BMCR 2004.10.27

The Chronography of George Synkellos: A Byzantine Chronicle of Universal History from the Creation

, , , The chronography of George Synkellos : a Byzantine chronicle of universal history from the creation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. lxxxviii, 638 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0199241902. $135.00.

George Syncellus (or “Synkellos,” as our authors style him) is probably not a name familiar to most Classicists. ‘Syncellus’ was a title which in the early Church was given to those monks or clerics who shared quarters with their bishops, and who served primarily as deacons in the offices of the mass and were often presumed to succeed the bishop at his death. In the Byzantine Church they soon became the most trusted advisors and assistants of the Patriarch of Constantinople and acquired great prominence. George the Syncellus served under the Patriarch Tarasius (784 to 806 CE), but he did not follow the usual path and succeed Tarasius upon the Patriarch’s death. Instead he retired to a monastery, whereupon he composed the work which was to be his claim to fame, the Ἐκλογὴ Χρονογραφίας, or the Selection of Chronography. An introduction to this magnum opus et arduum is in order.

This massive book aims to present an account of the history of the world from the biblical creation account in Genesis to the accession of the Roman emperor Diocletian (284). Syncellus had apparently intended to bring the work down to his own day but was prevented by his death in 810, and his labours were later completed by his associate Theophanes Confessor. The effort was undertaken to provide a concise and correct vision of history which would culminate in the Christian empire of Byzantium, and, taken together, both of these works represent one of the most important works of Byzantine scholarship. In its professed scope, the Selection of Chronography was no different from any of the typical Byzantine universal chronicles which had become commonplace and often trite productions throughout the history of the empire; but Syncellus is to be set apart for a number of important qualities. First, his assiduous attention to detail and an obsessive concern with a reconciliation of biblical and secular dates. With the Chronicle (also known as the Chronici Canones) of Eusebius as his chief model, Syncellus provides endless (to the casual reader, at least) tables of monarchs, emperors, and bishops and the years of their reign. Secondly, Syncellus cites numerous narrative historical works and chronicles (both Christian and secular) from Egypt and the ancient Near East, many of which are unattested elsewhere, and, when they are, they often appear in fragmentary form. Besides Eusebius (whose original text of the Chronicle has been restored often by the aid of Syncellus),1 his chief predecessors in the chronographic tradition were the Alexandrines Annianus and Panodorus (c. 400 CE), Dexippus (c. 275 CE) and Julius Africanus (c. 222 CE). Since the author often cites these sources and predecessors in the Greek and Roman narrative historical traditions, his work is also a rich repository of information about the origins and critical development of Christian chronography in Byzantium as well. Admittedly, less has been said about the use made of Syncellus by later Byzantine chroniclers like Zonaras and Cedrenus, but that is changing.2 Classicists who consult the work for a new perspective on Greek and Roman history may be disappointed since Syncellus allows for comparatively less attention to strictly classical historiography. As a man of the Church, the author betrays his interests and obsessions; Syncellus was mainly concerned with biblical history, the life of Christ, and the success of Catholic orthodoxy, and his work reflects these pursuits. Additionally, Syncellus is valuable for the allusions he presents for his own travels in and around contemporary Palestine, and there is even a possibility that the author may have access to a number of sources (now lost) in the original Syriac as well. For some, the connection between Theophanes and Syncellus is enough to warrant the consideration that the Syriac chronographic tradition was the basis of the authors’ knowledge of Eusebius.3 For these reasons and more, taken as a whole, the Selection of Chronography is the achievement of a lifetime devoted to scholarship and erudition.

The present edition, by William Adler and Paul Tuffin, is likewise a monumental academic achievement. Although an excellent text had been produced by 1984,4 and despite its obvious importance to the study of the Byzantine historiographic tradition, the Selection of Chronography had never been translated into any modern language. The preface informs the reader that the current work came about by way of an interesting coincidence between two geographically detached scholars: both Professor Adler of North Carolina State University (who had already made a contribution to Syncellus studies with his work on the chronographic tradition),5 and Mr. Tuffin (currently a Visiting Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer at Adelaide University), had an interest in producing a translation of Syncellus. Professor Adler had already completed a draft translation by 1994 and the two decided that together they would bring to fruition the present edition. This obvious labour of love for both men had become an international effort which would take them eight years to complete.

