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Byzantine Historiography: Caught Between Literary Ambition and the Demands of Scholarship?

Ralph-Johannes Lilie, Academy of Sciences Berlin–Brandenburg, Germany, Fellow, Spring

In my project I am investigating whether, and to what extent, Byzantine historians depicted reality in their works, together with their attitude toward fact and fiction. Almost every Byzantine author emphasized his commitment to the truth and his effort to portray an accurate account of events. In fact, however, most of these historiographical works contain countless statements that clearly do not reflect reality or that are easily refuted. From the sheer profusion of information, I selected a number of significant examples, organized them into various categories, and analyzed them to prepare a foundation for sound conclusions. The individual categories are:

  1. Tendentiousness, i.e. displays of ideological or other reservations.
  2. The characterization of people by their deeds.
  3. Dramatization of events, sensationalism and deliberate exaggeration.
  4. The use of sayings or aphorisms.
  5. The incorporation of epic episodes in the narrative.
  6. Terminological problems and differing narrative perspectives between authors and their sources, and the resulting misconceptions when analyzing and evaluating the texts.
  7. The influence of the supernatural in the narrative.
  8. The use of “ahistorical” material.
  9. Anonymous quotations and "imitatio," i.e. the adoption of earlier authors.

The study demonstrates that reality is of considerably less significance in Byzantine texts than one might expect in view of the authors’ own assertions. Rather, the intrinsic value of reality and truth, as the numerous episodes studied reveal, are quite relative; the overall picture an individual author was striving to convey always took precedence. Here, the veracity of individual episodes is dependent upon to what extent they were suitable for completing and fashioning this overall picture convincingly.

Thanks to Dumbarton Oaks’s excellent library, I was able to quickly familiarize myself with the basic secondary literature, and many and diverse discussions with the other Byzantinists led to new considerations, as well as to modifications of previous theories. Without the residential fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks the research project would not only have taken considerably longer, but the gain in insight would have been greatly diminished as well. I am confident that I shall be able to bring the project to completion in the near future and publish it.


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Byzantine Studies Fellows, 2012/13