Friday, September 12, 2014


Albrecht Berger, Accounts of Medieval Constantinople: The Patria. Dumbarton Oaks medieval library, 24. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. xxi, 357 p.. ISBN 9780674724815. $29.95.

Reviewed by Sarah Bassett, Indiana University (

Version at BMCR home site

Accounts of Medieval Constantinople is a facing-page translation into English by Albrecht Berger of four texts from a group of five accounts of the medieval city known collectively as the Patria of Constantinople. The five texts, which were originally brought together as a compilation in the late tenth century, were first edited and published as a group by Theodore Preger as Scriptores originum Constantinopolitanarum (Leipzig 1902). They include in the following order a report on the early origins of Constantinople based on and attributed to the sixth- century author Hesychios of Miletos that was added to in the tenth century; an anonymously-authored eighth-century work known as the Parastaseis syntomoi chronikai (Brief historical notes) which records a series of observations and anecdotes about the city's architectural and sculptured patrimony; a second anonymously-authored text of the ninth century about statues that not only relies heavily on the text of the Parastaseis for its materials but also shares its anecdotal format; a ninth- or tenth-century text about the city's building in the same style; and, finally, a narrative account of the building of Hagia Sophia from the ninth century. The current volume, which uses Preger's edition of the text with only the most minor and sensible of emendations, includes an annotated translation of Hesychios together with the ninth- and tenth-century accounts of sculpture and architecture, the narration on Hagia Sophia included. There being no need to reinvent the wheel, it excludes the Parastaseis, which was translated and published independently in a 1984 edition by Averil Cameron and Judith Herrin.1 A brief introduction by Berger accompanies the translation, elucidating the literary genre of patria and the particular nature of the Constantinopolitan texts before concluding with some observations on their usefulness as historical documents. A discussion of the Patria's manuscript tradition together with a glossary of terms, a bibliography, and an index completes the volume.

The Patria are not the most familiar of texts, but for those interested in the history of Constantinople they are valued on two counts: as a record of the medieval city's history and the monuments that gave it shape, and as an index of the popular traditions associated with these places that grew up in the wake of the city's fourth-century foundation. As Berger points out in the introduction this focus is resolutely local, and in this regard the texts stand as heirs to an ancient tradition of local history writing that has its origins in the classical and Hellenistic world. In the case of the Constantinopolitan Patria this local emphasis gives pride of place to the city and its marvels. It does so not as a series of carefully constructed narratives, but in texts that appear almost as if they were hastily compiled lists of notes and anecdotes. More often than not these stories emphasize the legendary at the expense of the factual and when the facts are actually present they are often inaccurate with the result that the historical reliability of the texts is considered problematic.

In spite of these inaccuracies, the Patria are often described as a guidebook, but this description probably misses the point. These are not works in the manner of the Blue Guide. The Patria will not take readers on a well-organized topographical tour of the city, nor will they offer an exhaustive and systematic description of place, much less a narration of historical development. If they are to be understood as guides to anything at all it is to the medieval Constantinopolitan imagination and the historical and social circumstances from which it arose. Consider for example a statue group in the Hippodrome identified in Patria II, 87 as "Adam and Eve, Plenty and Famine." Although the association here is biblical the number figures together with other details of the description and the Hippodrome location suggest that the group was in fact a representation of Herakles with the Hesperides sisters. 2 As the example suggests individual monuments that had formed part of a decorative scheme assembled in the fourth century and based on classical iconographic understanding were subject to reinterpretation by the later years of the tenth.

How these reinterpretations should be understood remains a matter for discussion. Most recent assessments see the texts as political opposition statements designed to enhance the prestige of the city's urban elite against claims of the imperial house through the demonstration of a superior or true knowledge and understanding of the city and its past, a knowledge that contrasts with the official sense of the city laid out in such documents as the imperial Book of Ceremonies.3