Adler and Tuffin have composed a work which will be appealing at once to students of biblical history, Byzantine chronography and even late Roman Quellenforschung. Unlike the only other modern commentator on Syncellus, Heinrich Gelzer, who regarded George as mostly unoriginal and derivative,6 Adler and Tuffin have brought to light a Syncellus who is an active scholar, attentive to the importance of his work. The Greekless reader need not fear that she will be led astray: although the tables can wear away one’s enthusiasm after awhile, the narrative translation is lively, clear and accurate, and the influence of Mosshammer’s excellent text is evident throughout. The reader is treated, moreover, to copious notes encompassing the erudite gamut of Syncellus’ text, in almost every one of which appears a veritable parade of erudition. All the references that I attempted to verify were accurate. Lastly, the voluminous and learned introduction provides a perfect preamble to understanding and reading the document as Syncellus intended it to be understood and read. Adler and Tuffin situate Syncellus in his historical and literary milieu and demonstrate how he went about the creation of this work, employed, corrected and perfected his models and discuss the influence and place of the author in modern scholarship.

The only decision that might appear problematic to a more than a few lay readers is the issue of the transliteration of the Greek. The translators have chosen to adopt the modern vogue of the last few decades of re-“Hellenising” Greek text which formerly had been rendered into Latin form for centuries. This practice is one that still shows no uniform scholarly consensus, and is often arbitrary at best and chaotic at worst, and the present text is no exception. For instance, why use “Eusebios,” and not “Eusebius,” but use “Ptolemy” and not “Ptolemaios”? Even younger scholars are reluctant to accept these innovations. Witness the introductory passage to this review, where whether by choice or circumstance I find it extremely disquieting to refer to our author as Synkellos. This is no more evident than in the case of biblical names, where there are already two layers of transliteration, from Hebrew to Greek, and then Greek to Latin/English. Perhaps this was one more layer than the translators could bear. While they do provide a comprehensive ‘Appendix of Biblical Names’ at the end of the text (560-566), it is still an inconvenience to the less informed reader to have to break from his reading to learn, for example, that “Ambakoum” is what he understands to be “Habakkuk,” or that “Sour” could be a person “Zur,” city “Ur,” or desert “Shur.” To their credit, however, the most common names (Jesus, Moses, Jeremiah etc.) have been retained by the editors, and they do not torture us with the Hellenic equivalents. This is, however, a small and perhaps some may claim unfair complaint to what is an outstanding effort on the part of Adler and Tuffin which should be considered an indispensable resource for a wide audience, even though the clothbound price may be still prohibitive to many.


1. Despite is obvious influence on and importance to later chronographic tradition, nothing survives of the original text of the Chronicle. See B. Croke, “The Originality of Eusebius’ Chronicle, AJP 103 (1982) 195-200. For Syncellus’ contribution to Eusebian textual reconstruction, see the index heading in Richard Burgess, Studies in Eusebian and Post-Eusebian Chronography (Stuttgart, 1999) 333.

2. See the recent work of B. Bleckmann, Die Reichskrise des III. Jahrhunderts in der spätantiken und byzantinischen Geschichtsschreibung: Untersuchungen zu den nachdionischen Quellen der Chronik des Johannes Zonaras (Munich 1992), and S. Brecht, Die römische Reichskrise von ihrem Ausbruch bis zu ihrem Höhepunkt in der Darstellung byzantinischer Autoren (Rahden 1999).

3. See for example C. Mango, “The Tradition of Byzantine Historiography,” HUS 12/13 (1988/1989) 360-371, and C. Mango and R. Scott, The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor, (Oxford 1997) lxxxii-lxxxvii; for the opposing view, V. Grecu, “Hat Georg Synkellos weite Reisen unternommen?” Bulletin de la Section Historique, Academie Roumaine, 28 (1947) 241-245, believes that Syncellus obtained his Palestinian knowledge from the narratives of Africanus and Eusebius.

4. A.A. Mosshammer (ed.), Georgius Syncellus, Ecloga Chronographica (Leipzig 1984).

5. William Adler, Time Immemorial: Archaic History and its Sources in Christian Chronography from Julius Africanus to George Syncellus (Washington, D. C., 1989).

6. H. Gelzer, Sextus Julius Africanus und die byzantinische Chronographie (originally printed from 1880-1898 in two volumes, but now conveniently collected under one heading in Burt Franklin: Research and Source Works Series, no. 169; New York, 1964).