Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.14 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.14

Amelia Brown, Bronwen Neil (ed.), Byzantine Culture in Translation. Byzantina Australiensia 21.   Leiden:  Brill, 2017.  Pp. xii, 226.  ISBN 9789004348868.  $149.00.  

Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Fisher, George Washington University, Washington DC (

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This collection of essays presents translation as a phenomenon crossing disciplinary boundaries. To quote Amelia Brown’s introduction, “Byzantium was a culture of constant translation. Within the empire, individuals from the emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople down to the people of the imperial capital, other cities and the countryside, engaged in translating the texts, structures and concepts of their Roman imperial past into a meaningful context for their present” (p. 1). The twelve essays range through time and geographical focus from fifth-century Italy and North Africa through seventeenth-century Wallachia and the poetry of Yeats. Each essay concludes with an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and all are informed by meticulous use of evidence and careful argumentation; texts cited in their original language include English translations. Seldom can an essay be categorized within a single discipline such as philology, social history, folklore, Quellenforschung, or material culture because the authors explore their subject matter for its significance in a range of medieval and modern contexts.

Google Books provides a useful sample of this volume. Readers will find a full table of contents (authors and titles are also listed at the end of this review), a brief prefatory paragraph identifying the 2014 Conference of the Australian Association for Byzantine Studies as the origin of this volume, and a list of contributors with their affiliations. The text of Amelia Brown’s introduction follows (pp. 1-7) with a brief informative summary of each contribution. Google Books closes its sample with the first 16 pages of Roger Scott’s essay on Byzantine chronicles from Malalas to Kedrenos, enabling readers to gain a sense of the tone and quality of the volume as a whole.

Since Amelia Brown’s introduction makes the description of individual articles unnecessary here, I shall focus upon material gleaned from various essays that I particularly appreciated as a philologist who has worked on texts through the early Palaiologan era. In this enterprise, I do not in any sense mean to dismiss other essays nor to diminish their interest for readers. What follows is a series of points that I found particularly striking from my own disciplinary perspective.

Byzantine authors considered their own Greek literary inheritance as comprehensive and beyond improvement; as a result, Byzantine culture generally ignored the Latin literary component of their legacy from the Roman imperial past (i.e., Livy, Vergil, Tacitus). Accordingly, indications of Latin texts available in Constantinople and of readers able to use them are valuable. In Chapter 1 (“Narrating the Reign of Constantine in Byzantine Chronicles”), Roger Scott establishes that the historical Constantine held little interest for the early Byzantine chroniclers, who concentrated upon erasing any hint of Arianism from his early associations as described by Eusebius and substituted an orthodox account of his baptism by Pope Sylvester. Malalas may have used a Syriac tradition for this account and influenced Theophanes the Confessor in the ninth century as well. It was George the Monk in the late ninth century who introduced evidence from the Latin Vita Sylvestri, using the archives of the Patriarchate in Constantinople (p. 14), and Kedrenos in the eleventh century who thoroughly exploited the Latin text by consulting a copy directly (pp. 19-23). Although it is known that the Byzantine imperial chancery employed Latin translators during this period to conduct business with western rulers and delegations, little is known about the holdings of the Patriarchal library and the linguistic competence of its users.

