Review: Saints at the Limits: Seven Byzantine Popular Legends

Stratis Papaioannou, Saints at the Limits: Seven Byzantine Popular Legends (Dumbarton Oaks medieval library 78), Harvard (2023).  ISBN 9780674290792.  $35.  Introduction online hereBuy at here.

The medieval religious folk-stories known as the “Lives of the Saints” are an under-studied form of medieval literature.  The stories themselves often arise from the people, and are expressed in popular language.  They reach us in medieval handwritten copies, like everything else, but these are not literary texts.  The story, rather than the text, is what is important, and so the actual words are freely modified.  Several versions usually exist.  Thankfully we have the index of the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca (= BHG; online here), which  assigns numbers to the various texts.  Students often find it difficult to work out how to relate to this material, but the urban legend is perhaps the nearest modern equivalent.

There has been an increase in interest in hagiography in recent years.  Yet even now few of the source texts have been critically edited, and still fewer have been translated into any modern language.  One obstacle to doing so is that most of these texts are shorter than book length.  Each would make an edition and translation suitable for publication as a journal article, and indeed we find that, a century ago, scholars such as François Nau routinely published texts in this way.  If necessary, they split them over multiple issues.  But it is doubtful that a modern journal editor would print such an article.  It would be declined on the grounds that it is “not research.”

Instead the only way to publish such translations is to collect together a number of texts, and publish them in book form, with some kind of connecting link.  Sadly there are no obvious series of translations into which such a book would naturally fall without some wrestling.  What is needed is a series made up of translations of Saints’ Lives, rather like the New City translations of all of Augustine.  But this perhaps must await a renewal of interest in medievalism in the wider public, for otherwise who would buy them?

Thankfully the excellent Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series has produced this volume, and they have kindly sent me a review copy.  The physical book is well made and manufactured, and sold at a very modest price.  It is a true hardback, sewn rather than glued.  There is even a sewn-in book mark, so this is quality indeed.

The volume contains seven texts in Greek, with fluent English translations on facing pages.  These seemingly disparate texts are linked together by the editor in his introduction in a reasonably convincing way.  The introductory discussion may be read on here.  This is very well done, and well-referenced.  The discussion is perhaps a little dense for anyone new to hagiography.  Unfortunately the footnotes have been banished to the end of the introduction, which makes it hard to use them.

What makes this volume truly invaluable is the translations.  As knowledge of ancient languages diminishes, the translations make these texts more accessible than ever.   It seems likely that all these texts will attract more scholarly interest over the next few years.  The texts included, and the BHG number for each, are:

  • 1) Boniphatios of Tarsus (BHG 279-280);
  • 2) Alexios the Man of God (BHG 51n);
  • 3) Markos the Athenian (BHG 1039-1041);
  • 4) Makarios the Roman (BHG 1005);
  • 5) Christopher, the Cynocephalus (BHG 309);
  • 6) George the Great Martyr (BHG 670a), together with the miracles about his slaying the Dragon (BHG 687) and capturing the Demon (BHG 687k);
  • 7) Niketas, son of Maximian (redaction related to BHG 1346d)

All these texts appear in English for the first time.  Each is given with a Greek text and English translation on facing pages, in the format familiar to readers of the Loeb series.  This is really praiseworthy.  The Greek font chosen is very readable, and the reader of the English translation may well find his eye stray across the page to the Greek to see just what English word lies behind this or that wording.  Even someone with little Greek can spell out a word or two, and look it up online; and the format positively encourages such activity.  The text has been well paragraphed, which assists this useful opportunity for those with little Greek of learning more.

Words quoted from the scriptures are placed in italics.  This works well in the English, without the need for obtrusive footnotes.  Curiously it looks a bit strange in the Greek text, however.  At first I wondered if my eyes were having trouble!

The translation given of each text is very readable, which is absolutely right and proper.  At points it drops into colloquialisms, such as the use of “you’re” instead of “you are”.  This is a bit of a shock – we’re all used to formal language -, but it will hardly deter the reader.  The effort involved in producing the first English translation of any text is considerable, and usually underrated except by those who have done it.  This is a fine effort.  Translationese has been avoided, and the result is impressive.  Dr Papaioannou tells us in the preface that he got the translation read by native English speakers.  It is a very difficult task to make a satisfactory translation into any language that is not your mother-tongue, even for those really fluent. So he did wisely, and I hope his statement here will encourage others to do the same.

