Byzantine science: where to start and where to look

Where do we start, if we want to know about Byzantine science?  Well, you start here!

The history of science in the Byzantine empire is a neglected field of investigation, even more so than the same subject in the ancient world. It has suffered because few scholars with the language skills also possess an understanding of the scientific area. In addition Byzantine studies was neglected until recently because the subject matter was considered as merely derivative of ancient work. But this was always an over-simplification, not least because only 5% of Byzantine scientific works extant in manuscript have been published.

Byzantine science may be defined as the study of the history of knowledge of subjects which today mainly form part of the science faculties, in the period from 500 AD to 1453. This consists mainly of working with authors and sources transmitted in manuscripts, as few scientific instruments have been preserved from the period. The sources consist both of practical handbooks of “how to do stuff”, and also more theoretical treatises.

Introductory articles

  • Karl Vogel, “Byzantine Science”, in: The Cambridge Medieval History, volume 4, part 2 (revised ed. J. Hussey), 1967, p.264-305.  Online here (PDF, 11mb).[1]  This is 40 pages, and gives a massive overview of the main Byzantine scientists and their work.  Unfortunately it was written in a period when Byzantine studies as a whole tended to be dismissed as derivative and of no special interest.  But the material presented by Vogel actually contradicts the received wisdom of his day, as may easily be seen.  Not a lot of bibliography tho.
  • H. Hunger, Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner. 2 vols., Series: Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, XII.5 (Munich, 1978). Volume 2 is the one of interest to us.  It contains chapters on mathematics and astronomy (astrology), natural sciences (zoology, botany, lapidaries, alchemy), and medicine, and gives a bibliography for each.  Unfortunately this is in German.  But I find that it can be understood OK with Google Translate.
  • Anne Tihon, “Numeracy and Science”, In: Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies, 2009, p.803-819. Brief introduction. Includes a useful bibliography.
  • Anne Tihon, “Science in the Byzantine Empire”, in: Lindberg D.C., Shank M.H. (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science, Vol. 2: Medieval Science, Cambridge University Press (2013), p.190-206.  Brief introduction.
  •  M. Mavroudi, “Science, Byzantine”, in: Roger Bagnall &c (eds), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Blackwell (2013), pp. 6063-6065.  Brief two-page overview of current views on the field, plus useful bibliography.

Let’s finish by quoting Anne Tihon from her Cambridge History of Science article:

In the field of Byzantine science, so many texts remain unedited or simply ignored that one cannot claim to give a complete account of Byzantine scientific achievements. Nevertheless, we can say that the scientific efforts of Byzantium have often been underestimated by modern historians of science. Although Byzantine scholars were deeply concerned with the preservation of the priceless scientific inheritance from antiquity, they were also receptive to the progress made by their nearest neighbors, especially Arabic, Persian, or Hebrew scientists. The European Renaissance owes to the efforts of the Byzantine scholars the preservation of major scientific texts from antiquity. But they did much more than just copying the ancient inheritance in many manuscripts. They kept it alive, attempting to understand the texts exactly, making new editions, training themselves in mathematical procedures or geometrical demonstrations, and commenting on and explaining endlessly mathematical treatises, astronomical tables, and musical theories. This is especially true in astronomy.

A Byzantine sundial
  1. [1]The original Cambridge Medieval History volumes, edited by H. Gwatkin, are now public domain and appear online.  However volume 4 was reissued in two volumes in 1967, edited by J. Hussey.  These volumes are offline, as far as I know.  A new edition was issued more recently as The New Cambridge Medieval History, which is also freely accessible online.  However it contains no article on “Byzantine Science”.  The Vogel article therefore languishes in an obscure volume of a now superseded encyclopedia, and is not at all easy to obtain.  My thanks to the kind gentleman who tracked down a copy for me.

Byzantine science – Botany

Here are some notes on sources for Byzantine Science; in this case botany.

Botany was not a subject of real interest to the Byzantines.  The Byzantine interest in plants was entirely practical. As such they compiled lists of plants useful for medicine – materia medica -, or for magical use. They are also noted for the copying of ancient botanical texts such as Dioscurides, with its copious illustrations of plants and their properties. (An example appears at the foot of this post).

