Liverpool (2018) h/b 320pp £95.00 (ISBN 9781786941510)

By the mid-12th century the Byzantine Empire was reduced to Greece and some bits of Turkish littoral, but Constantinople was fizzing with ideas and the people to express them. Some historians refer to this time as the Byzantine renaissance, and there certainly was a new flowering of the arts as the dark times of iconoclasm were left behind.

Constantine Manasses (c.1120 to after 1175) was invited into the theatron (literary salon?) of the dynastically important, though politically vulnerable, Irene, sister-in-law to the emperor Manuel Comnenus, and was commissioned to produce a chronicle of world history in verse, unusual even in those times. The result, Manasses’ Synopsis Chronike (SC), was composed in Greek, which Y. translates, but also compares it with its 14th century Middle Bulgarian translation by means of footnotes. This Bulgarian version was lavishly illustrated and was hugely influential amongst contemporary and later Slavic productions. 

SC was written in fifteen-syllable iambic ‘political’ (i.e. everyday) verse (which Y. does not attempt to duplicate): ‘The master-builders forty-five, apprentice builders sixty’, translated from a medieval folk-ballad about ‘The Bridge of Arta’ (which kept on falling down), offers an example. This metre made the lines easily learned, and is common in Greek folk poetry and music from Late Antiquity onwards.

In its romantic, pastoral and poetic 7,000 lines, SC begins with creation from Genesis running through to Abraham’s migration. Thence it gets more Herodotean, with coverage of reigns and empires (e.g. Sardanapulus, Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes) and Alexander and his successor kings. Thirteen subsequent pages of translation are devoted to the Trojan War, followed by the Roman, then the Byzantine dynasties. By far the bulk of the chronicle is given to the latter.

In truly Byzantine manner, the chronicle throws together more literary devices than can possibly be good for it. Then there are the comparisons: Belisarius to Moses and Joshua, the emperor Basil to Ares. There is plenty of zoological and botanical imagery: ‘the acanthus of iconoclasm’; Phocas ‘…bellowed with the madness of a barking dog’. Of course, there is plenty of heat in the contexts of love and war, and some very fetching similes. God separates earth and water ‘as if someone had curdled the white, wet, sweet fluid of milk and made a round of cheese.’ There are some surprises, too, not least when Priam seeks an alliance with King David against the Greeks. But those who have read Procopius will know just how well Byzantine writers handle invective. Of Constantine V ‘Kopronymos’, we read ‘the abominable, blood-drinking wolf ruled … a sorcerer and wizard … an outright pig, who lived in mire and ate mud.’

The translation is elegant, the footnotes clear in differentiating SC from the Bulgarian translation, and the index and references fulsome. It is never less than an interesting read, and will provide useful, thumbnail sketches of the sixty-six Byzantine rulers who get a look in, provided you take nothing as gospel. One suspects, however, that at £95, it will find its way into more libraries than private collections.

Adrian Spooner