BMCR 2008.04.43

Chronographiae: the extant fragments

, , , , Chronographiae: the extant fragments. Berlin-New York: W. de Gruyter, 2007. lxxxix, 350 pages. ISBN9783110894172 €91.59.

First, congratulations are in order to the venerable Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller for producing, for the first time in its history, an edition with an English translation and even an introduction in English. “Let these be multiplied,” as the rabbis used to say, a blessing that, one hopes, is sufficiently suitable for an edition of an author who hailed from Palestine.

Julius Africanus well deserves the effort that the impressive international team assembled by Martin Wallraff has obviously invested in this project. Of Africanus’ not insignificant output, consisting of the Cesti (originally in 14 volumes), two letters (one addressed to Origen, the other to an Aristides) and the Chronographiae (originally in 5), we now have the most complete collection of 100 fragments from the last work and, equally useful, of 99 testimonia.

Through the Chronographiae Africanus conceived the extraordinarily ambitious plan of fitting widely disparate strands of different histories into a biblical frame of time, beginning with Adam and culminating with the Resurrection. The resultant chronological system served as a basis for universal histories of which the Eusebian-Hieronymian version proved both influential and lasting. Perhaps the success of the latter ultimately guaranteed the dispersal and fragmentary survival of the model conceived by Africanus.

The introduction provides a brief outline of Africanus’ biography. It should be read in conjunction with the rich group of testimonia (T1-T13) that summarize all that we now know about the man and his output. To begin with, these offer valid grounds to regard Africanus as a Palestinian, and even a native of Aelia-Jerusalem which he calls his ancestral home (archaia patria). In this respect the laudable caution of the editors regarding Africanus’ provenance is probably unwarranted. Well traveled, Africanus is found in Edessa at the court of Abgar VIII, as well as at Rome, at the court of Elagabalus where he also pleaded, successfully, on behalf of Palestinian Emesa, obtaining for it the rank of polis. In many ways the career of Africanus is reminiscent of that of another outstanding intellectual of the late 2nd/early 3nd century, Bardaisan. It is astonishing that, to date, there has been no full biography of Africanus. Bardaisan had been more fortunate.1

In the section relating to the date, place, and literary character of the Chronographiae, the editors plausibly suggest that the date of the last entry (CE 221) corresponds to that of the end of the writing itself. There is certainly an engaging thought in visualizing Africanus dropping his pen, and relishing the lines (preserved in Basil of Caesarea’s De spiritu sancto, if indeed F. 100 represents the very end of the Chronographiae):

Those of us who know the weight of those words and are not ignorant of the grace of faith, give thanks to the Father, who granted to us who belong to him Jesus Christ the Savior of the Universe and our Lord, to whom be the glory and majesty with the Holy Spirit, forever.

The close proximity of the conclusion of the work and of the writing also explains why the two centuries following the Passion and Resurrection were apparently compressed into a few paragraphs. In the present edition the two centuries period between the Resurrection and Africanus’ own time occupies a handful of fragments that contrast widely with the expansive summaries of previous eras. Even in this fragmentary state it seems safe to conclude that Africanus had little interest in near contemporary and contemporary history or, more likely, he did not find a way to incorporate these events into his chronographic schemes. Eusebius faced the same dilemma. His solution was to produce two types of ‘histories’, an annalistic chronology with comparative tables fashioned after the manner of Africanus, and an ecclesiastical history.

Still, the originality of the Chronographiae need not be doubted. Although it owed a great deal to a plurality of genres and of sources, prominent among these the Hebrew Bible, in both concept and character the Chronographiae represented a break with both classical and Jewish traditions. The emphasis on the centrality of Christianity, highlighted by the lengthy discussion of the dates of the Incarnation and Resurrection, as well as digressions into descriptions of natural phenomena and exotic places (like the Dead Sea), reflects an ambitious and wide ranging program. It also provided Africanus with a show case for his own talents and wide ranging erudition, securing a place for a Christian intellectual in the honorary rank of wandering intellectuals who crowded royal courts at what may be termed the tail end or the nachleben of the Second Sophistic.