Studies: Hunger, Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner, Vol. 2, Series: Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, XII.5 (Munich, 1978): pp.271-6.

Botanical lexicons / glosses. The lexicon or glossary became the usual form of botanical knowledge transfer in late antiquity and Byzantium. These were usually only alphabetic to the extent of the first letter. The botanical glossaries preserved in Byzantine manuscripts often give the impression of private notes, made more or less ad hoc on blank pages of manuscripts. They are usually short, and anonymous, except for those of ps.Galen, Nikomedes, and Neophytos Prodromenos. The manuscripts are usually 15-16th century. It is rare that these texts can be assigned a date, or read without difficulty because of the careless handwriting, and the use of terms from Latin or Arabic.

Editions: A. Delatte, Anecdota Atheniensia 2, (1939), 273-454, includes 15 botanical glossaries, including ps.Galen, ps.Symeon Seth, Neophytos, Nikomedes, Nicholas Hieropais. (Review here) M. H. Thomson, Textes grecs inedits relatifs aux plantes, Paris 1955, Nr. 10, p. 139-168. With French translation.
Studies: A. Delatte, “Le Lexique de botanique du Parisinus Graecus 2419”, in: Serta Leodensia, Bibl. Fac. Philos. Lettr. Univ. Liege 44 (1930) 59-101; A. Delatte, Herbarius. Recherches sur le ceremonial usite chez les anciens pour la cueillette des simples et des plantes magiques, Liege-Paris 1936; J.Stannard, “Byzantine Botanical Lexicography”, Episteme 5 (1971), 168-87.

Neophytos Prodromenos. A 14th century monk and scribe of Albanian origin in the circle of Manuel II Paleologus. He wrote a compendium of Aristotelean logic, also on the 24 letters of the alphabet and on Indian numbers, as well as theological works, and works on medicine. He compiled a lexicon / botanical glossary probably for the needs of the hospital founded by the Serbian king Uros II Milutin in the monastery of Petra in Constantinople. He also did research on cancer and oral and teeth diseases, and proposed strengthening by binding the teeth with woolen thread.

Edition: V. Lundstrom, “Neophytos Prodromenos’ botaniska namnförteckning”, Eranos 5 (1903-04) 129-155. Info here.
Dental text: De dentibus: Neophytos Prodromenos, Πρόχειρος καὶ χρήσιμος σαφήνεια καὶ συλλογὴ κατὰ στοιχεῖον περὶ βοτανῶν καὶ ἄλλων παντοίων εἰδῶν θεραπευτικῶν, ed. A. Delatte, Anecdota Atheniensia et alia, Band 2, Textes grecs relatifs a l’histoire des sciences. Liege-Paris 279-302, 1939. Details here.
Studies: Hunger, p.272-3, p.308-9; Michel Cacouros, “Néophytes Prodromènos copiste et responsable (?) de l’édition quadrivium-corpus aristotelicum du 14e siècle”, Revue des études byzantines 56 (1998) pp. 193-212. Online here; E. Bollingier, Essai sur l’oeuvre de Neophytos Prodromenos. Thesis, 1966. Info here.

A 7th century Dioscurides. Bibl. Naz. Naples MS Suppl. gr. 28.

A forgotten scholar: the grammarian Peter Egenolff (1851-1901)

Bibliography is a perilous trade.  Let a man once follow a footnote, and he may find his hours and days consumed in searching for he knows not what – and wishes he did!

Today I made the acquaintance of a scholar who, as far as I can tell, is scarcely remembered.  I first encountered him in a terse 19th century footnote.

The occasion was that I started to read about Byzantine Zoology – the study of animals in that period.  The first author is a certain Timotheus of Gaza, who lived in the late 5th century, in the reign of the emperor Anastasius. The bibliographical source is Herbert Hunger’s Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner, vol. 2, p.265.  But I quickly discovered material online telling me that Timotheus was a pupil of the Egyptian philosopher, Horapollo.  Unfortunately the ancient source was not specified.

