Monday, June 15, 2015


John Given (trans.), The Fragmentary History of Priscus: Attila, the Huns and the Roman Empire, AD 430-476. Christian Roman Empire series, 11. Merchantville, NJ: Evolution Publishing, 2014. Pp. xlviii, 194. ISBN 9781935228141. $22.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Philip Rance, Freie Universität Berlin (

Version at BMCR home site

In the historical construction and popular imagination of the late Roman world, Priscus of Panion has long exercised a formative influence out of all proportion to the mere textual wreckage of his work that survives. His reputation rests primarily, if not exclusively, on an extensive excerpt narrating his participation in an East Roman diplomatic mission to Attila, replete with invaluable observations on society and culture among the Huns. While there were clearly other dimensions to Priscus and his now fragmentary history, it should occasion neither surprise nor censure that John Given's new translation seeks to capitalise on the fame of the Hunnic king.

There were two preceding English translations, differing significantly in character, scope and audience. Colin Gordon's The Age of Attila: Fifth-Century Byzantium and the Barbarians (1960) incorporated translated excerpts of Priscus and other fifth-century fragmentary historians into a political-military narrative designed for non-specialist readers. A revised edition by David Potter (2013), with textual and historical notes and updated bibliography, recently endeavoured to rescue Gordon's work from obsolescence. In contrast, Roger Blockley's two-volume The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire (1981-3), which more than doubled the number of ascribed or putative Priscan fragments previously assembled by Müller (1851/1870) and Dindorf (1870), supplied a Greek text (an eclectic composite of older editions) with English translation and detailed annotations, and quickly became a standard scholarly resource.

Subsequently, Pia Carolla's edition of Priscus' Excerpta et fragmenta for the Bibliotheca Teubneriana (2008), the most comprehensive and learned to date, provided a new critical text, added or restored around half a dozen fragments omitted or rejected by Blockley, and reinstated the traditional numeration, from which Blockley had departed. Arguably Carolla's edition justifies a new (or at least revised) English translation, but Given has also considered the usefulness and potential readership of a volume devoted solely to Priscus. Accordingly, he aims "to find a middle ground between Gordon and Blockley…whether students learning about Late Antiquity for the first time or the casual reader interested in the period of Attila and Rome's fall" (v). In this objective he is successful.

Given introduces his translation with a brief biographical sketch of Priscus and a summary of what is known or surmised about the structure, chronological coverage, and content of his historical writings. Given is generous in acknowledging debts to previous English-language studies (Baldwin, Blockley, Treadgold) and his exposition is a model of clarity, well supported by bibliography, old and new. He usefully describes eleven 'source-texts' that, directly or indirectly, preserve Priscus-derived material, in each case explaining how Priscus' work has been excerpted or reconfigured, and alerting readers to the various filters of its textual transmission. The need to simplify complex arguments and/or unresolved controversies requires Given to cross some potentially hostile terrain. Although one could cavil at points of interpretation and emphasis, nothing vitiates his arrangement and translation of the fragments.

More problematic is Given's treatment of a collection of historical excerpts relating to sieges, uniquely preserved in Parisinus suppl. gr. 607. This collection transmits two Priscan fragments, including his well-known account of Attila's siege of Naissus (1B). Given does not introduce this poliorcetic collection in his survey of source-texts, but rather relegates it to an endnote within his discussion of the Constantinian Excerpta (xxii n.10), on the grounds that 'it is plausible that the compilation derives from his [Constantine's] work'. In Given's subsequent conspectus (xlvi), the source of these two fragments is cited separately from Constantine's Excerpta, as 'Par. Suppl. gr. 607 = "Excerpts on sieges"', but in the translation (pp. 12, 14) they are again 'Perhaps from the Excerpts of Constantine VII'. Leaving aside the potential confusion, there are in fact considerable codicological and textual obstacles to this hypothesis and a more accurate presentation of scholarship on this poliorcetic collection would have treated it as an independent, twelfth source-text.

