Book review: Anthony Kaldellis’ “A cabinet of Byzantine curiosities”

Anthony Kaldellis, A cabinet of Byzantine curiosities: strange tales and surprising facts from history’s most orthodox empire, Oxford University Press (2017). Available from:;

Oxford University Press (USA) emailed and asked me to review this little volume.  I agreed at once.  We need more easy-to-read collections of anecdotes and wit from antiquity, and something of the kind for the Byzantine empire can only be a good thing.  I believe Dr Kaldellis has written two preceding volumes on Roman and Greek curiosities, but I have not seen these.

Such a book is aimed at the educated general reader.  Possibly I am the ideal reader for such a book.  For I collect books of anecdotes, and humour anyway, so I am familiar with the genre; and, although I am not a professional scholar, I do love tales of antiquity, and I am even interested in some parts of Byzantine history.  So… what did I make of it?

The volume is a small hardback, with a quite magnificent cover designed by Brady McNamara.  In fact this photograph from OUP’s website does not do it justice!

The standard of book manufacture is high – no surprise from OUP.  There are internal photographs inline, taken from manuscripts, in monochrome.  These are not a success, and look very murky.  The idea is very sound; but the images should have been reproduced in colour.  As it is, the eye skips over them.

Dr Kaldellis has assembled some 200 pages of anecdotes, taken from sources mainstream and otherwise.  He gives the source in almost every case, and one can only respect the breadth of reading that is involved, particularly in hagiographical literature.  Translations are his own, and he wisely advises the reader that he has paraphrased where need be to bring out the point for the general reader.  In a book of this kind, intended for entertainment, this is entirely right and proper.

As is usual in these kinds of collections, the material is organised by topic.  A table of contents would be helpful here.  Curiously it starts with marriage and the family; then “unorthodox sex” (!?); animals; food and dining; eunuchs; medical practice;… and so on.  The ordering of this material seemed unusual to me.  Usually such volumes open with military anecdotes, scholarship, and so on, wandering into more domestic items later.  Stuff about the vices of the Byzantines should certainly have been banished to deeper inside the book.

Failing to follow the traditional (!?) order rather undermined the author’s hope to neutralise the picture of the Byzantines as a bunch of decadent back-stabbing effeminate cowardly treacherous superstitious scumbags.  In fact the content left me with precisely that impression.  For instance the negative anecdotes about Byzantine saints, although deeply valuable to me, reinforced the impression of credulous superstition.  Other anecdotes made clear how the Byzantines preferred bribery and treachery to courage, which reinforced the stereotype of weakness and backstabbing.  So here the author fails in his objective.

But this does not weaken the usefulness of the book to me, and probably to others.  I don’t object to the old stereotype in any way.  What the book gives me is solid interesting information from primary sources, that might perhaps not easily be gathered in so compact a form.  For instance how many of us know that St Simeon the Stylite developed an abcess on his foot which dripped stinking pus all down his pillar?  The charlatanry of the monks is well brought out.

And of course such books are rarely read from cover to cover.  Maybe doing so is rather a mistake.  Indeed Dr K. wisely suggests that this is the sort of book to read on the toilet.  Nor is he wrong.  Open it anywhere, read a bit, learn a bit, smile a bit – that is what such books are for.

One decision will strike the reader at once.  The author has decided, unusually, to give nearly all names as a transcription from Greek.  So “Konstantinos” appears all over the place, instead of Constantine (with the absurd result that on one page we have Constantine I facing Konstantinos V!); Ioannes rather than John; and even Isaccios Komnenos for Isaac Comnenus.  This habit, creeping in among some academics, is deplorable.  It achieves nothing, since all of us know what is meant.  It places a barrier in the way of the general reader.  It (again!) vitiates the author’s purpose, to suggest that the medieval Greeks were the Roman successors, when the names are so utterly odd and un-Roman.  This was a mistake, and OUP should have prevented this.  Many ordinary people can empathise with the brave death of Constantine XI, going out in 1453 to die fighting in the streets as the Turks breached the walls of Constantinople.  Nobody cares a bit about a king called Konstantinos XI, whoever he might have been.  I suspect that Dr. K. is not to blame, but these sorts of games, which tend to exclude the ordinary folk, are a form of elitism.

