The History of Theophanes

When a book is also partially a scientific publication one can be confronted with problematic book titles. In this case the official title The History of Theophanes (c. 815) should be The History (Chronographia) by Theophanes Confessor. The latter addition to the name is there because Theophanes is not that an uncommon name and there have been more historians with that name. In this publication the ‘author’ is attributed to the translator, which is nice to do, but incorrect.

Let’s return to the book itself. Theophanes Confessor, as his name implies, was a monk who was later proclaimed a saint. He wrote a history from the creation of the world until his own times. He lived in the Byzantine Empire and his knowledge comes from the Byzantine point of view and thus his focus lies on Byzantine history.

What makes this history special? It describes the a part history of the Byzantine Empire which is often considered to be part of it’s dark ages: the seventh and eight century. Decline, warfare and internal religious strife caused most records of those times, Byzantine accounts as it is, to be lost. The Byzantine Empire had a long tradition of writing down history but from this period all has been lost except for the history of Theophanes Confessor who made use of those sources lost to us.

As the period until the seventh century has been described by other historians, only the ‘unique’ part of Theophanes’ history has been translated. Further on, this is the first English translation of this history. This may seem somewhat unusual as there are no historic accounts of those times from the Byzantine point of view.

That this work can be considered a rarity describing times that even in European history are considered to be lacking records is already a reason to read it. Another reason is that this history also described the rise of  Islam and the spreading of the Arab culture (although that came after all the conquering). You obtain insight how it was able to overcome two (the Byzantine and the Persian) empires which possessed a more advanced civilization and organisation.

Even as this history covers 200 years, it is a rather thin book. The actual history only takes 180 pages with plenty of internal notes. Theophanes describes events year by year although he sometimes references to events to come to express some irony or justice which would later on happen a certain person.

Each year also contains the year of reign for the most important rulers known to Theophanes. This provides a reference point although the translator has to note that errors still happen now and then, especially as Theophanes often lacks accurate information about lands with which there is little contact.

Although of each year some events are described, many years are rather uneventful in Byzantine history and only one or two sentences cover a year. Especially for older times Theophanes has to rely on other sources which leads to quite some variation in styles. There was no concept of plagiarism back then so copies were quite literally made. So wherever he had a source there will be more information added but this is often incongruent. It can be a lyrical description of battle events, a piece of dialogue or a more detailed account of events. In some he even used Arab sources, providing the reader with a surprising accurate description of events he usually knows little about. Only when he reaches his own times the history described comes from his own memory and is more detailed.

Overall Theophanes keeps a neutral stance towards events, be it bad or good to the Byzantine Empire or the Christian world which is threatened by the rise of Islam. This sometimes changes when he writes about the internal religious struggles of the Byzantine Empire. There was still much discussion about the nature of Christ and the Trinity. This was mostly caused by the influence of the other religions from which the converts came from and which they used to interpret their new religion. These struggles get some extra attention and Theophanes does not hesitate to give his own opinion. His opinion is expressed even vehemently when it comes to the actions of the emperors towards religious affairs. Those who went against the church and promoted their own are called evil, while those who let the church be or let themselves be led are called pious. All neutrality is lost here.

Even so, most of this history is read like a modern history, while most histories I’ve read have a personal touch of the author in the way he presents events and facts. Only occasionally Theophanes diverts from it, which at least make it something more than just a dry account of events (although it never gets boring).

This history is an interesting read and even as the translator claimed the toughness of Theophanes’ prose in his introduction he has made his translation a very well read. I’ve read old histories which could be a tough or slow read, but I did not notice such here. The variation in styles is preserved while the prose is never a hindrance.

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