Given (v-vi, xxi) reproduces Carolla's classification of the fragments according to a convention, first introduced in Bornmann's edition (1979), whereby a fragment is deemed 'certain' only if it is explicitly ascribed to Priscus or internally cites him by name; all other fragments are labelled 'conjectural' and marked with an asterisk. Although more methodologically rigorous and transparent than some selective criteria employed by Blockley, it is questionable whether a rigid application of this single criterion produces an entirely useful or satisfactory system of categorisation.1 Nevertheless, Given negotiates some of the resulting incongruities by offering guidance on the 'likely'/'unlikely' Priscan content of each source-text, even if some 'certain' fragments (e.g., in Jordanes' Getica) turn out to be no more (and probably less) reliable witnesses to Priscus' text than some 'conjectural' fragments (e.g., in John of Antioch's Chronicle).

Given understandably steers clear of the complex issue of Priscan fragments embedded in the Suda, but briefly notifies readers (vii) that Bornmann's edition (1979) admitted significantly more material from the Suda, if only as fragmenta dubia. Indeed, in this respect, Bornmann's selection represented a culmination of scholarship, on both Priscus and the compositional history of the Suda, stretching back to the early nineteenth century. Despite its continued inclusion in the canon of the TLG, Bornmann's edition was quickly superseded, at least in anglophone scholarship, by Blockley's text (1981-83). Thereafter, many of these Suda-derived fragments suffered a kind of editorial damnatio memoriae, inasmuch as Blockley and Carolla excluded them and did not signal their prior existence in a conspectus or concordance of editions, although some of the rejected fragments are certainly no more 'conjectural' than others that were deemed admissible.2

Given closely engages with the text, its manuscript witnesses and editorial history. While generally following Carolla's constitution of the fragments, he is not tied to any single edition and judiciously opts for alternative readings and/or emendations of corrupted passages or textual cruces, often against Carolla, and occasionally independent of both Carolla and Blockley (116 n. 2; 124 n. 11), though rarely entailing a substantial change of meaning. He also differs from previous editors in the subdivision of a continuous passage of the Chronicon Paschale into frag. 3a and 64* (p. xxxiv). Given's English translation is thoughtful and meticulous throughout, and will raise few objections.3 In translating excerpta, assumed to be near-verbatim testimony to Priscus' wording, Given successfully captures some of the artificiality of the historian's classicizing idiom, as well as occasional syntactical awkwardness, whether arising from the author's style or the excerptors' interventions. Given is also adept at conveying the distinctive textual qualities of the indirect witnesses to Priscan material, notably the sometimes tortuous syntax of Jordanes (pp. 114-15).

In a few instances, reliance on Liddell-Scott leads to somewhat quaint renderings, while an assumption of purist classical norms minimises semantic shifts and lexical developments in (even 'classicizing') late antique Greek. One wonders what the target readership will make of the 'braided chaste-tree withes' (λύγοις διαπλόκοις) that protect the Hunnic siege machinery in frag. 1B (p. 15). In the same excerpt, the operators of a colossal battering ram vigorously draw back its beam 'with small cords' (καλῳδίοις), another Liddell-Scottism, though the wider usage of καλῴδιον in historical and poliorcetic literature reveals generic ropes or cables with no actual diminutive sense. In frag. 8 (§190), despite the etymology of ἀνεσταύρωσαν, the description of the punishment of two captives indicates that they were not in fact 'crucified' (p. 79), which casts doubt on other, unelaborated instances of this verb (frag. 1.1§5, 8§79). In frag. 63*, an account of Marcian's early life reports his enrolment in the army οὔτι ἔσχατον … βαθμόν, which Given renders non-specifically as 'not at the lowest degree' (96), where 'grade' or 'rank' is arguably preferable, as the language of this passage appears to reflect late Roman technical usage, as documented in legal codes and military inscriptions. In frag. 64* (Chronicon Paschale), Given chooses to transliterate post-classical σαγίττα into Latin sagitta, supplying the English definition in an endnote (101, 109); while it is unthinkable that Priscus would have used this term, its occurrence in an early seventh-century non-literary text is unremarkable inasmuch as this Latinism had by now become the 'Greek' word for 'arrow'.