I learned a great deal from the book.  Again and again I found myself drawn, wanting to put down the volume and go and look up the original source.  (In some cases, of course, I remembered the original, and I didn’t detect any significant lack of reliability).

This is not a joke book either.  But the stories are interesting enough.  Anyone interested in Byzantium will find useful stuff in here, relatively easily absorbed.  So I think I can recommend the book, although I would definitely argue against reading it from the front.  Read it on the toilet, read it in bits here and there.  Because of the contents, I cannot recommend it as a gift for the monk in your life, however; which is a shame, since the Most Orthodox Empire is a subject that would otherwise appeal to many of them.

UPDATE: Added links to Amazon with my tag on.

The tomb of St Nicholas of Myra?

Turkish archaeologists have used ground-penetrating equipment and discovered the shrine of St Nicholas of Myra underneath the church of St Nicholas in Demre, ancient Myra, according to the Daily Telegraph.  The report seems rather sketchy, and the claims likewise.  They are also claiming that the bones of St Nicholas, supposed now to be in Bari, have in fact remained in Demre/Myra, although it is hard to see how any electronic equipment could tell that.  But of course the Turks are hoping for a boost to the tourist trade, and understandably so.

Let us wish them good luck in their excavations!

Church of St Nicholas of Myra in modern Demre, ancient Myra, in Turkey.

From my diary

I’ve been looking some more at Byzantine science.  My original intention was to write a series of posts on each area of science.  But I’m finding that in fact I don’t know enough about the subjects to do so.  In particular knowledge of Byzantine mathematics and astronomy seems to require more knowledge of the works of Aristotle than I possess.  So I will probably do no more on this.

Yesterday I was looking at an English translation of a poem by al-Akhtal, the court poet of the early Ummayads, whom I wrote about here.  This led me to wonder how to post a poem on WordPress, which is what this blog runs on.  There is no feature in the blogging platform to support the sort of alternately indented lines that a regular poem has.  I found quite a number of posts asking why there is not a plugin to make this possible.

A bit of experimentation, and I developed a basic wordpress plugin with very little difficulty, that added a drop-down to the editor with a set of new and custom styles to apply to the text.  I set up Xampp locally on Windows 10 and installed WordPress inside it.  A short article told me what a simple plugin looked like. Another told me how to use a generator to create one, which I did, although I had to create a GitHub account to use it.  Finally another article advised me on how to do the changes manually; which I did instead inside my plugin, adding the PHP code to the main generated plugin .php file, and sticking a css file in the root.  It all sort of worked, and I pushed it to GitHub.

But … it just did not work to format poetry.  The problem is not the plugin.  The problem is that WordPress strips whitespace in a manner impossible to control.  You can insert stuff in a poetic format.  But the moment you open the post in the visual editor, that format is destroyed.

This is a fundamental problem with poetry in WordPress.  It can’t be fixed, unless or until the main developers address the whitespace handling issue.

The only possible approach is to format it all as <PRE>, which is not much of an answer and looks terrible.

Perhaps it says something about the importance of poetry in our society, that the main blogging platform for writing online makes it impossible to post verse?

I need to return to translating Eutychius of Alexandria.  I have a couple of books to review.

My trip to Rome later this month will not now happen, after my travelling companion became ill.

I read this morning that the publishing industry continues its campaign against the SciHub pirate website, through which alone normal people can access most journal articles.  Apparently a US judge wants to prevent Americans from accessing it.  That should certainly give China an advantage!  The site itself is apparently hosted in Russia, fortunately.

To finish, let me attempt to post the poem by al-Akhtal, in preformatted format, as translated by Suzanne Stetkevych.[1]  I laid it out in Notepad; but my attempt to create a preformatted block and paste it in was a complete failure.  Even preformatted text is not handled well by the visual editor, it seems.  In the end I switched to text view and pasted it in there, with <pre></pre> tags around it.  This gives the following appearance:

How long will it remain formatted, I wonder?  Well, let’s see!

