Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.38

Roger Scott, Byzantine Chronicles and the Sixth Century. Variorum collected studies series, CS 1004.   Farnham; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2012.  Pp. 348.  ISBN 9781409441106.  $165.00.  

Reviewed by Conor Whately, University of Winnipeg (

[Titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In this recent addition to the Variorum Collected Studies Series, Roger Scott grapples with Byzantine historiography and the age of Justinian. The papers contained therein are divided into four broad groupings: (A) Historiography, Chronicle and the Sixth Century; (B) Malalas, Theophanes and the Sixth Century; (C) Malalas, Theophanes and Their Byzantine Past; and (D) Reinterpreting the Fifth and Sixth Centuries. Scott, a Classicist by training, has devoted a good part of his career to the study of early Byzantine chronicles, with a particular emphasis on Malalas and Theophanes.1 Like other volumes in this series, the majority of the papers included were originally published elsewhere. Some of these come from hard to find publications such as Bysantinska Sälskapet Bulletin, a boon for scholars who might otherwise lack access to them. Some of the articles are over forty years old (X). On the other hand, two of the nineteen are published for the first time in this volume.

The first section (A) is composed of six papers that deal, by and large, with the character of early and high Byzantine chronicles. Scott discusses the length of chronicles (I) and notes their reliance on earlier documents. He discusses “the ubiquity of good stories in Byzantine culture” (I, p. 34), such as the story of the apple of Theodosius II and the eagle of Marcian (IV), he describes the development of Byzantine historiography (III); and he treats “the literariness of Byzantine historical writing” (V). In the last paper of the section (VI), a new one, Scott returns to an earlier thesis, arguing that Malalas, for all his faults, is representative of his age and is to be applauded for including details not found elsewhere. At the same time, Procopius is not to be trusted, at least with regard to what he chooses to emphasize (war), and how he interprets the reign of Justinian. In the end, Scott, unsurprisingly (given what he has written before) claims that we ought not see “Justinian as the great conqueror and restorer of the Empire”.

The second section (B) contains seven papers and focuses on the sixth century. We return to what constituted the most important events of Justinian’s reign, and how the texts of Malalas and Theophanes as well as those of authors like John the Lydian (X) have been and should be used to evaluate the reign. While discussing the reliability of Theophanes’ Chronicle as a source for Justinianic events, Scott argues that there is much to be gained from exploring Theophanes’ impact on Byzantine historiography (and literature in general) (XII). As in the book as a whole, Malalas is the focus of the majority of the papers in this section. Malalas, we read, approached history in a manner in keeping with the worldview of his contemporaries, while presenting an interpretation of the past and present all his own (VII). Malalas’ Chronicle is replete with official dispatches, at least when he turns to contemporary or near-contemporary events (VIII). This includes the Roman Empire’s diplomatic dealings (XI). Yet, Malalas and Procopius, despite their ostensible differences in mentalité, often agree on certain facts about Justinian’s reign (such as Justinian’s gifts of money to barbarians), though Malalas draws upon Justinianic propaganda to present them in a positive light while Procopius presents them negatively in his Secret History (IX). The final paper of the section explores the different ways that Malalas and Theophanes interpret the reign of Justinian while downplaying the importance of Procopius.

The last two sections (C and D), composed of three papers each, deal with Malalas’ and Theophanes’ views of the classical and late antique past and Byzantine chroniclers’ presentations of the fifth and sixth centuries. In XIV Scott provides a fascinating discussion of Malalas’ engagement with the Classics. The chronicler equates the Olympians with early kings, and excludes large swaths of Athenian and Roman republican history, which Scott suggests highlights Malalas’ selectivity. Constantine is the subject of XV, and Scott argues that the different portraits of Malalas and Theophanes reflect the differing concerns of their ages. Stories and their popularity in Byzantine chronicles are the focus of XVI. As argued earlier, Malalas’ and Theophanes’ tellings of those stories illustrate the chroniclers’ selectivity as well as their distinctive interpretations of the past.

Scott returns to the reign of Justinian in XVII and argues that the impressions of Justinian as a conquering emperor and Belisarius as a military hero stem from their presentation in Procopius’ Wars, though their later characterization by authors like Theophanes and Kedrenos who drew upon earlier material had an influence as well. This later manipulation of earlier material was not tantamount to outright plagiarism, for a significant amount of manipulation of the material was involved. For example, though Theophanes used much of Procopius for his account of the Vandal War, Kedrenos, who copied a great deal of Theophanes, reduced his account of the war to a page. The relevance of seemingly trivial matters (such as the prohibitions on music and performances on Sundays) for the history of Late Antiquity occupies the penultimate paper. Scott argues that the trivial material in chronicles is important for what it says about changes “in the way of life”. It can tell us a great deal about the transformation of the secular life into a Christian one. The previously unpublished final paper summarizes many of the key points that Scott has raised throughout the collection, and serves as a good overview.