John Burke offers a new and stimulating interpretation of a frequently discussed epigram (or epitaph?) in Chapter 5, “Nikephoros Phokas as Superhero.” Eight modern editions of the text have appeared and two tenth-century dates suggested. After a careful examination of the historical context of internal references, Burke rejects the epigram as a part of a pro-Phokas tenth-century dossier and joins previous scholars in dismissing the suggestion that it was inscribed on the imperial tomb. On the basis of his own examination of the two twelfth-century witnesses to the text, Burke offers a sensitive interpretation of two voices created by the poet, one a first-person singular in a sober tone of tragic irony, the second a first-person plural at an emotional pitch of excessively pious melodrama that is typical of the tenth-century akolouthia for Phokas. Nothing in the diction of the poem requires attributing it to John Geometres, as some scholars have done; instead, Burke follows the manuscripts and accepts the alternative attribution to the learned Metropolitan John of Melitene (second half of the eleventh century). In Burke’s view, John satirized the excessive piety of the second, cultic voice in the epigram and typifies the attitude of the contemporary ecclesiastical hierarchy, “No new saints!” The closure of the canon of saints has recently been the focus of scholarly interest and discussion. In Chapter 6 (“Byzantine Religious Tales in Latin Translation: The Work of John of Amalfi”), John Duffy locates this bilingual western monk at the monastery of Zoodochos Pege in Constantinople in the late eleventh century, where members of the Amalfian trading community encouraged his work as a rare foreign extension of a popular Latin genre. John’s Liber de miraculis contains 42 ‘edifying tales’ for Greek monastic use compiled from various sources as well as additional unpublished saintly narratives (pp. 115-17). John followed the recommendations of Leo of Amalfi in his translator’s preface, adopting a mixture of close adherence to the original text and the ‘sensum de sensu’ method to produce a readable Latin text accessible to most readers because it resembled ecclesiastical Latin of the sixth to seventh centuries. Duffy characterizes the register of John’s translation through his vocabulary, drawn from the contemporary language used in southern Italy, some words from transliterated Greek terms and others formed from Latin elements equivalent to Greek (p. 123). John’s residence in Constantinople as a western monk, his association with traders there, and his ability to attune his Latin style to a contemporary southern Italian audience are notable features of his role in this rare literary exchange at a popular level from the orthodox East to the Latin West.

Maria Mavroudi delivered the keynote address at the Conference, “Translations from Greek into Latin and Arabic during the Middle Ages: Searching for the Classical Tradition,” a revised version of her seminal article originally published in Speculum 90/1 (2015, 28-59) and reprinted here as Chapter 7. Mavroudi stresses adaptation as a constant theme across medieval societies. Christian Byzantium adapted classical Greek literature to meet practical and cultural needs by forming collections and devising commentaries; the Arabic- and Latin-speaking worlds selected and translated ancient Greek texts significant for their changing circumstances; Byzantine Greek astronomical and medical texts of the seventh- ninth centuries were translated into Syriac, Arabic, Slavic, or Latin. In every case the particular needs of a society determined translation activity. Two chapters in particular enlarge upon the theme set forth by Mavroudi.

In Chapter 4 (“Bang for His Buck: Dioscorides as a Gift of the Tenth-Century Byzantine Court”), Yvette Hunt explores the ‘diplomacy of the book’ (p. 90) implied in a quotation from the Arab historian Ibn Juljul:

Romanos, Emperor of Constantinople, sent him [al-Nasir ‘Abd al- Rahman III] a message—I think it was in the year AD 948 [337 AM]—and presented him with gifts of great value, including the book of Dioscorides, with pictures of herbs in the marvelous Byzantine style and written in the Greek language … Romanos wrote in his letter to al-Nasir: ‘Dioscorides’ book cannot be utilized except with the help of a person who knows Greek well and is acquainted with the drugs concerned. If there is someone in your country equipped with the necessary knowledge, you will, O king, derive great profit from this book …’ (p. 73, italics mine)

Hunt demonstrates the political importance of this gift made to the Umayyad court at Cordoba as an assertion that the Byzantines, not the Arabs or Persians, were the true guardians of the ancient Greek medical tradition and that Byzantium possessed resources superior to the translations made at the Abbasid court of Baghdad (p. 90). As a useful complement to Hunt’s article, note Anne McCabe’s essay on the importance of pharmacology in trade. She discusses the gift and the context for ibn Juljul’s questionable identification of the book’s donor as the nine-year-old Romanos II, Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos’ son and co-Emperor; she also identifies ibn Juljul as a member of the team commissioned at Cordoba to translate the text with the assistance of Nicholas, a qualified Greek requested from Constantinople by the caliph (p. 287).1 Readers of Hunt’s essay will enjoy quotations demonstrating Persian and Arab scorn for Byzantium as a repository of ancient Greek science. For example, Hunt cites a late tenth-century Arabic anecdote describing a vast ancient pagan temple kept secret and locked behind huge iron gates “since the time that the Byzantines had become Christians” and containing inscriptions, sculptures, and “numerous camel loads of ancient books” (p. 78).