Here is the complete poem, that al-Akhtal delivered before the caliph, while drunk.

Al-Akhtal's Khaffa al-Qatinu: The Nasib

1. Those that dwelt with you have left in haste,
       departing at evening or at dawn,
   Alarmed and driven out by fate's caprice,
       they head for distant lands.
2. And I, on the day fate took them off,
       was like one drunk
   On wine from Hims or Jadar
       that sends shivers down the spine,
3. Poured generously from a brimming wine-jar,
       lined with pitch and dark with age,
   Its clay seal broken
       off its mouth,
4. A wine so strong it strikes
       the vital organs of the reveller,
   His heart, hungover, can barely
       sober up.
5. I was like that, or like a man
       whose joints are racked with pain,
   Or like a man whose heart is struck
       by charms and amulets,
   Out of longing for them and yearning
       on the day I sent my glance after them
   As they journeyed in small bands
       on Kawkab Hill's two slopes.
7. They urged on their mounts,
       turning their backs on us,
   while in veiled howdahs, if you spoke softly to them,
       were maidens lovely as statues.
8. They entice the tribesmen
       until they ensnare them,
   Yet they seem feeble-minded
       when questioned.
9. Forget about union with beautiful women
       when they are sure
   That you are a man whom
       old age's blossom has demeaned!
10. They turned away from me
       when my bow's stringer bent it
   And when my once jet-black locks
       turned white.
11. They do not heed the man who calls them
       to fulfill his need,
   Nor do they set their sights upon
       a white-haired man.
12. They headed east when summer's blast
       had wrung the branches dry,
   And, except where ploughshares run,
       all green had withered.
13. So the eye is troubled by tears
       shed for a now-distant campsite
   Whose folk will find it hard to ever
       meet again.
14. They are cut off, like a rope,
       and the eye follows after them,
   Between al-Shaqiq
       and al-Maqsim Spring,
15. Until they descended to a land
       on the side of a river bed
   Where the tribes of Shayban and Ghubar
16. Until when they left behind
       the sandy tamarisk ground
   And had reached high ground, or said,
       "This is the trench [that Khosroes] dug."
17. They alighted in the evening,
       and we turned aside our noble-bred camels:
   For the man in need, the time had come
       to journey.
18. To a man whose gifts do not elude us,
       whom God has made victorious,
   So let him in his victory
       long delight!
19. He who wades into the deep of battle,
       auspicious his augury,
   The Caliph of God
       through whom men pray for rain.
20. When his soul whispers its intention to him
       it sends him resolutely forth,
   His courage and his caution
       like two keen blades.
21. In him the common weal resides,
       and after his assurance
   No peril can seduce him
       from his pledge.
22. Not even the Euphrates when its tributaries
       pour seething into it
   And sweep the giant swallow-wort from its two banks
       into the middle of its rushing stream,
23. And the summer winds churn it
       until its waves
   Form agitated puddles
       on the prows of ships,
24. Racing in a vast and mighty torrent
       from the mountains of Byzance
   Whose foothills shield them from it
       and divert its course,
25. Is ever more generous than he is
       to the supplicant
   Or more dazzling
       to the beholder's eye.
26. They did not desist from their treachery and cunning
       against you
   Until, unknowingly, they portioned out
       the maysir-players' flesh.	 
27. Then whoever witholds his counsel
       from us
   And whose hand is niggardly to those
       beneath us
28. Will be the ransom
       of the Commander of the Faithful,
   When a fierce and glowering battle-day
       bares its teeth.
29. Like a crouching lion, poised to pounce,
       his chest low to the ground,
   For a battle in which there is
       prey for him,
30. [The Caliph] advances with an army
       two-hundred thousand strong,
   The likes of which no man or jinn
       has ever seen.
31. He comes to bridges which he builds
       and then destroys,
   He brands his steeds with battle-scars,
       above him fly banners and battle-dust,
32. Until at al-Taff
       they wreaked carnage,
   And at al-Thawiyyah
       where no bowstring twanged.
33. The tribesmen saw clearly
       the error of their ways,
   And he straightened out the smirk
       upon their faces.
34. Single-handed, he assumed the burdens
       of the people of Iraq,
   Among whom he once had bestowed
       a store of grace and favor.
35. In the mighty nab'-tree of Quraysh
       round which they gather,
   No other tree can top
       its lofty crown.
36. It overtops the high hills,
       and they dwell in its roots and stem;
   They are the people of bounty,
       and, when they boast, of glory,
37. Rallying behind the truth, recoiling from foul speech,
   In the face of war's calamities
       they stand steadfast.
38. If a darkening cloud casts its pall
       over the horizons,
   They have a refuge from it
       and a haven.
39. God allotted to them the good fortune
       that made them victorious,  
   And after theirs all other lots
       are small, contemptible.
40. They do not exult in it
       since they are its masters;
   Any other tribe, were this their lot,
       would be exultant, vain.
41. Ruthless toward their foe,
       till they submit;
   In victory,
       the most clement of men.
42. Those that harbor rancor toward them
       cannot endure their battle-wrath;
   When their rods are tested
       no flaw is found.
43. It is they who vie with the rain-bearing wind
       to bring sustenance
   When impoverished supplicants
       find scant food.
44. O Banu Umayyah, your munificence
       is like a widespread rain;
   It is perfect,
       unsullied by reproach.
45. O Banu Umayyah, it was I
       who defended you
   From the men of a tribe
       that sheltered and aided [the Prophet].
46. I silenced the Banu Najjir's endless braying
       against you
   With poems that reached the ears
       of every chieftain of Ma'add,
47. Until they submitted,
       smarting from my words-
   For words can often pierce
       where sword-points fail.
48. O Banu Umayyah, I offer you
       sound counsel:
   Don't let Zufar dwell secure
       among you,
49. But take him as an enemy,
       for what you see of him
   And what lies hid within
       is all corruption.
50. For in the end you'll meet
       with ancient rancor:
   Like mange, it lies latent for awhile
       only to break out once more.

