Leo the Deacon – The History

Translated works of history written in earlier mediaevil times are fairly rare. One of the venues that are not often explored are the less known works of history. One of these that I like to explore, if I can find a translation, are the Byzantine histories as they are written by the only empire to survive through the Middle Ages in Europe. Completed around the year 995 is the History by Leo the Deacon. It is not a long history but it mainly covers the reign of only two Byzantine emperors in the period 963-976, which is not that long a time. Leo the Deacon does provide an prologue of the emperor before and an epilogue of the emperor after to provide a beginning and an ending although as most histories go the ending is less coherent because the author died or was otherwise unable to finish his history as he was writing about recent contemporary times. Leo the Deacon occasionally puts in some comments on what happened later to some persons to remind the reader that despite bad fortune they were able to play important roles again.

There are several things which are interesting about this history. Despite Leo living during the times of the events described he was mainly a young student in Constantinople and most things he writes about he has to base on indirect accounts. Unlike other historians with a religious education and office Leo shows very little interest in religious affairs. He aims to write a more popular type of history, the military history. Much of the history is about military campaigns and the conflicts the Byzantines were involved in against the Arabs in the south and the Bulgarians and Rus in the north, but also various internal rebellions.

What is interesting about the two particular emperors that take central place in this history is that they are caretaker emperors for the genuine emperor who is too young to lead the empire while it faces all kinds of threats. Both emperors are generals who take power to prevent intrigue and corruption at the imperial court turning everything into a mess. They are strong and capable leaders and maintain that the child-emperor is their heir to be when he becomes an adult. It probably helped that both were related to the family of the ruling dynasty so that they can claim to be part of that dynasty as well. Because of the continuous threats, either external or internal ones they spent relatively little time ruling and are mostly campaigning. As Leo mainly focuses on their campaigns the reader has little insight on how the empire manages during their absence. One can only assume the administrators behave themselves and let the government do its daily job.

While Leo the Deacon relates much of events outside of his direct knowledge, which varies in quality and detail on the accounts he has available, he provides eyewitness accounts of his own where he can add it in. In one of the later campaigns he serves in his religious capacity and he is thus able to provide a far more extensive and detailed account of what happened. It are these parts that have a more genuine quality and allows the reader to experience the events better.

The History is a fairly positive read as it relates a period in which the Byzantine Empire is able to expand and grow again after a long period of slow decline. The accuracy is not great as Leo tells a whole sequence of related events and can then return to some time in the past to tell about another sequence. Although they usually happen within the same timeframe there is no exact reference. Fortunately Leo covers a relatively short time period so the differences are not the large. The translation I read is also a research translation so it has many notes throughout the book to provide background information, corrections and explanations. I thought it was an enjoyable and interesting read. As a history it is far from perfect but considering the availability of historic works in those times it provides much information and details.

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