The third section of the introduction deals with Africanus’ chronological system, underpinned by the Judaeo-Christian conviction that the duration of history as a whole amounted to 6000 years, in accordance with the six days of creation. This straitjacket forced Africanus to be both ingenuous and imaginative in devising a system that, according to the editors was, on the whole, internally coherent. To aide readers the editors provide a table of Africanus’ chronological system that highlights key dates. Difficulties abide, as Alden Mosshammer’s contribution to the edited collection on Africanus (reviewed in BMCR 2008.01.22) demonstrates.

The fourth section of the introduction deals with the text and its transmission, listing the main sources of the surviving fragments of the Chronographiae : Eusebius, chronicles from the Alexandrian tradition (Panodorus, Annianus, Excerpta Barbari), chronicles from the Antiochene tradition (Malalas, John of Antioch, Excerpta Salmasiana), Syncellus, the Logothete Chronicle and related texts (Ps. Symeon, Cerdenus), oriental authors (Agapius, Michael the Syrian etc), minor authors and texts (Ps. Eustathius of Antioch, the Chronicon Paschale, the Anonymus Matritensis). These suggest that either as a whole or in a more fragementary state the Chronographiae was known to most if not all authors who produced annalistic works in late antiquity and Byzantium. It is worth noting that the western source known as the Excerpta barbari, a semi-literate Latin translation of a Greek chronicle made in Merovingian Gaul, seems wholly independent of the Eusebian line of transmission and hence bears an invaluable witness to Africanus. Taken together, the texts that preserve Africanus’ Chronographiae illustrate the enormous difficulties that the editors faced when they set out to gather the material that relates to Africanus and to the Chronographiae.

The value of the present edition is well reflected in the survey of earlier editions that comprises the fifth component of the introduction. Here the ubiquitous and formidable Scaliger features as the first modern discoverer of Africanus. The first edition was made in Venice by Gallandi, whose text entered the Patrologia practically unchanged. The most important modern edition of Africanus was prepared by Routh in the middle of the 19th century, and has remained unsurpassed until the edition here surveyed. Routh gathered 56 fragments, about half of the number presented in the GCS edition. Over a century ago the task of producing a definitive edition for the nascent GCS was deposited in the hands of Gelzer. It was never completed but in 2000 Gelzer’s manuscript surfaced at Jena, just in time to be consulted by the editors of the present volume.

In “the principles of the edition”, the sixth component of the introduction, the editors explain the division, order and arrangement of the fragments. These are divided into two main categories, fragments and testimonies, the former considered Africanus’ original wording, the latter indirect references, rather than direct quotes to him or to his work. Perhaps the most difficult task facing any editors of a work that has only survived in widely dispersed fragments is to decide what belongs where. Here the editors decided to cluster fragments according to their contents, where possible (see also Wallraff’s contribution in his edited volume on Africanus). Thus the first cluster, F14-15 which presumably corresponded with Genesis 1-5, recaptures Genesis 1 and the order of the Creation with a Platonic touch (see also the contribution of Staab in Wallraff’s edited volume), adds a bit of speculative exegesis derived from Jubilees, and ends with a brief review of Egyptian and Chaldean chronologies only to dismiss them as invalid and fanciful. It seems difficult on such a basis to derive valid conclusion regarding Africanus’ working habits. Africanus’ fondness for digression further renders difficult the grouping of his fragments unless he provides the thread as he does when he turns from Genesis 12 to describe the Dead Sea as he knew it (F26).

The introduction ends with a bibliography, followed, perhaps a bit oddly, by a list of abbreviations. The texts are followed by several indices and a table of Africanus’ chronological system, beginning with the year 1 (creation of Adam) and ending with the year 5723, or 221/22, the reign of Elagabalus and the end of the Chronographiae.

Neither the achievement of Africanus’ recalculation of time nor that of the present addition can be slighted. The novelty of creating a temporal framework to fit widely differing systems of counting time in order to highlight the contribution of Christianity to world order must have been astounding. Traveling between east and west, Palestine, Edessa and Rome, Africanus’ ideology of time, with its Resurrection crux, elevated Christ into the venerable framework that had perpetuated classical chronologies.


1. H. J. W. Drijvers, Bardaisan of Edessa, Assen 1966.