The poem grows on you, as you read it.  The caliph was well pleased, as we learned last time.

  1. [1]Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, “Umayyad Panegyric and the Poetics of Islamic Hegemony: al-Akhṭal’s “Khaffa al-Qaṭīnu” (“Those That Dwelt with You Have Left in Haste”)“, Journal of Arabic Literature 28 (1997), pp. 89-122.  JSTOR.

The log book of Inspector Merer from Wadi al Jarf and the pyramid of Cheops / Khufu

So now we know how the stones were transported to build the pyramids of Egypt!!  They were moved by boat.  We know now this, thanks to a discovery in 2013 of a papyrus, in some boat storage caves on the Red Sea.  The find has caused a bunch of picture stories online this summer, such as this one at the Smithsonian, the Sun,  and I believe a TV documentary by Channel 4, Egypt’s Great Pyramid: The New Evidence.  The first volume of papyri from the find has just been published in book form.

Like most people, I tend to be sceptical of newspaper reports about wonderful finds in Egypt.  But this is entirely genuine!  There is some hard info here, and a very nice article from “The harbour of Khufu on the Red Sea coast at adi al-Jarf, Egypt” in Near Eastern Archaeology 77:1 (2014), 4-14 (PDF here), which shows a piece of the papyrus:

A detail of one page of Inspector Merer’s “diary” (B), mentioning
the “Horizon of Khufu.” Photograph by G. Pollin.

The papyrus is from the early 4th Dynasty, around 2,500 BC. It is the journal, daybook, or logbook, of Inspector Merer, who perhaps wrote it with a reed pen himself, and was in charge of a team of about 200 men.  It is, in fact, the most ancient inscribed papyrus ever found in Egypt.  It dates from the reign of Cheops, or Khufu as we must call him, the builder of the Great Pyramid.  In fact it dates from year 27 of his reign, when the pyramid was actually being finished, and its outer casing of fine Tura limestone was being fitted.

Most of the new book will be specialist stuff.  But, bless them, the team have put online a great deal of useful material!

