Striking a Match on Byzantium’s “Dark Age”

Striking a Match on Byzantium’s “Dark Age”

By Maria Conterno

Princeton University Working Paper (2012)

Abstract: The seventh and eighth centuries have been called the “Dark Age” of Byzantium because of the paucity of historical sources that illuminate them. This lack is commonly ascribed more to scant production than to failed transmission. Traditional historiographical genres in Greek did actually fall silent for two centuries, but historiography in the wide sense of “memory-keeping” (as well as “memory-building”) found other ways of expression. Theophanes’ Chronographia, Agapius of Mabbug’s and Michael the Syrian’s chronicles and The Chronicle of the Year 1234 share a significant amount of historical information, undoubtedly drawn from the same sources, via different paths. Close examination of this material leads to a better understanding of how forms of Greek historiography survived outside the capital of the empire and the ways in which information and texts flowed across geographic, linguistic and ethnic boundaries in a period that has otherwise been considered as culturally stagnant.

Introduction: As prof. Peter Brown once wittily remarked, up to the Eighties Byzantinists were proud to be distinguished from historians of Western Europe because they did not have to deal with a Dark Age; after Kazhdan and Cutler’s article Continuity and Discontinuity in Byzantine History, Byzantinists began proudly to claim a Dark Age for Byzantium. The aim of this paper is not to challenge again or even to deny the idea of a Dark Age applied to the Byzantine Empire by some sort of optimistic revisionism: I am aware that the matter is broad and complex, since it concerns not only cultural issues – quantity and quality of historical sources, literary production, survival of secular scholarship – but also political, social and economic processes, the complex dichotomy between change and continuity, and the never-ending debate about the notion of “crisis”. My purpose is to show that this age is worth investigating from the point of view of history of culture notwithstanding its darkness, or maybe even more because of it.

Theophanes Confessor’s Chronographia is the first Greek source that gives us information about the VII-to-VIII centuries. The Breviarium of Patriarch Nikephoros deals more or less with this period too, extending from 602 to 769, but it gives no information at all about the reign of Constans II (641-668) and, for the rest, only Constantinopolitan events or matters directly related to the Byzantine Empire. By contrast, Theophanes’ narrative is uninterrupted and reaches beyond the former eastern provinces of the empire, recording even internal political matters of the Islamic state. Since no Greek contemporaneous source comes down to us for this period of time and we have no sure evidence that any existed, an inevitable question arose long ago: how did this material end up in the Chronographia? Where does it come from?

Click here to read this article from Princeton University

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine