Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.37

Umberto Roberto, Ioannis Antiocheni Fragmenta ex Historia chronica. Introduzione, edizione critica e traduzione. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, 154.   Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter, 2005.  Pp. ccxi, 661.  ISBN 3-11-018687-X.  €178.00.  

Reviewed by Alan Cameron, Columbia University (
Word count: 2154 words

For a large number of the Greek historians who only survive in fragments we have Felix Jacoby's magnificent collection, now slowly expanding beyond the fifteen volumes left by Jacoby himself. But Jacoby barely touched the historians of late antiquity, nor yet have his successors. The main authorities for the fourth and fifth centuries (the fragments of Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus and Malchus) were included by R. C. Blockley in his Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire i and ii (Liverpool 1981 and 1983), together with useful notes and an English translation. Blockley went on to devote a separate volume to the fragments (or rather excerpts) of Menander (The History of Menander the Guardsman (Liverpool 1985). That still leaves gaps. For example, the excerpts of Peter the Patrician, who has recently achieved a notoriety beyond his deserts in the wake of Bruno Bleckmann, Die Reichskrise des III. Jahrhunderts in der spätantiken und byzantinischen Geschichtsschreibung: Untersuchungen zu den nachdionischen Quellen der Chronik des Johannes Zonaras (Munich 1992).

The excerpts of John of Antioch were in particularly dire need of a modern edition. The last edition goes back more than 150 years, to volume 4 of Carl Mueller's Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum (Paris 1851), with important addenda in vol. 5 (Paris 1870), 26-39. For its date, Mueller's edition had many virtues, not least its useful notes. Yet despite the fact that already in 1851 John was the most voluminous author in the volume, Mueller did not provide his usual Latin translation, nor (it seems) was there a translation into any other language before Roberto. These days an untranslated Greek writer is an unread writer. In addition, inevitably Mueller was limited to the antiquated editions available in 1851. Virtually all of Mueller's text consists of excerpts, more or less abbreviated versions of the original work. But in 1904 S. Lambros published a substantial new excerpt from what is almost certainly the original work. Unfortunately he published it in his own one-man Greek periodical Neos Hellenomnemon (1 (1904), 7-31), without commentary, and with the exception of an important brief article by F. R. Walton ("A Neglected Historical text," Historia 14 (1965), 236-51), it has in effect been ignored ever since.

An up-to-date edition of the complete text with a translation into a(ny) modern language would have been a boon. But Roberto's edition is much more than that. Most of what we have of John consists of excerpts, surviving in a number of different series of excerpts, preserved in a number of different manuscripts. Roberto has made a complete study of all these excerpt collections, and sets out his results in a detailed preface that runs to more than 200 pages. There has been little detailed research on John in the past, but the one subject that has been minutely studied, with widely differing results, is the question of the Salmasian excerpts. For the imperial period we have two different sets of excerpts: the Constantinian (so called because commissioned in the early tenth century by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus) and the Salmasian (so called because first published by Claude Saumaise).

Critics point out that the style of the Salmasian excerpts is less classicizing; they contain more anecdotal material; they do not overlap with the Constantinian excerpts; and they appear to derive from different sources (the Constantinian from Eutropius as against very few of the Salmasian, for example). Most have decided that the Salmasian excerpts are not authentic, presumably from a different John (so most recently P. Sotiroudis, Untersuchungen zum Geschichtswerk des Johannes von Antiocheia (Thessalonica 1989), 5-11). Convincing as these arguments might seem, Roberto's more comprehensive study has shown that they add up to very little. The long Lambros fragment on the late republic (our closest witness to the original form of the work) has revealed that John systematically combined two or more sources, adding details from Dio and Plutarch to his "Eutropian" material. Thus the apparent difference in sources between the two series proves little, especially in short excerpts. The fact that some of the briefer Constantinian excerpts for our period seem to derive from Eutropius does not mean that Eutropius was their only source. The explanation for the more anecdotal nature of the Salmasian excerpts and their more popular Greek is that they derive, not, like the Constantinian excerpts, from the original text of John's history, but from an Epitome. Establishing the existence of this Epitome is one of the most important results of Roberto's research on the various sets of excerpts.

The introduction begins with a succinct but judicious account of what we know of John and the character of his work. In the past John has received little attention, in large measure because his history seems to be completely derivative. To take the most obvious example, for Roman history from Romulus to Jovian (363-4) his base text was Eutropius's Breviarium. But the long Lambros excerpt has revealed another dimension. Though treating Eutropius as a sort of framework for his own history, John fills out this dry historical outline with colour and detail from a number of other works, for the republic, Plutarch, Dio and Dionysius; for the empire, Dio, Herodian, Eunapius, Priscus and many others. That is to say, John was far from being the sort of writer conjured up by nineteenth-century Quellenforscher, who copied one work at a time till it ran out and then turned to another. One other feature that has perhaps led to John being undervalued is that for the most part he did not so much paraphrase his sources as copy them out more or less verbatim. To the modern critic this gives the impression of a wholly unoriginal, wholly derivative writer. Yet the fact is that, for any given period, John often used two or even three sources, combining details from all of them. The modern critic's instinctive reaction is that the verbatim reproduction of sources is plagiarism, but granted that John's goal was to compile a history covering a millenium and a half based entirely on existing histories, there was little point in paraphrasing rather than simply copying. This was to become a standard feature of Byzantine historical writing about the remote past. Roberto shows that, despite his (inevitably) derivative subject matter, there are in fact themes that recur throughout John's work, such as hatred of tyranny and barbarians. It is a work with a certain distinct character.