The website of Prof. Tallet and his team is AMeRS, the “Association Mer Rouge-Sinai”.  An interview with Dr. T. is available in video here.  But even better, at this post, there is a PDF containing those portions of the book of general interest, with an analysis in English.  This includes … translations into English and Arabic (why not French?), and the post also has an English abstract:

At the end of this month, the first volume dedicated to the Wadi el-Jarf papyri will be published at the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo. These documents, found at the entrance of the storage galleries, are exceptional, since they are the most ancient inscribed papyri ever found in Egypt. Like most of the remains of the harbor of Wadi el-Jarf, they are from the reign of Khufu. Pierre Tallet choose for this first volume, to deal with two of the best preserved papyri (papyrus A and B), belonging to the logbook written by the inspector Merer, whose team was engaged in the transportation by boat of limestone blocs from the quarry of Tura to the construction site of the great pyramid of Khufu at Giza.

English and Arabic translation of the Egyptian text and synthesis of the data [1705_Tallet]

This is wonderful, and it is remarkable how few people have linked to it.

I’ve reformatted the English translation for ease of reading, and here it is.  “Akhet-Khufu” is the Great Pyramid, the “Horizon of Khufu”.  “She Khufu” means “the pool of Khufu”, short for “Ro-She Khufu”, the “entrance to the pool of Khufu”, which is perhaps the headquarters for the administration of the pyramid project, situated on the artificial lake near the mortuary temple.  Ankhhaf was Cheops’ half-brother, and in charge of works including the pyramid construction.

First day : […] spend the day […] in […].
[Day] 2: […] spend the day […] in? […].
[Day 3: Cast off from?] the royal palace? [… sail]ing [upriver] towards Tura, spend the night there.
Day [4]: Cast off from Tura, morning sail downriver towards Akhet-Khufu, spend the night.
[Day] 5: Cast off from Tura in the afternoon, sail towards Akhet-Khufu.
Day 6: Cast off from Akhet-Khufu and sail upriver towards Tura […].
[Day 7]: Cast off in the morning from […]
Day 8: Cast off in the morning from Tura, sail downriver towards Akhet-Khufu, spend the night there.
Day 9: Cast off in the morning from Akhet-Khufu, sail upriver; spend the night.
Day 10: Cast off from Tura, moor in Akhet-Khufu. Come from […]? the aper-teams?[…]
Day 11: Inspector Merer spends the day with [his phyle in] carrying out works related to the dyke of [Ro-She] Khuf[u …]
Day 12: Inspector Merer spends the day with [his phyle carrying out] works related to the dyke of Ro-She Khufu […].
Day 13: Inspector Merer spends the day with [his phyle? …] the dyke which is in Ro-She Khufu by means of 15? phyles of aper-teams.
Day [14]: [Inspector] Merer spends the day [with his phyle] on the dyke [in/of Ro-She] Khu[fu…].
[Day] 15 […] in Ro-She Khufu […].
Day 16: Inspector Merer spends the day […] in Ro-She Khufu with the noble? […].
Day 17: Inspector Merer spends the day […] lifting the piles of the dy[ke …].
Day 18: Inspector Merer spends the day […]
Day 19 […]
Day 20 […] for the rudder? […] the aper-teams.

[Day 25]: [Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle [h]au[ling]? st[ones in Tura South]; spends the night at Tura South
[Day 26]: Inspector Merer casts off with his phyle from Tura [South], loaded with stone, for Akhet-Khufu; spends the night at She-Khufu.
Day 27: sets sail from She-Khufu, sails towards Akhet-Khufu, loaded with stone, spends the night at Akhet-Khufu.
Day 28: casts off from Akhet-Khufu in the morning; sails upriver Tura South.
Day 29: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle hauling stones in Tura South; spends the night at Tura South.
Day 30: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle hauling stones in Tura South; spends the night at Tura South.

