Byzantine and Eastern Christian Narrative Sources

Course Status: 
CEU code: 
MEDS 5064
CEU credits: 
ECTS credits: 
Academic year: 
Start and end dates: 
18 Jan 2014 - 2 Apr 2014
Co-hosting Unit(s) [if applicable]: 
Department of History
Stream/Track/Specialization/Core Area: 
Historical Studies: Theories, Methods, Skills, Historiography
Non-degree Specialization: 
EMS—Advanced Certificate in Eastern Mediterranean Studies
István Perczel
Dr. Sebastian Brock
Prof. Roger Scott
Learning Outcomes: 
By the end of this course the students will get a general knowledge of the main genres of historical narrative literature, namely high-bread courtly historiography (practiced not only in Constantinople but also in the Armenian and Georgian royal courts), chronography, ecclesiastic history and hagiography and their variations in different linguistic, cultural and political areas. They will become acquainted with some of the main methodological problems related to the handling of those sources. Their capability to assess sources critically will be enhanced. For future researchers in one of the relevant fields the course offers the acquisition of new research skills. For others who would attend the course for more general interest, it will provide a broadening of their erudition and exposure to an interdisciplinary approach.
Assessment : 
Assessment Regular attendance (at least ten sessions out of twelve) is mandatory. Active participation in class discussions counts for 20% of the grade. Students are invited to give short papers at the seminars on some specific topic, with powerpoint presentation or handout. Due to the density of the material not all students will get a time slot. Papers should be discussed with the instructor one week before the due time of the presentation (80%). Those who have not made presentations will be invited to write a 5-page seminar paper on a freely chosen topic.

About the course

This class is more of a research method seminar on the question how to handle the narrative sources than an introduction to Byzantine (and Eastern Christian) history. It will not give a comprehensive introduction into the history of fifteen hundred or more years. Instead, it will examine the way our modern historiography works and will provide an aporetic approach to which sources we should use and how we could use them. More precisely, it will suggest and illustrate on case studies a number of methodological approaches – present but in no way dominant in recent scholarship. Some of the methodological principles that will be examined during the course are the following :

 1. History as a science has been defined by nineteenth-century historians, such as Leopold von Ranke and Theodor Mommsen. They have set the tone for defining what is history and what is not. Although this is a truism, one has to state that very little of Rankeian history-writing can be found among Byzantine and East-of-Byzantium historiographers.

 2. This fact notwithstanding we are inclined to consider as reliable history what resembles most the Rankeian ideals. In this way we have the tendency to give precedence among our sources to a small set of high-bred historiography, produced in Constantinopolitan court circles, in high-style Attic language, relating political history, war, diplomacy and court life. This literature is transmitted in a little number of manuscripts. Some of these writings, deemed important for our scholarship and readership, have been transmitted to us in one single manuscript only. This means that these chefs d’oeuvre of historiographic literature had exerted almost no influence before their modern reception.

 3. The bulk of historical narrative that exerted real influence in its own time and is transmitted in a great number of manuscripts is distributed between three literary genres: Chronography, Ecclesiastic History and Saint’s Lives (hagiography). Several authors have produced mixed genres combined of two or three of the latter. These genres, deemed “inferior”, contain much source material that cannot be found in the “higher” historical literature. So the study of this literature, combined to that of occasional (polemical or other) writings offers a different view on history than that of the Constantinopolitan elite literature.

 4. For a faithful view on the history of the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond we would need to include the bulk of historical narrative transmitted in languages and cultures other than Greek – mainly Western, Eastern Christian and Muslim – in Western languages, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, Persian, Turkish etc. Because of the limitations of the present course and of the instructor’s knowledge only an overview of the Eastern Christian sources, their dominant genres and the way they can be used will be treated.

 5. In order to do this we have to transcend disciplinary borders established for many centuries and this is anything but easy. Interdisciplinarity is of little help here: what we need is a genuine cross-disciplinary approach. The fact that a general bibliography cannot be given but we have to be contented with an accumulation of general studies within specific disciplines by itself shows both how difficult such a new approach is and how much it is worth trying it.

 Besides the main instructor’s classes the course will host guest lectures by leading international authorities, namely Dr. Sebastian Brock (Oxford) on Syriac narrative sources (week 12, end of March), Prof. Roger Scott (Melbourne) on Byzantine chronicles (dates to be specified later) and Dr. Irma Karaulashvili (Tbilisi) on Armenian and Georgian narrative sources (late February).

 The classes will be in lecture + seminar format 

Level and requirements

 This is partly a research seminar partly an “erudition” class, open to both Ph.D. and MA students.

Knowledge of any ancient language (Latin, Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian etc.) is an asset but is not required. The texts will be read in English translation. 