One oddity about the book, which may mislead the reader, is that the information about the Greek text that has been printed is found, not before the text itself, but instead at the back, on pages 281 f., and the critical notes following that, as endnotes, on p.293 f.  The casual reader of the book is very likely to miss this invaluable material, as I did initially.  This is especially so for a reader interested only in a single text – which will be quite often the case.   I can only presume that this arrangement, adding in the extra material, was an afterthought; but if so, it was a happy one.   The editor first indicates the principles of his edition.  In general he has tried to retrieve an early version of the legend, and print something not otherwise available.  Faced with such a mass of hagiographical material, this seems like the only possible approach for any editor to take.  He then lists the manuscripts and existing editions that he used.  Everything in the bibliography is useful, and it could well have been longer.

The version of the legend of St George translated here (BHG 670a, summary of story at CSLA here) is very similar to the Latin text which I translated elsewhere on this site, and therefore is also likely to be a very early form of the legend.  St George dies four times, at the hands of an increasingly angry but non-existent emperor Dadianus.  Later revisions of the legend tended to correct the name, and reduce the legend to a somewhat more believable form.  The evil magician introduced has the name of Athanasius, which naturally leads the reader to wonder whether the text was produced as a satire by a 5th century Arian.  A useful addition is a translation of two of the miracle stories.  The ones chosen are major ones: St George and the Dragon, and St George and the Demon.

The Passion of Nicetas son of Maximian (a version related to BHG 1346d) – two other Nicetas’ are mentioned in the BHG – references the emperor Dadianus, so shows knowledge of the St George legend. Portions of this are rather comic: the demon Beelzebub appears, and, tortured by the saint, he explains just how he leads the faithful astray and foments arguments.  Later he reappears, encounters Nicetas again, and “when the demon saw the saint staring at him, he said, “Oh dear!  He wants to catch me again!” And vanishes at once.

In this legend, I must mention my one gripe about the book.  Native English readers will wince at the use of the barbarous-looking “Niketas,” rather than the usual Nicetas.  While “Niketas” is bearable, the usage becomes absurd on p.251 where a woman’s name is given as “Iouliane”.  This collection of vowels did make me rub my eyes a bit, until I realised that the name is simply “Juliana”, an ordinary Latin name, given in the text in its Greek version – naturally -, and transliterated rather than translated back.   I am aware that an elitist fad has arisen lately for transliteration rather than translation.  But editors need to resist this trend, in the interests of everybody.  Nobody needs to mentally retranslate words.  Readers need no barriers to understanding.  We need Greek legends made more accessible, rather than filled with strange and uncouth words.

I have nothing special to say about the other texts, although it is wonderful to have them.  The Life of Macarius the Roman (BHG 1005) is a very different text for these two: an imaginary journey into darkest Africa!  The Passion of Boniphatios (or Boniface, in English) is a straightforward story of a dissolute man who is sent to the Greek East to collect some relics of the martyrs for his mistress, but is converted and martyred himself.  The ease of the translation is particularly notable here.

All in all, this is a very valuable volume to have.  If this was the first book on hagiography that a novice reader came to consult, he would most certainly know a great deal more than he did at the beginning, and would have a good solid feel for hagiographical texts.  Recommended.


“Persia and the Bible” … and Mithras?

Review: E. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible, Baker publishing (1990).  Paperback ISBN: 9780801021084. Available from:

Dr Yamauchi attended the second conference on Mithras studies in Tehran, back in the 1970s.  Coming across my pages on Mithras, which referenced a couple of his papers, he kindly sent me a copy of this 1990 volume which includes a chapter on Mithras.

The volume itself is a survey aimed at Old Testament students in the USA.  It provides an overview of Persian history, religion, archaeology and culture, but not as a standalone, but rather from where it impinges on the history of the bible.  I have not read most of this, but at points it has to descend to e.g. explaining the events of the battle of Marathon – sure sign of students being the audience!  But I did skim the chapter on Zoroastrianism, about which I know a little.  This was really very well done, in a short compass, and laid out the literary sources and the key doctrines more clearly in a short compass than any source that I have seen so far.  The footnoting is copious, and well done.

