Thursday, March 8, 2018


Philippe Blaudeau, Peter Van Nuffelen (ed.), L'historiographie tardo-antique et la transmission des savoirs. Millennium-Studien / Millennium studies, 55. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2015. Pp. xi, 380. ISBN 9783110406931. €109.95.

Reviewed by David J. DeVore, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles listed at the end of the review.]

Knowledge is surely among the hottest topics in the intellectual history of antiquity. Concepts of knowledge have given rise to exciting studies in such disparate fields as religious, legal, economic, administrative, and social history. The volume under review uses knowledge as the common denominator for a number of studies on historical writing in late antiquity, which here includes texts from the early fourth through even the seventh century. Based on contributions to a 2012 conference at the University of Angers of the same title as the volume, L'historiographie tardo-antique et la transmission des saviors contains twelve French papers, two each in English and German, and one Italian and one Spanish paper, predominantly from continental European scholars.

The benefits of the plan of this volume are several. The gathering of perspectives helps to consolidate late-antique historiography into more unified, self-conscious field — a welcome development, since scholars of these historians generally carry on more fragmented, parochial dialogue than, say, scholars of earlier Greek and Roman histories.1 In addition, the volume's emphasis on transmission attracts consideration of numerous fragmentary authors obscure even to specialists. Of the canonical heavyweights of late-antique historiography only Eusebius draws repeated attention (in the chapters by Moreau, Parmentier and Prometea Barone, and Huck); just one essay focuses on the Historia Augusta (Gaillard-Seax's); Ammanius Marcellinus', Orosius' and Procopius' monumental narratives find infrequent mention; and of the surviving ecclesiastical historians only Sozomen is the subject of an essay (Huck's). That said, the reader gleans numerous insights into chronography (from Hilkens, Roberto, and Laniado), hagiography (Teja, Deswarte Wirbelauer), historical epitomes (Greatrex, Bleckmann), and especially ecclesiastical historiography (Moreau, Camplani, Greatrex, Traina, Meyer, Bleckmann, Parmentier and Prometea Barone), and will learn about historians who identified as outsiders to Greek and Roman culture (Hilkins, Camplani, Traina; cf. Deswarte). Particularly revealing in this shift of the spotlight toward typically marginalized historians is the fact that the only historian who is the central focus of more than one essay is the fragmentary church historian Philostorgius (Meyer, Bleckmann). As a whole, then, the volume constitutes substantial progress in understanding fragmentary authors, exhibits sound methodologies for scrutinizing these authors, and points to numerous avenues for further research on them.

The volume begins with two introductions. Blaudeau's frames the essays with five themes (documentation, identity and its codes, genre, present knowledge, and the translation of knowledge into authority. In his more theoretical "Historiography as a cultural practice." Van Nuffelen describes historiography as "a distorting mirror of society" and declares that the object of the volume is "to trace some of the convexities and concavities of that mirror." Van Nuffelen names the circulation of documents and the dissemination of tradition outside of the traditional boundaries of Greek and Roman elites as vehicles for la transmission des savoirs.2 This introduction is beneficial for readers of the entire volume who may find the individual essays on disparate subjects within late antique historiography atomistic.

The first four essays illustrate ways to study the text that ancient historians used to construct their narratives. Dominic Moreau traces the appearances of letters from the episcopate of Rome in histories from Eusebius to the Liber Pontificalis, arguing that the changing frequency and prominence of Roman episcopal citations reflects the evolving influence of the Roman bishop. Andy Hilkens' contribution argues by systematic textual comparisons that a sixth-century chronicler named Andronicus, known only through fragments, influenced the emphases on idolatry, violence, astrology, urbanism, and inventions that underlie five middle Byzantine chronicles. Alberto Camplani summarizes his ongoing research on three lost narratives—a Greek episcopal history, a Coptic ecclesiastical history, and an Arabic patriarchal history—produced by the late antique church of Alexandria. Geoffrey Greatrex takes several precise steps in reconstructing the sixth-century ecclesiastical history of Theodore Lector through a seventh-century compiler whose fragments stress the centrality of Constantinople, the continuing power of Arians, and emperors' efforts to put down revolts.

