Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Ruth Macrides, George Akropolites. The History. Translated with an Introduction and Commentary. Oxford Studies in Byzantium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. 440; tables 5, maps 2. ISBN 978-0-19-921067-1. $130.00.
Reviewed by Emmanuel C. Bourbouhakis, Albert-Ludwigs University Freiburg

"What happened to history writing in...thirteenth century [Byzantium]?" asks Ruth Macrides in the introduction to her extensively annotated translation, the first into English, of George Akropolites' History. The value of the question stems in large part from the unprecedented circumstances Byzantine historians and chroniclers had to relate after the fall of Constantinople in 1204. For the first time since its consecration in 330 by the emperor Constantine, "New Rome" had been forcibly dislocated into exile within its own empire, with power having devolved to regional potentates and a Western, non-Orthodox ruler, nominally allied with the Crusader states established in the East, in control of Constantinople. Akropolites wrote the most important surviving contemporary Byzantine account of the so-called 'Nicaean empire', covering the period from 1203 to 1261, when the Byzantine government, ousted from Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, gradually reconstituted itself, re-asserted its rule over a much diminished empire, and eventually took back the capital. His proximity to the Byzantine government of his day accounts for both the richness of detail and its deployment in a manner consistent with Akropolites' own political needs.

Macrides' translation of the History forms the centerpiece of what is effectively a larger study of Akropolites' historical work and of his career. In addition to five genealogical tables and two maps, so the reader can find his way across the far-flung geography of the fragmented Byzantine empire and the manifold branches of its ruling clans, Macrides has also written nearly one hundred pages of introduction. Subsection within the introduction focus on a wide variety of subjects pertinent to the understanding of Akropolites' narrative, such as his possible sources as well as use of the History by subsequent historians and chroniclers; questions of dating and chronology; or the treatment of distinct ethnic or political groups, such as the Turks or Latins.

Appended to the translation of each brief chapter of the History is a brief summary of its contents (though for some reason these are placed after the individual chapters, instead of before, where they might have been more useful). Also appended to each chapter is a generously detailed commentary keyed to the contents of the translation. Finally, the volume is anchored by an ample bibliography as well as a robust index. All told this amounts to just to a translation, but as full a study of the History and its author as we are likely to see in a while. Certainly any future study of Akropolites' History, as well as the events which fall under its purview, will owe Macrides a substantial debt.

The translation, based on the 1903 Teubner edition of Akropolites' History by Heisenberg (reprinted in 1978 with some emendations by Wirth),1 is fastidiously accurate, in keeping with Macrides' pledge "to be as close to the Greek as possible, providing a sense of Akropolites' sentence structure, and reproducing his style" (xi). This is as much of a one to one correspondence between Byzantine and English prose as one may hope to find. It is greatly facilitated by Akropolites' unfussy sentence structure and apparent matter-of-factness. Historians as well as philologists working on this period may be tempted to take issue with this or that rendering of some turn of phrase or choice of words, but in most cases the difference will be in degree or emphasis and not a matter of accuracy. Such debate is translation's contribution to our understanding of texts, and Macrides deserves the gratitude of her colleagues for having judiciously rendered the contents of a work whose relative transparency would seem to encourage a certain complacency about its precise meaning and calculated stylistic effects. Simplicity of style, one is reminded in reading Akropolites, is not an absence of style. His style is as deliberate as the more opaque verbal arrangements of better known Byzantine historians. As Macrides notes in her introduction, Akropolites had received the best education in rhetoric and literature available in his day. If he lacked the temperament (and probably talent) of a Nicetas Choniates in composing bracing narrative history, he nevertheless could have aspired to a more demanding narrative form. The possibility that a paired down narrative style might be a better vehicle for Akropolites' bias is among the interesting implications brought out by the translation.