However I was fortunate enough to come upon a preview of the Brill Companion to Ancient Greek Scholarship vol. 2, p.249, a volume hitherto unknown to me, giving a reference:

329. See Seitz [1892] 30 with n.3; cf. also Reitzenstein [1897] 312.

A bit of searching in the preview revealed that “Seitz” was Die Schule von Gaza, which was online here.  This in turn had a nice note on p.30 which referred to Dr Egenolff, in gnomic terms:

The statement is plain enough; the claim is made in a manuscript, the “Codex Vallicellianus E 11”.  Which is … what?  Well, I thought that I would look up “Egenolff, Progr. Heidelberg, 1888.”

This apparently simple task has consumed much of the afternoon.

“Egenolff” is in fact Dr. Peter Egenolff, born in Limburg-Offheim in 1851, and who died young in Heidelberg in 1901.  He seems to have spent his life in Heidelberg.  There is an online entry for him at the German national library here, which points to a book entry, online in bitmap here, with a couple of pages on his life.  Unfortunately the text was printed in Fraktur; and as neither German language nor Fraktur typeface is something I read with ease, the result is that I learned no more.

Somewhere there is Fraktur OCR, developed by Abbyy; but it was funded by public money in such a way that it was not made available to anyone.  So … unless some German gentleman cares to transcribe it, the entry will remain unreadable.

Searching for Egenolff’s work produces a series of pamphlets online, all rather obscure.  He seems to have specialised in philology, and in Greek grammatical and accentuation studies.  For instance he published two volumes of Anonymi Grammaticae Epitoma, in different places: volume 1 appeared in 1878; volume 2 in 1889.  These are extracts from manuscripts, with Latin preface and no translation.  For a while I thought that our snippet must be in these; and I wished that I had more time to devote to reading them.  He also published a Prolegomena in anonymi grammaticae epitomam; but this was in 1876 (online here).

Eventually I struck lucky: the volume is in fact Die Orthographischen Stücke der byzantinischen Litteratur / von P. Egenolff. … zu dem Programm des Gr. Gymnasiums Heidelberg für das Schuljahr 1887/88. (Online here). I think that Seitz could perhaps have picked a better abbreviation than “Progr.”.  And on the last page of the booklet – all these items are less than 50 pages – we find the material that I was looking for.  But that’s another story.

And I have still to look at “Reitzenstein”!

Why have less than 5% of Byzantine scientific works been published?

A few days ago, I noted that only 5% of all Byzantine scientific works have managed to make it out of the medieval manuscripts and into a printed edition of some sort.  For translations the figure is worse still.  The figure is an estimate by Byzantinist Maria Mavroudi, who works with the subject and certainly would know.

But why is this?  I wrote to Dr Mavroudi and enquired as follows:

As a member of the public, I wonder if I might ask … why is this the case?  Is it simply fewness of hands, or lack of an audience?  Or lack of funding?

She very kindly replied at once, with this interesting answer:

The reasons are everything that you mention: lack of interest on the part of modern scholars, based on the conviction that there is anything worth the while there (the “good” stuff is ancient science, while its Byzantine counterpart is a pale imitation lacking in “original” contributions). Fewness of hands is also a serious problem (there are very few people able and interested in editing texts on ancient science which is admittedly more mainstream, although not exactly mainstream). Editing technical texts requires not only knowing the language and editorial techniques, but also understanding the content of what one edits. Too many skills, all time consuming to acquire, are required of one and the same person. Funding can be a problem, but it is last in the priority list, and can manifest itself in various ways (e.g. scholars on an academic salary do not need to be paid for the specific work of editing; but publishing is expensive, the editions of such technical texts will never be best sellers, and frequently publishers shy away from producing such editions because they project little or no financial reward).

I attach an encyclopedia essay that outlines some reasons for the lack of interest in Byzantine science.

The attached article was M. Mavroudi, “Science, Byzantine”, in: Roger Bagnall &c (ed), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Blackwell (2013), pp. 6063-6065.  The volume is not easily accessible to normal people unfortunately, although if the articles are all of this quality, then that really is a nuisance.  The article is mainly about asserting that Byzantine science is worth studying for itself, and has been distinctly undervalued:

In summary, what is currently known about Byzantine science is significantly less than what remains to be uncovered. In order to be properly appreciated, Byzantine science must be understood as a coherent system of thought taken in its own terms. Modern divisions separating scientific disciplines were not perceived by the Byzantines in the same way (Mavroudi 2006), though they have been applied to the Byzantine material in valuable scholarly surveys (e.g., mathematics and astronomy as categories distinct from astrology in Hunger 1978, 1994; “high” and “low” science in Pingree 1991).

