The Lost History of Peter the Patrician by Thomas M. Banchich

Book Review by Ian Hughes

One of the major processes in the upsurge of interest in Late Antiquity is the translation of hard-to-access sources that are known only to specialists. One of the players in this process is Routledge’s Classical Translations Series. The latest in the series is this translation of the fragments of Peter the Patrician. Although little is known of Peter, he was a person of some importance, acting as a diplomat on behalf of the Eastern Empire and also serving as magister officiorum (Master of the Offices) and receiving the honorary title of patricius, hence the title of this book.

Although the original texts were written in Late Antiquity, they do not contain information dating to later than the fourth century. The fragments themselves begin the story in 40 BC and finish in AD 358. The fact that the 215 fragments cover a period of c.400 years clearly demonstrate the fragmentary nature of the survivals. The sparseness of the texts also helps to explain the major difficulties with the material: in many cases the fragments simply repeat (or are the origin of) information that occurs elsewhere in the extant sources. This is especially the case for the earlier period, as Peter seems to have used Dio as his source for the earlier centuries. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some of the information – especially that relating to the third and fourth centuries - is not known from any other source than Peter (or his later excerptors). However, as it is unconfirmed by other works, the information is of limited use academically.

For anyone interested in Peter’s work the introduction is compulsory reading. It outlines the ways in which the remaining fragments of Peter’s work have survived to the present, giving both the history and the debates surrounding the 215 fragments translated here. It also outlines the reasons and the processes used by the translator to arrive at translations that may differ from those usually given. Although in many cases minor, these differences can result in different interpretations a factor that Banchich uses in his explanations, as: ‘To translate away truncated Greek, to revise a long period into shorter sentences, or to alter word order for the sake of clarity … could, in the case of Peter’s history, result in several degrees of distortion and give a false impression of the evidence’ {p.11]. The result is a more ‘accurate’ translation of the texts in order to analyse them in greater detail and context.

The fragments range in length from short sentences to longer paragraphs, and, as has been noted, vary in both quality and value. As a result, in some respects the accompanying commentary is of greater use than the translation itself, as these give both a brief context for each fragment as well as an explanation of what the text contains. Yet there is one caveat to this: the commentary does not use footnotes, but rather includes references to both primary and secondary works in parentheses. Accordingly, the commentary can sometimes be rather confusing when an extensive bibliographical note is placed within a long sentence, meaning that the sentence itself is fragmented and difficult to understand without recourse to either a second, or even a third, reading.

What will be of value to anybody interested in reading more about the period covered in this book is the bibliography, as included in the long list of scholarly works can be found some more ‘general’ works which may appeal more to the ‘general’ reader. In addition, the more scholarly works cited can point the reader to up-to-date debates and conclusions on the periods covered by Peter, especially those of the third and fourth centuries where confusion still prevails. However, it should be noted that many of these works are either scholarly papers in sometimes difficult-to-find journals, or expensive specialist books that are hard to locate.

This difficulty aside, there remains two further problems with the book. One is that the nature of Peter’s work is such that realistically the target audience is small. The second is that, given the small target audience, the cost of a slim book with only 150 pages of main text (omitting index and bibliography) is £75/$120. As a result, the book is likely to remain the province of a small number of specialists with access to university libraries.

Yet for anybody wishing access to all of the information that has survived from antiquity the book is necessary reading. Although the translation has little new to offer except in detail and hence in context, these scraps of information – and especially those referring to the third century – make this necessary reading.

Ian Hughes has a MA in Ancient History and Society from Cardiff University and is the author of Belisarius: The Last Roman General; Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome; Imperial Brothers: Valentinian, Valens and the Disaster at Adrianople; and Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire.

Tell us your opinion - Submit your Review - Buy the book!

Get it now!

Union Jack Peter the Patrician for the UK