Short explanatory passages framing or connecting the translated fragments provide very basic historical context, without assumptions about or attempts to construct lost sections of Priscus' work. Annotations are intentionally minimal and serve primarily to clarify textual difficulties and translational choices and to identify place names; in some cases a comparable degree of attention to prosopography might have been useful. There is occasional replication of outdated scholarship: in frag. 8§128, 178 the name of Attila's wife is twice given as Kreka (pp. 67, 77), whereas the authority of the form Ἠρέκα(ν), attested in all manuscripts of the second instance, has been demonstrated (PLRE II, Erecan). The dating of a Roman-Lazic War to 456 (pp. 121, 147) depends solely on Mommsen's bold restoration of an alleged lacuna in Hydatius' Chronicle, which has long been shown to have no historical or textual foundation.4 These events cannot be more precisely dated than the reign of Marcian. There are isolated slips or misconceptions: Olybrius was not Geiseric's 'son-in-law' (157); Adler, the Suda editor, was not a 'he' (168). The explanation of Marcian's career before 450 (p. 94: 'a low-level aide … low-level command post') overstates his obscurity: as a veteran tribunus (a rank by this date accorded the dignity of comes) and the domesticus (senior staff-officer) of a pre-eminent general, Marcian was not noticeably junior to other fourth- /fifth-century 'soldier-emperors' (e.g., Jovian, Valentinian I, Valens, Leo).

While Given is attentive to geographical identifications, the 'Gorga' in frag. 33, where Peroz based his campaign against the 'Kidarites' (Ephthalites), is not a 'location unknown' (146, 167), but the eastern frontier province of Gorgān (classical Hyrcania) or its principal city. The tale of Indakos, a fleet-footed Isaurian bandit who ran from Che(r)ris to Antioch and back, and thence to Neapolis, on three consecutive days (frag. 79*), becomes somewhat less fantastic if we understand Isaurian Antioch (ad Cragum), rather than the distant Syrian metropolis, and once Neapolis is correctly identified as the city of the Isaurian Decapolis (mod. Güneyyurt) and not a namesake in Pisidia (165, 168).5 The 'Thoule' described in frag. 83*, regardless of the wider use of this toponym, is obviously not, even 'a very tentative', Shetland (174), but Scandinavia (cf. Jordanes, Getica 3.21 = Priscus frag. 66.2 Blockley/83* app. Carolla). Typographical errors are few and trivial.6

None of the preceding observations should detract from the quality and intrinsic utility of this volume. It could justifiably find a place on reading lists of undergraduate courses in late antique and early medieval history, and possibly as a teaching text for more narrowly focused classes, if supplemented with alternative source material that could counterbalance the diplomatic focus of Priscus' surviving fragments. Given's book offers a clear, accessible and intelligent approach to the remains of this important late Roman historian and his increasingly fragmentary world.


1.   Given (pp. 74-5) applies the convention even more strictly than Carolla herself (or Bornmann), for example reclassifying her frag. 11 as 'conjectural', although its Priscan origin has never been in doubt.
2.   See P. Rance, 'A Roman-Lazi War in the Suda: a Fragment of Priscus?', Classical Quarterly 65.2 (forthcoming 2015).
3.   E.g., in frag. 45 (p. 10), differing punctuation in the English and Latin texts assigns the phrase 'like a whirlwind of nations' (quasi quidam turbo gentium) to the peoples living beyond Lake Maeotis rather than, correctly, the Huns attacking them. In frag. 41 (p. 155), Given restores Bekker's emendation at φρούρια, ἅπερ <ὑπὸ> τῶν Σουάνων ἀφῄρηντο, grammatically unessential and reversing the meaning, although this was deleted by Carolla (and Bornmann), and rejected on historical grounds by D. Braund, 'Priscus on the Suani', Phoenix 46.1 (1992) 62-5; C. Zuckerman, 'The Early Byzantine Strongholds in Eastern Pontus', T&MByz 11 (1991) 543.
4.   R.W. Burgess, 'A New Reading for Hydatius Chronicle 177 and the Defeat of the Huns in Italy', Phoenix 42.4 (1988) 357-63.
5.   K. Feld, Barbarische Bürger: die Isaurier und das Römische Reich (Berlin 2005) 30, 187-8.
6.   E.g., p. xlviii: Procop. VI.[15.]15-23; p. 140: meditation > mediation; p. 179: Leippin > Leppin.

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