This is a new edition and translation of the long panegyrical biography of the Byzantine emperor Basil I (867-886), the founder of the so-called Macedonian dynasty, that was commissioned by his grandson Constantine VII, probably in the 950s. It is a key source for historians of the poorly documented Byzantine ninth century, for scholars of imperial ideology (or dynastic propaganda), and it also deserves study by classicists interested in the reception and use of ancient texts, for the image of Basil in this biography is constructed from a number of classical tropes and sources, including Herodotos and Plutarch.
Our knowledge of this source took the wrong detour in the seventeenth century, and it is only now, with this posthumous edition by the late, great Ihor Ševčenko (1922-2009), that it has been set back on the right path. There is only one surviving manuscript of this text that should ever have been consulted by its editors, Vaticanus graecus 167 (ca. 1000), but the editions that began to emerge in the seventeenth century were based instead on faulty apographs of that manuscript made in that same century and on passages imported from the eleventh-century Byzantine historian Skylitzes, who also used the biography of Basil for his long epitome of imperial history and seems to have copied passages from it verbatim. The edition that Byzantinists have been using for the past two centuries, published by I. Bekker in what we call the Bonn corpus, was also not based on Vaticanus graecus 167 but was a collation of previous editions, with corrections. By that point the life of Basil had been placed together with a series of other, much shorter, imperial biographies produced at the court of Constantine VII and his successors, and they were given the collective (modern) title “Theophanes Continuatus” (for the sequence began at 813, roughly where the chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor ended). Each biography was assigned a book number within that collection. The life of Basil became book 5, but it is not clear that it was originally written as part of a sequence of imperial biographies. It is likely that it was originally conceived as a separate work.
The return to sanity was begun by C. de Boor, the editor of Theophanes the Confessor (among other texts), who grasped the paleographic error and began to produce a new critical edition based on Vaticanus graecus 167. His papers were discovered by Ševčenko many decades ago and the result of his subsequent years of toil is the present stand-alone edition of the text, which is exemplary. Most of that toil is due to the wretched nature of the copy represented by the Vaticanus. Many passages are garbled and the text contains grammatical errors on every page. Most of Ševčenko’s patient work involved correcting these errors, which are discussed in the apparatus. He made use of suggestions made by all previous editors, especially de Boor but also Leo Allatius and Bekker. The readings found in Skylitzes are discussed in the apparatus rather than adopted by default (pp. 15*, 32*). The result is the most readable and reliable text that we are likely ever going to get, and with a facing English translation no less.
By Ševčenko’s own estimate, his edition differs in more than five hundred places from the Bonn (32*). The apparatus actually consists of five separate blocks of information, though they do not all necessarily appear on every page. There is, first, a commentary (in Latin) on the dates of the events in question; then, a detailed listing of possible literary sources and parallels, which includes many references to the many other works produced at Constantine’s court, making this a kind of concordance. This is followed by a block listing the imitators of the biography among later authors, and then the apparatus proper with notes on the emendation of the text. On some pages, where the text is especially garbled, Ševčenko uses an asterisk note to suggest alternative translations. The main numbering system used for the text are the 102 sections employed already in the Bonn edition, with lines numbered within each section. The page numbers of the Bonn edition, by which Byzantinists typically cite the text, are given in a small font in the right margin of the Greek text along with the folio numbers of the V manuscript. But the 102 section numbers are the most prominent and are used for all internal cross-references. This is a praiseworthy decision as it may lead some Byzantinists to abandon (at least for this text) the crazy habit of citing sources by the page numbers of the latest edition rather than, as classicists do, by a standardized numbering system that is independent of particular editions. Knowing how my field operates, however, what will probably happen is that some of my colleagues will now begin to cite the text by the page numbers of the Ševčenko edition only, leading to a proliferation of numbering systems and more time wasted in trying to cross-reference independent systems. I would like to take the opportunity to plead with them to reconsider. There is a reason why the Oxford Classical Texts have no page numbers: they do not need them.
The introduction to the volume was written by Cyril Mango, who lays out the leading theories regarding the date, authorship (surely not Constantine VII himself), and possible sources of Basil’s biography. Mango also introduces the main manuscript and Th. Carbu gives a detailed history of the production of its apographs in the seventeenth century and their use in the making of the edition we have all been using until now. A useful brief history of those editions and their interdependencies is given at 30*-31*. I found an uncorrected place-holder at 33* (“p. 000” for p. 381). The introduction is accompanied by a full bibliography. The text is followed by 160 pages of indexes of Greek words and Latin glosses, including: nominum propriorum; rerum ad res Byzantinas Christianasque spectantium; Graecitatis; verborum; and locorum. There are at the end two plates of the manuscript, an image of the edition that de Boor was preparing, and maps of the palace, Constantinople, the surroundings of Constantinople, and of the entire empire, showing the routes of the campaigns of Basil and his generals, at least as recounted in the text.
The translation is reliable and accurate overall, but it shows signs of inattention and could have been improved. Ševčenko claims that “I left most of the technical terms untranslated (thus there is no “general” for strategos)” (34*). What we find, however, is that Byzantine technical terms (mostly titles and ranks) are rendered inconsistently. Some are in fact translated ( parakoimomenos becomes chamberlain), sometimes in a misleading way ( patrikios was not “patrician” and kaisar was not “Caesar”). Some are italicized and some not, and even the same term is sometimes italicized and sometimes not, and sometimes capitalized (usually, albeit not always, before a name) though sometimes not, so we find all combinations. Some are italicized from the Greek ( strategoi, saktourai); others bizarrely from some Graeco-Latin hybrid ( taxiarchae). More worrisome are passages which suggest that the translation was not based on the final correct edition of the text, and traces of the Bonn remain. For example, at 2.11 Ševčenko renders the names “Artabanes and Klienes” as “Artabanos and Kleienes,” which is how they are spelled in the Bonn, not in his own version of the text.
I would take issue with some of the translations too. At 14.13 and 15.18, γενεά is not “race” but “family” (Bardas and Theodora are prophesying the extinction of their family), but at 19.47-48 ὁμόφυλον is “race” rather than “kin” (or at any rate it refers to all Romans). At 19.3, ἀνθρωπίνως is not “part of the human condition” but the way in which he failed to bear the envy that was eating him up. At 19.5, ἀπόστασις is “rebellion,” not “defection.” The end of 35 should be “so that their story is linked to that of their four brothers, just as their nature was,” not “linked as it is both to the
The Life of Basil presents something of a paradox. While it has not before now been translated into English (or French), it is one of the most cited historical texts from the middle Byzantine period. The main reason for this is that among the important works of history from this period it most affirms the panegyrical image of the emperor and stresses his religious aspect. It thus confirms modern assumptions about the nature of the office, which are also based on panegyrical and religious texts rather than on the rest of the historiographical corpus, which presents a more critical and worldly image. Many scholars suppose that most Byzantines believed the sorts of things about their emperors that this text would have us believe about Basil. In fact, the contents of this text are largely fictitious, as are many its individuals and events. Much of the text consists of panegyrical boilerplate embroidered with episodes lifted from classical and Biblical legend. It has to be used far more cautiously if we are to reconstruct Byzantine “ideology” from it. This exemplary new edition and translation will make the text available to a wider circle of readers who will have to decide anew how it should be used in the future.
1. For the recent evolution of the notion that republics are exclusively non-monarchical, see J. Hankins, ’Exclusivist Republicanism and Non-Monarchical Republic,’ Political Theory 38 (2010) 452-482.