BMCR 2016.12.20

Byzantine Readings of Ancient Historians: Texts in Translation, with Introductions and Notes. Routledge Classical Translations

, Byzantine Readings of Ancient Historians: Texts in Translation, with Introductions and Notes. Routledge Classical Translations. London; New York: Routledge, 2015. vi, 188. ISBN 9780415732321. $120.00.


The book under review provides a selection of Byzantine texts that comment upon the works of ancient historians. The selection includes Xenophon; the Excerpta historica of Konstantinos VII; scholia on Zosimos, Thucydides, and Diodoros of Sicily; and historical essays by Theodoros Metochites and, finally, Dionysius of Halikarnasos. These chapters are preceded by an introduction.

The introduction presents Kaldellis’s reasoning for collecting these particular texts. As he explains, the reception of a text is often understood by both classicists and Byzantinists as “a subordinate project to the study of its original form and meaning and of the context of its creation, or ‘first life’” (p. 2). Thus, “[n]o scholar of Plato cares how Prodromos read Plato” (p. 2). Kaldellis contends that such attitudes result from a poor understanding of the value of reception studies. Although he is certainly correct, I doubt that modern scholars of reception limit themselves to such a narrow view of their field. Reception is more about understanding later times through the lens of an artefact, be it a literary work or an artwork. While I am unsure if any scholar of Plato has ever cared about how Prodromos read him, it is obvious that a scholar who deals with the reception of Plato must be very much interested in both understanding how Plato was recycled and re-used in later times, and how the writers or scholars reading Plato were influenced by him and responded to him. Kaldellis seems to create an issue where none need exist; the kind of reception he criticizes belongs largely to the past.

The mechanics of reception are always multi-layered, involving selection, preservation, explanation, and finally a response. The aim of Kaldellis’s book, and the larger project behind it that has guided his selection of texts, is to reveal this very mechanism of appropriation—what was selected, for what purpose, for what audience, how these texts shaped Byzantine historical thinking, and how the Byzantines, in turn, created “the canon of Greek historiography” (p. 1). Ultimately, his understanding of reception is not so far removed from how it is understood by modern reception scholars.

The introduction also serves as a field guide to the Byzantine reception of ancient historiography which will be highly informative for those less familiar with the methodology of Byzantine studies. Similarly, Kaldellis’s emphasis on the need to study manuscript tradition and, equally important, to study a single text not in isolation but in the context of other works transmitted in the same manuscript (as done by many contemporary Byzantine scholars) is praiseworthy.

The contents of the chapters vary because each discusses distinctly different material. For instance, the chapter on Xenophon is a detailed analysis of a poem addressed to Leo VI (30 lines), while the chapter on Metochites offers translations of three of Metochites’ Σημειώσεις γνωμικαί (nos. 93, 113, 116). The chapter on Tzetzes’ scholia to Thucydides offers a translation of each scholion accompanied by pertinent explanations and notes. The chapter on the scholia on Diodoros of Sicily including the scholia written most likely by Niketas Choniates (Kaldellis follows here Mazzucchi’s argument about the authors of the scholia in Vat. gr. 130) is organized in the same way. The largest portion of the book is given to Ioannes Kanaboutzes’ Commentary on the Roman Antiquities of Dionysios of Halikarnassos. This work, written by a fifteenth- century, Greek-speaking, Orthodox subject of the Gattilusi, perhaps shortly before the conquest of Constantinople, stands out in the volume as the only piece apparently not written with the Byzantine reader in mind. Although Kanaboutzes dedicated the work to “my most elevated and magnificent lord of Ainos and Samothrace” (that is, Palamede Gattilusio, p. 114), Kaldellis rightly claims that this commentary provided a voice in a discussion that must have been important for the Orthodox, Greek- speaking communities living under Latin rule: “He [Kanaboutzes] was looking for ways to reconcile ideologically modern “Romans” and “Greeks,” and his commentary is an exercise in this direction” (p. 114).

Kaldellis’s translations are a pleasure to read. The notes and introductions to the translations will surely be highly informative for readers without knowledge of Byzantine history. Occasionally it would be helpful to see the original texts, but I understand that providing the Greek texts was not the aim of the volume.

The editorial note states that the book will serve as an important resource for scholars and students of ancient history. This volume is intended for a general audience, but undoubtedly Byzantinists will profit from reading it as well (for instance, we learn that Niketas Choniates might have been a redhead, p. 87). I appreciate how the book depicts the ancient and Byzantine approaches, demonstrating how each tradition can complement and —even if it sounds paradoxical — explain the other. Kaldellis’s book stands as yet another success in making Byzantine intellectual culture more accessible.