Course outline

1)      Introduction – the paradox of the narrative sources (lecture+discussion of the literature)

 I. Theoretical questions

 2-3)           Literary genres  and the Christian computing of time (lecture+discussion of the literature)

 4)      Languages and countries: the main characteristics of the diverse lieux of historiography: Constantinople, the Greek-speaking world, the Syriac, the Arabic, the Armenian and the Georgian traditions (lecture+discussion of the literature)

 II. Case studies (in seminar format)

 5)   Eusebius, the founder of three genres: Chronicle, Ecclesiastic History and – partly – hagiography

 6-7) A chaotic abundance of the sources: the sixth century

 8)   Heraclius and the early Islamic conquests: Greek, Syriac, Armenian and Arab Christian sources

 IV. Guest lectures by international experts

 9) Guest lecture: Irma Karaulashvili on the Armenian and Georgian narrative sources

 10) Guest lecture: Roger Scott on the Greek narrative sources

 11) Guest lecture: Sebastian Brock on the Syriac narrative sources

 III. Conclusion

 12) Summary and discussion

 Course goals

 This course intends to give a glance – be it in a cursory manner – to the wealth of the sources we have if we intend to get a complex view on the history of the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.  Also, it treats some of the methodological problems that we have to face if we are going to handle this source material. As usual Byzantine historiography is focusing on the high-bred court literature, in order to strike the balance in the centre of this course are placed the historical genres that are deemed inferior and those sources that are written in other languages than Greek. If one wants to use these sources properly, one has to face tremendous linguistic and methodological problems. Therefore, one of the main aims of the course is to make the students aware of these problems, without teaching them any universally applicable solution. For future researchers this should be an encouragement to work on these solutions in their own professional careers. It is expected that for others, less directly involved in textual research, an awareness of these problems will be a useful complement to their historical erudition.

 A more indirect goal of the course is to propose the concept of a larger oikumene, which stretches beyond political (the Roman or the Byzantine Empire, Persia, the Caliphates), cultural or civilisational (the so-called Western, Byzantine, or Islamic civilisations), or linguistic (Latin and/or Greek and/or Arabic) borders and to present the heuristic value, for historical research, of this concept.

 The contribution of the guest lectures will give a state-of-the-art introduction to major subfields treated during the course.



 General Bibliography of secondary sources (only literature in English)

 G. 1. János M. Bak & Ivan Jurković, Chronicon: Medieval Narrative Sources – A Chronological Guide with Introductory Essays (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013)

 Of special interest are the following essays in the volume:

 G.1.1. Stephanos Efthymiadis, “Byzantine history-writers and their representation of history”, p. 69-80

 G.1.2. István Perczel & Irma Karaulashvili, “History writing in the Christian East”, p. 81-96

 G.1.3. Niall Christie, “Europe seen from the Muslim world”, p. 97-110

 G.1.4. Gábor Klaniczay, “Hagiography and historical narrative”, p. 111-18

 also, for Byzantium:

 B.1. Brian Croke, “Uncovering Byzantium’s historiographical audience” in: R. Macrides (ed.), History as Literature in Byzantium (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010), p. 25-53

 B.2. Paul Magdalino, “A history of Byzantine literature for historians” in: P. Odorico & P. A. Agapitos, Pour une nouvelle histoire de la littérature byzantine. Problèmes, méthodes, approches,propositions. Actes du colloque international philologique, Nicosie - Chypre 25-28 Mai 2000 (Paris: Dossiers byzantins, 2002), p. 167-84

 B.3. Ingela Nielsson & Roger Scott, “Towards a new history of Byzantine literature: The case of historiography”, in: Byzantine Chronicles and the Sixth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate Variorum, 2012), V (p. 319-35)

 B.4. Dieter Roderich Rheinsch, “The history of editing Byzantine historiographic texts” in: P. Stephenson (ed.), The Byzantine World (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 435-44

 B.5. Roger Scott, “Chronicles versus Classicizing History: Justinian’s West and East”, in: R. Scott, Byzantine Chronicles and the Sixth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate Variorum, 2012), VI (p. 1-25)


 for the Syriac sources:

 S.1. Sebastian Brock, “Syriac historical writing: A survey of the main sources”, in S. Brock, Studies in Syriac Christianity: History, Literature and Theology (Aldershot: Ashgate Variorum, 1992), p. 1-30

 S.2. A. Harrak, “Chronicles, Syriac” in: S. Brock, A. M. Butts, G. A. Kiraz & L. van Rompay (eds.), Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (Piscataway NJ: Gorgias Press, 2011), p. 98-99

 S.3. W. Witakowski, “Chronicles of Edessa” in: Orientalia Suecana 33-35 (1984-1986), p. 487-98

 for the Armenian sources:

 A.1. Robert Thomson, Studies in Armenian Literature and Christianity (Aldershot: Ashgate Variorum, 1994)

 A.2. Robert Thomson, Rewriting Caucasian History: The Medieval Armenian Adaptations of the Georgian Chronicles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)

 for the Georgian sources:

 Ge.1. Stephen H. Rapp, Studies in Medieval Georgian Historiography: Early Texts and Eurasian Contexts (CSCO, 601; Subsidia 113) (Leuven: Peeters, 2003)

 Ge.2. Cyril Toumanoff, “Medieval Georgian historical literature”, in: Traditio 1 (1943): 139-82

 Weekly breakdown

 1)      Introduction – the paradox of the narrative sources and an overview (lecture+discussion of the literature)

 The lecture will give a summary of the course. It will start with an observation made first by the Australian Byzantinist Brian Croke and further developed by Roger Scott, according to which the fact that most Byzantine scholars are coming from a background of Classicist training often influences their preference of the sources. So the introduction will show how a preference for the classicising sources and an added bias inherited from post-Renaissance European humanism results in one view on history, while a thorough study of the chronicles, ecclesiastic histories, hagiographies, even apocalypses and apocrypha, of Syriac and Armenian sources, produces a radically different picture. Also, the introduction will briefly treat recent developments in this direction, which are, in a way, about to revolutionise modern history writing.  

 Bibliography:  G.1.1-3, B.1-5.

 2-3)           Literary genres  and the Christian computing of time (lecture+discussion of the literature)

 These two classes will discuss the four main literary genres of the narrative sources: classicising histories, chronicles, Church histories, hagiographic texts as well as their fates in diverse milieux. It will show how the three new genres (over against the old genre of Thucydidian political history) were created due to a new conception of time, counting the world’s history from the moment of creation and accounting for its irreversible march toward the end and aim of human history, the second coming of Christ. In this sense the computing of the Annum Mundi (the world era) and of the Annum Incarnationis (the Christian era), beginning at on 25 March 5500 AM, is of extreme importance. Thus the new computing and the new genres were meant to introduce a new philosophy of  time and history. During these classes the import of additional genres, namely apocalypses, apocrypha and deliberate falsifications and their analysis for history writing will also be treated.

 The class will also try to set the question of the Byzantine and Eastern Christian narrative sources into the larger context of the oikumene. Thus  it will also use parallel phenomena from India and will introduce the concept of “sub-generic markers” for historical narratives in diverse literary genres, proposed by Velcheru Narayana Rao, Sanjay Subrahmanyam and David Shulman.

 Bibliography:  G.1.2, B.2., 4., 5., S.2., A.1.

 V. Grumel, Traité d’études byzantines. Vol. I, La chronologie (Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1958), p. 92-97 and192-203 (this reading will be given to a student knowing French, who should report on it)

 Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Textures of Time: Writing History in South India 1600–1800 (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001), p. 1-23.

 4) Languages and countries: the main characteristics of the diverse lieux of historiography: Constantinople, the Greek-speaking world, the Syriac, the Arabic, the Armenian and the Georgian traditions (lecture+discussion of the literature)

 This class will give a general overview of the languages and cultures which have transmitted a coherent body of narrative sources. The question of which among the aforementioned narrative genres were preferred in diverse environments will also be treated.

 Bibliography:  G.1.2, S.1-3., Ge.2., A.2, p. xix-li.

 Uriel Simonsohn, "Saīd ibn Baṭrīq, Eutychius of Alexandria." Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History. General Editor David Thomas. Brill Online, 2013. Reference. Central European University Library. 13 December 2013 <>

 A note by I. Perczel and I. Karaulashvili will also be used.

 5)   Eusebius, the founder of three genres: Chronicle, Ecclesiastic History and – partly – hagiography

 Here the importance of Eusebius as founder of historical genres will be discussed. While his Ecclesiastic History and Life of Constantine are extant in Greek, the original Greek text of his Chronicle is lost and the entire text is transmitted only in Jerome’s Latin translation and in an Armenian version. There are also Syriac fragments.

 Primary sources : Fragments from the Chronicle, the Ecclesiastic History and from the Life of Constantine will be read and discussed.