[First day ] the director of 6 Idjer[u] casts of for Heliopolis in a transport boat-iuat to bring  us food from Heliopolis while the Elite (stp-sȝ) is in Tura.
Day 2: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle hauling stones in Tura North; spends the night at Tura North.
Day 3: Inspector Merer casts off from Tura North, sails towards Akhet-Khufu loaded with stone.
[Day 4 …] the director of 6 [Idjer]u [comes back] from Heliopolis with 40 sacks-khar and a large measure-heqat of bread-beset while the Elite hauls stones in Tura North.
Day 5: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle loading stones onto the boats-hau of the Elite in Tura North, spends the night at Tura.
Day 6: Inspector Merer sets sail with a boat of the naval section (gs-dpt) of Ta-ur, going downriver towards Akhet-Khufu. Spends the night at Ro-She Khufu.
Day 7: sets sail in the morning towards Akhet-Khufu, sails towing towards Tura North, spends the night at […]
Day 8: sets sail from Ro-She Khufu, sails towards Tura North. Inspector Merer spends the day [with a boat?] of Ta-ur? […].
Day 9: sets sail from […] of Khufu […].
Day 10: […]

[Day 13 …] She-[Khufu] […] spends the night at Tur]a South.
[Day 14: … hauling] stones [… spends the night in] Tura South.
[Day 15:] Inspector Merer [spends the day] with his [phyle] hauling stones [in Tura] South, spends the night in Tura South.
[Day 16: Inspector Merer spends the day with] his phyle loading the boat-imu (?) with stone [sails …] downriver, spends the night at She-Khufu.
[Day 17: casts off from She-Khufu] in the morning, sails towards Akhet-Khufu; [sails … from] Akhet-Khufu, spends the night at She-Khufu.
[Day 18] […] sails […] spends the night at Tura .
[Day 19]: Inspector Merer] spends the day [with his phyle] hauling stones in Tura [South ?].
Day 20: [Inspector] Mer[er] spends the day with [his phyle] hauling stones in Tura South (?), loads 5 craft, spends the night at Tura.
Day 21: [Inspector] Merer spends the day with his [phyle] loading a transport ship-imu at Tura North, sets sail from Tura in the afternoon.
Day 22: spends the night at Ro-She Khufu. In the morning, sets sail from Ro-She Khufu; sails towards Akhet-Khufu; spends the night at the Chapels of [Akhet] Khufu.
Day 23: The director of 10 Hesi spends the day with his naval section in Ro-She Khufu, because a decision to cast off was taken; spends the night at Ro-She Khufu.
Day 24: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle hauling (stones? craft?) with those who are on the register of the Elite, the aper-teams and the noble Ankhhaf, director of Ro-She Khufu.
Day 25: Inspector Merer spends the day with his team hauling stones in Tura, spends the night at Tura North.
[Day 26 …] sails towards […]

Day x+1: [sails] downriver […] the bank of the point of She-Khufu.
Day x+2: […] sails? from Akhet-Khufu […] Ro-She Khufu.
Day x+3: [… loads?] […Tura] North.
Day x+4: […] loaded with stone […] Ro-She [Khufu].
Day x+5: […] Ro-She Khufu […] sails from Akhet-Khufu; spends the night.
Day x+6: [… sails …] Tura.
Day x+7: [… hauling?] stones [in Tura North, spends the night at Tura North.
Day x+8: [Inspector Merer] spends the day with his phyle [hauling] stones in Tura North; spends the night in Tura North.
Day x+9: […] stones [… Tura] North.
Day x+10: […] stones [Tu]ra North;
Day x+11: [casts off?] in the afternoon […] sails? […]

x+1 […Tura] North […] spends the night there.
x+2: […] sails [… Tura] North, spends the night at Tura North.
x+3 [… loads, hauls] stones […]
x+4 […] spends the night there.
x+5 […] with his phyle loading […] loading a craft.
x+6 […] sails [… Ro-She?] Khufu […]
x+7 […] with his phyle sails […] sleeps at [Ro]-She Khufu
x+8 […]

It is really fascinating to read this account of the days of a man much like ourselves, writing some 4,500 years ago!  Well done, Dr Tallet and friends, for making this accessible to us all!

Pierre Tallet, Les papyrus de la Mer Rouge I: Le “Journal de Merer”.