The next three essays address the ways in which new genres conveyed knowledge in late antiquity. Ramon Teja resists the common interpretation of the fifth-century Life of Porphyry attributed to one Mark the Deacon as largely fictional, promising more research. Giusto Traina offers a learned survey of Armenian historiography in late antiquity, emphasizing Armenia's use of ecclesiastical historiographical genres and especially historians' forging of an Armenian royal ancestry from the Parthian Arsacid dynasty. From the other side of the late Roman world Thomas Deswarte detects classical techniques such as rhythmic prose and a careful preface while rejecting most textual parallels to such authors as Orosius and Sallust.

This reviewer found the next three papers, entitled "Penser l'héritage à transmettre: le statut des connaissances issues des savoirs anciens", to be the most uniformly thought-provoking of the book. Doris Meyer discovers influences from sources as diverse as apocalyptic texts and Genesis, the opening of Homer's Iliad, hymns, and medical and hydrological literature underlying the cosmology of Philostorgius' fragmentary Ecclesiastical History. Noting that both John of Antioch and John Malalas amalgamate Hebrew, Greek, and Roman historical data, Umberto Roberto contrasts Malalas' more Hellenocentric citation of oracles to John of Antioch's amplification of the Roman Republic. Bruno Bleckmann, in characteristically keen form, studies Philostorgius through the lens of Photius' two epitomes, concluding that the epitome included in Photius' Bibliothēkē fits the latter text's larger purposes (e.g. church councils are detailed to satisfy the Bibliothēkē's subject of Dogmengeschichte) whereas Photius' longer independent epitome is prepared to call heretics names.

The last six papers focus on individual figures described in late-antique histories. Edith Parmentier and Francesca Prometea Barone show how through successive Christian retellings from Eusebius to John Chrysostom and Pseudo-Athanasius (Clavis Patrum Graecorum II, 34, no. 2165) the death of Herod the Great is transformed from a punishment for Torah violation to a punishment for attempted deicide. Patricia Gaillard-Seux picks up geographical and physiognomic signifiers in the Historia Augusta's description of the fictional pretender Firmus, such as hairiness (Firmus, Saturninus, Proculus, and Bonosus 4.1) assimilating this character with the mythical Typhon. Gaillard-Seux uses this as evidence to argue that this Typhon is patterned after a whom Synesius of Cyrene assimilates with Eutychianus, a prominent politician deposed as consul in 400 (On Providence 1.2-4, 1.13-15, 2.3); Gaillard-Seux therefore posits a date after 400 for the Historia Augusta. Huck's interesting contribution points out that Constantine is not described as a specifically Christian lawgiver until Sozomen (regardless of their views of his legislation, Eusebius, Julian, and Ammianus did not present Constantine as a Christian lawgiver). Sozomen, Huck demonstrates, was trying both to prove that Constantine had been a Christian in good standing since early in his reign and was constructing a precedent for Theodosius II's codification of Roman law. Eckhard Wirbelauer probes a similar manipulation of tradition, showing how Bishop Sylvester of Rome, contemporary of Constantine but barely mentioned by fourth-century authors through Damasus, was inflated into a prominent interlocutor of Constantine in the hagiographic Acts of Sylvester, among other texts. Timo Stickler argues that the fragmentary early fifth-century imperial envoy and historian Olympiodorus highlighted the upstart Constantius III's greed, magic, and lack of self- control to contrast western leaders unfavorably with Olympiodorus' ruler Theodosius and justify the subordinate status of Constantius' son (and Theodosius' nephew), Valentinian III. Avshalom Laniado rounds off the collection with a close reading John of Antioch's account of the early sixth-century revolt of Vitalian, reconstructing the rebel as a low-ranking Gothic soldier who became a figurehead leading low-level soldiers' discontent.