The complex relation between tradition and innovation in the transmission and creation of new knowledge was neither experienced nor articulated by the Byzantines in our modern terms. Byzantine philosophical, cosmological, and scientific thought developed in dialogue with Christian theology and sometimes influenced the articulation of Christian doctrine (Magdalino 2006).

It is interesting to learn that funding is not the worst problem facing the discipline.  I understand that domain knowledge can be acquired by intensive short courses, e.g. in alchemy.  The cost of publishing may cease to be an issue with online publishing.  The link to patristic studies particularly catches the eye.

Perhaps some of the PhD students now frantically casting around for a teaching post should consider whether there is a career in Byzantine science?  Hardly anything has been done.  The challenge may seem daunting, but surely it is far better to use your Greek and patristics knowledge, than go and sell insurance?

I have been collecting materials, and I will write a post on the bibliography of Byzantine science next.

A portrait of Constantius II from 354, via two intermediaries

As manuscripts of the Vatican come online, it becomes possible to look at items previously known to us only from poor-quality photographs.  This is a good thing.

Years ago I made an online edition of the Chronography of 354, an illustrated luxury manuscript made for a Roman aristocrat in 354 AD, and transmitted to us by copies.  The pictures exist in various versions, mostly derived from a Carolingian copy now lost.  The best set, in monochrome, are preserved in Vatican Ms. Barberini lat.2154 B.  Sadly the full colours of the ancient original are not preserved; but the renaissance artist did his best to copy the Carolingian original.

Here’s one of the illustrations, on folio 13, depicting Constantius II, in the uncharacteristic pose of money falling from his hand.  Somehow one suspects that this charmless man did look rather like this.  (It is a pity that, as with other Italian stuff put online, the image is defaced with a watermark screaming “mine! mine! mine!!”)

Less than 5% of Byzantine scientific texts have been published?

Today I came across a statistic which really shocked me.  It seems that less than 5% of Byzantine “scientific texts” have been printed, never mind translated.

The phrase “scientific texts” would include technical texts which give practical instruction, but also the philosophical texts that discuss what would today be scientific theories.  It would be interesting to know how the ancients, and indeed the Byzantines, related the two.  We are often told of the gap between philosophy and technology in antiquity; yet we have writers like Hero of Alexandria doing both.

The statistic is by Maria Mavroudi, who writes:

The treatment of Byzantine science has fared equally poorly in modern scholarship… It is much more important to investigate the pertinent primary sources. In the case of Byzantium, this would require a major editorial effort because less than 5 percent of its surviving scientific and philosophical production has been published.[43]

43. There is no “official” statistic on this; 5 percent represents my estimate through acquaintance with important manuscript catalogs and published texts (surveyed in Mavroudi, “Occult Science and Society in Byzantium,” 39–46) as well as Byzantine manuscripts. It would be possible to recover Byzantine philosophy and science (as well as their Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew counterparts) by publishing not only treatises composed during the Byzantine period but also the marginal annotations made by Byzantine readers in important manuscripts of ancient philosophical and scientific texts.[1]

Obviously the figure of 5% is an estimate only.  But I’m sure Dr M. knows better than most people.

Why is the figure so low?  I would guess that there is a lack of scholars capable of doing the work – it requires getting familiar with the scientific area of knowledge, and specialist vocabulary, as well as having excellent Byzantine Greek.  But I am told that it is possible to cram in such information in a few sessions.[2]  If so, it is a pity that our universities do not encourage students to do so, rather than fruitlessly retranslating the same few Greek texts.

Regular readers will be aware that I have written a little about ancient alchemical texts, like those by Stephen of Alexandria.  Apparently Matteo Martelli, Gerasmios Marianos, Olivier Dufault, and Michèle Mertens are the scholars doing good work on Byzantine alchemy these days.  It is good that work is being done.  But limited access to primary sources must mean limited work.