As part of her profile of the History, Macrides broaches the subjects of language and narrative organization, though she limits the former to matters of classicizing diction (pp.51-54) and defines the latter by "principles of organization" and "chronological sequence" (pp.34-35). One might have hoped for a more expansive definition of narrative character in light of the significant consideration given to this subject in recent studies of mediaeval historiography and of historical writing more generally. Macrides herself, in fact, has previously written about Akropolites' inconspicuous rhetorical artistry,2 effectively demonstrating how the formal elements of the History underwrite the partisan verdict in favour of Michael VIII Palaiologos, who had spared Akropolites in the culling that took place after the removal of the Laskarid-Vatatzes dynasty, which had in fact promoted Akropolites in the first place. Under the heading of "Kaiserkritik," Macrides identifies Akropolites' aim as an attempt to depict the previous emperors as sufficiently, though not grossly, deficient so as to warrant the supposed change ushered in by Michael VIII. Akropolites, moreover, figures prominently in his own historical account in a bid to distance himself from his former patrons through dramatic revisionism of his political allegiances. The use of historiography to achieve both a private and wider political purpose is noteworthy; as is the choice of narrative style marshaled by Akropolites in pursuit of this. The answer to the opening question, "[w]hat happened to history writing in...thirteenth century [Byzantium]?" may well be found, as so often in matters of historiography, at the intersection of form and content.

An English translation of Akropolites does not make it likelier that the History will be assigned to undergraduates or read by non-specialists. Interest in Byzantium, unfortunately never very high to begin with, peaks at dramatic moments which dovetail with current curricular interests. The aftermath of the crusades in the East has never had a prominent place in the European historical narrative taught in schools or university survey courses. For most people there is thus little or no historical reference with which to frame the events and figures in Akropolites' text. The price and probable short printing run of such books, both persistent problems in rarefied fields like Byzantine studies, will also discourage colleagues from adding it to their syllabi. The real beneficiaries of the translation and its remarkably thorough commentary will be fellow Byzantinists, both those without sufficient proficiency in Greek who would normally not have the time to delve into such a text, and many who may now use Macrides' commentary as a virtual handbook for this period. If this thoroughness occasionally reaches the point of distraction, as on pages with an average of more than one note number per sentence, it is a concession necessary to ensure that the greatest possible number of ambiguities or questions about the text and its contents are resolved. Besides assignation of dates and names, geography, abridged background of relevant history, laws, and customs, there are glosses on technical words as well as systematic cross-references between parts of the text, citation of relevant scholarship and other sources relating to the same events. Just as important, Macrides notes events known only from Akropolites, a matter of some significance in our own histories of the period. Not a few Byzantinists, and possibly some Western mediaevalists, will reap the benefits of this painstaking labour. What is certain is that all readers of Akropolites' History, in Greek, or any other language for that matter, will have to consult Macrides' commentary from here on.

One minor problem, occasioned perhaps by the same desire for thoroughness, is the dense presentation of the genealogical tables. These attempt to place everyone mentioned in Akropolites' text, as well as those whose identity may be surmised, in the familiar pattern of marriage and offspring. It took me a few passes before I learned how to read this. In a couple of cases there are unexplained lines which simply trail off, or the descendant is not centred under the line (as in the case of Eirene, daughter of Theodore Doukas, the second wife of John II Asan of Bulgaria). Still, Oxford University Press should be commended for its meticulous publication of such a work in this promising series devoted to Byzantium. I began this review by quoting the following question: "[w]hat happened to history writing in...thirteenth century [Byzantium]?" Macrides has laid an important keystone in the groundwork necessary for any answer. In the course of doing so, she has also moved the bar up quite a few notches for this sort of study.


1.   Georgii Akropolitae Opera, ed. A. Heisenberg, 2 vols. (Leipzig 1903), reprinted with corrections by P. Wirth (Stuttgart, 1978).
2.   R. Macrides, "George Akropolites' rhetoric", in E. Jeffreys (ed.) Rhetoric in Byzantium [Papers from the Thirty-fifth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Exeter College, University of Oxford, March 2001] (June 2003) 201-211.

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