909,21 definitely deserves more severe criticism.

The initia of thirteen model letters from MS Laur. Acquisti e Doni 341, f. 267v (Florence) are given by C. Gallavotti, Studi bizanti e neoellenici 4 (1935), p. 217, which, considering the manuscript environment, may well originate from the intellectual milieu of twelfth-century Constantinople. Another model letter can be found in the excellent description of MS Upsal. gr. 28 referred to above (see p. 63 of the work cited in n.14 for further references).

At approximately the same time, Theodore Eirenikos, exile patriarch of Constantinople, addressed a single letter to the Roman pope, Innocent III. Although this is a very formal letter, devoid of any personal references, it could still be added to G's list.22

Moving still earlier in time, the two influential letters of Pseudo-Pope Gregory II to Emperor Leo III and the one allegedly by the same pope to Patriarch Germanos, which is also a likely forgery, have been omitted, along with a couple of (synodal) letters by Methodios and Nikephoros, patriarchs of Constantinople.23

Maximus the Confessor's second letter to a certain Thomas was rediscovered and published by P. Canart in 1964.24

From a still earlier period, and also in a monastic environment, the spiritually enhancing letter of Paul Helladikos could be added as well.25

The above remarks testify to two conclusions: first, the commendable completeness of G's list, given the magnitude of the task at hand, and second, the unpredictable obstacles occurring in a 'developing subject' like Byzantine studies, where a large number of important texts are still safely tucked away in either manuscripts or rare and inaccessible editions.

Now in the reviewer's opinion the distinct advantage that a printed list of initia could have over web-based or CD-ROM publications like the rapidly progressing Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG) project26 would be the inclusion of those obscurely published texts which are unlikely to appear in the TLG in the near future. Unfortunately it is exactly at this point that the EBI, in spite of the magnificent number of letters assembled, proves at first sight slightly less reliable than one would have hoped, a 'flaw' that becomes completely understandable when one takes into account the huge number of letters G has had to deal with, even without hunting for the more obscure documents. Thus, considering the aim and scope of G's project, the reader/user is left wondering whether G would not have been better off with a more innovative approach, such as a web-based or, at least, CD-ROM publication of his list. The efficiency of both ways of publication for the field of Byzantine studies is ably demonstrated by the various Dumbarton Oaks, British Academy, and not least Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften projects.27 Such an approach would have facilitated regular updates (the minor additions as those suggested in this review would not have posed a problem at all), been open to suggestions from a large number of users, and contributed towards a (more) complete list of Byzantine letter-writers in the near future. The very way in which G's collection has appeared prompts the fear that we will be left waiting too long for an updated version.

However, these trifling matters certainly do not diminish the efforts of G's letter-hunting, and the brevity of our additions, given the unimaginable number of about (it may be repeated for a last time) 15,480 initia, is the best testimony to the quality of Michael Grünbart's Epistularum Byzantinarum Initia. His collection is bound to gain a well-deserved place among an increasing number of fine instrumenta studiorum in the field of Byzantine studies.


