The Top Three 11th Century Byzantine Historians

Byzantine Empress Zoe

Byzantine Empress Zoe

Eleventh century Byzantium was at or near its peak in terms of wealth, sophistication, and learning. Literacy reached down into its middle classes, including girls, and a number of histories written during that period have survived.

The top three – in fact, the only three that I know of – wrote fascinating accounts of these years. I’ve read most or all of these books while researching my novel about the rise of the Comnene dynasty. The authors’ personalities still shine through despite a millennium’s distance – each with a different eye for detail but often consistent in their judgments of their rulers and the events of their time.

These historians are:

John Skylitzes: A Synopsis of Byzantine History 811-1057. Translated by John Wortley. You may be familiar with the magnificent illustrations from the “Madrid Skylitzes” which are often used to illustrate articles about the Byzantines. Skylitzes comes across as a historian’s historian, describing events in workmanlike detail, sometimes including descriptions of the weather. I’ve read only the parts starting with Basil II to the end when Isaac Comnenus took the throne on Sept. 1, 1057, but his attention to dates (and the translator’s careful footnotes) help bring events into sharp focus.

Skylitzes can best be enjoyed by someone with a good knowledge of the period, who wants to add depth to their understanding of it. The book is pricey (I bought my hardcover copy for over $100, but it is now available in paperback for $59.99), but its thoroughness has made it invaluable for my research.

Michael Psellus: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers. Translated by E.R.A. Sewter (he also translated Anna Comnena’s Alexiad). This book, published by Penguin Classics, is the most accessible of the three histories because of both its price ($12.61 on Amazon) and its gossipy style. Psellus was a bureaucratic functionary who knew and served most of those he wrote about. He covers the reigns of rulers (emperors and empresses) starting with Basil II to Michael VII, who he tutored. The events he describes titillate even now – the death/murder of Romanus III, the blinding of Michael V (in which he had a minor role), and the curious menage a trois that Empress Zoe (seen in my photo above, taken at the Hagia Sophia) shared with her third husband and his mistress.

Even if you know little about Byzantine history, the scandals and stories can be easily appreciated. I consider Psellus to be like one of the political hangers-on pontificating on the Sunday morning news shows in the U.S., trying to curry favor with the boss.

Lastly, there is The History by Michael Attaleiates, translated by Anthony Kaldellis and Dimitris Krallis. This beautiful volume published by Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library provides the Greek version on the left side page, with the English translation on the right. A friend of Psellus, Attaleiates was trained as a lawyer and it shows in his careful writing. His book covers the years starting in 1034 and the reign of Michael IV, to the reign of Botaneiates who abdicated in 1081 when Alexios Comnenus seized the throne. The writing is elegant and lacks the breathless storytelling aspect of Michael Psellus.

This book, like Skylitzes, would appeal to someone with a more than basic knowledge of this era. At $31.82 on Amazon, its cost is more reasonable than Skylitzes’s, although the book does not cover as long a period of time.

None of these works cover the rise of Alexios Comnenus and his long reign beginning in 1081. That was best done by his daughter, the princess and writer, Anna Comnena. I will write of her wonderful, if flawed, history another time. But if you’re interested, the last of the short stories in my book, Tales of Byzantium, is about her. It can be found at Amazon.

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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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