All this sort of material could, in principle, give us more knowledge of antiquity – although I found that astrological texts seldom did so, when I obtained a few translations.

But … it is part of the heritage of mankind.  Our first duty to the future is to transmit what we have received.  Can’t someone find a rich Greek shipowner to fund the printing of all this stuff?  How much could it cost, to type it up and put it online?  It is, after all, Greek heritage.  Would the excellent Stavros Niarchos be interested?

  1. [1]Maria Mavroudi, “Translations from Greek into Latin and Arabic during the Middle Ages: Searching for the Classical Tradition”, Speculum 90 (2015), 38.  The whole article deserves attention.
  2. [2]I owe my knowledge of the Mavroudi paper, and indeed much else in this post, to tweets this evening by a rather unstable female PhD student studying Byzantine alchemy.  Sadly I was only able to obtain a very limited amount of information from her.  This was rather a pity, for I was very interested in this niche of academia, and how the problem of accessing technical literature might be overcome.  It is best that I do not name her, of course.  She also told me that existing editions and translations are not very good.

The Annals of Eutychius of Alexandria (10th c. AD) – chapter 7 – part 6

Let’s translate a bit more of the work of the Arabic Christian writer, Sa`id ibn Bitriq, also known as Eutychius.  The last section dealt with the reign of Alexander the Great, and his death and burial by his minister “Filimun”.  For the funeral, Eutychius now introduces material from the “Sayings” literature.  So this chapter is fiction.

Collections of moral sayings attributed to famous figures circulated in antiquity in several languages, including Greek and Syriac.  They were a popular, and therefore a vulgar form of literature.  The material also came into Arabic.  Some of this material was used for Christian purposes, to demonstrate that the Greek philosophers predicted the events of the life of Christ, paralleling the predictions in the Old Testament.  None of this material is historically reliable.  Sayings pass from one author to another in the mass of material.  A modern analogy would be a joke book, where material may be attributed to Oscar Wilde, or to Winston Churchill, even if in fact it is proverbial. 

I’ve footnoted the Italian where I was unsure of the inevitably concise meaning.

17. Fīlīmūn the philosopher said, “This is a day of great instruction.  For the evil that he did has come about, and he abandoned the good that preceded him.[1]  He who wishes to weep over him whose kingdom has come to an end, let him weep.

Aflātūn [Plato] the philosopher said: “O you who gained by force everything, you accumulated what has deceived and abandoned you, and left you only the trouble of it, while the pleasure will pass to another.”

Aristatālīs [Aristotle] the philosopher said: “Alexander went away full of eloquence and returned to us silent.”

Nārin the philosopher said: “Say to Alexander’s flock, ‘This is a day when the flock leads the shepherd to pasture.'”

And Nīlūn said: “Can anyone console us for our king, who has suffered no disgrace, and truly leave us consoled?”

And another said, “This is the way that we must travel.  Desire what lasts as much as that which is temporary.”

And another said, “Take this as an example.  Yesterday gold was for Alexander a treasure.  Today Alexander was buried in gold.”

And another said, “You join those who rejoiced over your death, like those whose death will please you will join you.”[2]

And the philosopher Lūtas said: “Do not marvel at him who did not teach us anything when he was alive, and now warns us by his death.”

And the philosopher Mitrūn said: “Yesterday, O man, we could listen but not speak. Can you hear what we are saying today?”

And the philosopher Sīsan said, “This man has killed many people in order not to die himself.  Yet he died.  How could he not have been able to get rid of death with death?”

And another said, “Alexander did not teach us with his words as much as he teaches us now with his silence.”

And philosopher Dimitar said, “O you whose anger was the cause of your death, why have you never been angry with death?”

And another said, “Your strongholds tremble with fear, O king, and you have reassured the strongholds of those who feared you.”

And another said, “How do people neglect you today, O king, and how interested they are in your coffin!”

And another said, “How true is death to his own, yet they will not see, and they block their ears!”[3]

And the philosopher Fīluqatūn said: “If this is the end of life, it is best for us to be indifferent from its inception.”

And another said: “O people, do not weep over someone who has ceased to weep, but each of you weep for yourselves.”

