Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.09.41

Martin Wallraff, Laura Mecella (ed.), Die Kestoi des Julius Africanus und ihre Überlieferung. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur Bd. 165.   Berlin/New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 2009.  Pp. vi, 394.  ISBN 9783110219586.  $155.00.  

Reviewed by Philip Rance, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (


Julius Africanus is best known for his Chronographiae, which recast Hellenistic universal historiography in a Christian framework. His Kestoi has always been the poor relation, insofar as this equally fragmentary and fancifully-named miscellany is less known or studied and defies easy categorisation, while its magical, folkloric and paradoxographical content has prompted negative assessments in modern scholarship and even doubts that it could have been written by the father of Christian chronography.

The Kestoi (‘embroideries’), a wide-ranging compendium of technical and scientific knowledge, including medicine, veterinary science, pharmacology, warfare, agriculture, metrology and hunting, was written c.227-31 and, at least in part, dedicated to Severus Alexander. Of its 24 books only the seventh survives (presumably) complete, while just over the same amount is preserved in fragments, mostly excerpts in Byzantine compilations; perhaps ten percent of the original text survives. Vieillefond produced a critical edition in 1970, since when the fragments have attracted a single monograph, by Thee (1984), devoted to the theme of magic.1 The collected papers under review (5 German; 4 English; 2 French) originate from a workshop held in June 2008 at Landgut Castelen, Switzerland. The Basel-based project headed by Martin Wallraff previously produced a new edition and English translation of the fragments of Africanus’ Chronographiae (2007), including all testimonia, and a preceding collection of studies (2006), both well received (2008.01.22; 2008.04.43). Along similar lines, the current collection foreshadows a new edition and English translation of the Kestoi. One might have welcomed a prefatory statement on the status quaestionis (as it is, the ‘Kernfrage der Africanus-Forschung’ is outlined at 49-50), but most of the contributions fall into two categories. Some examine specific themes with a view to resolving basic questions: how should one categorise such a work without lapsing into anachronistic classifications and mentalités? And how can one reconcile the perceived contrast between this assemblage of ostensibly ‘pagan’ (or at least non-Christian) wisdom with Africanus’ authorship of the Chronographiae and exegetical epistles to Origen and Aristides? Others confront the intricate textual traditions and Quellenforschungen from which the Kestoi must in part be reconstructed.

William Adler, ‘The Cesti and Sophistic Culture in the Severan Age’ (1-15) examines socio-cultural tendencies in the Hellenophone East in an attempt to extend understanding of the Kestoi beyond categorisation as ‘pagan’ and ‘Christian’. Africanus emerges as a well-connected, self-promoting man of letters, habitué of courts and libraries throughout the Mediterranean and Near East, and accomplished if combative philologist and textual/biblical critic. Much about Africanus’ career is best explained by seeing him as a typical sophist and Romanised eastern aristocrat rather than a typical Christian; indeed one struggles to identify Christian behaviour or motivations. Adler locates the Kestoi within a proliferation of popular ‘encyclopaedic’ compendia, embracing amateurism and bookish dilettantism. Africanus is different insofar as he self-consciously insists on autopsy, investigation and learning beyond rhetorical excellence, and especially the unearthing of secret wisdom and hidden properties; nevertheless, ornate prose and literary embellishments signal a desire to entertain as well as inform.

Burkhardt Meißner, ‘Magie, Pseudo-Technik und Paratechnik: Technik und Wissenschaft in den Kestoi des Julius Africanus’ (17-37) considers the military content of the Kestoi as a technical Lehrschrift. While the language of the Kestoi conforms to rhetorical conventions of Greek scientific prose, Africanus believes that military success lies not in technical skill or procedures but in the properties of manufactured artefacts (e.g. equipment, armour) or naturally occurring substances, which affect tactics and behaviour in combat and reduce or nullify the effects of chance. This approach to victory through scientific innovation and manipulation of clandestine knowledge, including chemical and bacteriological warfare, compensates for finite financial and human resources. Meißner concludes that Africanus intended these chapters as advice for Severus Alexander in confronting the Sasanids, whose unforeseen emergence prompted Africanus to draw on unconventional techniques and to redraw the boundaries of legitimate warfare (though earlier studies have found a wider range of precedents).2

