Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.17

R. W. Burgess, Michael Kulikowski, Mosaics of Time: The Latin Chronicle Traditions from the First Century BC to the Sixth Century AD. Volume I: A Historical Introduction to the Chronicle Genre from Its Origins to the High Middle Ages. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 33.   Turnhout:  Brepols, 2013.  Pp. xiv, 444.  ISBN 9782503531403.  €100.00.  

Reviewed by Scott G. Bruce, University of Colorado at Boulder (

Table of Contents

This book is the first installment of an ambitious four-volume study of chronicles in late antiquity. The volume under review provides a sweeping historical introduction to the chronicle genre from ancient Egypt and the Near East to the twelfth century. Later volumes will focus on particular Latin texts from the early empire to the seventh century and will include primary source editions (some new, some reprinted), new translations, and extensive commentary by the authors. This enterprise has two admirable goals. First, it will make available to a wide range of scholars and students “nearly all the most important chronographical sources in Latin for the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries AD” (p. xi). Second, it hopes to rehabilitate and make accessible a genre that many historians find difficult to work with, in no small part because of the laconic nature of these sources. The first volume of this series sets out to do something far more ambitious, however. It presents nothing less than a radical reinterpretation of the traditional taxonomies of premodern chronographical texts, from the most ancient evidence to the chronicles of the High Middle Ages. For this reason, this book is essential reading for all premodern scholars who base their research on “historical” sources (chronicles, annals, breviaria, etc.) and especially medievalists, whose traditional nomenclature for these sources does not take into account the ancient origins of the genre.

Burgess and Kulikowski present their reclassification of the subgenres of the Latin chronicle tradition in a long first chapter entitled “Nomenclature and Genre” (pp. 2-62). According to them, historians in general and medievalists in particular have been mistaken about the origins of medieval Latin chronicles since the early nineteenth century, when Georg Pertz, editor of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, first suggested a notion that would achieve wide acceptance: that medieval chronicles developed from annalistic entries added into the margins of late antique Easter tables. The authors dismantle this historical construct in their pursuit of their central argument: “late antique and medieval chronicles … were not an invention of Christian late antiquity or the Middle Ages at all, but rather the natural outgrowth of a millenium-old Mediterranean tradition of writing history” (p. 7). What follows is a lengthy analysis of the formal attributes of premodern historical writings that provides definitions of and distinctions between a complex and confusing tangle of related genres and subgenres. Fortunately, the authors have provided a short addendum to this very technical chapter (pp. 59-62: “Towards an Ecumenical Vocabulary”) that summarizes the names and distinctions whose use they advocate. Their most radical departure from common usage is the abandonment of the term “annals” in scholarly discourse, since “[t]here is no ancient or medieval warrant for the current use of ‘annals’ by medievalists for a historical genre different from chronicles” (p. 59). “Chronicle” is their term of choice for historical works that are relatively short, annalistic (year-by-year) in their presentation of information, and concerned primarily with chronology. Within this genre are several subgenres, including consularia (annotated consular lists), paschal chronicles (chronicles written within the framework of an Easter Table), chronicle epitomes (the works of Isidore and Bede and their continuators, organized into reigns rather than years and characterized by their extreme brevity), chronographs (straightforward regnal and episcopal lists), and, unrelated to the genres listed above, breviaria (historical texts marked by their brevity but showing little or no concern for chronology). Burgess and Kulikowski anticipate that many scholars will take issue with these new taxonomies (pp. xii and 62) and they are undoubtedly correct to think so. But one thing is clear, whether you agree with them or not, no premodern historian whose research relies on these genres can afford to ignore this chapter, which is sure to provoke fruitful debate on the nature of and relationship between these important sources.

While the first chapter of Mosaics of Time concerns terminology, the rest of the book treats the historical origins and characteristics of examples of the chronicle genre from ancient times to the twelfth century. Chapter 2 (“Early Chronicles in the Mediterranean World”) traces the history of the chronicle genre from the Royal Annals of the ancient Egyptians (composed c. 2470-2450 BC), the king lists and year-names compiled by the Babylonians and Assyrians in ancient Mesopotamia, and the earliest Greek chronographical works from the Hellenistic period. It was the Greek authors, most notably Apollodorus, whose Chronicon embraced the whole length of history from the Trojan War to 146 BC, who were most influential in shaping Latin chronographic traditions, which began with the work of Cornelius Nepos and T. Pomponius Atticus in the last decades of the Republic. Chapter 3 (“Apologetic Chronography and the Chronographic Works of Eusebius”) argues that the Christian chronicle tradition drew its inspiration from Greek and Jewish apologetic literature. Because the ancients agreed that the antiquity of a culture was a measure of its worth, both Greek and Jewish authors defended their cultures with chronographic writings. These traditions informed Eusebius of Caesarea’s Chronici Canones, which wedded ancient apologetic chronography with Christianity to produce a sweeping world history from Abraham (whom Eusebius believed to be the first Christian) to Constantine, the first Christian emperor. While Eusebius’s work met with considerable criticism in the Greek East and quickly fell out of circulation, it became hugely popular in the West through a Latin translation made by Jerome in the late fourth century. For the first time, this translation “gave western Christians a nearly complete history of world and placed the Christian empire at its culmination” (p. 127). Chapter 4 (“The Early Development of Calendars and Consularia”) treats the development of Latin chronographic traditions (primarily consular dating) during the Republic and the early Empire as expressions of historiographical interest and antiquarianism, while Chapter 5 (“Consularia and Chronicles in the Later Roman Empire) examines the reasons for the decline of the consularia genre in late antiquity (disruptions in the dissemination of information vital to the composition of consularia, especially in the fifth-century West, and the end of the annual consulship in 541) and the growing popularity of the chronicle genre, as authors emulated and continued Jerome’s translation of Eusebius. The final chapter (“Chronicles in the Middle Ages”) begins with a recapitulation of the authors’ argument that the distinction made by medievalists between “chronicles” and “annals” is misleading, since these texts descend from the same ancient genre. There follows a catalogue of early medieval texts, which serves as testimony to the vigorous afterlife of the ancient chronicle tradition: works of Isidore of Seville and Bede and their continuators in the West; the seventh-century Chronicon Pascale and the chronicles of George Syncellus and Theophanes in the East; and the chronographic writings of the late Merovingians and Carolingians and their influence down to the early twelfth-century chronicle of Sigebert of Gembloux. The volume concludes with several lengthy appendices (pp. 275-355), a bibliography, and a detailed index. The appendices permit the authors to set out at greater length than footnotes would allow further arguments in support of their claims made throughout the book. They also offer analyses of the origins and definitions of important terminology (chronica, annales) and translations from Babylonian and Greek chronicles.

Burgess and Kulikowski recognize that their massive enterprise is not the end of the story about the history of late antique chronicles, but rather an important beginning. Mosaics of Time will become the twenty-first century starting point of research in this marginalized field of historical inquiry. This is one of those rare books that speaks across the disciplinary and institutional boundaries that separate ancient and medieval historians. Research libraries would be wise to invest in this important work of scholarship because its contribution is sure to endure. The new taxonomies of premodern chronographical writings introduced in Chapter 1 and the argument for the continuity of the chronicle genre from the ancient Mediterranean to the twelfth century will provoke discussion and kindle debate about the nature and purpose of late antique and early medieval chronicles and of premodern historical writings in general.

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