And another said, “Well, you who were accustomed to the vastness of the conquered countries, how can you now endure such a narrow place?”

And another said: “If someone only weeps at death when it happens, there is still death on every new day.”

And another said: “You who were exalted, you have now become humble, and if you were in an enviable position, you have now become worthy of pity.”

And another said, “Who is he now whose anger was terrible, and standing beside him was forbidden?  Why are you not angry that death is allotted to you, or that you were unable to resist the humiliation [of death]?”[4]

And another said, “It is easy to see the example of the death of kings, and from kings the warning of the death of the will.”

And another said, “Alexander never had a lesson more effective than that of his death.”

And another said, “Your voice was terrible and high your kingdom. But now your voice is gone and your kingdom has fallen.”

And another said, “You could give favours and I could not speak. Today, however, I can speak and you can not give favours.”

And another said, “If nobody was safe from you yesterday, there is no one today who is your subject.”

And another said, “Yesterday the shepherd had cared for his flock, but today the flock cares for its shepherd.”

And another said, “You’ve joined those who had a claim against you and you’ll definitely have to pay it off.  Maybe I could know what tolerance you show to acts of paying debt and of justice.”

And another said, “If you had had as much severity and serenity in the past as you show us today, you would have been a sage.”


  1. [1]Not sure that I correctly render this sentence: “ne è venuto fuori il male che gli stava alle spalle e l’ha abbandonato il bene che lo precedeva.”
  2. [2]The Italian is:  “Ti possa raggiungere chi si è rallegrato della tua morte come tu hai raggiunto coloro la cui morte ti rallegrò”.  I can’t really understand this.
  3. [3]“Come è verace la morte con i suoi, eppure essi tacciano di falsità i loro occhi e si otturano le orecchie!”
  4. [4]Perché non ti sei incollerito sì che la morte s’allontanasse da te o perché non hai opposto resistenza per cacciar via da te l’umiliazione /della morte/?

A few descriptions of Constantinople in the 15th century, none accessible to us

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks drew a line under the history of the eastern Roman empire.  The buildings and monuments of the city, already badly damaged by time and the Latin occupation of 1204, now suffered the fate of being irrelevant and inconvenient to the city rulers, and much was lost.

The most conspicuous example of this is the demolition of the church of the Holy Apostles, and the mausoleum of Constantine and the emperors who followed him.  But this was perhaps mainly an example of “marking your turf”, familiar to teenager gangs everywhere.  However much else that still survived vanished around the same time.

It would be very interesting to have a list of primary sources describing the city in the 15th century.  The dying empire still attracted visitors at the start of the century; and in the early years of Ottoman rule, there are descriptions of events that reflect the state of the city.

Sadly I do not know of such a list, nor any easy way to obtain one.  But today I came across a preview of a volume online which mentions a number of such items.

The work in question is Cigdem Kafescioglu’s Constantinopolis / Istanbul: Cultural Encounter, Imperial Vision, and the Construction of the Ottoman Capital, Pennsylvania State University, 2009.

On page 136 we find the following fascinating statement (sadly Google blanked out the diagrams):

What remained of the ceremonial arteries of Byzantine Constantinople at the time the Ottomans captured the city is not known precisely (fig. 104). What is known suggests that fragments and traces of a former monumental layout remained, rather than an intact complex of streets and fora. In his “Comparison of Old and New Rome,” which he wrote in Rome in 1411, Manuel Chrysoloras, referring to the Golden Gate and the southern branch of the Mese, mentions the “former city gate which is on the same road.” His emphasis, however, is on what remained of the city’s monumental columns, statues and pedestals “wallowing in mud and mire, having fallen into ruin,” rather than the urban spaces that bore these.233 Early Ottoman land surveys suggest that colonnaded porticoes were partly standing on the eastern portion of the Mese. The “shops called kemer (arch)” near Hagia Sophia, recorded in 1489, were possibly the last remnants of the porticoed city streets aligned with shops. These were either shop/stoa combinations, as described by Marlia Mundell-Mango, or former porticoes transformed into shops by the Ottomans.234 Ceremonial use of the arteries had similarly declined. In a study of imperial and ecclesiastical processions in Byzantium, Albrecht Berger has noted that urban ceremonial in the last centuries of Byzantium used only fragments of the city’s former ceremonial map. Rather than traverse the whole expanse of the Mese, later Byzantine emperors, in their increasingly infrequent visits to the city center, more often used a sea route from the Blachernae to the Seraglio Point and only there disembarked for a land-bound procession to theHagia Sophia or the Hippodrome.235 Accounts such as Gilles’s description of the Hippodrome as overgrown with trees at the time of the conquest and Ottoman concerns with security in these spaces point in the same direction.

