BMCR 2015.05.18

Laonikos Chalkokondyles; A New Herodotos

, Laonikos Chalkokondyles, The Histories (2 vols.). Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 33-34. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2014. xxii, 537; 559 pages. ISBN 9780674599185
, A New Herodotos: Laonikos Chalkokondyles on the Ottoman Empire, the Fall of Byzantium, and the Emergence of the West. Supplements to the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2014. xiii, 310 pages. ISBN 9780884024019

Anthony Kaldellis has given us a brilliant work of scholarship with this two-volume translation of The Histories of Chalkokondyles, and a third volume of commentary, A New Herodotos (hereafter ANH). We have had, for more than a generation, translations of three of the four Greek historians of the fifteenth century: Sphrantzes by Philippides, Doukas by Magoulias, and Kritoboulos by Riggs.1 Now that we finally have the fourth, it is necessary to have new workings of the others equal to the Kaldellis-Dumbarton Oaks standard.

Chalkokondyles is by far the most complex and difficult of the four. His language, based on Thucydidean style and austerity, is dense, has lacunae, misses parts of sentences, and has minor grammatical errors. These problems appear in the very early manuscripts, so it is clear he had not revised his original text. The oldest copy we have ( was made in Constantinople by a Demetrios Angelos who was acquainted with the fifteenth-century scholar Amiroutzes and Kritoboulos. The Angelos text has interpolations on the history of Trebizond. Kaldellis thinks they were made by Amiroutzes, a reason to think that Chalkokondyles was writing in Constantinople. (ANH 471) Chalkokondyles appears to have intended his book for a Byzantine readership, another reason to think of Constantinople – where else could he have been sure of an audience? The small intellectual community associated with his Mistra had scattered or died within a very few years of his own departure.

His teacher in Mistra, George Gemistos Plethon, died in 1454, well into his nineties.2 Whenever Chalkokondyles left Mistra, he had with him Plethon’s 1318 manuscript of Herodotos. This manuscript, which had also been used in Mistra by Bessarion in 1436, was later used in Rome in 1480 by Demetrios Raoul Kabakes, also from Mistra.3 On the last page of the Herodotos, Chalkokondyles, surely thinking of his own book, wrote: “[Belonging to] Laonikos the Athenian. It seems to me that the Greeks…were also fortunate to have a herald who himself did not fall far short in worth of the deeds themselves, I mean Herodotos…who recounted these events in the way in which each happened, in a manner akin to a divine procession.” Kaldellis suggests that Laonikos was amazed at what the Herodotean Greeks had done because of his disappointment at their recent failures. (ANH 48) “When I myself was born,” he wrote, “I found the Greeks and the kind of the Greeks reduced . . . I am thus going to provide a detailed account…of how these things happened . . . .” (Histories 1:8)

Chalkokondyles intended his book to be a new Herodotos, even if the theme was essentially reversed. We know of nothing else he might have written earlier. His book was the work of a young man in his 20s and 30s. He plunged into the deep end: “Laonikos the Athenian has written here the events that came to his attention during his lifetime, both those that he witnessed and those he heard about…In my opinion, those events are in no way less worthy of being remembered than any that have ever taken place anywhere in the world. I am referring to the fall of the Greeks and the events surrounding the end of their realm, and to the rise of the Turks to great power, greater than that of any other powerful people to date.”4

He followed the form of Herodotos in the narrative of East vs. West, with the Ottomans in the role of the Persian kings, and the incorporation of ethnographic details about various nations. If he made clear his basic allegiance – “Greek…is exceedingly prestigious and will be even more so in the future, when a king who is Greek himself…will rule over a substantial kingdom. There the sons of the Greeks may finally be gathered together and govern themselves according to their own customs, in a manner that is most favorable for themselves and from a position of strength with regard to other peoples” (a sentence much in my mind during the February 2015 EU meetings) –, his emphasis was the progression of the Turks. His material for Europe seems to have been collected by the mid-1450s with the ethnological material crammed into the first three books. As Kaldellis says, he is the first Greek writer “to present Islam as a decent culture rather than a religious error,” and he shows no religious bias. He praises the Ottoman sultans, and criticizes the Greek rulers. He does not use dates, so he often cannot coordinate his Ottoman and Western sources. There is more detail as he moves closer in time and the chronology improves, with Books 8-10 given to 12 years of Mehmed II’s reign. In the last two books he gives considerable attention to Mehmed as an oriental tyrant, noting his love of violence and torture, betrayals, mass killings, and sexual exploitation. Perhaps too much attention: the account in 10:56-57 of 500 individuals from Venetian Methone taken to Constantinople and sawn in half appears nowhere in Venetian records, although they do report 19 rebels against Mehmed suffering this fate in 1481.5

