Wednesday, June 20, 2018


David Frendo, Athanasios Fotiou, John Kaminiates: The Capture of Thessaloniki: Translation, Introduction and Notes. Byzantina Australiensia 12. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. Pp. liv, 189. ISBN 9781876503000. $57.00.

Reviewed by Douglas Whalin, George Mason University (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume was originally published in 2000 by the Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, and its re-release by Brill is a welcome opportunity to make the text more widely available. It contains an English translation of Kaminiates' letter regarding the capture of Byzantine Thessalonike in 904 by the Arabs and his subsequent captivity, in parallel with the Greek text of Böhlig's 1973 edition, accompanied by two introductions and historical notes. The translators Frendo and Fotiou each wrote an introduction: the former covers historical and literary issues, the latter surveys the topography of Thessaloniki with particular focus on its fortifications.

John Kaminiates' addressee was Gregory of Cappadocia — both are also otherwise unknown, although it emerges from the letter that Kaminiates came from a prosperous and well-connected clerical family, whose fate factors significantly in his narrative. In her introduction to the critical edition, Böhlig divided the letter's 79 chapters into seven principal sections, which provide a good scheme for summarizing its contents.1

The letter begins and ends with formal greetings and valedictions (chs. 1–2 and 79) — concluding with a short scribal tailpiece which appears in all extant manuscripts. It establishes that John and Gregory met in Tripoli, Lebanon, as prisoners of war, and that Kaminiates' account was produced as a request from Gregory to know more about how he and his family had come into this condition. The next section provides an extended description of Thessaloniki and its neighboring regions — its history, human and natural geography, buildings, and culture (chs. 3–15). Particularly for passages which provide evidence for the extent and nature of Slavic settlements, Frendo and Fotiou provide significant commentary about Kaminiates' place in the historical record (pp. 138–150).

The third section of the letter narrates the preparations made in anticipation of the siege (chs. 16–22) before describing the events of the siege and capture of the city on 31 July, 904 (chs. 23–41). The narrative pays attention to the actions of the Roman military commanders who bore responsibility for the poor state of the city's defenses. The editors' historical notes fill in what else is known about these events from other historical sources (pp. 154–158). These chapters adopt a relatively objective account of the events of the siege — impersonal, but always with a view toward the human suffering of the author's friends and neighbors. In the fifth part, Kaminiates recounts his personal experiences as he and his companions navigate their way through the chaos, become prisoners, and buy a degree of protection with gold they had hidden (chs. 42–55). The account then returns to other people, both individuals and groups mentioned previously in the text (chs. 56–64), particularly imperial officers unlucky enough to be in the city at the time of its fall. Accounts are given of their fates. Finally, the seventh section describes the trip to Syria, which includes stops at Patmos, Naxos, Crete, and Cyprus before arriving at Tripoli, Lebanon (chs. 65–78). Here the account turns personal again, as John relates his efforts to keep his family intact through these dangers, and the losses he suffered nevertheless.

Beyond its form as an epistle and the titular description of the sack of the city, Kaminiates' text is a surprisingly varied literary work. Its ekphrasis of Thessaloniki covers much of the text, interspersed with the narrative of events. The literary description serves to heighten the author's credibility, and to a certain degree situates the text within a genre of other urban ekphraseis, such as we have from late antiquity and again from later Byzantium. Significant topics include the city's neighboring Sklavene settlements, hints at Bulgarian-Byzantine relations, and the recipe for and use of "Greek fire" — all of which are accompanied by quite thorough endnotes. While Kaminiates' military accounts are those of an educated civilian, his narrative of the ordeal intertwines a personal tale within a narrative of the fall of the city. Furthermore, his perspective is noteworthy because his account originates from outside the "imperial-aristocratic families and the high-ranking military [officers who appear in] historiography-chronography."2

As Frendo stresses in his introduction, the text is highly idiosyncratic — an epistle between two otherwise insignificant individuals. Kaminiates' prose is vivid, and his interests quite varied. The English translation captures it well, the translators highlighting in their endnotes where difficult passages or idioms caused difficulty. The introductions summarize the chronology of the events and the geography of Thessaloniki, and address questions about the source's authenticity, particularly in response to Kazhdan's 1978 article, which questioned its authenticity.3 Kazhdan's thesis arose in significant part because of the late date of the manuscripts — the oldest extant one dates to the first half of the fifteenth century (Pp. xxxvii–xxxix). Because Frendo and Fotiou do not include information about the transmission of the manuscripts, their rebuttal of Kazhdan can be a little difficult to follow at times, but they argue comprehensively that Kaminiates' text is essentially an authentic document from the tenth century.

Two maps accompany the work (pp. li, lii). Portions of these maps were originally produced in grayscale; the quality of the images in the 2017 publication is significantly lower than in the original publication of 2000. The first map is a plan of the city of Thessaloniki, marking the location of major streets, buildings, gates, and other known places mentioned in the text. The second is a somewhat sparse map of the neighborhood around Thessaloniki, including the Chalkidiki peninsula, giving the locations of bodies of water and a few settlements. While the city plan provides a satisfactory overview of the urban plan, a significant number of the locations mentioned in the text — including streets mentioned in the introductions — are not marked. No map gives an overview of Kaminiates' voyage into captivity, the topic of the final 13 chapters of his account.

The English translation is accompanied by a photocopy of the original Greek text from Böhlig's 1973 critical edition. The apparatus criticus has been removed, which seems an odd choice given that its table of abbreviations was reproduced (p. liii). The second introduction, on the geography of Thessaloniki, has a surprising number of minor but distracting errors: references to passages in the translation and commentary omit the note or section number; and typographical errors misdate several of the references. It's unfortunate that the re-release by a new press was not used as an opportunity to clean up and rework the introductory section at least, if not to produce a fully revised edition. These minor critiques aside, the re-release of this translation is a welcome opportunity for more scholars to become acquainted with this unique document.


1.   Gertrud Böhlig, ed. Ioannis Caminiate de Expugnatione Thessalonicae, CFHB vol. 4. (Berlin: de Guyter. 1973). Pp. xiii–xvi.
2.   Spyros P. Panagopoulos, "Narrative Techniques in John Kaminiates De Expugnatione Thessalonicae," Byzantion Nea Hellás 33 (2014): 181-202, here p. 200.
3.   Alexander Kazdhan, "Some Questions Addressed to the Scholars who Believe in the authenticity of Kaminiates' 'Capture of Thessalonica'," Byzantinische Zeitschrift 71 (1978): 301-14.

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