I cite a couple of illustrations that particularly struck me. Roberto's fr. 273 is a 23-line excerpt that begins and ends with excerpts from Eutropius, and in between cites in extenso an excerpt from some undoubtedly contemporary historian (perhaps Eunapius) offering information known from no other source about abuse in the form of Homeric parodies directed against the emperor Jovian by the people of Antioch. Then there is fr. 279, which weaves together excerpts from Eunapius and Socrates's Ecclesiastical History, thereby supplementing Eunapius's deficient knowledge of western affairs.

John of Antioch is clearly a more substantial and interesting historian than hitherto supposed. Now that we can distinguish excerpts from the original work from excerpts from the epitome identified by Roberto, it can be seen that John wrote in a more or less classicizing style. And he must have written with a substantial library to hand, reading and collating two or even three sources for any given period. For the later period especially, when the sources are important largely lost writers like Eunapius and Priscus, John sometimes preserves information not otherwise known. Roberto has shown that John drew directly on both these writers, and his method makes it likely that he reproduces them accurately, if not verbatim. In future we should treat otherwise unattested details reported by John more seriously than earlier critics were inclined to do.

It would perhaps be too much to expect a commentary, and in most cases a commentary on a text of this nature would be unnecessary or inappropriate. But one thing the reader does have a right to expect is a clear identification of sources. In his preface Roberto devotes considerable space and effort to the question of John's sources, no small task in itself given that his History runs from the Creation to the reign of the emperor Phocas (602-10). My only complaint about the edition is that in his notes on individual excerpts Roberto does not distinguish between true, direct sources on the one hand and possible sources, or texts that merely offer a similar version. Sometimes, of course, the distinction is hard to draw, but less so in John's case than most others, since so much of the text is copied fairly closely from its sources. There is thus a world of difference between sources and parallel passages. It would have been better to have two separate registers, or indeed three. For Roberto also cites passages where later Byzantine historians copy or abridge John in turn (in particular, Symeon Logothete, Cedrenus and Zonaras). This is the one respect in which Mueller's edition is actually more helpful. For Mueller cites many sources in full in his notes, in particular Eutropius. Since there is a great deal of empty space on Roberto's large pages, it would have greatly enhanced the value of his notes without increasing the bulk of his edition if he had followed Mueller's example, and cited at least the more important sources in full.

Those for whom John of Antioch was barely a name may be astonished at the appearance of an edition running to 870 pages, but this is a major work by a promising young scholar, making a major contribution to early Byzantine historiography. It will certainly prompt further research, both on John himself and on related issues. For example, in his 1992 book cited above, Bruno Bleckmann argued that Zonaras's surprisingly detailed narrative for the late third and fourth century reflects a Latin source (which he subsequently identified as Nicomachus Flavianus) mediated by Peter the Patrician. This theory, as developed by Fran├žois Paschoud ("Nicomaque Flavien et la connexion byzantine (Pierre le Patrice et Zonaras)," Antiquité Tardive 2 (1994), 71-82), has been much discussed in recent years. Though Roberto refrains from going into the question in detail, no one who has worked through his preface could be in the slightest doubt that it was John of Antioch, not Peter the Patrician, who mediated whatever knowledge Zonaras had of this period.

One other question that certainly deserves further detailed research is the relationship between John and Eutropius. There were two Greek translations of Eutropius, by Paeanius and Capito. The former survives almost complete, and renders Eutropius quite differently from John throughout. It has so far been taken for granted that John must therefore have used the later version by Capito, only known from an entry in the Suda. But as everyone who has worked on John, from the valuable early dissertation by A. Köcher, De Ioannis Antiocheni fontibus ... (Bonn 1871) to Roberto, has remarked, John often offers a somewhat fuller version than the Latin original. In some cases the explanation is that John includes details from other sources (genuine sources that can actually be identified). But in other cases there is no additional information, just a more expansive narrative than the bare bones offered by Eutropius. A. Köcher long ago suggested two possible explanations: either John drew on a fuller version of Eutropius, or on Eutropius's source. Writing as he was before the identification of the so-called Kaisergeschichte (KG), the lost source postulated to explain the close similarities between Eutropius, Aurelius Victor and various other late fourth-century Latin histories and epitomes, Köcher opted for his first alternative. But a fuller version of Eutropius is pretty much a definition of his source, the KG. The obvious explanation of the additional material in John is (I suggest) that he drew, not on Eutropius, but on the KG, which may also have been translated into Greek.

This is no place to study John's addenda to Eutropian material in detail. The most suggestive single illustration is F 145. 2. 269, p. 240 Roberto, where, after (as it seems) translating Eutropius on Sulla, John adds a quotation from Sallust: "the Roman historian Sallust rightly remarked that Sulla made an excellent beginning but reached a shocking end." This is a translation of Catiline 11. 4, "L. Sulla ... bonis initiis malos eventus habuit." John may have had a little Latin, but it is incredible that a seventh-century Byzantine knew Sallust so well that he was able to recall so apposite a quotation and then put it into accurate Greek. Obviously it is far more likely, either that he was translating a Latin text that already included the quotation, or (more probably) using an existing Greek translation of such a text. Since a Greek translation of the KG would create waves in much current Quellenforschung in late antique historical writing, it is to be hoped that someone will undertake the meticulous collation of texts required to establish it.

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