Sparse yet significant information on the Hippodrome through the early years of Ottoman rule in Constantinople survives. In the image by Vavassore published around 1530, based on an original dating to the late fifteenth century, the sphendone and the entrance complex, the latter to be spoliated in the construction of the Suleymaniye mosque and complex in the 1550s, are still intact. A hagiography completed in 1484, the Velayetname-i Otman Baba, indicates that the open space of the Hippodrome—or, in its translated name, the Atmeydani—was already a central spot in the city by the end of Mehmed’s rule. In this account, the heretic dervish Otman Baba and his followers rather narrowly escape being brought here to meet their end at the stakes and hooks awaiting them.236 An opposition between the city’s center and edge, a metaphor also for proximity and distance vis-a-vis the state, is articulated here through narration of the steps taken to convey the dervishes to a convent near the Silivrikapi/Pege Gate along the land walls, and not to the Hippodrome. The Velayetname, by an author at the margins of the emerging Ottoman order, does not grant a more precise view into the events regarding the dervish’s trial. It does nevertheless provide a glimpse of the Hippodrome as one of the sites where the conflict between the heretic leader and the palace was acted out within the capital city, foreshadowing its centuries-long use as the stage where palace and city would meet for the administration of justice…

233.  Chrysoloras, “Comparison of Old and New Rome”, 211, 214.
234.  BBA (Basbakanlik Arsivi = Archives of the Prime Ministry) MM19 (Ayasofya vakfitahrir defteri, A.H. 895), fols 24a-25a. On emboloi in the Byzantine city, see Mundell-Mango, “The Commercial Map of Constantinople,” 194-97, 203-4 (JSTOR).  Information on the Mese in the Palaeologan era suggests that commercial activity was focused on particular locations rather than stretching alongside it.
235. Berger, “Imperial and Ecclesiastical Processions in Constantinople,” 83-85; 86-87, for a map of processions in the Byzantine city.
236. Kucuk Abdal, Velayetname-i Sultan Otman, 94v-97r, 117v-118v.

It is sad to see that the Turkish sources are only listed in manuscript; that is, remain unpublished.

The work by Manuel Chrysoloras, the Byzantine diplomat who taught the world how to read Greek, during three short years in Florence at the end of the 14th century, ought to be accessible.  It may be found in PG156, cols.24-53.  But Kafescioglu indicates (p.267) that an obscure English translation does indeed exist:

Chrysoloras, Manuel. “Comparison of Old and New Rome.” Translated and edited by Christine Smith. In: Architecture in the Culture of Early Humanism: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Eloquence, 1400-1470,171-215. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

That it is obscure may readily be discovered by anyone searching Google for a translation.  Sadly the paper is inaccessible to me too!  But at least it is good to know that it exists.

Why doesn’t someone create a website dedicated to 15th century Constantinople?  It would be so very useful!

Did Alfred the Great invent the story of Caesar invading Britain?

Apparently so, according to this Danish site (Aug 16, 2017, written by Ben Hamilton):

Caesar conquering Britain a 9th century invention by Alfred the Great: Saxon king fabricated 54 BC invasion to replace Viking-friendly heir and protect England from the Danes

He came … He saw … but He tampered

As you do.

This story is by a certain “Rebecca Huston, a former National Geographic Channel producer and American screenwriter who after ten years of original research and analysis” concludes that “by doctoring a Latin version of one of the ancient world’s most famous writings, and altering several Old English manuscripts, he was able to convince his council of nobles that his son Edward was the rightful heir to his throne, not his nephew Æthelwold, a Saxon susceptible to alliances with the Danes. And the astonishing upshot of this discovery is that Julius Caesar neither invaded nor conquered Britain in 54 BC.”