He salted the book with Herodotean phrases: “That was how those matters stood;” “That, then, was how it happened and how it ended;” “That, then is what happened regarding the Greeks of Byzantion;” “And that was how he died.” These phrases are also markers for oral storytelling. Kaldellis points out that Chalkokondyles used primarily oral sources, and that his work reflects Turkish poetic and Western roman traditions. He had Turkish informants who made it possible for the Histories to relate information not available in Western or Byzantine sources.6 However, there is also evidence for written sources, such as (possibly) Leonardo Bruni’s account of the constitution of Florence in 6:12, the long text of Vettore Capello’s speech in 10:37-42, or Plethon’s Ptolemy in a brief list of Peloponnesian cities in 8:2.

He had apparently intended to write, as did Herodotos, nine books, and there does appear to be a sort of conclusion in 9:78: “so that in a short amount of time the Greeks and the rulers of the Greeks had been overturned by this sultan, starting with the city of Byzantion, after that the Peloponnese, and finally the king and land of Trebizond. That was how that transpired.” But history kept happening after August 1461, and Chalkokondyles tried to keep up with it. And he probably could not resist using all the information he had obtained about Mehmed’s campaign against Vlad the Impaler.

The Histories do not go past early 1464. The last several pages are an almost incoherent account of the Ottoman-Venetian war in the Peloponnesos, with a number of errors: the Ottomans did not take Methone; a Palaiologos, not a Komnenos, was given Lemnos; the son of Elvan was Sinan, not İsa. At the same time, there is the striking information that Mehmed had ordered that no Peloponnesian be punished for siding with the Venetians, a provision Mehmed included in the peace settlement of 1478. Kaldellis’ notes point out the progressive incoherence of sentences on the last pages. We are watching a mind unravelling and I can only presume he is dying. So it is deeply moving to read his last sentence: at the end of a scrambled paragraph about the Hungarians and then Lemnos, he makes two efforts to write a sentence about the Peloponnesos. Finally he writes: “ταῦτα μὲν τοῦ χειμῶνος ἐς τὴν Πελοπόννησου ἐγένετο / That, then, was what was happening that winter in the Peloponnesos.” It was a homage to Thucydides who ended his third book: “ταῦτα μὲν κατα τὸν χειμῶνα τοῦτον ἐγένετο…..”

Kaldellis’ introduction and explanations are gracefully written. In his translation, he has taken difficult Greek and made it readable, regularizing punctuation for the sake of coherence, giving helpful names where Chalkokondyles had left more than one ruler or king, specifying ‘sultan’ instead of using the all-purpose ‘ruler.’ He has for the most part used modern geographical names. He has fortunately introduced section divisions, so that references can conveniently be made to a specific book and paragraph, but he has retained the volume and page numbers from the Darko Greek edition in his corresponding Greek text.

These are beautiful, substantial books with wine-colored cloth binding and muted gold covers. The classical Jensen font is extended wherever possible with the use of the capitals in an outstanding Greek font. It would be appropriate if the fonts were identified and the designer recognized in the colophon.


1. M. Philippides, ed. and trans., The Fall of the Byzantine Empire: A Chronicle by George Sphrantzes, 1401-1477, Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980. C. Riggs, ed. and trans., History of Mehmed the Conqueror by Kritovoulos, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1954. H. Magoulias, Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks by Doukas, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975.

2. J. Monfasani, “Pletho’s date of death and the burning of his Laws,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 98/2 92005): 459-463. Kaldellis follows C. Woodhouse, C., George Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes (Oxford: 1986) 3 with 1452. The date makes no difference to what either of us has to say.

3. The manuscript is now in the Laurentian Library in Florence. Note that there is a misprint for the manuscript number in ANH 45n48. The manuscript number should be Plut.70.06. The manuscript URL no longer works: it is

4. Compare with Herodotos: “I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report, and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another.” Herodotus, The History, trans. David Grene. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

5. S. Magno, Évenements historiques en Grèce, in K. Sathas, Documents inédits (Paris: Maisonneuve et Cie, 1880-1890) 6: 223. Transports of large numbers of people to Constantinople under Mehmed have to do with repopulation.

6. Histories vol. xii-xiii. ANH 85, 88, 127, 134, passim. ​