Sunday, April 28, 2019


Bronwen Neil, Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides (ed.), Dreams, Memory, and Imagination in Byzantium. Byzantina Australiensia, 24. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2018. Pp. xiv, 350. ISBN 9789004366862. €163,00.

Reviewed by David Woods, University College Cork (

Version at BMCR home site

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

This volume has its origin in papers offered at the 19th Biennial Conference of the Australian Association for Byzantine Studies in February 2017, and its editors are to be commended for their work in effecting its publication so swiftly. Of the 15 contributors, 10 are based in Australia, and 1 each in France, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States of America. It is clear that Byzantine Studies are flourishing in Australia thanks to the dynamic leadership of several of the contributors to this very volume, and long may this continue. All the papers are in English with an average length of 22 pages each, where the shortest paper runs to 14 pages, and the longest to 28 pages. The papers investigate a number of topics or authors within the broader theme of dreams from as early as the second century AD (Clement of Alexandria) until as late as the twelfth century AD (Matthew of Edessa), although there is probably a slight bias towards events or authors of the sixth-seventh centuries AD. There is one map, without which Lau's paper on Matthew of Edessa would have been less intelligible, and two illustrations demonstrating medieval belief about the localisation of various mental faculties, helpful but not essential to the understanding of Parry's paper on early Byzantine belief about the biological location of these faculties.

While the title of the volume contains three distinct elements – dreams, memory, and imagination – touching upon three very different subjects, the volume itself is actually divided into four parts. The editors seem to have realised that they could not group their papers according to the three subjects in the title for the good reason that most of the papers relate to dreams rather than to memory or imagination. So they seem then to have decided to group the papers according to broad literary genre instead, with one group on dreams in philosophical texts ('Dreams, Memory and Imagination in the Byzantine Philosophical Tradition'), another on dreams in historical texts, and another on dreams in hagiographical texts ('Remembering the Saints in Hymns and Hagiography'). However, they seem then to have realised that the middle group, that dealing with the treatment of dreams in historical texts, was far too large, so they subdivided it, awarding the heading 'Prophetic Dreams and Visions in Imperial Contexts' to one half, and the heading 'Dreams and Memory in Byzantine Chronicles and Encomia' to the other half. Yet this is not entirely satisfactory because most of the dreams or visions described in Byzantine chronicles and encomia have an 'imperial context'. The result was a volume of 15 chapters (not including the introduction) divided almost equally between 4 different groups or parts As one surveys the resulting structure, two observations spring to mind. The first concerns the absence of the term 'vision' from the title of the volume. Based on the actual contents of the volume, it would arguably have made much more sense to include this in the title rather than either 'memory' or 'imagination'. The second concerns the fact that a significant group of papers (chapters 1, 3, 7, 15) touch upon the theme of the erotic imagination or dream, and it is a pity that the structure could not have been re-organized so as to draw more attention to this important theme.

This is not a volume of cutting-edge research. Space was always going to be limited, but many authors quote extensively from their primary sources, first in the original language, normally Greek, sometimes Latin, Armenian, or even Hebrew, and then in English translation, and each paper has its own separate bibliography. The result is that the authors do not always have sufficient space to engage in the sort of detailed analysis of their sources necessary to develop substantial new ideas or insights. This problem is exacerbated when the author seems deliberately to aim at a sort of survey article right from the start, as many do. For example, Parry attempts to survey ideas about the localisation of the faculties of memory and imagination in the brain from the time of Nemesius of Emesa (late fourth century AD) until the time of John of Damascus (eighth century AD), so that when one strips out the extensive quotation very little is left. Similarly, even though Buckley seems much more focussed and limited in her intentions as she analyses the use of dreams by one author alone, Michael Psellus, very little would remain if one were to remove the extensive quotation. This being said, these chapters and others like them usually serve as excellent introductions to the subjects that they are discussing. Indeed, the beauty of this volume is that most of the papers are sufficiently constrained in length and written at such an accessible level that they may be recommended to advanced undergraduate students. Finally, one should add that the titles of the individual papers are all admirably clear and accurate reflections of their actual contents, so that one immediately knows what to expect within each, and that expectation is never disappointed.

There is insufficient space to comment individually on each of the papers, so I will restrict myself to commenting upon two papers that focus most clearly on the discussion of particular dreams or visions. McEvoy discusses two dreams relating, first, to the succession of the emperor Anastasius by Justin I as recorded by the Anonymous Valesianus Pars Posterior, and then to the succession of Justinian by Justin II as recorded by Corippus. However, she wanders off topic somewhat in analysing this first dream, tending to discuss the general political situation at the time rather than the dream itself, so that certain key issues are not actually addressed at all. For example, who or what was the apparent man who addressed Anastasius in his dream or vision? Was he an angel? If not, who or what else might he have been? She rightly concludes her paper with an effort to set Byzantine dreams concerning succession in the context of Roman traditions concerning the same type of dreams, but this section of her paper is far too disjointed from what went beforehand and does not attempt to draw out the Roman precedents for, or parallels to, the specific dreams already discussed, such as, for example, the alleged appearances of Fortuna to earlier emperors that seem to act as precedents for the appearance of the Virgin Mary to Justin II in his dream.

