The search for “John of Nicaea”: adventures in Byzantine prosopography

John of Nicaea is not known to the World-Wide Web.  A search for this author, whom I mentioned in my last post, was quite futile.  So I began to think about how I might find someone from the 9th or 11-12th century, potentially.  The CPG ends around the time of John Damascene, so is useless here.  But then I wondered whether “prosopography” might help; handbooks of people known from the period.

A search for “Byzantine prosopography” pointed me to two websites.

The first of these was hosted at Kings College London, so looked hopeful – the Prosopography of the Byzantine World.  But on my Android mobile it refused to work at all, kicking me back to the home page (itself useless).  On my PC, it worked but gave me nothing.  Entering “Ioannes” gave me too much, either in Free Text or in Name; entering Ioannes Nicaea gave me nothing in either.  No doubt there is some incantation that will produce results, but it defeated me.

I was more fortunate with Prosopographie der mittelbyzantinischen Zeit Online, although I was initially baffled at how to use it.  The entry page tells you nothing useful, and I clicked around for some time.  Eventually I downloaded a user guide in PPT format, which did not reflect the current site but allowed me to guess.

The actual answer is to use what looks like a general site search, but is not.  I have highlighted it in the screen shot below (click to enlarge):

All the rest is irrelevant.  But if you type “ioannes” in that box, you get stuff; and you also get a search that you can actually use (again I have highlighted this):

You can add a row, and suddenly you are looking at real options:

Click on the entry, and you get full details (in German; but if you use Chrome, you can right-click on the page and select “Translate”).  You can even download them as a PDF, which is helpful.

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Reading this entry made much clear.

“John of Nicaea” was actually an Armenian named Vahan, graecised as John, and was archbishop of Nike (ἀρχιεπίσκοπος Νίκης) in Thrace, not Nicaea in Bithynia.  About 861-2 he was the ambassador from Photius, the patriarch, to Zacharias, the catholicos of Greater Armenia. He was the Byzantine representative at the Council of Širakawan in 862/63.  The opening speech of this council is preserved in Armenian (unpublished, in manuscript) and attributed to him; but in reality must be by an Armenian, perhaps Zacharias.[1]  He was also the author of a tract on the Nativity of Christ (De nativitate Domini, PG 96, 1435-1450).  This work is mentioned in a letter of Photius written in 878-9, addressed to the Armenian ruler Ašot I. Bagratuni.[2]

The article gives a very useful bibliography, which is mainly about Armenian affairs, so perhaps of limited interest here.  All the same; nice to know who he is, when he lived; and even more to know how to find these things.

UPDATE: A look at the Pinakes database of Greek manuscripts shows that John of Nicaea, or Johannes Nikenus, or Iohannes Nicaenus mtr., is listed, as author 1501.  These synonyms help somewhat in doing Google searches.  I learn from the 1838 index volume of Fabricius’ Bibliotheca Graeca, p.55 – which gives a huge list of “Johns” – that Ioannes, Nicaenus Archiepiscopus is to be found in volume X, p.238.  So this is another way to locate obscure authors called “John”.  Being unfamiliar with Fabricius’ work, however, I have not been able to locate the entry, and suspect that it is wrong.  A list of volumes of Fabricius is at Links Galore here.

UPDATE: See the comment below from Tia Kolbaba with lots of up-to-date information on John of Nike, and references to articles.

UPDATE: (Feb 2023): Kurt Simmons has now produced a translation of the letter of John of Nicaea from the PG text.  It’s at here.

  1. [1]Edition: “Vahanay Nikiay episkoposi bank” (“Discourses of Vahan the Bishop of Nicaea”), ed. N. Akinean, in: Handes Amsorya 82 (1968) 257-280
  2. [2]Photios, Ep. 284 (III 4 Laourdas-Westerink).

9 thoughts on “The search for “John of Nicaea”: adventures in Byzantine prosopography

  1. You write a paragraph starting:
    ‘”John of Nicaea” was actually an Armenian named Vahan…’
    Later in the same paragraph, you imply he is *not* an Armenian:
    ‘The opening speech of this council is preserved in Armenian (unpublished, in manuscript) and attributed to him; but in reality must be by an Armenian, perhaps Zacharias.’
    What am I missing?

  2. John was of Armenian background personally but Greek orthodox in religion. This made him perfect as go-between with the Armenian Orthodox church. The text in question is from an Armenian Orthodox position, therefore not by John.

  3. This relates to your posts from a year ago about the date of Christmas, Pope Julius, and John of Nike. Thank you for that; I was trying to figure out where John got the story and your post on that was very useful. I don’t know if you’re still interested, and I confess that I haven’t read every bit of what you discovered. But I’ve been working on Byzantines who wrote anti-Armenian texts, and that’s what John of NIKE’s text in PG 96 is.

    In return, I can offer some additional information on John of Nike. I’ve been working on anti-Armenian texts written in Greek, and John’s treatise On the Nativity in PG 96 is one of those, albeit a very eirenic and moderate one. He is trying to convince the Armenian catholicos that Armenians should not celebrate the Nativity and the Baptism on the same day, Jan. 6. Recent scholarship has convinced me of a few things about John that I believe you hadn’t tracked down:

    He may have been “Armenian” (whatever that means in the 9th century), but he is clearly Chalcedonian and takes the Roman (Byzantine) position on the celebration of the Nativity.

    He probably wrote his treatise around the time of the Council of Sirakawan (862).

    He may have been an envoy to Armenia sent by the renowned patriarch of Constantinople Photios.

    Two scholars have recently amended nearly everything we thought we knew about this council, and conclusively shown (imho) that John is NOT Vahan, author of the dossier of materials associated with the Council of Sirakawan. If you want to know more, the scholarship I’m referring to is

    Dorfmann-Lazarev, I. Arméniens et Byzantins à la époque de Photius: deux débats théologiques après le triomphe de l’orthodoxie. Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 609; Subsidia 117. Louvain: Peeters, 2004.

    Greenwood, Tim. “Failure of a Mission? Photius and the Armenian Church.” Le Muséon 119 (2006): 123-168.

    Lots of info can be found in these two pieces of scholarship. While they disagree on dating of some of the texts, they agree about John’s treatise.

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