This is one of several translated excerpts from Byzantine sources produced and mounted with historical introduction and commentary by Paul Stephenson.


 

JOHN SKYLITZES, SYNOPSIS HISTORION

In the preface to his Synopsis Historion, John Skylitzes reveals that he held the elevated rank of kouropalates, and was formerly the megas droungarios tes viglas, a senior judicial position. He lived and wrote towards the end of the eleventh century, probably in the early years of the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118). His work, which covers the period AD 811-1057, was conceived as a continuation to the chronicle of Theophanes Confessor, which was in turn a continuation of the chronicle of George the Monk. Skylitzes praised both George and Theophanes, but condemned the subsequent histories by Psellos and 'the didaskalos Sikeliotes' as overly brief and inaccurate. (He is clearly referring to Psellos' Epitome, not his Chronographia; Sikeliotes' work has not survived.) The Synopsis Historion remains the best, indeed only substantial, complement and corrective to Psellos.

A continuation to Skylitzes' chronicle has survived, covering the years 1057 to 1079. Aptly called Skylitzes Continuatus, may also to be the work of John Skylitzes. Minor differences in style and terminology might best be explained by the writer's increased maturity and the different purpose in writing: it is a reworking of the history of Michael Attaleiates, with a clear aristocratic bias. It has recently been suggested, by Catherine Holmes, that we can also detect a similar aristocratic bias in the Synopsis Historion. For example, several noble families are shown to have played a prominent role in Basil II's campaigns of the tenth and early eleventh centuries, whose successors might be encouraged to fight as bravely for Alexios I.

Since this introduction was produced, and translations first produced and uploaded (in 1998-2002), full translations with introductions, extensive notes and commentaries have appeared in both French and English. In addition, an analysis of the text and purpose of the Synposis Historion, and the working methods of John Skylitzes, is presented by Catherine Holmes, Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025), Oxford Studies in Byzantium (Oxford, 2005). In her second chapter, Holmes present a useful overview of scholarship on Skylitzes' career and working methods, and offers two substantive, original conclusions. First, while approbation for the arguments of W. Seibt ('Ioannes Skylitzes: Zur Person des Chronisten', Jahrbuch der Oesterreichischen Byzantinistik 25 (1976): 81-6) is offered, Holmes insists that Skylitzes' wrote the longer, first part of his work (811-1057) in the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118); and second, that the work is organized thematically, rather than chronologically. Thus gentle chastisement if offered to those of us who have attempted to use it to date events in Balkan history. In assessing Skylitzes' working methods, Holmes cites approvingly the writings of Jonathan Shepard ('A suspected source of Scylitzes' Synopsis Historiarum: the great Catacalon Cecaumenus', Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 16 (1992): 171-81) on the hodge-podge style of Skylitzes' borrowings, and J. N. Ljubarksij, employing his observation that historical narratives are structured around a series of mega-episodes. For the reign of Basil II, four of these are identified as the first Skleros revolt, Basil's early dealings with Bulgaria, the revolt of Phokas and return of Skleros, and the campaigns in Bulgaria. Within these smaller narratives of single episodes exist, and between these smaller units one finds filler in the form of telescoped summary passages, often the most misleading elements of the text. Chapter three presents a partial textual analysis of the Synopsis Historion, comparing Skylitzes' text with that of Theophanes Continuatus, focussing on the tenth-century reign of Romanos Lekapenos. We are shown that Skylitzes is not an entirely reliable copyist, although his divergences from his main source, Theophanes Continuatus, may not always be attributed to sloppiness. Holmes enumerates deliberate manipulations and distortions, and takes Skylitzes to task for abbreviation and obfuscation. The clearest revision is the excision of panegyrical language relating to the Lekapenoi, but numerous minor characters are also removed, and complex situations glossed over. In their place one finds pat phrases and brutal economy, particularly when describing military matters. Exceptions are in the rather full explication of the exploits and lineages of certain members of powerful families. Chapter four continues the explication of Skylitzes' working methods, moving from the 'how' to the 'why'. Having sketched the literary and social contexts for the production of the Synopsis Historion, which is dated squarely in the reign of Alexios I, Holmes explains that last quarter of the eleventh century was a period of intense competition between powerful families, whose interests did not always coincide with that of the imperial government. When one of those families took charge, others questioned and challenged Komnenian policy, notably Alexios' protracted concern for the empire's Balkan lands. Skylitzes, as a high functionary in the Komnenian administration, wrote to remind the families of the exploits of their forebears, particularly in the Balkan arena, and to show them the rewards of loyalty to the regime. Instead of learning about Basil II's res gestae during his Balkan campaigns, one reads instead of the exploits of Xiphias and Theodorokan, Ouranos and Taronites, whose names leap out of the generic vocabulary and off the page.

A provisional translation of the entire Synopsis Historion, produced by John Wortley (University of Manitoba, March 2000), has now been superseded by his full translaton: J. Wortley, tr., John Skylitzes, A Synopsis of Byzantine History 811-1057, with J.-C. Cheynet and B. Flusin (Cambridge, 2010). A French translation by B. Flusin with full commentary by J.-C. Cheynet is also available: Jean Skylitzes. Empereurs de Constantinople (Paris: Réalités byzantines, 2004). I have modified my translations in light of Wortley's English renderings, in particular the preface which follows Wortley closely.

Excerpts:

(1) Preface: identifying the author of the Synopsis Historion and earlier historians.

(2) The year AM 6508, which was the 13th indiction.

(3) The infamous Battle of Kleidion, 29 July 1014.


Paul Stephenson, 1998, 2002, 2003

Revised January 2012