A rant on the world chronicle; and some musings on church and state

In the event that anyone has noticed, or even reads what is written here, most of the posts I make are typically in response to some perceived idiocy and this one is no different. However, I am neither naming idiots nor even specifically saying what the idiocy is, lest that detract from the discussion here.

During the later Roman Empire, a new genre of literature was born: the world chronicle. The world chronicle has not entirely received the attention that it deserves, probably on account of the generally unreliable nature of much of the non-contemporary history in any given chronicle (or in the case of Malalas, most of the contemporary information is unreliable, too). Additionally, most English translations do not bother with the entirety of the chronicle. Two of the most important, the Chronicon Paschale from the early-mid seventh century and the Chronographia of Theophanes from the early ninth century are good examples of this, as the Whitbys’ translation of the former only begins in 284 A.D., and Turtledove’s translation of the latter starts in 602 A.D. Even the $350 translation of Theophanes by Cyril Mango starts in 284 AD. This is, technically, the entire Chronographia, except that the Theophanes sections start where George Synkellos left off. The fact that it had more than one author does not necessarily discount the idea that it was intended to be a single chronicle. The reason for translators not bothering with translating the entire work is rather simple: most of the history contained the earlier parts is derived from known sources and is often poorly synthesized, understood, and arranged, and what use is Old Testament history if you’re looking to study late Roman or Byzantine political history? Occasionally a later chronicler uses a now-lost source for an earlier period, like parts of Zonaras for the third and fourth centuries, but that is the exception rather than the norm.

Without further ado, I suppose that it is time to explain just what the world chronicle was. Typically, these chronicles begin with some carefully calculated date from the creation of the world, typically derived from the Biblical sources that the chronographers used. At this point, one could easily ask the question as to why the chronographers are writing several thousand years of skeletal history based upon a widely-available source, the Bible? The reason that they wrote this way is actually quite simple: because it was an essential part of their worldview. This was the Roman East, after all, a place where the Empire did not end in the fifth century when barbarians finally supplanted Roman authority in Italy. This was also an extremely Christian empire, and the two concepts were tied directly into each other. The issue of the relationship between ekklesia and basileia was never a settled in the Roman east and led to lively debate through the centuries between emperors, patriarchs, and monks. ‘Caesaropapism’ is term that is both inaccurate and unfair because it fails to account for the dynamic intellectual tradition and the actual history. The emperor did not have total control of the church, even though that was what was attempted at certain points.

In the west, thanks largely to the shock that beset a particular Augustine of Hippo when Alaric and his Gothic peoples sacked Rome in 410, we do not typically share that concept. For most of western history since the fall of Rome, there has been a separation of church and state. I cannot count the times that I heave heard the criticism that the Middle Ages in the west were a particular horrible time due to the domination of the church, and yet the opposite is actually true. It is true that the church dominated intellectual life in the west, but it was a vibrant and lively intellectual life that ebbed and flowed with the times. However, one of the major founding figures of the west’s intellectual tradition in the Middle Ages was that very same Augustine of Hippo, author of de Civitate Dei (‘Concerning the City of God’), where he argued for the separation of church and state. It is still not agreed upon exactly what he designed the respective “City of Man” and the “City of God” to be, but the relevant point is that this was an immediate reaction to the shock caused by the sack of Rome.

Augustine needed to find a way to explain this, as did other equally shocked figures like St. Jerome who was living in Bethlehem at that time. (Whether he was currently engaged in making a shoddy translation of the Bible into Latin while not wearing a shirt, as Titian depicted him, or conning wealthy Roman matrons out of their money is unknown. I’m personally of the opinion that the whole “Bible translator without a shirt” image was probably influential in attracting the money from the ladies.) Augustine’s route was novel in that he chose to directly challenge the ideas of Eusebios of Caesearea, the biographer of Constantine. In his triumphalist works, Eusebios had conceived an idea that would remain influential in the east well in the religious sphere well past the actual existence of the Empire, which fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 (or 1461, if you’d rather consider the Grand Komnenoi of Trebizond the last Byzantine state). Eusebios took Roman history and Biblical history, and had them mesh together and reach an apex his account of the reign of his patron Constantine I. His works were another case of imperial panegyric, but few have proved to be so long-lasting and important. His argument went like this: God’s Chosen People were the Jews. After Jesus, God’s Chosen People were the Christians. The Roman Empire was destined by God to be an important vessel in salvific history as evidenced by the fact that Jesus and Augustus lived at the same time. (I’m not quite following his logic on this point.) Under Constantine, when the Empire became Christian (it did not; Constantine only extended toleration to Christians. It would be another half century before Theodosius I would make the exclusive religion of the Empire Christianity) the Romans became God’s Chosen People.