Byzantine science – Zoology

Timotheus of Gaza.  A grammarian who lived in the reign of Anastasius at the end of the 5th century.  He was a student of the Egyptian philosopher Horapollo (so the Cyrillus Lexicon).  Tzetzes (Historiae 4.166- 69) remarks that Timotheos, along with Aelian and Oppian, represents the best zoology.  The Suda (T 621) describes him thus:

Of Gaza. Grammarian. He lived under the emperor Anastasius, for whom he wrote a tragedy on the public tax known as the chrysargyros. He also wrote in epic verse On the four-footed animals in India, Arabia and Egypt, and the creatures of Libya; also on unusual foreign birds and snakes in 4 books.

The 4 books in epic verse on animals (De animalibus, peri zoon) seem to be entirely lost.  But a manuscript from Augsburg (now in Munich) preserves an 11th century prose paraphrase of the work, but without indicating the author.  The date of this paraphrase is clear from the section recording the arrival of a giraffe in the time of Anastasius, and the same “in our own time” under Constantine Monomachus.  The creation of a prose paraphrase indicates the popularity of the work.  The editio princeps was printed by Matthaei in Moscow in 1811, but most of the edition was destroyed by Napoleon’s attack on the city. Portions of the text in an Oxford manuscript were published by Cramer, and these give the name of the author.  Older catalogues suggest that an incomplete copy of this work – or perhaps even of the original – may be found on Mount Athos, in the library of the Great Laura.

In addition some fragments of grammatical work Peri Syntaxeos were published by Cramer from a Paris manuscript (Coislin 387).  The “tragedy” – probably, at this date, merely a speech or dramatization, was perhaps written at the request of his fellow townsmen as a petition against the hated chrysargyron tax.  Seitz’s suggestion that the catalogue published by K.N.Satha indicates an “incomplete” copy of the tragedy on Mount Athos probably in fact refers to a copy of the De animalibus, as the title is only “to the emperor Anastasius; incomplete”.

Editions: F.C.Matthaei, Breuis historia animalium scriptoris anonymi qui seculo XI, Moscow (1811). Online here. J.A.Cramer, Anecdota Graeca Oxoniensis IV, p.263. Online here. M. Haupt, “Excerpta ex Timothei Gazaei libris de animalibus,” Hermes 3 (1869), 1-30+174 (online here).  J.A. Cramer, Anecdota Graeca e codd. manuscriptis Bibliothecae regiae parisienses, IV (1843), p.239-244.  Online here.
Translation: F.S. Bodenheimer, A. Rabinowitz, Timotheus of Gaza: On Animals. (Peri Zoon): Fragments of a Byzantine Paraphrase…, Paris/Leiden, 1949.
Studies: Seitz, Die Schule von Gaza, (1892). Online here. P.30 quotes Codex Vallicellianus E 11, a manuscript of the Cyrillus gloss/lexicon for Horapollo; On this see also P. Egenolff, Die Orthographischen Stücke der byzantinischen Litteratur … zu dem Programm des Gr. Gymnasiums Heidelberg für das Schuljahr 1887/88. Online here; R. Kruk, “Timotheus of Gaza’s On Animals in the Arabic Tradition”, in: Museon 114 (2001), 355-387. Online here.  Alain Touwaide, A census of Greek medical manuscripts, 2016, here, discusses the possible Athos manuscript of De animalibus.  G.-A. Costomiris, «Etudes sur les écrits inédits des anciens médecins grecs. Troisième série : Alexandre, Timothée, Léon le philosophe, Théophane, Nonnos, les Ephodes », Revue des etudes grecques 4 [1891], p.99, here, says the work Πρὸς τὸν αὐτοκράτορα Ἀναστάσιον περ Ζώων is “incomplete”.  K. N. Satha, Mesaionike Bibliotheke, vol. 1 (1872), p.271 has the entry “Τιμοθέου Γραμματικοῦ, πρὸς τὸν αὐτοκράτορα Ἀναστάσιον· ἀτελές”.  Online here.

Cosmas Indicopleustes. The mad monk who sailed to India in the 6th century and left us a weird book on the layout of the world. Book 9 contains descriptions of the animals of Ethiopia, India and Sri Lanka.

