Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.06.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.06.02

Anthony Kaldellis, Dimitris Krallis, Michael Attaleiates: The History. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 16.   Cambridge, MA; London:  Harvard University Press, 2012.  Pp. xx, 636.  ISBN 9780674057999.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Michele Trizio, Università degli Studi di Bari “Aldo Moro” (


This elegant volume contains the first English translation of Michael Attaleiates' History. It would be superfluous to remark on the importance of Attaleiates' work for the tradition of Byzantine historiographers. Attaleiates presents his History as a “variegated book” resulting from a nuanced narrative interwoven with non-historical elements, despite his announcing a clear and concise work in the preface. His ideology and understanding of social and political dynamics sufficiently account for the importance of this work.

A senator, a judge, a proedros, and the patron and founder of a monastery for eunuchs, Attaleiates and his History keep challenging modern scholars in many respects. Among these, one should mention the intriguing point of the comparison with Psellos' Chronography, another eleventh-century work, but one which differs from, and in modern evaluations sometimes overshadows, the History in respect to the conception of authorship and the system of values and ideology through which these authors shape their narratives. As a matter of fact, if the novelties in Psellos' Chronography are rather evident in the great emphasis on, among other things, the history of literacy to the detriment of social and economic history, Attaleiates may at first glance give the impression of a more traditional approach. This is misleading, for though it may be true – according to our modern understanding of Greek and Byzantine historiography – that Attaleiates' strategy of comparing old Roman glory with contemporary decadence appears traditional, if not uninteresting, this approach is never merely moralistic in Attaleiates. Quite to the contrary, complaints of the impending decline of the eleventh-century Byzantine Empire always carry hopes for at least a partial restoration of the glory of the past and are accompanied by a lucid analysis of the actual prospects of fulfilling this project. Once again this may appear a limit of the History, for in the end it is not clear how “realistic” Attaleiates' aristocratic view of the situation could be. And yet, while linking these hopes to the old general and emperor Nikephoros Botaneiates (1078-1081) – whose genealogy Attaleiates links with the Phokas family and, through them, to the Roman line of Fabius – Attaleiates seems constantly aware of the limits of the Aristocratic ideology coloring his narrative. It could not have been otherwise for a witness to the disaster of the Battle of Mantzikert in 1071, which Attaleiates describes in pages filled with vivid and dramatic scenes. 1

Anthony Kaldellis and Dimitris Krallis, both specialists on Byzantine historiography and in particular Attaleiates, have done a wonderful job in rendering Attaleiates' elaborate but often jumbled Greek into modern language. Surely their work must have been made easier by I. Pérez Martin's outstanding new edition of the text, 2 which Kaldellis and Krallis nevertheless emendated 18 times where they thought necessary by retaining the mss. reading, accepting alternative readings suggested by Polemis in his modern Greek translation, 3 or by proposing different readings of their own. The authors are obviously aware that such emendations are always debatable, especially in the case of this text's rather scarce tradition – the great codicological importance of the individual testimonia notwithstanding –, as it is preserved by only two mss. (one of which contains an incomplete version of the text). This does not allow for much improvement on Pérez Martin's excellent achievements. Kaldellis and Krallis also propose a division of the text into chapters that differs “in a half dozen places” from that of Pérez Martin's text. The only complaint I have in regard to Kaldellis' and Krallis' list of emendations (pp. 593-4) is that these are not accompanied by the corresponding page numbers, which would have made it much easier for the reader to locate the Greek term subject to emendation within the book.

Among the many views that one can legitimately hold in regard to the vexata quaestio of how much the modern translation should reproduce the vast complexity of the apparatus (plural) of the critically edited text, the present reviewer finds himself comfortable with Kaldellis' and Krallis' decision not to overload the layout of their translation with all the precious material prepared by Pérez Martin for her improved edition of the text. It is clear to me that this translation is intended as complementary – and not as an alternative – to the modern critical text. In fact, any responsible scholar interested in the nuances of some particularly obscure passage, its sources and textual variants, will always duly look at the modern critical edition of the text, because its apparatus and extensive notes are the primary tools for their investigations. But after looking at the critical text, scholars and historians will no doubt be overjoyed to be able to quote Attaleiates in the first standard English translation, and in so doing they will also be quite pleased at having the corresponding Greek text available in one and the same volume. By the same token, students may profit from this volume as well, as they now have easy access to Attaleiates' History, and when studying the eleventh century they will no longer have an excuse for favoring the already available translations of the histories by Michael Psellos and Anna Komnena.

In this regard, I also appreciated the authors' decision – which suits the criteria of this Dumbarton Oaks Series – not to add their interpretive and contextualizing notes at the bottom of each page, but rather at the end of the whole text. In this way the legibility of the text is preserved. The same criteria have been applied to the notes to the translation, which are short and concise, ideal for facilitating access to this work. I found the glossary of officials, titles, and technical terms, and the maps at the end of the volume, very useful. Preceding the English translation of Attaleiates' History the reader will also find a short presentation of Attaleiates and a concise but useful reconstruction of the political background of eleventh-century Byzantium. Scholars will probably also debate and challenge Kaldellis' and Krallis' view that Attaleiates' reference to Michael of Nikomedia cannot be Michael Psellos, an identification that the authors reject firmly, but which will undoubtedly remain a subject of future discussion. 4

In sum, scholars and students interested in the tradition of the Byzantine historiographers will surely welcome this volume as a very important tool for future studies on Attaleiates and the eleventh-century political and social history of Byzantium. Kaldellis and Krallis have done outstanding work and produced an excellent volume, which is elegant, yet also affordable.


1.   On this see S. Papaioannou, Remarks on Michael Attaleiates' History, in C. Gastgeber, C. Messis, D. Muresan, and F. Ronconi (eds.), Pour l'amour de Byzance: Hommage à Paolo Odorico, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang 2013, 155-73.
2.   Inmaculada Pérez Martín, Miguel Ataliates, Historia, Introducción, edición, traducción y comentario, Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas 2002
3.  I. Polemis, Μιχaὴλ Ἀτταλειάτης. Ἱστορία, Κείμενα Βυζαντινής Ιστοριογραφία 8, Athens 1997.
4.   The arguments favoring this view are expressed in A. Kaldellis, “The date of Psellos’ death, once again: Psellos was not the Michael of Nikomedeia mentioned by Attaleiates,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 104 (2011) 649-661.

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