In Chapter 8 (“A Web of Translations: Planudes in Search of Human Reason”), Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides demonstrates convincingly that thirteenth-century Byzantine ecclesiastical politics fostered Planoudes’ translations and commentaries on Boethius and Augustine as adaptations to serve the union of eastern and western Churches, a project pressed by the Emperor Michael VIII. Orthodox theology and the writings of these two Latin authors converged in relying upon Plato and Aristotle as interpreted by the Neoplatonist Plotinos. Anagnostou-Laoutides identifies Plotinos as the source of Boethius’ Aristotelian theory of the soul and also of Augustine’s Trinitarian theology; she demonstrates through Planoudes’ vocabulary choices in his annotated translations of De consolatione philosophiae and De trinitate that Byzantine readers would recognize in these Greek versions echoes of Plotinos, Plato, and Aristotle. Modern readers may wish to explore further the surprising vagaries of Palaiologan adoption and adaptation of Augustine by consulting two essays not cited by Anagnostou-Laoutides: Elizabeth Fisher, “Planoudes’ De Trinitate, the Art of Translation, and the Beholder’s Share,” and Reinhard Flogaus, “Inspiration—Exploration—Distortion: The Use of Augustine in the Hesychast Controversy.”2

Bronwen Neil’s “Conclusion: Translating Byzantium in the New Millenium,” indicates a stimulating way forward for Byzantine Studies in an international climate of waning public interest in the humanities and diminished funding opportunities for scholars. Basing her discussion upon the successful cooperative initiatives of Australian Byzantinists, she notes that historical studies must adapt emphasis and methodology to government funding criteria for a “perceived national benefit” (p. 258) such as a current project examining parallels in the revisionist strategies used by Christians, Jews, and pagans in the fifth-seventh centuries; similarities to the rewriting of history and destruction of monuments in the modern Middle East are striking. Translations and commentaries on previously scorned ‘popular’ literary genres open new questions and perspectives. New technologies have also brought the opportunity for on-line language teaching, electronic publications, and the wide availability of valuable on-line data bases. International collaborators can now exchange materials rapidly and accurately though electronic communication. “As we seek to broaden Byzantine horizons,” she concludes, “we stand to gain a whole new audience. The cultural translators studied within this volume would surely sympathise with such a goal” (p. 264).

Table of Contents

Introduction, Amelia Brown
1. Narrating the Reign of Constantine in Byzantine Chronicles, Roger Scott
2. Breaking Down Barriers: Eunuchs in Italy and North Africa, 400–620, Michael Edward Stewart
3. The Orient Express: Abbot John’s Rapid Trip from Constantinople to Ravenna c. AD 700, Ann Moffatt
4. Bang For His Buck: Dioscorides as a Gift of the Tenth-Century Byzantine Court, Yvette Hunt
5. Nikephoros Phokas as Superhero, John Burke
6. Byzantine Religious Tales in Latin Translation: The Work of John of Amalfi, John Duffy
7. Translations from Greek into Latin and Arabic during the Middle Ages: Searching for the Classical Tradition, Maria Mavroudi
8. A Web of Translations: Planudes in Search of Human Reason, Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides
9. Translating Dorotheus of Gaza: From Gaza to Humanist Europe, Michael Champion
10. The Translation of Constantinople from Byzantine to Ottoman, as Revealed by the Lorck Prospect of the City, Nigel Westbrook and Rene Van Meeuwen
11. Byzantium after Byzantium? Two Greek Writers in Seventeenth-century Wallachia, Alfred Vincent
12. Yeats’s Two Byzantiums, Penelope Buckley
Conclusion: Translating Byzantium in the New Millennium, Bronwen Neil


1.   “Imported materia medica, 4th—12th centuries, and Byzantine pharmacology,” in M. M. Mango (ed.), Byzantine Trade, 4th—12th Centuries (Ashgate 2009) pp. 273-292.
2.   Orthodox Readings of Augustine, edd. Aristotle Papanikolaou and George Demacopoulos (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2008) pp. 41-61 and pp. 63-80.

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