This is the background to the Byzantine world chronicle, and the explanation as to why it was central to the world view of these people. It demonstrated how God’s plan was revealed first in the Jews, then Jesus and the Christians, and finally, in Constantine and the Roman Empire. The idea that this Empire was without end and God-guarded was prevalent, and this is exactly what Augustine was reacting against when he wrote de Civitate Dei. The importance of the world chronicle should not be understated, because it defined the very basis of how most Byzantines viewed the world even past the end of the Empire. The chronicles continued to be written throughout imperial times. One could regard them as an aberration if the genre did not last long, or changed significantly in scope, but it did not. One would also wonder about the primacy that I have given them here if other literary genres did not support this idea, but they did. The concept of God and the Romans working together remained a constant theme, even if there were serious questions raised in times of troubles (particularly the late seventh and first half of the eighth centuries) as to whether God really was helping the Romans. The idea influenced iconoclasm, brought on its second phase, and appears in various texts and on instruments of propaganda like coins throughout the entire chronological breadth of the empire.

The scholarly explanation is over. Back to the ranting part. If this was so important, and the Byzantines were Greeks (in the sense that they had a continuous, independent, Greek identity from pre-Roman times to the foundation of the sad state known today as the Hellenic Republic) then why was there this focus on Roman history in the chronicles? Thousands of years of history elapse in these writings, and yet the deeds of Themistokles and Perikles, a crucial element in later Greek thought surrounding their heritage, are totally absent. The argument has been raised that they decided to leave out this part due to its pagan elements, but that argument hardly squares against the occasional appearance of Olympian gods in the chronicles and the centuries devoted to pagan Roman history. As has been shown above, the entire genre is based upon the invention of history, so it would not have been difficult to find a way to reconcile Greek history into God’s plan for humankind. One could easily invent some Hellenic origins to Rome like how Virgil invented Trojan origins in the first century. Some ostracized official veteran of the Persian wars could have made their way to Rome and connected the two histories. Or Alexander the Great could play a role in it, because in Byzantine thought he had contained Gog and Magog far to the east who would only be unleashed at the end of the world. However, there is no evidence that anyone made an attempt to connect the Hellenic history of the late antique Greek speaking populace of the eastern Mediterranean into the salvific history of the Jews and the Christians, and eventually, the Romans. There are even opportunities aplenty to try and tie Greek and Jewish history together. Ioannes Zonaras’ chronicle frequently mentions Cyrus and Xerxes in the chronologically relevant sections, and yet there is no mention of Cyrus as he appeared in Herodotos, only the Old Testament. Xerxes is the same; he only matters in relation to the Jews, not the ancient Greeks, despite being the elaborately-pierced Big Bad Guy in the appalling movie 300. If this history mattered so much to them, as some people assert, why did they choose to leave it out of the literary works that best define the late Roman and Byzantine worldview? The answer is quite simple and one that will continued to be ignored by nationalist historians who have never read a primary source document in their lives: because that history did not matter to them. They did not view themselves as having had a part in that history. It was not “their” history: their history was one of God, Jews, Christians, and Romans, all coming together in an eschatological empire, in which they continued to view themselves as citizens of.

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9 Responses to A rant on the world chronicle; and some musings on church and state

  1. nick says:

    I’ve read that Augustine also wrote to defend Christianity against the attacks of Pagans, who claimed that the “soft” Christian virtues of grace, forgiveness, peace, humility, etc. plus the anger of the neglected Roman gods were directly responsible for Rome’s fall. If that’s true, wasn’t he in some ways defending the Christendom of Rome?

    Great post. Reminds me of N. T. Wright’s insistence that metanarrative is the bedrock of all thought and culture. There is nothing more important or defining to us than the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world.

