Byzantine historiography: the literary dimension

Byzantine historiography: the literary dimension

By Anthony Kaldellis

Paper given at 21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies (2006)

Introduction: Whatever narrative of political and military history modern historians are able to reconstruct of the later Roman empire (284-602 A.D.) is based chiefly on the classicizing histories of the period written by soldiers, secretaries, and diplomats such as Ammianus Marcellinus in the fourth century, Priskos in the fifth, Prokopios in the sixth, and Theophylaktos in the seventh, who recorded what they considered to be the main events of their time in narratives that selfconsciously imitated the style of Herodotos and Thucydides. In addition to the movements of armies and the councils of emperors, they also tell us a great deal about contemporary life and society, about the customs of foreign nations, and also, more crucially for our purposes, about late antique modes of literary imitation and narrative representation. Yet with the exception of Ammianus, until recently their works have not been subjected to the kind of close literary analysis from which the ancient historians, their models, have long benefited. Their works have been studied primarily by scholars interested in the facts about what actually happened in late antiquity. It is not an exaggeration to say that these narratives are commonly regarded as repositories of usable information set in discreet excerptable blocks: each item can be cut out, scrutinized for its truth value, and, once purified, factored into a modern retelling or analysis of the events in question. This, I will argue, is like measuring the symbolic images of Byzantine art on the yardstick of strict realism.

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