It continues:

Along with the collected letters of Cicero, the memoirs written by Caesar while he was conquering France and other areas of central Europe in the fifth decade of the first century BC is believed by many to be one of the few manuscripts to have survived the period.  But there is a very good chance that Caesar’s ‘Commentaries’ did not survive, and that ‘Bellum Gallicum’ (BG), the title it is known as today, was the work of other writers. Historians are wrong to treat it as gospel and to suppose this was the true voice of Caesar. But many do, and therefore they duly accept that he invaded Britain.

The basis for this?  That the earliest manuscript of the BG is 9th century, “coinciding with Alfred’s life”; that Caesar “lapses” into first person in the BG; “120 examples of Alfred’s idiosyncratic writing style”; 40 references to Alfred himself (which a forger would naturally introduce into his work); and so on.

But curiously I can’t find any other source for this story.  Nor can I find any sign of a Rebecca Huston, associated with National Geographic.  Which is more than odd, all by itself.

A glance at Texts and Transmissions reveals that the Bellum Gallicum is transmitted by two families of manuscripts, both with a 9th century exemplar.  The first was written at Fleury in the second half of the century, the other at Corbie in the 3rd quarter of the century.  The first family contains mainly the BG; the other contains all the commentaries.  Neither manuscript is British or associated with Britain, as far as I can see.

As for the other evidence, I must defer to specialists.  But I have long since grown wary of such claims.  Sifting fernseed seems to be bad for the eyes, in altogether too many cases.

Fascinating to see a claim like this, where there seems no discernible motive.  Or is it simply a silly-season invention by a journalist?

UPDATE (28/8/17): After writing this, I dropped an email to Ben Hamilton at the Copenhagen Post, who replied very promptly and helpfully, and made clear that the story is genuine.  He gave this link at IMDB for Rebecca Huston.  I have since also received some emails from Rebecca Huston.  It will be interesting to look further into this one.

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit” – an ancient Greek proverb?

This week I came across a saying online:

A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.

This, we are told, is a Greek proverb.

The sentiment is unexceptionable, but readers of this site do not believe attributions without evidence.  Is this truly ancient?  If so, how do we know?

A search on Google Books produces many references to this saying, varying somewhat in wording:

But if we use the custom date range, we quickly discover that the results vanish before the mid-1980s.  In the 1990s we get various results, mainly from the Congressional Record of the US Congress:

The “old Greek proverb” is hardly heard of before 1993, although I saw a quote in The Nation in 1991.

Eventually I happened to find a quote which atrributed it, not to ancient Greece, but to a certain Dennis Waitley: a 1989 article in the Scholastic Coach, vol. 59, p.289:

We use Dennis Waitley’s definition of a winner: “A winner is a person who plants a shade tree knowing he or she will never sit under it.”

This has the right sort of sound about it.  Waitley turns out to be a 1980s motivational speaker.  I was unable to locate in which of his books he said this.  But in fact I have just found another source, from 1972, in the Lutheran Standard, vol. 12, p.16:

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of life when he plants shade trees under which he knows he will never sit.

This is only visible in snippet view.  But this version of the saying takes us further back yet.  It is associated with a David Elton Trueblood (or D. Elton Trueblood), a Quaker, in 1955.

Yet even so I can find a reference from 1954, in a mysterious Annual Report of a Ministry of Agriculture, page 13:

A man only begins to grasp the true meaning of life when he plants a tree under whose shade he knows he will never sit.

A 1968 magazine gives the following interesting quote:

At her departure, we are reminded of the passage from Elton Trueblood’s The Life We Prize, which she so often quotes: “One has to come to the full meaning of life when he is willing to plant shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit….

The Trueblood book was printed in 1951, earlier than any reference I can find.  And on p.58 we read our quote:

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.

That, I suspect, is the real origin of the proverb – a volume of moral writing by a quaker in 1951.  The aphorism then trickles through popular magazines, changing as it goes.  Ronald Reagan uses it in 1983.  But it seems to become a “Greek proverb” only in the hands of US congressmen in 1993.