Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The first English translation of The History, by Michael Attaleiates

The History gets a standard Dumbarton Oaks cover.
This June, I did something out of character; I pre-ordered a book. I can't blame this one on somatosensory disruption during the summer's transit of Venus (next due in December 2117); rather, during a habitual search, Amazon surprised me with a result for Michael Attaleiates, the 11th century Byzantine author - the first ever English translation of The History.

I'd noticed Attaleiates fleetingly referred to in a rapidly disintegrating copy of Norwich's excellent primer A Short History of Byzantium, as well as sites dotted around the web;  I was especially keen to read his History after Michael Psellos' Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, for a perspective of the perilous situation in the east less sanitised by a scholarly lifetime in the Imperial court.

Unlike Psellos, Attaleiates was a first hand witness to no less than three campaigns, including the disaster at Mantzikert. He writes with a pace that lends a sense of the pandemonium of those years; lofty Atticisms are eschewed for an unflinching and detailed account of the visceral brutalities of war and civil upheaval - the shameful blinding of Romanos Diogenes being a notably excruciating passage. 

As in Anna Comnena's later Alexiad, much of the content concerns the extreme dangers in the eastern Themes, made all the more unsettling to read as nomadic hoards of human effluent bring their savagery ever westward. Remarking on the devastation wrought in one passage, Attaleiates notes the distance markers as the only indication of what had once been Imperial territory. As witness to the empire's internal strife, power struggles, revolts and insurrections, he does not neglect the suffering of the ordinary populace, and lambasts the ruling classes for their pusillanimity;

"For we are pressed on all sides by the pangs of death, the Gothic and other most foul nations having prevailed over the entire east and west, preying on our simple mindedness and neglect, or, to speak more truthfully, on our impiety and madness, given that we rabidly fight against one another, our own countrymen, without restraint, showing contempt for death, but when it comes to wars with foreigners we are cowardly and unmanly, and appear to turn our backs to the enemy even before battle begins."

The ruling classes (with the prudent exception of the reigning emperor) are frequently criticised for their corruption and incompetence.

Somehow, in the intervening millennium, there has been no English translation of this work available. It comes as no surprise that Dumbarton Oaks is the publisher responsible for the first English edition, previous efforts including The Correspondence of Leo, Metropolitan of Synada and Syncellus, and Constantine Porphyrogenitos' De Administrando Imperio. 

This binding ought to hold up well. Note the always handy place marker.

This new volume - which after a slight delay, arrived at my door in mid October - continues in the style of Dumbarton Oak's previous publications, with the original 11th Century Greek text and English translation on opposing pages, background information on the author, translation notes, a glossary of terms, and even maps.  This is a sturdy and well made hardback, with stitched and glued folios. The increase in font size since the Administrando Imperio is very welcome, as is the addition of a handy stitched ribbon place marker.

Several maps are included for ease of reference.
'Kouropalates' - not organisers of the Imperial exercise classes.

In The History, Dumbarton Oaks have made accessible yet another excellent and affordable tome. I'm thoroughly enjoying - even marvelling at - the chance to read Attaleiates' own words, and recommend it as essential reading to any right thinking amateur Byzantinologist.

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