Michael the Syrian: preface to his history

The largest medieval Syriac Chronicle is that of Michael the Syrian, published with a French translation early in the 20th century by J. B. Chabot.  A single volume of this is online here.

The preface  survives only in an Armenian translation, also with French translation.  My memory is probably playing tricks on me, but I  have an uncomfortable feeling that I have translated this before.  But here it is (again?), from the French, which is online here.

Devoted and studious brothers, when I was considering the facts which it is important to know, in the great number of Chronicles, I refrained from going into detail about those which can be learned from the great number of existing accounts, and I have compiled, in the process, from ecclesiastical and profane writers what was useful and appropriate; so as to reveal this way the mortal laziness of many, and to enlighten the shadows of ignorance, lifting the sight towards the reward of my efforts.  I shall leave this treasure to the church, and to the Teachers of the children of the new Zion, so that it will survive after my time.

In first place we must place the first of all mankind, Adam, so that we start at the beginning.  This will be useful to those who speak and those who listen.  But first we must give the names of the historians from whom we propose to take the material of our edifice.

[Julius] Africanus, Jesus, Hegesippus, Jews, covered up to the coming of Christ.  Annianus, a monk of Alexandria, covered from Adam until the emperor Constantine.

Eusebius Pamphili composed his book with the help of their writings and called it Church History.

Zosimus, Socrates and Theodoret the heretic began their writings with Constantine and [went down] to Theodosius the Younger.

John of Antioch and of Djebel, Theodore Lector, of Constantinople and Zacharias, bishop of Melitene, covered from Theodosius to Justinian the Elder.

John of Asia covered from Anastasius to Maurice.

Gouria covered from Justinian to Heraclius, and on the invasion of the Arabs into the lands of the Syrians, which took place in the time of Heraclius.

Saint James of Edessa made an abridgement of them all.

Dionysius the patriarch covered from Maurice to Theophilus, emperor of the Greeks, and Haroun, emir of the Arabs.

Ignatius, bishop of Melitene, Saliba the Elder, of Melitene, John of Kaisoum and Dionysius (of Alexandria), Bar-Salibi, made several chronicles from Adam to their own times.

Now we have enumerated the chroniclers who, considering the studious disposition of listeners in their own times, wrote with rich colours, we who live in a lesser age, seeing our indolence, [will write] briefly passing rapidly over each of their accounts.

But studious men should not consume their energies in working out greater or lesser numbers in the computation of dates, because of the truth of the saying of the Saviour, “The Father has kept for himself the knowledge of times and dates.” In fact there seems a great deal of difference between the version of the Septuagint and that which the Syrians possess, that which king Abgar had translated, and which James of Edessa revised by using the artifice of a pretended conversion to Judaism, so that the Jews wouldn’t hide their information from him.

22 Responses to “Michael the Syrian: preface to his history”


  1. Andrea Schmidt

    I am preparing a critical edition of the two versions of the Armenian Michael the Syrian
    Andrea Schmidt (Université catholique de Louvain)

  2. Dioscorus Boles

    I just wonder if Schmidt has finished her critical edition of the Armenian Michael the Great.

  3. Roger Pearse

    Interesting question. I don’t know, I have to say.

  4. Andrea Schmidt

    The critical edition of the 2 versions on the basis of many manuscripts needs time. The edition and translation cannot be expected soon, though it is in work.

  5. Roger Pearse

    It is excellent news that these are to be edited, tho — thank you!

  6. Laura

    I’m assuming that Schmidt’s critical edition will be in French?

    Are any English editions planned? Or are any obtainable?

  7. Roger Pearse

    I would presume that the translation and commentary will be in French.

    I think that Gorgias Press will be giving an English translation of the Armenian as part of their Michael the Syrian project. An English translation of the Syriac is definitely in progress; and I understood that the Armenian would also be done.

  8. Andrea Schmidt

    The Armenian editions of the 2 versions are in work; they will be done on the basis of at least 64 mss; the oldest from the 13th-14th c. The translation is in German, my mother tongue. For the preliminaries of the critical edition see my foreword in Georg Kiraz’ reprint of the old Armenian editions (Jerusalem 1870 and 1871), which will be reprinted in the next issue of Hugoye.

  9. Roger Pearse

    Thank you so much for the update! I had no idea that there were so many manuscripts. How marvellous! How did you locate the mss? (I don’t know where the main collections of Armenian mss are)

    I will very much look forward to seeing your foreword in Hugoye — in English, or in German?

    Are there any plans for an English translation?

  10. Laura

    Why does Wikipedia say there is only ONE manuscript?

