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

Proemion

 A synopsis of histories beginning with the death of the Emperor Nikephoros, formerly the Minister of Finance, and extending to the reign of Isaak Komnenos, composed by John Skylitzes, the kouropalates who served as Droungarios of the Watch.

Following ancient writers, the best compendium of history was written, first by George the Monk, Synkellos to the most holy Patriarch Tarasios, then by Theophanes the Confessor, higoumenos of the Monastery of Agros. These men carefully read through the history books, making a summary of them in simple, unaffected language, touching exclusively on the substance of the events which had taken place. George began with the creation of the world and continued to the tyrants, Maximian and Maximinos, his son. Theophanes took the other's conclusion as his starting-point and brought his work to an end with the death of the Emperor Nikephoros, formerly the Minister of Finance. After [Theophanes] nobody continued their work. There were those who attempted to do so, such as the Sicilian schoolmaster and, at the present time, the supremely honourable Consul of the Philosophers, [Michael] Psellos. There were others too but, because they took their task too lightly, they all failed to write with the requisite degree of accuracy. Many important events they omitted altogether and their works are of little value to posterity. They are little more than calculations of the duration of each reign and reports on who held the sceptre after whom -- no more. Even when they appear to mention certain events, these writers do their readers a disservice and no good because they fail to write about them accurately. Theodore Daphnopates, Niketas the Paphlagonian, Joseph Genesios and Manuel, both of Byzantion, Nikephoros the Deacon of Phrygia, Leo Asianos, Theodore Bishop of Side and his nephew of the same name who presided over the Church of Sebasteia, Demetrios, Bishop of Kyzikos and the monk John the Lydian -- these all set themselves their own goals: maybe to glorify an emperor, to censure a patriarch, or to sing the praises of a friend. Each attains his own ends under the guise of writing history and falls far short of the mentality of those godly men of whom we spoke. For in composing their prolix accounts of their own times and a little before as though they were writing history, one writes a favorable account, another a critical one, while a third writes whatever he pleases and a fourth sets down what he is ordered to write. Each composes his own history and they differ so much from each other in describing the same events that they plunge their audience into dizziness and confusion. For my own part, I took great pleasure in reading the work of the men [first] mentioned above and I hope that [a continuation of their] synopsis will be of no small benefit to those who love history, especially to those who prefer that which is easily accessible to what has to be striven for; a synopsis, that is, which will provide them with a brief over-view of what has taken place at various times and thus free them of the need to consult massive tomes of memoirs. I read the histories of the above-mentioned writers with great care. I conjured away from them all comments of a subjective or fanciful nature. I left aside the the writers' differences and contradictions. I excised whatever I found there which tended toward fantasy; but I garnered whatever seemed likely and not beyond the bounds of credibility and, to this, I added whatever I learnt from the mouths of sage old men. All of this I put together in summary form and this I now bequeath to future generations as an easily-digestible nourishment, "finely ground up" as the proverb has it. Those who have already read the books of the afore mentioned historians will have in this little book a reminder of their reading which they will be able to take along with them and consult as a hand-book. Reading provokes recollection; recollection nourishes and expands memory, just as, quite the contrary, negligence and laziness provoke forgetfulness which darkens and confuses the memory of what has happened in the past. Those who have not yet encountered the histories will find a guide in this compendium and, when they go in search of the more fulsome writings, they will gain a more comprehensive impression of the course of events. And now it is time to begin.

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See now: J. Wortley, tr., John Skylitzes, A Synopsis of Byzantine History 811-1057, with J.-C. Cheynet and B. Flusin (Cambridge, 2010), 1-3; C. Holmes, Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025) (Oxford, 2005), Appendix B. The original translation mounted here has been modified to follow the first of these two versions closely, since this will now be the standard English translation employed by teachers of Byzantine history.


Copyright: Paul Stephenson, May 2002

Revised January 2012