The History of Zonaras by M. Banchich and E. N. Lane

Book Review by Ian Hughes

Zonaras was a major functionary in the Byzantine court of the twelfth century. His Epitome Historiarum (Extracts of History), in eighteen books, covered the history of the world from the creation to the twelfth century. It is one of the few sources covering the history of the third and fourth centuries, and it is therefore of extreme importance to anybody wanting to study the events of the ‘Third Century Crisis’ and the history of Diocletian or Constantine the Great and his sons, bridging the gap between the writers of the first and second century and Ammianus Marcellinus in the fourth.

Despite the Epitome`s importance, this is the first English translation of this vital section of Zonaras. The quality of the translations it contains have been reported as reliable (Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2010.01.30: Kaldellis, A) and by itself this makes the book a valuable addition to the corpus of recently translated work.

However, the authors have gone beyond the simple remit of providing a translation of the relevant sections of books 12 and 13. In order to compare and contrast Zonaras’ work with other sources written both prior to and contemporaneously with Zonaras, they have also translated these additional sources into English – some of them for the first time – in order to make the comparisons clear and comprehensible. Other sources utilised include (in chronological order): Peter the Patrician (sixth century), John of Antioch (seventh century); George the Monk (ninth century); Symeon Metaphrastes (late-tenth century); and George Cedrenus (twelfth century), although it should be noted that the authors have not translated the whole of these texts, only those sections which are comparable to the entries in Zonaras. In combination with the detailed commentary and comparative analysis, the book therefore outlines many of the problems faced by those attempting to use Zonaras and his contemporaries as sources for the third and fourth centuries.

However, it should be noted that there is currently debate about some facets relating to Zonaras and his sources. For example, there are two surviving editions of the original Greek text of John of Antioch and there is an ongoing academic argument about which of these most accurately represents the original text. Obviously, Banchich and Lane have followed one text, leaving them open to criticism from supporters of the alternative text. Alongside this slight difficulty, the commentary on the text is, by its very nature, exclusive of the majority of secondary literature: the authors themselves acknowledge this fact, noting that the purpose of the book is to understand Zonaras as a writer, rather than the wider historical issues.

Despite these minor reservations, and accepting that some aspects of the work, for example the question concerning the correct edition of John of Antioch, are unlikely to be resolved and must remain a matter of personal opinion, there is one omission from the book which is puzzling and detracts a little from the pleasurable experience of owning it. On page 15 the reader is advised ‘to read the Epitome with a list of emperors and usurpers between 222 and 395 at hand in order to gauge who is missing from Zonaras’ emperor-centred history’. In a work of this complexity and with a price in excess (when writing this review) of £60/$100 this is perplexing. Only a little extra work would have satisfied the need for such a list. However, it should be acknowledged that a new paperback edition is now being advertised for one-third of the price of the hardback, making the translation available to all. At the new low price, the omission is forgivable

In conclusion; anybody wishing to investigate the period covered by this book is advised to get hold of a copy of this translation and commentary. The book is an invaluable resource for anybody wishing to study the period from the beginnings of the ‘Third Century Crisis’ to the death of Theodosius I, not simply for the translation of Zonaras but for the parallel translation of other sources not yet available in full translation.

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