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Why did the Byzantines write History?
By Leonora Neville
Proceedings of the 23rd International Congress of Byzantine Studies: plenary papers : Belgrade, 22-27 August, 2016, edited by Smilja Marjanović-Dušanić (The Serbian National Committee of AIEB, 2016)
Introduction: Our desires and expectations for good history do not align with those of the medieval authors of Byzantine histories. If modern historians and medieval Romans valued the same things in history, we would teach Roman history by having students read Constantine Manasses’s verse history, which appears to be the mostly highly prized medieval treatment of the subject.
The manuscript record indicates that the histories by Manasses and George the Monk were the favorites among medieval Romans. Yet one could read a great deal of modern scholarship on the Byzantine Empire and never see them cited as sources of historical information, and I can’t hand my students a translation of either. In contrast, some of our favorite histories, such as those by Psellos and Leo the Deacon, survived in a single copy. Clearly we and the medieval Romans have different tastes in history. It is worth taking a step back from the details of our research to consider how differences in our motivations for writing history may affect our interpretations of Byzantine historiography.
Here I would like us to consider the reasons why Byzantines wrote history and start a conversation about how historiography fits in with the rest of what we are learning about Byzantine culture.
Top Image: A 12th-century image of a Byzantine scribe