Martin Wallraff, ‘Magie und Religion in den Kestoi des Julius Africanus’ (39-52) addresses the most challenging peculiarity of the Kestoi: that its contents reflect a Wissenskultur that cannot be understood by, and should not be pigeon-holed according to, modern criteria. Mere recognition of the work’s otherness, however, is insufficient and should not inhibit attempts at classification. Wallraff questions previous harsh or sweeping judgements of ‘magic’, whereby the efficacy or otherwise of a recipe or practice is an unsatisfactory criterion for distinguishing ‘science’ and ‘magic’. By observing narrower criteria the ‘magical’ content of the Kestoi is drastically reduced. Equally, ‘magic’ is not inimical to but an ingredient of ‘religion’, in that both entail supernatural agency, and we must avoid retrojecting the strictures of later Orthodoxy. Wallraff locates the theme of magic in three contexts: 1. a component of an all-inclusive ‘Weltformel’, traceable to a Stoic intellectual tradition of cosmic sympatheia; 2. naming or invocation of gods, a marginal interest, often mere literary packaging; 3. revelation of arcane wisdom, partly a didactic technique designed to delight the reader; the contemporary appeal of mystery religions offers a spiritual analogy. Accordingly, Wallraff concludes that one cannot trace a primary interest in questions of religion (encompassing magic) in the fragments and characterises Africanus’ works, even if intended for different audiences, as ‘ein typischer Zug der geistigen Landschaft des dritten Jahrhunderts’.

Jürgen Hammerstaedt, ‘Julius Africanus und seine Tätigkeiten im 18. Kestos (P.Oxy. 412 col. II)’ (53-69) re-examines the conclusion of Kestos 18 preserved with subscriptio in a remarkably early papyrus fragment. Column I comprises an often-discussed quotation from Odyssey IX, into which verses of a ritual incantation are interpolated. Hammerstaedt focuses on column II, where Africanus furnishes information about his editorial objectives and professional achievements. Five prior translations, sometimes starkly divergent, testify to numerous textual conundra. Hammerstaedt re-edits column II, with papyrological and philological commentaries, which permit reappraisal of its meaning, and proposes modifications to earlier reconstructions of Africanus’ career, including his recension of the Odyssey, connections with Jerusalem and Carian Nysa, and role in establishing the Pantheon library.

Umberto Roberto, ‘Byzantine Collections of Late Antique Authors: Some Remarks on the Excerpta historica Constantiniana’ (71-84), investigates the compilation of the Excerpta Constantiniana with some observations on tenth-century ‘encyclopaedism’. Roberto selects the excerpts of John of Antioch’s Chronicle as an exemplum to identify the criteria and working methods followed by Byzantine excerptors. Neither Africanus nor the Kestoi is mentioned and the study, while instructive, is relevant only as general background.

Laura Mecella, ‘Die Überlieferung der Kestoi des Julius Africanus in den byzantinischen Textsammlungen zur Militärtechnik’ (85-144) re-examines of the transmission of the Kestoi in Byzantine military treatises. Dain (1937; 1939) and Vieillefond (1932; 1970) undertook the foundational Quellenforschung, to which Mecella contributes improvements and additional proofs, with attentiveness to the differing methodologies of Byzantine excerptor-editors. The two witnesses to the ‘military’ chapters are codex Mediceo-Laurentianus graecus LV-4, which preserves Book VII, and the so-called Apparatus Bellicus, a late ninth-/tenth-century compendium drawing on diverse sources, which incorporates Kestos VII and other excerpts. The Apparatus Bellicus (or a component thereof) was a source for a lost compilation, Dain’s Corpus Perditum, whose features can be traced in its surviving progeny, the Sylloge Tacticorum (c.950) and Tactica of Nicephorus Uranus (c.1000). Unproven, in my view, is Mecella’s conclusion that the compiler of the Corpus Perditum had at his disposal the same version of the Apparatus Bellicus as that transmitted in the direct tradition (MSS VDE) and not, as Vieillefond believed, a shorter pre-edition, but the competing arguments are finely balanced.3 Mecella provides an admirable new edition of the fragments, juxtaposing all relevant passages from Apparatus Bellicus, Sylloge Tacticorum and Uranus’ Tactica (of which four chapters are edited for the first time).

Carlo Scardino, ‘Die griechische landwirtschaftliche Literatur in arabischer Überlieferung am Beispiel des Anatolius’ (145-95) is the first of four contributions dealing with the Nachleben of the Kestoi in Greek agricultural literature. Knowledge of this genre depends almost entirely on the anonymous tenth-century Geoponica, the latest Byzantine recension of an excerpt-collection based on the fifth-/sixth-century Eclogae of Cassianus Bassus, which was in turn modelled on the fourth-century Synagoge of Anatolius of Berytus, who drew on yet earlier agricultural writings. Hitherto scholarship has made little advance on the conclusions of Eugen Oder (1890-93), but recent scrutiny of Arabic versions of both Anatolius and Cassianus Bassus offers the tantalising prospect of elucidating the evolutionary phases of the Geoponica and clarifying the significance of individual authors, including Africanus. Scardino’s overview of oriental witnesses to Anatolius’ Synagoge is a ground-breaking contribution. He identifies a double transmission. Tradition A, more faithful to the original, comprises an Arabic version (Mašhad Ridā 5762), a twelfth-century Armenian translation from an earlier Arabic abridgement, and an incomplete Syriac version. Tradition B descends from an epitome (whose original language is uncertain), possibly contaminated by other Greek and/or Arabic texts, which largely corresponds to A in content but diverges in wording and arrangement. Juxtaposition of all witnesses to two sample passages demonstrates the analysis. Scardino then provides an editio princeps of ‘Anatolius Arabicus’ Book I with German translation. This affords non-Arabists their first opportunity to compare ‘Anatolius Arabicus’ with the Greek text of the Geoponica, allowing a more accurate reconstruction of Anatolius’ work and recognition of later accretions.