Manuscript online: Vatican gr. 699.
Edition: E.O. Winstedt, The Christian Topography. 1909. Online here.
Translation: J.W. McCrindle, Christian Topography, 1897.  Online here.

The zoological handbook of Constantine VII Porpyrogenitus (Excerpta Constantini de natura animalium) is perhaps one of the most important Byzantine zoological works.  It included excerpts from Timotheus of Gaza, Aristotle, Aelian and others, based mainly on the epitome of Aristophanes of Byzantium.  Two books (out of four) survive under the title Συλλογὴ τῆς περὶ ζῴων ἱστορίας, χερσαίων πτηνῶν τε και θαλαττίων.

Edition: S. Lambros “Excerptorum Constantini de natura animalium libri duo. Aristophanis historiae animalium epitome subjunctis Aeliani Timothei aliorumque eclogis”, Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca (Supplementum Aristotelicum, 1/1, Berlin, 1885). Online here.
Studies: Hunger, p.429f.  A. Zucker, “L’encyclopédie zoologique de Constantin VII vel Epitomé d’Aristophane de Byzance”, Rursus 7 (2012).  Online here.

Geoponica.  The 10th century farming handbook in 20 books contains a lot on animals.  It is compiled from earlier sources, named at the head of each book.

Edition: H. Bechk, Geoponica sive Cassiani Bassi scholastici de re rustica eclogae, Leipzig 1895. Online here.
Translation: A. Dalby, Geoponika: Farm Work. Totnes, 2011.

Michael of Ephesus.  12th century, in the circle of Anna Comnena.  He wrote commentaries on the works of Aristotle, including the zoological ones.

Edition: On Parts of Animals, Movement of Animals, Progression of Animals: Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca XXII.2
Translation: Aristotle and Michael of Ephesus on the Movement and Progression of Animals, trans. Anthony Preus, Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1981.

Manuel Philes.  Byzantine poet.  Around 1320 he wrote a poem on the characteristics of animals De animalium proprietate, based on Aelian; also one on the elephant, De elephantis, and De plantis.

Edition: F.S. Lehrs & F. Duebner (edd.), Poetae bucolici et didactici, Paris: Didot series, 1862.  Greek w/ Latin translation. Online here.

Demetrius Pepagomenus.  Fl. Early 15th century. He wrote treatises on hunting dogs and falconry, and medical works in autograph in Codex Paris gr. 2256; also Ms. 60 of the Medical Society of London.  Also a work, De podagra; 3 works on hawks and hounds, misattributed to one Demetrius of Constantinople since 1545.

Edition: R. Hercher, Claudii Aeliani varia historia etc, Leipzig: Teubner 1866. Contains 4 opuscula on p.333-599, Greek only.
Translation: (Lat.) P. Gilles, Aeliani de historia animalium, Lyons, 1562. P.527-668. Earlier translations exist.
Study: A. Diller, Byzantion 48 (1978) p.35-42. Online.

Anonymous.  A handbook on falcons has been published with German translation based on a manuscript from Vienna.  The publication was of three such works from various sources.  The title of the little text is Ἱ ερακοσόφιν εἰς ιἀ τρείαν ορ0 νέων και  εις κοπας και  χρωμᾶ οιὁ ν ζαγάνων, φαλκονίων, πετριτῶν, ἱερακίων, τζουρακίων καὶ ὀξυπτερύγων.

Edition/Translation: J. Hammer-Purgstall, Falkner-Klee, bestehend in drey ungedruckten Werken über die Falknerey, Pesth (1840). Online here.

Anonymous.  There are other treatises on birds. I was unable to locate any details however.

Hippiatrica. The ancient Greek veterinary treatises were compiled in four different recensions, the most ancient of the 9-10th century.  Two of the manuscripts are illustrated.

Translation: A. McCabe, A Byzantine Encyclopaedia of Horse Medicine: The Sources, Compilation, and Transmission of the Hippiatrica. Oxford, 2007.

From Manuel Philes, De animalium proprietate, BL Burney Ms. 97.  Here.

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!!”)