Sunday, April 14, 2019


András Németh, The 'Excerpta Constantiniana' and the Byzantine Appropriation of the Past. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xiv, 358. ISBN 9781108423632. $105.00.

Reviewed by Thomas M. Banchich, Canisius College, Buffalo, NY (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is not so much to be read through as thought through. Németh's principal concerns are the Excerpta Constantiniana (hereafter EC),1 the motives behind and processes involved in their production, their place within and influence on what Németh views as a distinctive and calculated "appropriation of the past" sponsored by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus and Basil Lecapenus, and evidenced not only by the EC but also by the De Thematibus, the De Administrando Imperio, and the De Ceremoniis; by a biographical turn in Byzantine historiography; and by the effects of what Németh argues were the innovative information gathering and retrieval techniques employed in the conceptualization and production of the EC on lexicography, particularly on the Suda. He is eminently qualified to pronounce on these matters. From his doctoral thesis through a series of subsequent publications,2 he has charted a straight course and, in the process, has acquired an intimate knowledge of the manuscripts which form the evidential foundation upon which the arguments and inferences of the book here reviewed rest.

Németh's introduction offers an overview of the EC. When finished, the set comprised fifty-three thematically titled volumes, four of which survive, only one of those complete. A combination of internal evidence and the Suda, which drew most of its historical entries from the now-lost volumes of the EC, suggests that the excerpted authors numbered in the thirties.3 Németh immediately distances himself from the notion of Byzantine "encyclopaedism" and from the study of the EC as a repository of historical fragments, promising instead "a more productive reading", one which avoids the imposition on the EC of anachronistic categories and concerns. Given the complexities of what follows, chapter summaries (pp. 15-19) are welcome and repay careful attention.

Chapter 1 introduces the Macedonian emperors and delineates, through an appreciation of the priorities, policies, and interests of these rulers and their court, the "systematisation of knowledge" which Németh sees as one of that dynasty's defining features. Ubiquitous in the process and results was a concern for military matters, court politics, diplomacy, and the interests and "shared experience of a circle of warrior aristocrats" (p. 44). As successive volumes appeared — a process Németh thinks began under Constantine VII (d. 959) and ended with the banishment of Lecapenus (in 985) — the finished products resided in the palace library, where they were accessible in single copies to key figures in the court and administration (pp. 35-36), at hand to "assist daily work and stimulate complex thinking and creative responses to challenging diplomatic circumstances" (p. 53).

Chapter 2 looks at the theory and practice of excerpting the works of those writers of history chosen for inclusion in the EC and defines some terms important to Németh's argument. For instance, by "appropriation" (Németh's rendering of οἰκείωσις), he means "assigning a passage to an appropriate subject" (p. 55).4 This "appropriation" — "a response to information overload" (pp. 54-55) — further involved the association of a passage with auxiliary texts or paratexts, in the case of the EC, a proem, introductory poem, headings, numerical annotations, indices, and a range of marginalia and cross-references, the result of which being a "dynamic research engine for pinpointing specific details" (p. 57) which its compilers — under the direction of an anonymous "mastermind" — thought were of special interest to the small circle of targeted users. In the course of this chapter, Németh attempts to explain through Christian numerology, Byzantine mathematics, and imperial ideology the choice of fifty-three for the number of topics in the EC (pp. 71-77). He also reckons, largely on the basis of his understanding of a proem which probably stood originally in all fifty-three volumes and of a dedicatory poem, that the compilers of the EC "were not authorised…to modify the text" from which they drew (p. 68) and, if I understand him correctly, that the complete text of each historian included in the EC was marked, with few exceptions, for excerption into one or more of its fifty-three volumes. Thus, in his view, if we had the complete set, we could re-assemble from the excerpts of a specific author that author's work, more-or-less complete (pp. 59-60, 68-70).

Chapter 3 treats the construction of the EC and its "capacity as a dynamic retrieval facility" (p. 88). Németh argues cogently for a three-phase process of production. In Phase 1, one person would go through each text to be included in the EC, marking with symbols the portions pertinent to each of the fifty-three agreed-upon topics of categorization. Several people would be working at the same time, though each on a different text. When finished with one author, each excerptor could progress to the next. In Phase 2, bindings were removed and the resultant fascicles distributed to copyists. Each of them would create from the fascicles assigned to them additional fascicles, each of these containing those passages marked for assignment to one of the fifty-three categories and always retaining the sequence of the passages in the original. In Phase 3, scribes would gather all these fascicles, group them by topic, and produce from them the "deluxe manuscripts" of each of the fifty-three volumes of the EC. This complicated process, Németh thinks, lasted from the 940s into the 970s or 980s and entailed a number of challenges, among which were the acquisition of sometimes-rare works, substantial investments of time and money, and the management of loose fascicles through the process of marking, copying, correcting, and topical grouping. It also would have precluded multiple copies of the final result: the fifty-three deluxe volumes housed permanently in the Golden Chamber.

Chapter 4 considers several parallel "appropriations" of Constantine VII's court — De Thematibus, De Administrando Imperio, and De Ceremoniis — and the methods behind their composition. Németh thinks that work on the EC began between "the initial and final dates of these treatises" (p. 124) and that the EC influenced the style of these works, contributed to their content, and prompted a shift of attitude toward how history worked, one which put increased emphasis on individuals, the "personal voices of history" to which chronicles usually paid minimal attention.