There are two important, related issues that Scott raises. He first asks what was significant about the reign of Justinian (both in our eyes and in Justinian’s). Scott draws our attention to four events (“pillars”): the building of Hagia Sophia, the codification of Roman law, the closing of Plato’s Academy in Athens, and the reconquest of the West. Malalas mentions all four, the latter briefly, while Procopius, in his Wars, speaks just about the reconquest. For Scott, Procopius’ focus has skewed modern interpretations of the reign,2 and has caused us to place undue emphasis on political and military history as well as the material provided by classicizing historians like Agathias and Procopius. This leads to the second issue: which historian best represents his sixth century audience? Throughout his career, and in this volume, Scott has argued that we ought to move beyond tacit praise of Procopius and our obsession with the Quellenforchung of Malalas and his so-called lesser historian peers. We should not see Malalas and his fellow chroniclers simply as repositories of information to be mined. Rather, we ought to focus on what they can tell us about the mindset of the sixth century person. And that sixth century person – for whom Malalas is most representative – was not interested in war. So too Justinian, for whom the reconquest was not a priority (VI, p. 25).

I think this gives too little credit to Procopius, and overlooks some of Justinian’s actions. Sixth century Rome was at war several times (against Persians, Vandals, Goths, Slavs). Not only did Justinian permit Belisarius to lead a triumphal parade (one of the last of its kind), but he also commissioned a victory column on top of which stood a massive equestrian statue of the emperor himself. This was prominently erected in Constantinople between the palace and Hagia Sophia. What of the numbers involved (VI, p. 9)? Scott suggests that a small number of Roman troops were involved in the Vandal expeditions – he uses the number 16,000 – and he feels that this is indicative of a lack of imperial (and so public) interest. But is the figure of 16,000 really that low? Procopius claims that only 25,000 soldiers participated in the Battle of Dara (Wars 1.13.23). Given that in this Persian War the Romans had fortifications all over the east from which they could draw, finding 16,000 troops to send (and supply) far across the sea seems remarkable in an age when the state was prosperous, but half the size. War was important, and Procopius was right to emphasize it. Does that make Procopius the voice of his age? Yes, but only in part, just as Malalas represented another important part of the sixth century mindset. In other words, I do not think that there was only one, typical mentalité, but several which sometimes overlapped.

In a book whose component parts were, for the most part, intended for independent publication there will inevitably be a fair amount of overlap and repetition, and Scott warns of this from the start. After reading about Andrew and his dog, Eudokia and the apple, Marcian and his eagle, and the four “pillars” of Justinian’s reign for the umpteenth time it is hard not to wish that certain things were excised. There are also a few minor errors.3 All in all, however, Scott’s positive reading of the much-maligned chroniclers like Malalas is useful. Malalas and his fellow chroniclers were not Ammianus or Procopius, but this need not mean that they are any less useful, interesting, or deserving of our attention. By attempting to draw our intention to the nuances and complexity of seemingly straightforward, plagiarism-filled chronicles in this book and throughout his career, Scott has done the study of late antique historiography a great service.

Table of Contents

(I) Historiography, Chronicles and the 6th Century: Byzantine chronicles
(II) Byzantium in the 6th century and the beginning of Byzantine historical writing
(III) The classical tradition in Byzantine historiography
(IV) Text and context in Byzantine historiography
(V) Towards a new history of Byzantine literature: the case of historiography (with Ingela Nilsson)
(VI) Chronicles versus classicizing history: Justinian's West and East
(VII) Malalas and his contemporaries
(VIII) Malalas and Justinian's codification
(IX) Malalas, The Secret History and Justinian's propaganda
(X) John Lydus on some procedural changes
(XI) Diplomacy in the 6th century: the evidence of John Malalas
(XII) 'The events of every year arranged without confusion': Justinian and others in the chronicle of Theophanes Confessor
(XIII) Writing the reign of Justinian: Malalas versus Theophanes
(XIV) Malalas' view of the classical past
(XV) The image of Constantine in Malalas and Theophanes
(XVI) From propaganda to history to literature: the Byzantine stories of Theodosius' apple and Marcian's eagles
(XVII) Narrating Justinian: from Malalas to Manasses
(XVIII) Interpreting the late 5th and early 6th centuries from Byzantine chronicle trivia
(XIX) Justinian's new age and the Second Coming


1.   Elizabeth Jeffreys, Michael Jeffreys, and Roger Scott, trans., The Chronicle of John Malalas, a Translation, Melbourne, 1986; Elizabeth Jeffreys, Brian Croke, and Roger Scott, eds., Studies in John Malalas, Sydney, 1990; Cyril Mango and Roger Scott, trans., The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History AD 284-813, Oxford, 1997.
2.   For this misinterpretation see, for example, J. B. Bury’s (London, 1923) History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian, and Ernest Stein’s (Paris, 1949) Histoire du bas-empire. Scott (VI, p. 4) also highlights Averil Cameron’s (London, 1993) The Mediterranean World of Late Antiquity, John Moorhead’s (London, 1994) Justinian, and J. A. S. Evans’ (London, 1996) The Age of Justinian: the Circumstances of Imperial Power.
3.   There are only a few. On page xiii we read Macrides (2011) when it should be (2010), as said on page xvi. On page 11 of I it reads “I intend using this story”. Meier 2007, from note 25 of page 53, is not in the bibliography.

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