BMCR 2023.09.11

Bouttios and late antique Antioch: reconstructing a lost historian

, Bouttios and late antique Antioch: reconstructing a lost historian. Dumbarton Oaks studies, 48. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2022. Pp. 456. ISBN 9780884024934

As the title suggests, Benjamin Garstad’s book sets itself the ambitious goal of reconstructing the work, personality, and historical context of Bouttios, a completely lost author known only through the mention of his name in a few chronicles, mainly Malalas’ Chronographia and the so-called Excerpta Latina Barbari.

The book is divided into three parts. The first (Ch. 1-4) is devoted to the identification of the fragments of Bouttios’ work. In Chapter 1, after explicitly stating his intention to adopt a ‘maximal approach’, i.e. one more inclined to speculation in an effort to identify as many fragments as possible, Garstad briefly describes Malalas’ Chronographia and the Excerpta Latina Barbari, analysing the relationship between the two texts and demonstrating that both of the authors had access, albeit indirectly, to the work of the lost author. The second chapter analyses the passages from Malalas, the Excerpta Latina Barbari, and other authors in which Bouttios is explicitly mentioned as a source, namely the narration of the reign of Perseus, that of the exploits of Alexander the Great and, finally, the persecution of Christians by Domitian. By applying the guiding principle previously outlined, Garstad tends to attribute to Bouttios already at this stage of the work larger portions of the source texts than did Peter and Levick and Rich in their earlier editions of the fragments.[1] On the basis of the content of the fragments explicitly associated with the name of Bouttios, Garstad proceeds in Chapter 3 to suggest that the episodes of virgin sacrifices by pagan rulers narrated by Malalas and linked to various founding acts could also be traced back to the lost author. Despite the fact that Malalas also names Pausanias and Domninos as sources, Garstad assumes that the traditions about virgin sacrifices were aimed at denigrating pagan βασιλεῖς, and could be traced back to a single author, Bouttios, whom Domninos – possibly a late fourth-century Antiochian chronicler among Malalas’ main sources and known only through his text – would later use in writing his own work. Finally, in the next chapter Garstad also attributes to Bouttios all the narratives concerning Picus-Zeus and his descendants, based on clear similarities between the Chronographia and the Excerpta Latina Barbari.

In the second part of the volume (Ch. 5-6) Garstad focuses on the author himself and on the genre of the work he composed. The fifth chapter attempts a reconstruction of Bouttios’ character: if Garstad rightly prefers to suspend his judgement concerning the name of the author, which varies in the sources, he postulates on the basis of the identified fragments that Bouttios was a Christian author, active in Antioch during Julian’s reign. The next chapter is devoted to defining the literary genre of the lost work. Although Bouttios is referred to as χρονογράφος by Malalas, in light of the apparent vagueness of its chronological structure, his work does not seem to fit well in the literary genre of ‘chronicle’ or ‘chronography’. It is therefore probable, according to Garstad, that Bouttios wrote a historical work full of fanciful and mythical elements, inspired by the model of Platonic myths, also adopted by Julian in his Caesars, to which Bouttios’ work would constitute a polemical response – a question explored in the next chapter.

In the last part (Ch. 7-10), the polemical force of the work is analysed and contextualized in the broader debate and conflict – ideological and political—between pagans and Christians in the fourth century. In Chapter 7, Bouttios’ reconstructed work is read as an almost point-by-point response to Julian’s politics and philosophy and, in particular, to the works composed by the emperor during his stay in Antioch, especially the Caesars. In addition to elements typical of the Christian apologetic tradition—i.e., the humanization and criticism of traditional divinities – the ultimate aim of Bouttios’ work seems to be the exaltation of Constantine, the ‘friend of God’, and the delegitimization of pagan rulers, presented by the author as impious men dedicated to crimes and despicable practices, including human sacrifices. In Chapter 8 the focus shifts to Bouttios’ attack on the deities of the pagan pantheon: in the wake of the centuries-old tradition of Euhemerism and Christian apologetics, the pagan gods are presented not only as human beings but as cruel men, devoted to witchcraft and, more generally, to barbaric and abominable practices. Chapter 9 proceeds with an analysis of Bouttios’ attack against the cult of Tύχη, which in the fourth century enjoyed such great prestige that some of its elements were taken up by Christian imperial iconography. By presenting the cult as linked to the sacrifice of young virgins until the abolition of this practice by Constantine, with the consequent institution of bloodless sacrifice, Bouttios succeeds in the arduous task of degrading the pagan cult while at the same time legitimizing the figure of Tύχη adopted in Christian imperial imagery. Finally, the last chapter is defined by Garstad himself as an ‘experiment in interpretation and criticism’ (p. 9) and proposes a fascinating reading of Bouttios’ work and historiographic technique using the interpretative model of the ‘paranoid style’ coined by Richard Hofstadter.[2] The volume ends with a collection and a translation of the fragments in chronological order.