The chapter on Mithras is almost an annex, really.  I think perhaps it reflects the need of the teaching environment, and functions as a round-up of “Persian” related stuff that students may enquire about, including Sol Invictus.  It starts with the assumption of the great Franz Cumont, that Roman Mithras and Persian Mithra were in fact the same deity; but then reviews the scholarship, and indicates how this has changed in what was then the recent past.  The overview of Mithra is solid, as is the material treating Mithras, and the student comes away equipped to deal with whatever is necessary.  So … useful to have.

The book is now more than 25 years old, so the bibliography is doubtless a little dated.   The prose style is quite dense, and I found it hard going.  But there is quite a lot of useful information in a relatively small compass.


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.


From my diary

Spent the evening labouring over a book review.  This item must have cost me several evenings work.  At least I have now got through to the end of it.  But I shall reread it in a couple of days time.  Always good to judge the tone first!

It will be a good while before I agree to review anything again.


Book review: After Alexander

James Romm, Ghost on the throne: The death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire, Random House (2011). 368p. $28.95. ISBN: 978-0-307-27164-8.

The story of how Alexander of Macedon inherited the army that had conquered Greece and used it to conquer the world is known to us all.  Much less well known is what happened when, unexpectedly, Alexander died in Babylon in June 323 BC.  He left, as heirs, an unborn child and a half-wit brother, and a group of generals in command of his army.  As might be expected, these generals fell out among themselves, murdered each other, fought over the spoils and, as the memory of their king receded, murdered his heirs and made themselves into kings.  The Successor kingdoms, of the Seleucids, Ptolemies, and Antigonids, define the Hellenistic era.

James Romm has chosen to tell the story of how Alexander died, and how his generals fought and squabbled, down to the extinction of the Macedonian Royal family.  This he does with verve and imagination.  No-one could fault the enthusiasm with which he tells the story, and it should appeal to the general reader.  He also breaks up the narrative of the plotting by interleaving material from the archaeological discoveries at Verginia (ancient Aegae) in Macedonia, where, possibly, the splendid burials are actually those of Philip Arridhaeus and the child Alexander IV. 

The narrative is well plotted, and switches between one group and another are well-signalled and organised.  It would have been very easy to confuse the reader; but this is deftly avoided.  The action in Athens, and the downfall of Phocion and the attempts by the Athenians to regain their liberty are vividly depicted.

Each chapter has a respectable number of footnotes, gathered at the end.  Unfortunately an error in the proof omitted the numerals from the text, making it difficult for me to see how well distributed these were. 

An appendix gives the primary sources, and wisely adds links to online versions on sites such as Lacus Curtius and my own.  I learned from this, indeed, that Photius’ summary of Arrian’s Events after Alexander is online, which I had not known.  Earlier in the book, indeed, I learned that a leaf from the full version is extant in a palimpsest.  The book does not shy away from snippets like this, and is all the better for it.

The author discusses his approach to the historical record in the preface.  Basically he tells the story straight, just as they tell it, without invention, fiction, or needless imagination.  This is the right approach to take, and the discussion of the issues in the preface is itself a useful education for the sort of reader who will read this.  The bibliography at the end is well chosen to assist that same reader.  It is a book, indeed, that I would have found most interesting in my mid teens, when I was reading books by Leonard Cottrell, or Narrow Pass, Black Mountain.  It gives ordinary people access to history.  It will, undoubtedly, recruit young people to become scholars of the Hellenistic period.

The only problem that I foresee, though, is that, in a way, the story is a depressing tale.  There is no happy ending to all this.  At the end of it all, Alexander’s family are all dead, and most perish miserably.  This is not the fault of the author, of course, but it makes for less than cheering reading at the end of a busy day at work, or on a packed commuter train.  And that is the audience to which this book, surely, is directed.  I don’t feel drawn to read it again, for instance.  I reached the end and felt sad. 

The typesetting is professional, although the proof had various errors of formatting in it.  The maps and illustrations are good, well-drawn, and not distracting. 

The cover, on the other hand, is an unappealing piece of work.  The tired, stale old cliché of some ancient artefact on a coloured background — just like Narrow Pass, Black Mountain, of 40 years ago — is not even as good as that, for the colour is muddied and off-putting.  I am amazed that Random House would put a book out with that cover.  Try again, chaps.  This is a book about people and human interest.  Commission someone to paint a picture of a bunch of Greeks in armour in bright colours before the walls of Babylon, and let the book sparkle on the shelf.  This is a period of history that took place in bright sunlight — let the cover reflect it.

All in all, this is an excellent piece of work.  The scholarship is sound but not intrusive, and the story rattles along.  Recommended.