- Writing About Byzantium: The History of Niketas Choniates by T. Urbainczyk
The history of Nicetas Choniates records events in Byzantium from the death of Alexius I Comnenus in 1118 to the aftermath of the capture of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Born around 1156, Nicetas held a series of increasingly important offices until he became the highest-ranking minister in the Byzantine bureaucracy. After 1204 he eventually took refuge with the Byzantine government in exile at Nicaea, where he revised and continued the history he had already produced in an earlier version. Though usually and rightly considered one of the half-dozen greatest Byzantine histories, it received relatively little scholarly attention until the Dutch scholar Jan-Louis van Dieten published several major studies on it, including the first modern edition in 1975.6 The American scholar Harry Magoulias published an English translation in 1984, and a comprehensive monograph by Alicia Simpson appeared in 2013.7 Now, just five years later, we have a second monograph by Theresa Urbainczyk, author of two useful monographs on the early Byzantine histories of Socrates of Constantinople and Theodoret of Cyrrhus.8
Acknowledging that Simpson’s book is ‘excellent’ and ‘pioneering,’ Urbainczyk explains, ‘This work in no way supersedes hers, but instead builds on the huge learning displayed in her book, to suggest a way of understanding Niketas that helps the reader approach this complex text. As will become apparent, there are many difficulties with this history’ (p. 4). That statement of purpose, like the book’s title, is rather vague, and the rest of this short book fails to make a convincing case that Nicetas’ history presents [End Page 219] serious problems, or that Urbainczyk has much of consequence to add to what Simpson has already written.
Among the ‘difficulties’ that Urbainczyk finds in Nicetas’ history are that he claims to be writing as clearly as possible though his style is quite obscure, that he imitates the prose of classical historians but often cites the poems of Homer and the Bible, and that he says both favourable and unfavourable things about many of the people he describes. Yet all these supposed anomalies can be found in other middle Byzantine historians, if not necessarily in earlier ecclesiastical historians like Socrates. Many Byzantine authors declare that their stylistic ideal is clarity, and to my knowledge none admits to writing in an obscure style to impress his readers with his erudition, even when that is evidently what he did. Most Byzantine authors also thought that citations of Homer and the Bible could appropriately be inserted into Atticising prose, even though they were written in dialects different from Attic Greek. If these features seem paradoxical to us, the paradoxes apply to middle Byzantine literature in general, not to Nicetas in particular.
Not just Nicetas but also Michael Psellus and Anna Comnena mix praise with blame in describing historical personalities, and most of us consider such complexity an improvement on earlier Byzantine historians, who too often describe emperors and officials as almost entirely virtuous or vicious. Nicetas was influenced by Psellus and Anna, but perhaps more important was the fact that all three historians were personally acquainted with many of the people they described, recognised these people’s merits and faults, and were fair-minded enough to describe both the good and the bad in them. That some modern scholars have trouble understanding this seems to be a sign of their postmodern preconception that history is necessarily subjective, a proposition that all Byzantine historians would have rejected, since they professed to aim at objective truth.
The book’s longest chapter is on Nicetas’ views of women (Chapter 3, ‘The World of Byzantine Women, pp. 31–58), which Urbainczyk finds, seemingly to her surprise, do ‘not indicate any type of proto-feminism’ (p. 115). She, however, appears to attach too much importance to Nicetas’ dislike of Alexius III’s wife Euphrosyne, whom he depicts, probably accurately, as quite irresponsible, if not much worse than her husband. Here as often, today...