The First Book Reviewer

It would seem that if a book gets written, there is someone who will review it. Countless publications and websites are devoted to book reviews, and these judgments can propel a new novel onto the bestsellers’ list or into obscurity. When did it all begin? Perhaps the person we can thank (or blame) for it is Photius.

Photius (c.810 – c.893) had an eventful career in the Byzantine Empire – he came from an upper class family in Constantinople and got work in the civil service. He became the Chief Imperial Secretary and at one point was sent to Baghdad as part of a diplomatic mission to the Abbasids. Then in 858 he would see a major, and unexpected, job promotion. The Emperor at the time, Michael III, had decided to depose the Patriarch of Constantinople, arresting him for treason, and replace him with his own candidate.

Although Photius had never been part of the ecclesiastical administration, he was selected, and on December 20, 858 was tonsured. Over the next four days he was promoted from lector to sub-deacon, then deacon and finally priest. Photius was consecrated as Patriarch of Constantinople on Christmas Day, a position he would hold onto for nine years, then lose, then regain for another nine, and finally removed from again.

Throughout his life he would write several works, including one that is known as Bibliotheca (and sometimes called Myriobiblon). One historian calls it “probably the most famous work in mediaeval Byzantine literature. At least it is unique.” Written for his brother, it details 279 books that he has read, which come from ancient times to his own day. He covers works about religion and history, along with some literary pieces, explaining what they were about and sometimes offering excerpts from them.

Photius also sometimes adds his own review of the books, letting his brother know which ones he like or hated. For example,

Nicomachus of Gerasa’s two books of Arithmetical Theology were read. This certainly is a title suited to astonish and to excite a keen desire, but the treatise – not to call it a work of computations that are based on air and are a waste of time – falls far short of its title.

He had even worse to say about Christian History, which was written by Philip of Side:

His language is diffuse, without urbanity or elegance, and soon palls, or positively disgusts; his aim is rather to display his knowledge than to benefit the reader. Most of the matter has nothing to do with history, and the work might be called a treatise on all kinds of subjects rather than a history, a tasteless effusion.

Photius even finds something to criticize in The Histories of Herodotus, considered to be one of the greatest work of Ancient Greece:

Read the nine books of the History of Herodotus, in name and number identical with the nine Muses. He may be considered the best representative of the Ionic, as Thucydides of the Attic dialect. He is fond of old wives’ tales and digressions, pervaded by charming sentiments, which, however, sometimes obscure the due appreciation of history and its correct and proper character. Truth does not allow her accuracy to be impaired by fables or excessive digressions from the subject.

While he tends to comment on books he did not like, Photius also tells about those works he loves. For example, he praises the writings of Arrian, who is one of the best sources for the campaigns of Alexander the Great:

This author is second to none of the best historical writers. He is very strong in concise narrative, and never impairs the continuity of the story by ill-timed digressions or parentheses; he is novel rather in arrangement than in diction, which he employs in such a manner that it would be impossible for the narrative to be set forth more clearly and perspicuously. His style is distinct, euphonious, and terse, characterized by a combination of smoothness and loftiness. His novelties of language are not merely far-fetched innovations, but are obvious and emphatic, figures of speech in reality, and not simply a change of ordinary words. The result is that not only in this respect is clearness secured, but also in the equipment, order, and nature of the narrative, which is the artistic essence of perspicuity.

For straightforward periods are used even by those who are not specialists, and if this is done without anything to relieve them, the style degenerates into flatness and meanness, of which, in spite of his clearness, there are no traces in our author. He makes use of ellipsis, not of periods but of words, so that the ellipsis is not even noticed; any attempt to supply what is omitted would seem to indicate a tendency to unessential additions, and would not really fill up the gap. The variety of his rhetorical figures is admirable; they do not deviate at once altogether from simple form and usage, but are gradually interwoven from the beginning, so that they neither offend by satiety nor create confusion by sudden change. In a word, anyone who compares him with other historians, will find that many classical writers are his inferior in composition.

Today, historians often make use of Photius’ Bibliotheca, in part because it is the only piece of information about dozens of the books he writes – they have otherwise been completely lost. This work also offers an interesting view on what someone in living in the ninth century was a good, or bad, read.

You can read an English translation of parts of Bibliotheca at The Tertullian Project

Here are also a few articles that examine the author and his work:

Warren T. Treadgold, “Photius on the Transmission of Texts (Bibliotheca, Codex 187)“, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, Vol.19:2 (1978)

Aubrey Diller, “Photius’ Bibliotheca in Byzantine Literature,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 16 (1962)

Tomas Hagg, “Photius as a Reader of Hagiography: Selection and Criticism,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 53 (1999)

Top Image: A library of books – photo by Barta IV / Flickr

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