 Secondary sources :

 Alden A. Mosshammer, The Chronicle of Eusebius and Greek Chronographic Tradition (Lewisburg, PA-London : Bucknell University Press-Associated University Presses, 1979) (page numbers will be given later)

 Brian Croke, “The originality of Eusebius’ Chronicle”, The American Journal of Philology 103 (1982): 195-200

6-7)           A chaotic abundance of the sources: the sixth century

Sixth-century history is one of the best documented. However, often, our sources contradict each other to a desperate level. One of the reasons for this odd situation is that this was a period of intense oppression, when almost nobody could write overtly and the authors have adopted diverse and often confusing writing techniques. It will be proposed that generic and sub-generic characteristics as well as an inquiry into the author’s – often hidden – purpose as well as, once again, considering the quite abundant Latin, Syriac and Armenian material helps striking the correct balance. The first example will be the Samaritan war in Palestine in 529-531, showing the contradictory nature of the sources and the way the information of the “standard” sources can be corrected and complemented from the “non-standard” sources, the second example will be events in the Arab Peninsula, about which we have succinct notes in Procopius but much more in the “non-standard” literature, namely the World Chronicle of Malalas, the Zuqnin Chronicle written in Syriac in the time of the Abassid Caliph Al-Mansur (AD 754-775) and containing excerpts from the Ecclesiastic History of John of Ephesus written by the end of the 580s as well as in the Chronicle of Michael the Great written after 1195.

Primary sources:

1. about the Samaritan war in 529-531 and Saint Sabas’ mission to the Constantinopolitan court: Procopius, The secret history , ch. 27; Malalas Book 18, 35; Cyril of Scythopolis, Life of Saint Sabas, ch. 70-72, Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Excerpta de insidiis, ch 44, p. 171; Codex Iustinianus, I. 5. 17

2. On the Jewish kingdom of the Himyarites in the Arab Peninsula, the Ethiopian-Himyarite war, Procopius Wars I, xx, 1ff; Malalas  Book 18, 15 (year 528/29); The Zuqnin Chronicle (year 534/35 [erroneously], Harrak p. 75-86);  Patriarch Michael the Great, Chronicle, Chabot’s edition, IV, p. 273-77, French translation II, p. 183-89.

With the exception of Michael the Great, English translations of the sources are available, for Michael the Great one should know either Syriac or French but an English translation will be prepared for the class.

Secondary sources: B.5.

Roger Scott, “Justinian’s New Age and the Second Coming”, in: R. Scott, Byzantine Chronicles and the Sixth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate Variorum, 2012), XIX (p. 1-22)

Lucas van Rompay, “Society and Community in the Christian East”, in M. Maas (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 239-66.

Amir Harrak, “Introduction” to A. Harrak (trans.), The Chronicle of Zuqnin. Parts III and IV: AD 488-775 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1999), p. 1-33.

8)   Heraclius and the early years of Islam: Greek, Syriac, Armenian and Arab Christian sources

Recently much research has been conducted into the early years of Islam. As it is well known, all the Muslim sources about Muhammad, the organisation of the first Muslim community and the fast conquests by the first generations of the Muslim Arabs, are dating from later times. However, we have many contemporary eyewitness narratives about these events from Christian, Muslim and even Iranian Zoroastrian sources. Robert Hoyland, who published a book on these sources, has argued that a complementary treatment of the Muslim and non-Muslim sources gives us a much more faithful picture on these years. One might also add that, as the upheavals of these events had made a deep impression on the contemporaries, they have triggered an unprecedented amount of new literary productions, using old genres but filling them with new content, or producing new sub-genres. Thus, here not only the traditional Christian narrative genres (chronicles, Church histories, hagiography) are to be taken into consideration, but also apocalyptic literature that was blossoming in these times, apocrypha and also an intense contemporary polemical literature, which all reflected on the contemporary events. It is conspicuous to see that Christian sources are divided concerning Muhammad and Islam. While some see Muhammad as the Antichrist (Theophanes, Sophronius etc.), others consider him a special prophet for the Arabs who converted them to monotheism (The Zuqnin Chronicle, Sebeos, the Bahira legend etc).

Primary sources:


The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor, AM 6122, AI 622 (in fact AD 632), Greek text (Carl de Boor), p. 332 ff., English (Cyril A. Mango and Robert Scott), p. 464 ff.

The Zuqnin Chronicle, years 616-703, Harrak, p. 141-148.

Sebeos, History of Heraclius, ch 30 (Bedrosian’s English translation)

John of Nikiu, Chronicle, chapters 100-128 (translated from the Ethiopic by R. H. Charles)


Contemporary accounts:

 Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati, letters of Sophronius of Jerusalem, George of Reshaina etc., all from Robert Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw it (see below).

 Legendary story

 The Bahira legend, East Syrian version, chapters 12 and ff. (Barbara Roggema’s translation)

 Apocalypses and Revelations

 The Revelations of the Seraphic Gregory found in India by the instructor of the course, excerpts (I. Perczel’s translation)  

 Secondary source:

 Robert Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam (Princeton NJ: The Darwin Press, 1997), p. 545-600

 Class descriptions and bibliography by the guest lecturers will be added later.