BMCR 2004.09.08

Reminiszenzen an antike Stätten in der mittel- und spätbyzantinischen Literatur. Eine Untersuchung zur Antikenrezeption in Byzanz. Göttinger Studien zur byzantinischen und neugriechischen Philologie, Bd. 1

, Reminiszenzen an antike Stätten in der mittel-und spätbyzantinischen Literatur : eine Untersuchung zur Antikenrezeption in Byzanz. Göttinger Studien zur byzantinischen und neugriechischen Philologie ; Bd. 1. Göttingen: Peust & Gutschmidt, 2003. 270 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 3933043115 €24.80 (pb).

R. has gathered an impressive collection of Byzantine remarks on ancient places and has ordered them into convenient chapters. He has translated almost all of his chosen texts, providing important sections of the Greek originals in the footnotes. His style is straightforward, and all parts of the book are well announced and delineated: much has been done to make sources and commentary accessible.

Furthermore the sources are rich. R. has chosen texts from a variety of genres from the 9th through 15th C, so that a many types of reminiscence about ancient Greek (and sometimes Roman) places appear. The book could serve as a supporting proof for Nicias’ contention (Thucydides 7.77) that “Men are a city, and not walls or boats empty of men.” The actual ruins of Athens or other places, although the writers sometimes had access to them, are not nearly as important in these texts as the achievements and institutions of the peoples associated with the ruins. The Byzantine writers comment mostly on the history or meaning of the places rather than the places themselves, operating as they do in the context of widely varying rhetorical motivations, personal and political situations, and historical surroundings.

The book begins with an extensive bibliography followed by an introduction explaining the parameters of the collection and the organization of the book. The first substantial chapter is devoted to Michael Choniates, Metropolitan of Athens from 1182 to 1204. Choniates is introduced with a helpful and sympathetic account of his life and years at Athens. The rest of the chapter contains, first, a remarkable elegy about Athens, in which Choniates describes himself as a desolate lover, who seeks but never finds the ancient glories of the city he loves. The second part of the chapter contains excerpts from Choniates’ inaugural speech at Athens and from his subsequent correspondence. Except for the inaugural address, which, as R. tells us, was likely formulated at Constantinople before Choniates arrived at Athens (38), all of the texts contain complaints about the deteriorated condition of Athens. Choniates writes that he lives among a barbarized people clad in rags and insufficiently nourished, among whom no trace of ancient learning or spark of ancient spirit remains to be perceived (39ff.).

The chapter ends with reminiscences of ancient places taken from no fewer than 23 other Byzantine authors. The sources reveal a breadth of themes. Michael Psellos, for instance, writing in the 10th C, compares the decline of Athens to his own psychological decline in old age. The ruins of Athens are present to him like the names of the sciences and the conclusions of philosophy. But the real life of the city, like his grasp of the arguments that support the conclusions of philosophy, is destroyed (79; for other “organic” descriptions of the decline of ancient Greece, see pp. 95 and 103). Other authors find not even ruins but write that the ancient places are destroyed by war and by time to the extent that they have no name (97). Politically motivated remarks are also common. The chapter includes a variety of comparisons between Athens and Constantinople or Nicaea, in which the new capitals assume Athens’ famous role as educator of Hellas, as well as political and military leadership of the Greek world. Claims to leadership vary widely — some are much less dependent on a foundation from the past than others — and would reward closer study.

In the next section of his book R. provides reminiscences associated with the events of ancient history. Here the Persian Wars and the campaigns of Alexander the Great are prominent themes. Rather than being organized according to author, the chapter is organized according to the places to which the authors refer. Thus all references to the Hellespont or to Alexandria, for example, are found together. References to the places of ancient history are often motivated by comparisons to the political events of the writers’ own times and frequently show the superiority (or in the case of Alexander, equality) of some contemporary leader or event. Of particular interest, given the range of choices, is the Byzantine authors’ reuse of Herodotus’ presentation of Xerxes’ bridges over the Hellespont as a transgression against nature (109-116). Christian leaders manage, dei gratia, to outdo Xerxes without getting involved in his hubris; Turkish leaders are depicted in the opposite manner. But Herodotus’ symbolism works a strong spell, either way.

The two subsequent chapters of the book provide reminiscences that arose through reference to foundation stories and to the places associated with ancient myths. The chapter on foundation stories is arranged according to authors rather than places, a decision that seems odd. Foundation stories in particular would seem to lend themselves to categorization according to place. R. argues (22) that too many places are referenced to do it this way. From the reader’s point of view, however, the number of authors is at least as daunting as the number of places, and the places have the advantage of being more generally familiar. The chapter on myths is once again organized according to the places referenced by the Byzantine authors. Many of the places mentioned are well-known sites — Mt. Olympus or Mt. Parnassus, for instance, or the Alpheus River. The arrangement of the material according to places makes the references in this chapter easier to find and use and causes one to wish all the more that R. had stuck to this organizational principle for the preceding chapter. Both chapters have more of the character of a catalogue. The explanations provided are brief and technical, many different authors are covered, and most references are short.

The book concludes with a chapter of assessment. A short discussion of the historical events (i.e., regime changes) of the Byzantine Empire and a description of the character of the Byzantine audience for learned writing accompany an all too brief attempt to synthesize the many passages discussed during the course of the book.