1.   A. Sideras, Die byzantinischen Grabreden, Vienna 1994 (= Wiener Byzantinistische Studien, XIX); M. Hinterberger, Autobiographische Traditionen in Byzanz, Vienna 1999 (= Wiener Byzantinistische Studien, XXII).
2.   N. Wilson, "A Byzantine Miscellany: MS. Barocci 131 described," Jahrbuch für Österreichische Byzantinistik, 27 (1978), pp. 157-179 (no. 138).
3.   Clavis Patrum Graecorum, vol. V, edd. M. Geerard et F. Glorie, Turnhout 1987.
4.   P. Hatlie, "Redeeming Byzantine epistolography," Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 20 (1996), pp. 213-248.
5.   To the best of my knowledge only the then forthcoming and since published edition of Michael Choniates is missing: Michaelis Choniatae epistulae, ed. F. Kolovou, Berlin/New York 2001 (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 41).
6.   There are a few minor clerical errors. The entry 'Chumnos' refers the user to the rather minor figure of John Choumnos (s. XIV), but omits the major scholar Nikephoros Choumnos (John's father). The abbreviation 'Anon Marc' that one encounters frequently, especially in the incomplete letters section ('Unvollständige Briefe' pp. 360-1), finds no corresponding entry in the bibliography. The user will eventually discover the anonymous epistolographer's 24 letters in a thirteenth-century MS, Marc. gr. XI 22, ff. 129-130v, 141-143v. See D. Chrestides, Μαρκιανικὰ Ἀνέκδοτα, Thessalonica 1984 (letters pp. 291-326). I am grateful to my colleage Sonja Schönauer for help with this.
7.   The first appears to have been a monk of the eleventh century; the second was the well-known uncle of Theodore the Studite, who, however, was not hitherto known as a literary person (see p. 3* n. 21); and the third was a monk in the mid-fourteenth century involved in the debates about hesychasm, who left one unedited letter in an Escorial manuscript.
8.   Published by M. Treu, "Die Gesandtschaftsreise des Rhetors Theodulos Magistros," Jahrbücher für classische Philologie, Supplementband 27 (1902), pp. 5-18.
9.   Published by E. Martini, "Una lettera del retore Teodulo Magistro," in Miscellanea Ceriani, Milan 1910, pp. 435-447.
10.   The answer of Andreas Lopadiotes was included in Georgios Oinaiotes' correspondence; the letter was published by Sp. Lampros in Neos Hellenomnemon, 14 (1917), pp. 405-6.
11.   Anecdota graeca e codicibus manuscriptis bibliothecae S. Marci, edd. C. Triantafillis and A. Grapputo, Venice 1874 (reprint Hildesheim 1970), pp. 35-61.
12.   P. Franchi de' Cavallieri, Codices graeci Chisiani et Borgiani, Rome 1927, pp. 18-19.
13.   In Studi Bizantini, vol. I, Naples 1924, p. 172.
14.   Codex Upsaliensis graecus 28. Geschichte und Beschreibung der Handschrift nebst einer Nachlese von Texten, edd. G.H. Karlsson et al., Stockholm 1981, pp. 35-8, 52-61.
15.   Codex Upsaliensis graecus 28 (see n. 14), pp. 52-3. G has included the first three words from MS Paris. gr. 968, f. 1. Considering the content of the manuscript, I assume the Paris letter is the very one by Philotheos.
16.   Codex Upsaliensis graecus 28 (cf. n. 13), pp. 42-6. See also A. Philippides-Braat, "La captivité de Palamas chez les Turcs: Dossier et commentaire," Traveaux et Mémoirs, 7 (1979), pp. 109-222 (letter, 186-190).
17.   Iohannis Cantacuzeni ... disputatio cum Paulo patriarcha latino epistulis septem tradita, edd. E. Voordeckers and F. Tinnefeld, Brepols 1987 (Corpus Christianorum, Series graeca, 16).
18.   The best account is A. Papadopoulos-Kerameus in Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 19 (1910), p. 262.
19.   M. Jugie, "La lettre de Georges Amiroutzes," Byzantion, 14 (1939), pp. 77-93 (letter: 81-93).
20.   Neos Hellenomnemon, 19 (1925), pp. 58
21.   S. Petridès, "Jean Apocaukos, lettres et autres documents inédits," Isvestija Russkago Acheologiceskago Instituta v Konstantinopol'e, 14 (1909), pp. 69-100.
22.   A. Cataldi Palau, "Una 'lettera al papa' di Irenico, cartofilace della Grande Chiesa (Teodore Irenico, patriarca di Constantinopoli 1214-1216)," Bollettino Grottaferrata, 48 (1994), pp. 23-87.
23.   For Ps.-Gregory's letter to Leo, see J. Guillard, "Aux origines de l'iconoclasme : le témoignage de Grégoire II," Travaux et mémoirs, 3 (1968), pp. 243-307. For his letter to Patriarch Germanos, see PG 98, 148-56. For Methodios, see PG 100, 1291-7 and PG 140, 793. For Nikephoros see PG 100, 169-200.
24.   P. Canart, "La deuxième lettre à Thomas de S. Maxime le Confesseur," Byzantion, 34 (1964), pp. 415-445.
25.   Pauli Helladici epistola, ed. V. Lundström, in Anecdota Byzantina, Upsala 1902, pp. 17-23.
26.   Thesaurus Graecae Linguae, CD-ROM E, Irvine, Calif., 2000. For the internet approach consult their website.
27.   Cf. e.g. the Dumbarton Oaks hagiography database; the Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire, CD-ROM, ed. by J.R. Martindale, Aldershot 2001; and the Prosopographisches Lexikon der Pälaiologenzeit, CD-ROM version, Vienna 2001.

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