    • Lucas says:

      Augustine was defending Christianity against the pagans. In fact, the full title of his major work is ‘De Civitate Dei contra Paganos’. I have only ever read snippets of the work, so I’m hardly an expert and I’m only really fluent in what he was talking about in regards to rejecting the idea proposed by Eusebeian Christianity. Late antique Christianity never rejected the existence of the pagan gods. They were always there, and in fact they retained their original name in Greek: daimones, which took on a new connotation that had not existed before. The gods lived in statues and old pagan holy sites in the east (in both halves of the former Roman Empire, many sites were purged of their pagan significance, but I’m under the impression that this was more complete in the west. I’d blame Martin of Tours) and educated feared their power. The ‘Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai’ (8th c.?) records many pagan monuments in Constantinople with an almost irreverent fear, and Theophylaktos Simokattes (mid-7th c.) talks about statues filled with the power of the old gods in Alexandria. Both of these are from a long time after Augustine’s death, and yet people still recognized the power of the old gods. Christianity may have introduced a system of belief radically different from that of classical Graeco-Roman paganism, but its explanations regarding the daily evils of the world for the average peasant seems to have been ignored. Malignant spirits had existed in Graeco-Roman paganism (and despite the fact that it was against the law to deal with such powers, there is abundant evidence for what we would call black magic), just now the gods became the malignant spirits. Peter Brown has made some particularly interesting arguments regarding how eastern holy men accepted the surrender of the old gods in holy places and established themselves as the new arbiters of the holy. This wasn’t always like Theophilos, patriarch of Alexandria, destroying the Serapeaum, but more like Symeon Stylites standing upon his column as a powerful figure in the daily lives of peasants overshadowing the old gods. We might call it magic today, but the line between ancient magic and religion is virtually indistinguishable (and I think for many people it is indistinguishable today) but these people really believed that it worked. As to the extent with which Augustine was defending the Christendom of Rome, I really cannot say given my own limited reading of his works. He certainly likes to point out all of the times where Rome was defeated under the pagan gods. I think it is also safe to say that Augustine probably viewed Christians as somewhat more celestial (to use the Mormon phrase) in regard to the state – after all, this was a man whose Christian education came from Ambrose, the famous bishop of Milan who browbeat Theodosius I and was dangerous enough to threaten the pagan general Arbogast. In his view, priests really were greater than emperors. Wow, this really turned into a disorganized ramble that didn’t even come close to providing an answer.

      The Byzantine metanarrative is something that I’ve thought about for a long time, but have only begun to seriously approach. Given that our specifically historical source material (what I’m most familiar with) comprises only about 5-10% of surviving Byzantine writings, it has been necessary to delve deeper into the religious source material. It’ll be a long time before I get through enough of that to come to any major conclusions.

  2. Curt Emanuel says:


    Just discovered your blog and I think I’m going to enjoy reading it. Nice job.


    • Lucas says:

      Hi Curt,

      I have to say that I am extremely impressed by your blog! I’ve listed it in my links tab. We seem to share very similar interests in the early middle ages and the transition from the late Roman to medieval worlds.

      You mentioned Chris Wickham’s ‘Framing the Early Middle Ages’ in one of your recent posts. I’m going through his ‘Inheritance of Rome’ in my spare time (my research project consumes most of my serious study time) and loving it, and I’ve also read a few of his articles in the past. Is it worth the money?


  3. Curt Emanuel says:

    That’s an unreserved “yes.” I assume you’re talking pb – hardcover’s a little tougher to stomach. The volume of information in it is amazing. That and McCormick’s “Origins of the European Economy” are filled with extremely detailed examinations of evidence, though they look in different places for it.

    Thank you for the compliment.

    • Lucas says:

      Yes, I’m talking about the paperback. I do the love hardcovers, but some of the academic books just cost too much. It would also be hard to justify after the $300 CDN that I dropped on the new translation of Ioannes Skylitzes and John Haldon and Leslie Brubaker’s new book. I’ve heard really good things about McCormick’s book as well, and his name appears in the footnotes quite frequently. It’s on the list of “essential works to read before grad school” that I hope to get through in the next year or so.

    • Lucas says:

      You mentioned in one of your posts that you subscribe to the Journal of Late Antiquity. I was initially put off by the shipping costs. Is it worth subscribing to?

      • Curt Emanuel says:

        Before you do, check for online availability. I believe it’s now available, up to the current issue, through MUSE. I’m assuming you have access to that through your University Library. I think I keep subscribing just as a courtesy to Ralph Mathisen.

        I like it for $30 but I don’t have any shipping costs. I don’t know why it should be much for Canada but there are a lot of things I don’t know about. Compared to other periodicals it’s long on articles and short on reviews.

  4. Pingback: Review: Jenkins, “The Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years” | From the Garden into the City

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