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  • The Life of Saint Basil the Younger. Critical Edition and Annotated Translation of the Moscow Version transed. by Denis F. Sullivan, Alice-Mary Talbot, and Stamatina McGrath
  • Paul Magdalino
The Life of Saint Basil the Younger. Critical Edition and Annotated Translation of the Moscow Version. Edited and translated by Denis F. Sullivan, Alice-Mary Talbot, and Stamatina McGrath [Dumbarton Oaks Studies XLV.] (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2014. Pp. xi, 827. $70.00. ISBN 978-0-88402-397-5.)

This volume is the latest in a distinguished series of translations of important Byzantine saints’ lives directed by Alice-Mary Talbot during her long association with Dumbarton Oaks. Readers of the series, and indeed all who study Byzantium, will be grateful that, in this case, Talbot and her collaborators have chosen to accompany the translation with a critical edition of the most complete manuscript version of the text. Previously, in order to read the whole text, one had to assemble three partial editions from difficult-to-access Russian publications from the pre-revolutionary period. Yet the text was frequently cited, and its manuscript tradition had been intensively studied, because of the extraordinary interest of its subject. The Life of Saint Basil the Younger is a veritable encyclopedia of Byzantine devotional belief. The main narrative is a model portrait of a Byzantine holy man, who practices solitary asceticism, stands up to tyrannical authority, works miracles, preaches morality, and acts as spiritual adviser to the rich and powerful while remaining totally self-effacing. He is also spiritual father to the narrator, Gregory, and as such arranges for the latter to be granted two extended visions of the afterlife, one instructing him in the fate of the individual soul after death, and the other giving a detailed preview of the Last Judgment and the rewards and punishments that are in store for all sections of humanity at the end of the world. The whole story is made real for the Byzantine reader and very interesting for the modern historian of Byzantium, as it is set in a specific, familiar time and place—Constantinople in the early-tenth century—with copious references to urban topography, major [End Page 903] political figures, and political events. An added bonus for the historian is the fact that so much of the action takes place in the social world of the Byzantine aristocratic household (oikos), both inside and outside Constantinople: the Life pays more attention to domestic slaves and to life on a rural domain (proasteion) than any other work of Byzantine hagiography or indeed of Byzantine literature in general.

Does all this historical specificity reflect the historical reality of the saint and the historical identity of the author-narrator, Gregory? Or is it an artifice of literary illusionism that masks the real distance between the author and his subject? Does the appearance of a contemporary, eyewitness account, in fact, conceal the fictional invention of both saint and narrator by an author writing long after the age in which they are supposed to have lived? There are no easy answers to these questions, and the editors, in their thoughtful introduction, do not pretend otherwise, although they tend to give the text the benefit of the doubt. One argument for authenticity, or at least contemporaneity, which they do not make is the author’s partisanship with regard to political issues and figures of the early-tenth century, something that makes little obvious sense in a much later context. On the other hand, they note the discrepancies between the Life’s version of historical events and that contained in the chronicle accounts. They also note the highly constructed nature of the plot, including the didacticism of the narrator’s otherworldly visions, in which the Life strongly resembles a number of other, clearly fictional narratives that have been dated to the late-tenth century. But the dating of these texts and the milieu that produced them are still up for debate. They cannot be used for situating the Life of Saint Basil the Younger, but at least the latter’s relationship to them and other texts can be more effectively studied now...


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