Whatever the eventual purpose of the Patria, the appearance of this most elusive and interesting of Byzantine texts in translation is in every way welcome. To begin with it fills a lacuna by making the remaining patriographic texts available in English. Although portions of the Patria have been translated into English by Cyril Mango, French by Gilbert Dagron, and German by Berger himself, there has been no complete version in any modern language. That such a version comes in English is particularly felicitous as it allows the volume to stand as the perfect complement to the English edition of the Parastaseis. That it is the work of Berger, a scholar who has devoted his intellectual life to the study of both the Patria and Constantinople is an added bonus: no one is more familiar with the texts and the city than he, nor is there anyone better equipped to tackle the questions that the relationships between text and city pose. Thus in addition to a lucid translation of writing that can be notoriously opaque, Berger has produced an informative introduction together with a useful set of notations. The notes themselves are kept to a minimum and serve three functions: as cross-references within and between the texts of the Patria, as references to external sources, and as commentaries on the actual contents of the text. Regrettably the latter are few. Given Berger's own expertise on things Constantinopolitan it would have been nice to have more of his thoughts on the matter as his commentaries are always interesting. But such an enterprise may well have been considered beyond the scope of the publication, which is first and foremost a translation.

But why translate the Patria at all? As anyone with even a passing acquaintance with medieval Constantinople knows there is precious little left of the great Byzantine metropolis. Disasters natural and man-made have taken their toll on what was arguably the premier city of the medieval Mediterranean world with the result that only a handful of monuments survive. Those that do remain stand in isolation from one another sometimes repurposed for continuing use, at other times abandoned, their original urban context with its unifying streets and incidental ornamentation long since lost. Nor is this context likely to be recovered in any tangible manner. Given the dense population of the modern city, systematic archaeological exploration is impractical, and it is therefore to the evidence of texts that those interested in the fabric of the city must turn in pursuit of information regarding almost every aspect of infrastructure and history. Here's where the Patria come in handy. With their focus on the city and its monuments they establish themselves as a unique resource. While there is much to be gleaned about the city and its monuments from the sporadic, incidental reports that crop up throughout the wide range of Byzantine literary sources, the Patria remain the only known texts that purposefully take the medieval city as their subject. The only other comparable resource is the regionary catalogue known as the Notitia urbis constantinopolae written about 425.4 Like the Patria, the Notitia focuses on buildings and monuments; however, it does so at a much earlier date and in much more cursory a fashion as a bare-boned list of the city's fourteen regions and their monumental contents. Thus the Patria, which do not stint on commentary, are fleshed out, offering a much more expansive account at a much later date. Berger's translation now makes both this city and its interpretation available to a new audience.

Accounts of Medieval Constantinople represents the latest addition to the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) series. Launched in 2010 as the medieval counterpart to the Loeb Classical Library series, the DOML aims to make the Greek, Latin, and Old English literary culture of the middle ages available to English speaking readers. Berger's translation of the Patria accomplishes well the goal of the series, bringing an important if unfamiliar text to the Anglophone world. As with all of the books in the DOML catalogue it does so in style: production values are high. The text itself is clean and legible. This is especially welcome for the Greek, which is often difficult to read in the original Preger edition. In addition the book is impressive in its loveliness. We all know that we should not judge a book by its cover, but it is hard not to do so in this instance. The book is handsome in its proportions, and with its purple cloth cover and gold dust jacket Accounts of Medieval Constantinople presents an imperial face, reminding readers in this digital age of the elegance and efficiency of the codex.


1.   Constantinople in the eighth century: the Parastaseis syntomoi chronikai (Leiden 1984).
2.   Sarah Bassett, The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople (Cambridge 2004): 218.
3.   General studies of the Patria include Gilbert Dagron, Constantinople imaginaire. Études sure le recueil des "Patria" (Paris 1984); Albrecht Berger, Untersuchungen zu den Patria Konstantinupoleos (Bonn 1988). For the specific study of the Parastaseis see Cameron and Herron (as in n. 1); Ihor Ševčenko, "The search for the past in Byzantium around the year 800," DOP 46 (1992): 279-93; Alexander Kahzdan, "'Constantin imaginaire': Byzantine legends of the ninth century about Constantine the Great," Byz 57 (1987): 196-250; and most recently Benjamin Anderson, "Classified knowledge: the epistemology of statuary in the Parastaseis syntomoi chronikai," BMGS 35 (2011): 1-19.
4.   For the text of the Notitia see Otto Seeck, ed., Notitia dignitatum (Berlin 1876): 227-43.

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