Chapter 5 makes a case for the EC's prompting a revival of historical writing. This revival saw the abandonment of the previously dominant model of the monastic chronicle for a historiography favoring "biography, the personal voices of individuals, elaborate descriptions, [and] rhetorically constructed speeches and dialogues" (p. 164). Németh sees imperial control behind such changes and views the EC as a critical catalyst, in that they "provided a stylistic model for court historians in the second half of the tenth century and raw material to recycle in the forms of expressions, sentences, anecdotes, descriptions, fictitious speeches, letters and other types of rhetorical embellishments" (p. 144). Two of the works he adduces as illustrations of the influence of the EC are the Life of Basil and Theophanes Continuatus. He sees John Scylitzes as reacting against these changes and as an advocate of a return to a chronicle-centered historiography (pp. 149-151).

Chapter 6 maintains that a new historiography emerged under Constantine VII, one which reflected and was stimulated by the EC, whose fifty-three volumes "should not be seen as the final goal of the project, but as an instrument for other projects to come" (p. 183). The EC, Németh thinks, presented "time as a series of loosely related events and interpreted these events according to the prevailing imperial ideology" (p. 166). For him, a corollary of this is a cyclical, rather than linear, notion of time, a conception he discerns as characteristic of the broader literary output associated with Constantine.

Chapter 7 further considers "the synchronic web of links" (p. 185) between some of the volumes of the EC and other imperial textual projects. For example, Németh suggests (p. 210) that marginal notations of the names of speakers of sententiae reflect an interest in the personal characteristics of members of the imperial court while, at the same time, facilitating the rapid identification of passages which might be included in future biographical, historical, and rhetorical works.

Chapter 8 focuses on "paratexts" or "auxiliary texts" — e.g., the proem, headings, indices of historical figures, and cross-references to other volumes of the EC — which were important tools for those involved in the production of the set and, later, for the small body of users of the finished volumes, which were regarded as a "single entity" (p. 220). On occasion, numbers and various, sometimes color-coded, markings invited and facilitated non-linear consultation of the EC. At other times, markings simply were vestigial survivors of the production process. Excerptors often signaled passages pertaining to Christianity and sometimes posed questions, e.g. "What is rationality?" (p. 230). Largely on the basis of the titles of lost volumes of the EC, Németh adduces passages from De Thematibus and De Administrando Imperio as reflections of reliance on the auxiliary texts of the EC (pp. 231-37).

Chapter 9 considers the relationship between the Suda and the EC. Németh (p. 240) thinks the Suda's compilation (960s-980s) coincided with his date for the production of the final copies of the EC, that the EC's auxiliary texts facilitated the selection of the Suda's lexical and biographical headwords (pp. 245-55), and that the marginal indices of the EC supplied the Suda with supplementary material to various biographical entries derived primarily from other sources (p. 244). Furthermore, he reasons that the Suda's use of the EC could have occurred only if the former was produced close to the imperial court, where the final copies of the EC resided.

There are two appendices — one an edition of EC's proem and dedicatory poem, the other a list of the authors included in its four more-or-less extant volumes — seven illustrations, three maps, four tables, a forty-four-page bibliography, and indices of manuscripts, names, and subjects. Intelligent use of subject index will facilitate an understanding of Németh's use of evidence and an evaluation of the inferences and conclusions he draws from that evidence.

At times (e.g., pp. 212-13), Németh is highly speculative about the motives and mindsets of the users of the EC. His assertions about cyclical history seem problematic at best, as does his notion that the reassembly of the excerpts of any single author from the completed EC would approximate that author's entire work. The fact that the approaches of previous scholars differ from Németh's hardly means that his are "more productive" (p. 14) or that, given his penchant for terms such as "research engine", he can absolve himself of the charge of the imposition of anachronistic categories on the EC that he levels at his predecessors. As for his claims about the fidelity of the excerptors, even a cursory examination of passages from authors who survive independently from the EC with those same passages in the EC reveals modification, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end, and sometimes between. Németh himself provides numerous examples.5 On p. 8, n. 25, François Paschoud's Eunape, Olympiodore, Zosime (Bari: Edipuglia, 2006, pp. 504-553) is not an edition of all of Eunapius' History but only of Müller's FHG fragments 8-61. Slips in production are few and minor, e.g., an intrusive "it" in a quotation from Høgel (p. 29, n. 45), a misplaced "who" (p. 60, n. 21), "flee" for "fleet" (p. 119, n. 29), and an "adopt" for "adapt" (p. 123).


1.   U. Boissevain, C. de Boor, and T. Büttner-Wobst (eds), Excerpta Historica Iussu Imperatoris Constantini Porphyrogeniti Confecta, 4 vols. (Berlin: Weidmann, 1903-1910).
2.   For these, see Németh's bibliography, pp. 310-11. Németh's thesis is online at
3.   Warren Treadgold, The Middle Byzantine Historians (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 153-96, provides an overview, differing in some important respects from Németh.
4.   In his thesis (p. 228), οἰκείωσις is "adaptation". Readers expecting to find any explicit treatment of "appropriation" in the sense of "cultural appropriation" should seek elsewhere.
5.   See P. A. Brunt, "On Historical Fragments and Epitomes", Classical Quarterly 30 (1980), 477-94, esp. 483-85.

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