  11. Roger Pearse

    Remember that the text is extant in Syriac, the original language, in one damaged manuscript. But we’ve been talking here about an *Armenian* translation, which alone preserves the introduction, and exists in this vast number of manuscripts. There is also an Arabic translation in several manuscripts.

  12. Roger Pearse

    I wrote most of that Wikipedia article, back in the days when I still contributed to Wikipedia (don’t ever do that; there are some very nasty people in there, and I regret ever doing so). Of course I was thinking of the Syriac.

  13. Laura

    That makes sense. I tend to avoid wikipedia on controversial subjects but thought I could rely on them for something along this line.

    Anyway, I’m working on a book about the fall of Rome and I’ve assembled all the earthquake/disaster/plague quotes I can find from Procopius, Malalas, John of Ephesus, Zuqnin, Pseudo-Zachariah and Evagrius. You could say that I’m creating a chronicle, year by year, of the chronicles, placing the extracts in the correct chronological order by year and chronicle. I live in France, but I don’t speak French (don’t want to, either since I spend all my time working in English.) My secretary is going through the old French translation of MtS and trying to find all the relevant passages for me to make comparisons. However, I have a little puzzle.

    In Pseudo-Dionysius AKA Zuqnin, the John of Ephesus account of the plague, Witakowski’s footnote says that PD leaves out the origin of the plague – Alexandria – but then refers to it a few sentences later, and that Alexandria is named at the beginning of the John of Ephesus account preserved in MtS.

    So, I have this excerpt my secretary translated earlier today for me (not an expert job, but good enough that I can get the gist) and it says:

    “In the book of John of Asia, the great plague of that year – 855, the year 16 of Justinian – is amply covered,[This plague] that since the beginning of the world had no equal and will never be rivaled. The whole universe was absolutely struck by the cruel scourge. It began first amongst the people of South-East India, that is to say the Kous, the Himyarites and others then it reached the so-called “superior” regions of the occident, Romans, Italians, Gauls, Spaniards. We learned that the men became enraged, like dogs, they went crazy, attacked each other, went to the mountains and committed suicide. These events were not considered as the echoes of bad omens yet, but the scourge progressed and reached the lands of Kous, on the confines of Egypt, and from there it spread to Egypt itself. – Like the curved scythe of the harvester, it took possession of the land and progressed constantly. When most of the people had perished, to the point that Egypt came to be deprived of its inhabitants, ruined and deserted, it fell on Alexandria and consumed plenty of people.”

    Obviously, something is missing in the translation. Kous is obviously Cush, or Ethiopia, but where does that “south-east India” come from?

    It’s rather an important point since there are two schools of thought about plagues: the China origin vs the African origin. If the best information at the time was to localize it in India, that might point back to China.

    Any ideas on this?

  14. Roger Pearse

    Firstly, what is the page and volume reference to Michael the Syrian? I uploaded PDF’s of the French translation to Archive.org, so it is a simple matter to consult it.

    It would be good to have references to the other passages you mention too.

  15. Laura

    The MtS account is, apparently here:Page 243-248 of the doc version; Book IX – Chapter XXVIII – Page 235-240 of the pdf version.

    The other excerpts mentioned constitute a considerable block of text which, if you are willing, I can paste in here. I start at 498 AD, continue through 570, and then cover the overlap from Gregory of Tours from 539, continuing on to 591. It’s quite a harrowing read.

  16. Roger Pearse

    You don’t mention the volume. Luckily for me I have some idea of the layout of the work, and it is in volume 2. The passage that you quote is actually on page 235 here.

    This tells us that:

    The whole world was struck by the cruel scourge. It began first among the peoples inside the countries to/of the South-East of India (“du sud-est de l’Inde”), i.e. Koush, Himyarites, and others; then among the peoples of the West, which are called “upper”, the peoples of the Romans, Italians, Gauls and Spaniards. We learn that men became enraged, like dogs, went mad, attacked one another, went out into the mountains and killed themselves. These things were still only considered as ominous echoes, but the scourge progressed and conquered the lands of Koush, on the borders of Egypt, and from there it spread into Egypt itself….

    I would have read “du sud-est de l’Inde” as “to the south-east of India”, but then I know very little French. Google translate says “of South-East India”.

    Since the author states that Koush (yes, this must be Kush) is on the borders of Egypt, clearly he knew that it wasn’t part of India. But … I wouldn’t stress over this. No ancient writer has more than a hazy idea of geography. Michael knows that you pass Kush and the Himyarite kingdom on the way to India, and that’s probably it.

    You will need, I think, to look at the Syriac for this specific sentence. For that you will need someone with knowledge of that language.

