The Byzantine Empire reached a peak in the 11th century in terms of wealth, sophistication, and learning. Literacy reached into its middle classes, including girls, and a number of histories written during that period have survived.
Three great historians wrote fascinating accounts of the years to about 1081. 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 had an eye for different details to enlighten their readers. Often, but not always, they had similar opinions of their rulers and the events of their time.
John Skylitzes: A Synopsis of Byzantine History 811-1057. John Wortley – translator. The magnificent illustrations from the “Madrid Skylitzes” (a copy held in Madrid) frequently illustrate articles about the Byzantines. Skylitzes comes across as a historian’s historian, describing people and events in workmanlike detail. His attention to dates, even if occasionally wrong, and the translator’s careful footnotes bring events into sharp focus.
Someone with a good knowledge of the period, looking to add depth to it would best enjoy the Skylitzes history. My hardcover copy was pricey at over $100, but now the paperback sells for $59.99. Despite its price, Skylitzes’ thoroughness has made it an invaluable resource.
Fourteen Byzantine Rulers by Michael Psellos. E.R.A. Sewter – translator (he also translated Anna Comnena’s Alexiad). This Penguin Classics book is the most accessible of the three histories. Its reasonable price at $12.61 on Amazon and its gossipy style make it a perennial favorite. Psellos was a bureaucratic functionary who knew and served most of those he wrote about. He covers the reigns of rulers (emperors and empresses) from Basil II to Michael VII. The events he describes titillate even now. They include Romanus III’s murder, MIchael V’s blinding, and Empress Zoe’s curious arrangement with her third husband and his mistress. (See Empress Zoe’s photo above.)
Readers knowing little about Byzantine history can easily appreciate his scandals and salacious stories. To me Psellos resembles the political hangers-on pontificating on the news shows in the U.S., looking for fame.
Lastly, there is Michael Attaleiates’ The History, Anthony Kaldellis and Dimitris Krallis – translators. This beautiful Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library volume provides the Greek version on the left side page, with the English opposite. A friend of Psellos, Attaleiates trained as a lawyer and it shows in his careful writing. His book starts in Michael IV’s reign in 1034, to the Botaneiates’ abdication in 1081, when Alexios Comnenus took the throne. The elegant writing lacks the breathless storytelling aspect of Michael Psellus.
Like Skylitzes, this book appeals to someone with a more than basic knowledge of this era. At $31.82 on Amazon, its cost is more reasonable than Skylitzes’s.
None of these works cover the rise of Alexios Comnenus and his long reign that began in 1081. His daughter, the princess and writer Anna Comnena, wrote that story best after his death. I will write about her 12th century 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.