The papers almost uniformly showcase careful and incisive analysis of late antique historiography; their regularly dense, technical argumentation is often provided helpfully in tables or relegated to the footnotes. Obvious logical, factual, translational, and orthographic errors are so few as not to be worth listing. At the same time, the papers themselves rarely make explicit the theoretical stakes of their respective arguments: while the collection offers strong models of excellent scholarship, the takeaways are diffuse and will likely interest specialists in different subfields more than late antique scholars as a whole. For the value of the historians and subjects discussed, then, the collection should certainly be acquired by libraries at research institutions and by specialists in late- antique historiography.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements, V
List of Abbreviations, XI
Philippe Blaudeau, Présentation du theme, 1
Peter Van Nuffelen, Introduction: Historiography as a cultural practice, 11
I: Se documenter pour transmitter: la question des sources
Dominic Moreau, Les actes pontificaux comme sources des historiens et des chroniqueurs de l'Antiquité tardive, 23
Andy Hilkens, Andronicus et son influence sur la presentation de l'histoire postdiluvienne et pré-abrahamique dans la Chronique syrique anonyme jusqu'à l'année, 55
II: S'identifier pour transmettre? Logiques d'appartenance et project historiographique
Alberto Camplani, The religious identity of Alexandria in some ecclesiastical histories of Late Antique Egypt, 85
Geoffrey Greatrex, Théodore le Lecteur et son épitomateur anonyme du VIIe s., 121
III: Composer pour transmettre: Autour de la nature des genres historiographiques
Ramon Teja, La Vida de Porfirio de Gaza de Marco el Diácono: ¿Hagiografía histórica o invención hagiográfica? 145
Giusto Traina, Tradition et innovation dans la première historiographie arméniene, 153
Thomas Deswarte, La Nouvelle Histoire au VIIe s.: l'Historia Wambae de Julien de Tolède, 165
IV: Penser l'héritage à transmettre: le statut des connaissances issues des saviors anciens
Doris Meyer, Débat cosmologique et discours historique dans l'Histoire ecclésiastique de Philostorge, 191
Umberto Roberto, Teosofia pagana e cronaca universal Cristiana: Giovanni Malala e Giovanni di Antiochia, 209
Bruno Bleckmann, Die Notizen des Photios zu Philostorgios im Kontext seiner Behandlung der spätantiken Historiographie und seiner Bildungsinteressen, 227
V: Modéliser pour transmettre: figures et contre-figures passes de l'authorité dans les récits historiographiques
Edith Parmentier & Francesca Prometea Barone, La mort d'Hérode: un palimpseste historiographique (Ier-IVe siècles), 249
Patricia Gaillard-Seux, Portraits d'empereurs dans l'Histoire Auguste: de l'empereur en animal à l'image de Typhon, 259
Olivier Huck, Constantin, "législateur chrétien". Aux origins d'un topos de l'histoire ecclésiastique, 283
Eckhard Wirbelauer, La riche mémoire d'un évêque de Rome méconnu, Silvestre, 319
Timo Stickler, Olympiodor und Constantius III, 333
Avshalom Laniado, Jean d'Antioche et les débuts de la révolte de Vitalien, 349
Index, 371


1.   Cf. the unified consideration by David Rohrbacher, The Historians of Late Antiquity (New York: Routledge, 2002), and Gabriele Marasco (ed.), Greek and Roman Historiography in Late Antiquity. Fourth to Sixth Century A.D. (Leiden: Brill, 2003). By contrast, earlier Greek and Roman historiography has been the subject of John Marincola, A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography (London: Blackwell, 2007) and a number of introductory monographs in both English and German.
2.   One quibble: Van Nuffelen suggests, "To the eye of an unsuspecting classicist, late ancient literature may seem very argumentative" (17). In fact much classical literature was already quite polemical, as any reader of such disparate historians as Thucydides, Polybius, Diodorus, and Tacitus would affirm, albeit more subtly and implicitly so than many late-antique authors are. In addition, a greater proportion of surviving late antique literature seems to come from genres that call for polemic than is the case for classical texts.

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