Robert Rodgers, ‘Julius Africanus in the Constantinian Geoponica’ (197-210) is a succinct exposition of the difficulties of identifying fragments of the Kestoi in the Geoponica. Africanus occurs in the source-notice in the proemium to Book I, reproduced from Anatolius’ prologue, and doubtless material from Africanus lurks in the complex stratigraphy, but Rodgers sets judicious limits on expectations of recovering it. He follows Oder in distinguishing reliable citations within the text (the sole instance for Africanus is v.45.2) from attributions in the chapter-headings, which are the work of a tenth-century redactor and at best of very doubtful authority, where not patently false, a view corroborated by Rodgers’ annotated catalogue of chapter-headings citing Africanus. Rodgers offers some observations on the manuscripts and potential approaches for future progress.

Christophe Guignard, ‘Une source peut en cacher une autre: Africanus et les recettes des Géoponiques relatives à l’huile d’olive (IX.21-27)’ (211-42) focuses on a rare instance where the text of the Geoponica (ix.21-7), concerning the processing and aromatisation of olive oil, and a fragment of Africanus (I.19) coincide in content and expression suggestive of a source-relationship. The correspondence was first noted by Gemoll (1883), although labouring under methodological misconceptions and unable to use oriental versions of Anatolius and Cassianus Bassus. Guignard, properly equipped (thanks to Scardino), re-essays this hypothesis. His delicately judged analysis disentangles convoluted textual interrelationships, concluding that the Kestoi was not the source of Anatolius’ treatment of oleoculture, nor of its elaboration by Cassianus Bassus, but that both drew independently on a source(s) closely related to that used by Africanus.

Christophe Guignard, ‘Sources et constitution des Géoponiques à la lumière des versions orientales d’Anatolius de Béryte et de Cassianus Bassus’ (243-344), by far the longest contribution, is a closely argued reassessment of the genesis and sources of the Geoponica, in which he seeks to distinguish textual strata using a diachronic methodology made possible by exploiting the Arabic versions, often for the first time. Space permits only the briefest summary of results. Perhaps most importantly, Cassianus Bassus emerges as a more innovative and eclectic author than previously imagined. Guignard also persuasively delimits two intermediary redactions between the Eclogae and the Geoponica. His deconstruction of the Geoponica will doubtless become the point of departure for future research.

Anne McCabe, ‘Julius Africanus and the Horse Doctors’ (345-73) examines fragments of the Kestoi preserved in Byzantine recensions of the Hippiatrica, an equine veterinary compilation compiled probably in the fifth/sixth centuries. A direct transmission is witnessed by recensions C and L, which descend from hyparchetype [D], a product of tenth-century ‘encyclopaedism’, whose editor inserted excerpts of the Kestoi, presumably using a copy available at Constantinople. McCabe gives a clearer presentation of the distribution and character of these excerpts than one would gain from the selective Teubner edition of Oder/Hoppe. She also investigates an indirect transmission of Kestoi-derived hippiatric material via Anatolius’ Synagoge, and discusses complex interrelationships among compilations on veterinary medicine, agriculture and natural science, including observations on ‘scientific style’ (predominantly technical vocabulary) and evidence for literary objectives. McCabe’s frequent use of the expression ‘the Tactica’ appears to harbour some misconception, but this is a tangential quibble upon an erudite explication of the hippiatric content of the Kestoi.

I noted a handful of errors or misprints: p.43: fünstrahligen > fünfstrahligen; p.62: Ludwig > Ludwich; pp.87-88: Mazonaeus > Mazoneus; p.96: verschieden > verschiedenen; p.203: ἀφόδευρα > ἀφόδευμα; p.329: surout > surtout; p.347: codex Turonensis 580 should read 980; p.352: Humfry > Humfrey. The production quality of the volume is uniformly impressive, especially in frequent complex layouts and textual juxtapositions. The collection is a credit to the specialist expertise of the contributors and to the good judgement of the editors who assembled them.


1.   J.-R. Vieillefond, Les Cestes de Julius Africanus (Florence-Paris 1970); F.C.R. Thee, Julius Africanus and the Early Christian View of Magic (Tübingen 1984).
2.   E.L. Wheeler, ‘Why the Romans can’t defeat the Parthians: Julius Africanus and the Strategy of Magic’ in W. Groenman-van Waateringe et al. (edd.), Roman Frontier Studies 1995 [XVI] (Oxford 1997) 575-9.
3.   The present reviewer, in preparing an edition of Nicephorus Uranus’ Tactica 75-175, supported by a Humboldt-Forschungsstipendium für erfahrene Wissenschaftler (2009-11), inclines towards Vieillefond’s model.

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