Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.01.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.01.24

Mischa Meier, Christine Radtki, Fabian Schulz (ed.), Die Weltchronik des Johannes Malalas. Autor - Werk - Überlieferung. Malalas Studien, 1. Schriften zur Chronik des Johannes Malalas.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016.  Pp. 310.  ISBN 9783515110990.  €58.00.  

Reviewed by Staffan Wahlgren, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim (


According to one view, the sixth century is when Antiquity ends and Byzantium begins. A prominent sixth-century author generally considered to be on the Byzantine side of the divide, is John Malalas. That he is so classified is clearly due to the character of his Chronographia, the first in a series of similar Byzantine texts preserved for us. In contrast, his contemporary Procopius, the author of works composed in a style and format inspired by the Classical Age, is considered one of the Ancients.

One of the tasks of scholarship concerned with the sixth century is to challenge current conceptions of the age and help us understand what, if anything, there is to the perceived divide between Antiquity and Byzantium. Were Malalas and Procopius so very far from each other in their life experiences, or did they just prefer to express themselves differently?

The present volume may be placed in the context of such concerns. Containing papers read at a conference in Tübingen in 2014, it is the first in a new series of publications of a project at the University of Tübingen, financed by the Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften (as well as the Union der deutschen Akademien der Wissenschaften) and directed by Mischa Meier (an overview of the project may be found here). The Tübingen project aims at producing a commentary on Malalas, as well as generating some of the knowledge we still need in order to understand him and his age. This includes paving the way for a more definite edition of the text, to replace I. Thurn, Ioannis Malalae Chronographia, Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 35), 2000.

The "Introduction" (pp. 7-23) provides the background, short summaries of the papers contained in the volume, and a bibliography. It is written in German, while the papers that follow are in English or German; all papers are accompanied by abstracts in English.

The rest of the book is divided into three main parts. The first part, "Malalas – Person, Werk und Umfeld", contains papers by J.M. Thesz ("Die christliche Paideia des Johannes Malalas", pp. 27-43), V.H. Drecoll ("Miaphysitische Tendenzen bei Malalas?", pp. 45-57), C. Saliou ("Malalas' Antioch", pp. 59-76), and Ph. Blaudeau ("Malalas and the Representation of Justinian's Reign: a Few Remarks", pp. 77-89). Thesz discusses aspects of Malalas' learning, whereas Drecoll tries to identify the author's stance in the christological debate of the day. In both cases, serious doubt must remain whether the Chronographia can tell us much. In the following paper, Saliou discusses the literary construction of urban space and "the unity of Malalas' project and the unity of Malalas' Antioch". Finally, Blaudeau anticipates a point to which we will return below: that the text of the Chronographia as it existed in the sixth century may have been fairly different from the shape it takes in the manuscript tradition of later centuries.

The second part, "Die Gattung der 'Chronik,'" begins with a paper by R.W. Burgess and M. Kulikowski, "The Historiographical Position of John Malalas. Genre in Late Antiquity and the Byzantine Middle Ages" (pp. 93-117). Its main contention is that Malalas’s text is not a chronicle at all, but rather a breviarium. The authors' interest in the chronicle genre extends as far back as Ancient Mesopotamia, although the discussion does not seem always relevant here nor, from a Byzantinist's point of view, up to date. What is more, as much as I agree with the authors' view that modern opinions about genre are irrelevant, I cannot see that conceptions belonging to an age much earlier than Malalas are relevant either. Then follows A.-M. Bernardi and E. Caire, "John Malalas: from computation to narration" (pp. 119-136), a discussion of literary composition, and how a primary chronographic structure has been complemented with narrative elements. This is not an easy read; at least, it contains very useful appendices.