    Note that I would strongly recommend that you verify your quotations yourself, rather than relying on someone else. You will need to learn at least some French if you propose to deal with French sources, even if someone else is doing the legwork for you (well done if you can find someone to translate for you to an adequate standard anyway). Google translate is really quite good for French-to-English, and you can get a very good idea of what is said.

  17. Laura

    Yes, obviously the only way the issue can be settled is by a look at the Syriac and I don’t happen to know anyone offhand who is expert in that language, but I’ll see what I can find. In the meantime, I pointed out the problem to my secty/translator (who has a “superiure” education in France), and he wrote a little while ago:

    “contrées du Sud-Est de L’Inde” can mean regions located in South-Eastern India or regions located to the South East of India, although this last interpretation would fit better to “contrées au Sud-Est de L’Inde”. I don’t know if it’s because of the original text and/or the XIXth century translation but the style is not very accurate. It’s a bit like spoken French that would have been written down.

    Further : from what I see there’s an inconsistency when Michael writes : “it started in the region of South East India (or the regions to the South East of India whatever) that is to say the Koush”.

    Although Koush people were living in Nubia/Soudan which is South West (and not South East) to India.

    BUT, a few lines later Michael writes : “the scourge progressed and reached the lands of Kous, on the confines of Egypt, and from there it spread to Egypt itself”

    From that part it seems that the plague had already started (around India?) and then progressed and then reached Koush/ Southern Egypt.<<<

    What is known: "Along the east coast of Africa, there were four ancient trading cities under the control of Arab merchants from Yemen: Opone (Ras Hfun in Somalia), Essina, Toniki, and Rhapta. The last archaeological finds in Opone date from the fifth up to the early sixth century. The other three never made it into the medieval period. It is noted that 90% of the known coastal medieval archaeological sites seem to have no history prior to the 7th century, so they must have been established after the disappearance of the four ancient trading centers. Throughout east Africa, the pottery types change at exactly this point of discontinuity. Before the 6th century, it was all early Iron Age; after the 6th century it is all late Iron Age with a significant gap of transition."

    So it is entirely within the realm of possibility that traders from India, or China via India, brought the plague to the coast of Africa and from there it moved up.

    What strikes me is that the archaeology of the Western Empire reveals so stark a decline in population BEFORE a commensurate decline in the Eastern Empire which would suggest the plague came to the Western empire first and then came to the East either via the Levant or even via the army returning from Italy.

    It's all very tedious trying to trace things with so much material lost or redacted in infuriating ways. I work best with raw, clean, data, sorting and analyzing. That, in itself, is a huge task so I don't have much time to become an expert in languages; I rely on others who have the language gene to do their jobs well. I'll just have to write in the text that this can't be sorted out any further so it is still an iffy point.

  18. Roger Pearse

    Think about the Sud, that nice big swamp in the Sudan. I don’t think India comes into this, although Ethiopia would be in the right place. Cosmas Indicopleustes, remember, was in Axum in 550, at a time when the King of Ethiopia was preparing his attack on the Himyarite Kingdom in the Yemen in revenge for the Himyarite martyrs. Plague coming up the Nile from “Kush”, plague in Yemen, some sort of association with India … ? It’s just a thought.

  19. Laura

    Yes, that just adds to the puzzle. P. has just sent me the following (he didn’t reference the page):

    >>I just found another excerpt dealing with the koush. I’m not sure that Michael locates them in modern Sudan.

    He writes:
    “On the things done by Justinian, among the Indians and Kousites kings.

    “These kingdoms [are more inside than the one of the] Himyarites, they are opposite the land of Egypt and Thebes, below India.

    A Jew who started reigning over the country of the Himyarites killed Christians and kidnapped merchants who traveled the country of the Romans in the lands of the Indians…”

    From this description the Koush kingdom seems to be located (according to MTS) East to Himyar (most of the western arabic peninsula) and West to India. So it would be somewhere around modern Iran/Pakistan/Afghanistan. <<

  20. Roger Pearse

    Not if it is on the confines of Egypt.

    Not too sure about those translations … they look rather dodgy to me.

  21. Laura

    Well, I’ll question P closely, but he is something of an expert translator which is why I pay him and he did spend years as a program director at Luminy, so he’s certainly qualified.

  22. Roger Pearse

    Well, just read this for English syntax: “A Jew who started reigning over the country of the Himyarites killed Christians and kidnapped merchants who traveled the country of the Romans in the lands of the Indians…” Did what?

    I wonder whether it should be “traveled from the country of the Romans into the lands of the Indians”, but in the absence of the French I can’t say. Merchants did make that trip (Cosmas Indicopleustes worked on such a ship).



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