Strickler actually discusses the same subject as McEvoy, dreams of succession, but on the basis of seventh-century, rather than sixth-century sources or examples, although a deliberate effort seems to have been made to obscure this fact. Unfortunately, he dedicates far too much space to his introduction, after which, despite his title suggesting a focus on portentous dreams in particular, he discusses a number of other portentous phenomena in his first source, Theophylact Simocatta, leaving very little space left for the consideration of dreams in his other sources, the Sefer Zerubabbel and the record of the trial of Maximus the Confessor at Constantinople in 655. The consequence is that his discussion of the dream attributed to Maximus that seemed to prophesy the victory of Gregory Exarch of Africa against Constans II is weak. For example, he fails to discuss the implications of the fact that, if there really was a dream, it was clearly wrong because Gregory did not defeat Constans II. So who sends, or what is the cause of, false prophetic dreams? Clearly, some discussion of the alleged role of demons in trying to deceive humanity by provoking false prophecies would have been appropriate here.

The majority of the papers deserve to be in this volume in that they are obviously relevant to the title and closely connected to the general subject matter of some of the other papers. Perhaps the two most problematic from this point of view are Neil's own paper, which repeats too much that has already been said about Byzantine sources earlier in the volume and contains too much about Islamic sources that is of dubious relevance in a volume devoted to dreams in Byzantium, and the paper by Mayer, whose treatment of the reception of the Johannite schism, while convincing and scholarly, seems totally out of place here.

In summary, this is an interesting and strongly cohesive volume that serves as a good introduction to the role of dreams in Byzantine literature and culture. It has also been produced to a high standard with remarkably few typographical or other errors.1 Many of the papers will tend to pique interest and serve to provoke questions rather than to answer them, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. For my part, I leave this volume pondering why the apparent man, probably an angel, who appeared in a dream to the emperor Anastasius, chose to erase the number 14 from the book that he was carrying rather than any other number.2 It seems too specific a figure to be chance. As in many other cases, the author of this story assumed that his readers would share certain cultural assumptions or information, without which the full significance of the story cannot be understood. However, it is precisely the challenge offered by such problems that makes the study of ancient dreams so interesting.

Authors and Titles

Bronwen Neil, An Introduction to Dreams, Memory and Imagination in Byzantium

Part 1: Dreams, Memory and Imagination in the Byzantine Philosophical Tradition
1. Inbar Graiver, The Dangers of Purity: Monastic Reactions to Erotic Dreams
2. Ken Parry, Locating Memory and Imagination: From Nemesius of Emesa to John of Damascus.
3. Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides, Daydreaming and Lusting after the Divine: Clement of Alexandria and the Platonic Tradition.
4. Francesco Monticini, The Inner Source of Dreams: Synesius of Cyrene's Reception in the Palaiologan Era.

Part 2: Prophetic Dreams and Visions in Imperial Contexts
5. Meaghan McEvoy, Dynastic Dreams and Visions of Early Byzantine Emperors (ca. 518–565 AD).
6. Ryan W. Strickler, Dreaming of Treason: Portentous Dreams and Imperial Coups in Seventh-Century Byzantine Apocalyptic Discourse.
7. Mark Masterson, Desire, Dreams, and Visions in the Letters of Emperor Konstantinos VII Porphyrogennetos and Theodoros of Kyzikos.
8. Maximilian Lau, The Dream Come True? Matthew of Edessa and the Return of the Roman Emperor.

Part 3: Dreams and Memory in Byzantine Chronicles and Encomia
9. Roger Scott, Dreams and Imaginative Memory in Select Byzantine Chronicles.
10. Bronwen Neil, Dream Portents in Early Byzantine and Early Islamic Chronicles.
11. Penelope Buckley, Psellos' Use and Counter-Use of Dreams, Visions and Prophecies in His Chronographia and His Encomium for His Mother.

Part 4: Remembering the Saints in Hymns and Hagiography
12. Wendy Mayer, Loyalty and Betrayal: Villains, Imagination and Memory in the Reception of the Johannite Schism.
13. Alan H. Cadwallader, "As if in a Vision of the Night…": Authorising the Healing Spring of Chonai.
14. Andrew Mellas, Dreaming Liturgically: Andrew of Crete's Great Kanon as a Mystical Vision
15. Derek Krueger, Divine Fantasy and the Erotic Imagination in the Hymns of Symeon the New Theologian


1.   I noticed only 1 minor slip when Neil, p. 6, dates Theophylact Simocatta to the tenth rather than the seventh century.
2.   McEvoy, p. 102. In n. 14, she thanks Roger Scott for the suggestion that the 14 refers to the number of years between the death of Anastasius in 518 and the Nika riots in 532, but I fail to understand how this solves the problem.

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