The third and final part of the book, "Zur Überlieferung der Malalas-Chronik," is divided into two sub-sections. Of these the first (III.1 "Handschriften") opens with "The manuscript transmission of Malalas' chronicle reconsidered" (pp. 139-151), in which E. Jeffreys returns to a field of study to which she has contributed so significantly in the past. Of especial interest I found the discussion, p. 145, of a thirteenth-century reference to a four-word terminology for persons involved in the production of books: scriptor, compilator, commentator, and auctor. Although taken from the Latin West, these distinctions (as pointed out by Jeffreys) are clearly worthy of the attention of Byzantinists as well. The second paper in this sub-section, F. Schulz, "Fragmentum Tusculanum II und die Geschichte eines Zankapfels" (pp. 153-166), deals with the very oldest manuscript witness to Malalas' chronicle, a seventh-century palimpsest discovered by A. Mai (Codex Cryptoferratensis gr. 54 (Rocchi Ζ.α.XXIV)). Thanks to spectral analysis (and modern computer software), it is now possible to read more of this palimpsest than before, and including elements of the text that were not available to Thurn when he was preparing his edition. Specifically, Schulz edits and discusses the part concerned with the famous apple given by emperor Theodosius II to his wife Eudocia (and then passed on to a courtier, Paulinus, with disastrous consequences). Although I am not convinced by Schulz' interpretation of the story, his new, improved reading of the fragment is of indisputable value, since it opens up the possibility of gaining insights into the very beginnings of the Chronographia's textual history. Thus the main manuscript, the Baroccianus 182, is put into perspective.

This leads us to the third part's second sub-section (III.2 "Literarische Beziehungen"), which is concerned with how later authors use the Chronographia, as well as further matters of textual history. Eminently readable is G. Greatrex, "Malalas and Procopius" (pp. 169-185). In this there are two main thoughts: First, that we should not treat the Baroccianus as a reliable witness to the original form of Malalas (cf. above on Schulz) and, secondly, that Malalas and Procopius are much closer to each other, in the sense of belonging to the same intellectual milieu, than a traditional view would suggest (cf. the introductory reflections to this review). Although not entirely new, both these ideas are worthy of further consideration, although Greatrex may overstate his case. Next, Chr. Gastgeber ("Die Osterchronik und Johannes Malalas. Aspekte der Rezeption", pp. 187-224) and E. Juhász ("Die Indiktionsangaben bei Johannes Malalas und in der Osterchronik" pp. 225-237) discuss if, and how, the Paschal Chronicle depends upon Malalas. Both give plausible arguments in favour of some kind of connection: Juhász mentions a common source as a possible explanation for the similarities. The subsequent three papers are concerned with the tenth-century Constantinian Excerpts: P. Carolla ("John Malalas in the Excerpta Constantiniana de Insidiis (EI): a philological and literary perspective", pp. 239-252), S. Mariev ("John of Antioch reloaded: a tutorial", pp. 253-264), and U. Roberto ("John Malalas as a source for John of Antioch's Historia Chroniké. The evidence of the Excerpta historica Constantiniana", pp. 267-286). Carolla demonstrates an impressive knowledge of relevant manuscripts in a wide range of libraries, and her way of arguing the need for future editorial work is worth taking seriously. Mariev's contribution is, to put it briefly, too much John of Antioch and too little Malalas, and, for all its usefulness (it is mainly an account of the principles behind his edition of John of Antioch), I do not understand its relevance here. Roberto's contribution, springing out of the same interest in John of Antioch but focusing on this author's dependence upon Malalas, is easier to follow and more to the point. In both cases much of the argumentation seems like fragments of a discussion belonging elsewhere. Finally, D. Brodka ("Die Weltchronik des Johannes Malalas und die Kirchengeschichte des Nikephoros Xanthopulos Kallistos", pp. 287-310) discusses the reception of Malalas in the last of the Byzantine church historians, active in the fourteenth century. Although the problem is rather too large and complex to be treated fully in a paper, Brodka makes a likely enough case that Xanthopulos used Malalas directly—and, to be more precise, in a manuscript very similar to the Baroccianus. This would seem to indicate that, in the Paleologan period, "Malalas" meant about the same as it means today).

In sum, this is a book with merits. Unfortunately, it is somewhat sloppily edited: there are many small errors (misprints and the like), the English of the non-native contributors is often sub-standard, and more care should have been taken to transform the oral presentations into something more readable. Further, the German employed (especially in the "Introduction") is heavy going—which is a pity if we want to keep German as an alternative to English in international scholarship. Also, a general index would have been helpful, as well as a unified bibliography; as it is, every contribution comes with its own bibliography, with a lot of repetition and slight variations of form. Throughout, there is a certain non-invasive attitude by the editors, which is also apparent in the fact that many contributors were permitted to stray far from a focus on Malalian scholarship. On the positive side, the volume provides a certain précis of the state of the art, and many avenues of prospective research are hinted at, including the need for an adequate edition of the Chronographia. It remains to be seen whether the Tübingen project will prove to be that much-needed powerhouse of sixth-century scholarship which could unite Byzantine scholars with scholars from Antiquity.

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