Garstad’s book undoubtedly constitutes an interesting attempt to reconstruct a piece of the vast historiographical production of late antiquity that has unfortunately been lost. In doing so Garstad inevitably allows himself a great deal of speculative freedom, which sometimes leads him to formulate hypotheses based exclusively on circumstantial clues. The most fragile element of his reconstruction—as Garstad himself seems to admit (p. 8)—is the supposed Antiochian origin of Bouttios, for which there is a lack of sufficient evidence. Even the definition of the genre is not unproblematic: the absence of a chronological structure, or rather the work’s loose chronological framework, is not sufficient to exclude it from the chronicle genre, unless one adopts a narrow definition. But in the fourth century some chronicles already denote a lower frequency of chronological annotations—for instance Sulpicius Severus’ Chronica—and it cannot even be excluded that Bouttios’ annotations may have been cut out by later users of his text. The ‘maximal approach’ adopted by Garstad may also be too schematic in attributing to Bouttios any events that present narrative similarities to those in which the lost author is explicitly cited as a source. This excludes a priori the possibility of later additions by Domninos or Malalas from other sources. A rather clear example is the attribution to Bouttios of the narration of the martyrdom of the five young women during the persecutions ordered by Trajan (p. 73). This story is in fact widely attested in other works of Antiochian and Syriac milieu to which Domninos or Malalas may have had access.[3] In some points, finally, especially in light of the complex and troubled transmission of Malalas’ Chronographia,[4] greater caution would have been preferable in the discussion of what was supposedly not present in Bouttios’ work. It is difficult, for example, to attribute the absence of human sacrifices under Marcus Aurelius to Bouttios’ reluctance to make his criticism of Julian too obvious, without considering the possibility that it is only a consequence of the selection employed by later users of Bouttios’ text.

Despite some overly speculative conclusions—of which the author, it is fair to stress once more, is aware—Garstad’s volume offers a historically coherent and lucid analysis, full of interesting insights and ideas. Bouttios and Late Antique Antioch is therefore a contribution of great relevance not only for those who wish to study Bouttios, but also for anyone who deals with fourth-century Christian literature and historiography and with the broader religious and literary polemic of the Constantinian era.



[1] Hermann Peter, Historicorum Romanorum Reliquiae (Leipzig, 1870-1906); Barbara Levick and John Rich, Bruttius, in Tim J. Cornell (ed.), The Fragments of the Roman Historians (Oxford, 2013), 1: 593-95; 2: 1089-95; 3: 629-31.

[2] Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York 1966), conceived mostly, but not exclusively, as an analysis of McCarthyism.

[3] For the related testimonies see Étienne Decrept, ‘La persécution oubliée des chrétiens d’Antioche sous Trajan et le martyre d’Ignace d’Antioche’, Revue d’Études Augustiniennes et Patristiques 52 (2006): 1-29.

[4] See Elizabeth Jeffreys, The Manuscript Transmission of Malalas’ Chronicle Reconsidered, in Mischa Meier, Christine Radtki, Fabian Schulz (eds.), Die Weltchronik des Johannes Malalas. Autor – Werk – Überlieferung (Malalas Studien 1; Stuttgart 2016), pp. 139-51.