And with this all too brief attempt the reviewer must begin. R. has found many sources of great interest and high quality, but he restricts his analysis to the most basic categories of commentary, often simply summarizing the translations he has provided. His concluding chapter puts some of the most interesting and exemplary passages into groups according to their themes. This is a beginning but does scant justice, in my opinion, to the excellence of the texts. Because of the very large volume of material included in the book, R. is forced to generalize, and one wishes that he had confined himself to a smaller number of centuries (for instance) rather than use an analytical instrument so blunt. For example, R. makes no comment on the genres of his texts, so that letters, poems, encomia, and scholarly works are lumped together for the purposes of the book. No distinction is made among them, whereas it seems that even inside these divisions, a letter to an emperor ought to be distinguished, in terms of its rhetorical necessities, from a letter to a friend. But even this problem is secondary to the most important problem, which is that R. is too overwhelmed with material to engage with the substance of the individual texts. This shows up immediately in R’s translations.

R. has gone to great effort to translate nearly every one of the hundreds of passages he includes in his book. Those who can read Greek, however, will be better off to cling to the Greek originals supplied in the footnotes, especially since R. makes very few comments on language, so that similarities to the ancient poets, tragedians, and historians go unnoticed unless the reader can perceive them unaided. Furthermore, R’s translations are unreliable. Let us take as our example R’s treatment of the elegy written by Michael Choniates, whom R. calls “the central writer” of his book (238). Imprecise translation is frequent throughout the book, and I will give one example here. The most egregious generalization in R’s translation of the elegy is the translation of three different Greek words: θέας (line nine), εἴκονας (line eleven), and ἴνδαλμα (line thirty) with the German word “Bild” (picture). This results in a misleading translation. A further translation of εἴδωλον (line fifteen) with “Abbild” does nothing to help. Even worse, some important words remain untranslated: ἀτεχνῶς in line eight, and ἀμημαχοῦντες in line ten, for instance. There are also simple errors: in line five αὐτήν is translated as “einst”. (Or perhaps the Greek word remained untranslated, and the German word crept in as a result of interpretation. It is impossible to tell.) These embarrassing flaws warn us not to trust R’s translations of the Greek texts he has collected and, furthermore, to take lightly his apparently philological commentary on the various editions of this poem (30ff.). Much could have been rescued if R. had engaged with this wonderful source and allowed himself to publish some kind of remark on the character and substance of Choniates’ reminiscences, but nothing of the kind ever comes to light (see 29-33, 237, 243-44). The problems here expose the danger of pulling in too many texts and treating them too superficially: engaging in an analysis of this text would have made R. aware of the problems in his translation.

R’s philological deficiencies lead us to a suspicion that is borne out in the chapter devoted to Byzantine references to the places of ancient historical events. While R’s Byzantine authors could rely on their reading of Herodotus and Thucydides, among others (notably Plutarch), it is not clear that R. can do the same. Throughout his historical chapter, with occasional exceptions, R. compares the memories of the Byzantine authors not to the information available from these texts but rather to the information provided by synopses of modern historical research. I cannot imagine why he does this. His book is about reminiscences, and the sub-title (“A study of the reception of the ancient world in Byzantium”) indicates that the focus of the book will be on how the Byzantines saw the ancient Greeks, and not on whether or not they got the facts right, from our point of view.

Moreover, R’s reliance on modern synopses of ancient history causes moments of incoherence, even absurdity. Thus, for instance, he writes, as if citing facts, “The victory of the Athenians [at Marathon] was of little strategic significance, but it was hugely famous. Miltiades, the victorious general, came through this victory to eternal fame” (104). He cites Bengston’s History of Greece as the source for this naïve assessment, which is one the Byzantine authors, who had experience of many wars with eastern powers and who longed for such “strategically unimportant” victories themselves, would not have appreciated or even recognized. They knew that no victory of that size is strategically unimportant and knew that fame is a strategic weapon. This incoherent judgement does not share their universe.

Unfortunately, R’s reliance on such textbooks seems to replace an engagement with the ancient historians and poets who were his authors’ inspiration. References to the ancient sources for Byzantine views about ancient historical events are limited to brief and infrequent footnotes. R. does not look in Herodotus or the other ancient authors to see what the Byzantine writers may have learned (or not learned, or changed, or exploited). Here again, a closer analysis of the texts would have been most useful. It would have compelled R. to explain the meanings borrowed from ancient texts more fully and would have freed him from the annoying tendency to “correct” rather than analyze the Byzantine authors.

These authors are the reason to read this book. They are wonderful, as I hope some of the examples provided have shown. By turns charming, moving, analytical, ironic, or poetic, the excerpts collected here surpass their presentation to impress the reader again and again. R. has done a useful service to bring so many valuable references together, and one only wishes that he had chosen some of them for close attention and thorough analysis.

Errors and typos in the German text are relatively rare: e.g., the date of the end of Theban supremacy in mainland Greece in incorrectly stated as 371 BC (124); “Palaiologenzeit” (256) is misspelled. These are small problems compared to the difficulties encountered with the book itself, which is a librarian’s nightmare. Pages began to fall out at the first reading; subsequent readings have required the use of a rubber band to keep the book together. Internally, paragraphs are annoyingly left justified; i.e. no paragraph beginning is indented. This makes the beginnings of the paragraphs much more difficult to find, and is not suitable for a book that introduces hundreds of passages and authors.