The Chronicle of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor edited by G. Greatrex
Book Review by Ian Hughes
One of the main factors which have restricted study of the Late Roman Empire has been the nature of the sources. Fragmented, confused, brief, and often in languages – in this case Syriac - known only to a few specialists, the sources have either lacked reliable translations, or the translations themselves were produced a long time ago and they have now reached a price far beyond that of mere mortals.
Yet recently the tide has turned. Specialist printers, a major example being Liverpool University Press (LUP), appear to have made it their task to translate as much primary source material as possible concerning the Late Empire into English. Their latest offering is ‘The Chronicle of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor’ (PZ), translated by Robert R. Phenix and Cornelia B. Horn with contributions from Sebastian B. Brock and Witold Witakowski, all edited by Geoffrey Greatrex. The fact that it has taken the concerted efforts of five people to translate Books 3-12 of PZ demonstrates the enormity and complexity of the task.
Pseudo-Zachariah is the name given to an unknown writer who used the work of Zachariah of Mytilene as the basis for his own work. Although the original book by Zachariah has been lost, the work has to some degree survived in large part in the writings of PZ. As it contains much that is valuable concerning both the religious and the political period it covers, PZ is a valuable primary source for students of the Late Empire.
The book is split into two main sections. The first is the "Introduction". Coming in at 92 pages, the introduction is almost a book in its own right. However, once the reader delves into this section it quickly becomes apparent why this chapter is so long. It picks apart the work of PZ, introducing Zachariah himself and his works, before discussing the relationship between the original work and the manuscript of PZ. It then moves on to PZ; what little is known or believed about his life and work, and, just as important, the sources other than Zachariah which he used to compile the "Chronicle". The introduction ends with a "Historical Introduction" and the reasons for the exclusion of Books 1 and 2 from the present volume, plus an outline and a few translated snippets from Books 1 and 2 which are "relevant to the rest of the work".
The second section of the book contains the translations, which cover the period from the reign of Marcian in the mid-fifth century to the reign of Justinian in the sixth century. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Syriac is, to say the least, minimal, so it is impossible for me to comment on the accuracy of the translations. All that is possible is for me to comment on the layout, the method used in relaying PZ’s style, and the readability of the book. On two of these criteria the books rates extremely high, whilst on the third I have one - possibly minor – complaint.
Dealing with the negative first, the translated books are, as is usual for this period, divided into many smaller chapters, each of which is numbered in the text by PZ. For example, Book Three, Chapter Two begins: "The second chapter concerns the exile of Dioscorus … ". My complaint here is two-fold. Firstly, either the Editor, the Translators or the Publisher has decided not to include a numbered prefix at the start of these chapters. This means that, in order for the reader to work out where they are in the book, they have to continually find the starts of the chapters and read the first sentence. In itself, this is not too problematic and is merely a minor irritation. However, and again as is usual for such translations, long chapters are subdivided for ease of reference, in this case with the use of letters – for example, iii, 1k (Book Three, Chapter One, Paragraph "k"). When attempting to find specific paragraphs the lack of a clearly-numbered prefix becomes extremely annoying, especially as the inclusion of a clearly-labelled prefix would have rendered finding any reference simple. Instead, readers have to flick backwards and forwards through the surrounding pages in an attempt to find either "iii.1a" or "iii.2a" in order to correctly identify the passage in question. Although this may seem a minor problem, it does mean that using the book as a reference tool is made a lot harder than was necessary. It should be noted, however, that Professor Greatrex is aware of the problem and is considering modifying the situation should the book go to another edition.
Having covered the negative aspect, it is possible to turn to the positive features of the book. With reference to the book’s readability, it is simply superb. The layout and translation are clear, even though at times the contents can be a little confusing, largely due to the high number of names that PZ introduces to the reader. Further, although the book is very heavily annotated, the quality and precision of these notes add to the utility of the book far beyond what may have been expected.
With regards to the style, which is explained in the Introduction, all of the experts involved in this translation need to be paid the highest compliments possible. PZ writes in a manner specific to his time, but unfortunately it is difficult to translate his words and tone accurately into modern English. The translators have used the simple method of directly translating the words of PZ but of using additional words and phrases in modern English to clarify the meaning, keeping these in brackets so that the translation, whilst readable, still retains the unique voicing of the original.
Only two other factors need to be brought to the attention of the potential reader. One is that this book is not a straightforward history of the period in question. It is an Ecclesiastical History, and although there are sections of the book, such as the Siege of Amida in Book 7, which are highly detailed political and military accounts, the non-ecclesiastical information often takes the form of asides and comments only included where these impinge upon the history of the Church. A reader expecting a detailed overview of, for example, the wars against the Persians is going to be disappointed. On the other hand, for those interested in Ecclesiastical history this book is almost certainly compulsory reading, covering as it does the religious controversies which raged from the mid-fifth to the early-sixth century. And even though it does not include a large number of detailed accounts of non-Ecclesiastical affairs, there is still much in the book that can be used to either support or counter the details given in other historical works, for example the Histories of Procopius.
The second factor is highly relevant in the period of drastic economic conditions prevalent at the time of writing this review. The "Chronicle", which weighs in at a hefty 92 pages of Introduction and 366 pages of translation (plus Indices, Glossary, Bibliography, Maps and two Appendices to a total of 562 pages) is currently available for as little as £20/$35 in paperback. There is little that can be done other than praise Liverpool University Press, and other like-minded publishers, who are producing such valuable translations at such a low cost.
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Overall, I would recommend this book very highly to those interested in Christian history or those who are wishing to investigate every nuance of the history of the Later Roman Empire, and I would like to put on record my thanks to LUP for making this volume available. Apparently, a different group of academics has already begun work on a companion volume translating Books 1 and 2 of Pseudo-Zachariah. If the translators achieve the heights reached by this volume, the second book will also be worth its weight in gold.