Herodotean Ethnography in Agathias Scholasticus
Description. One historian of Justinian’s reign by which I am intensely fascinated, and about whom predictably not much has been written, is Agathias Scholasticus of Myrina. Not only is he an assiduous imitator of Thucydidean turns of phrase, but also, and more interestingly to me, of Herodotean ethnography. It has come to light that Agathias had access (through an interpreter/diplomatic liaison, his friend Sergios) to authentic Persian records for his account of the Sassanids, and he also has a longish excursus on the Franks in Herodotean style.
Aside from a slim monograph by Averil Cameron (1970) on Agathias, a few scattered articles, introductions to the text, etc., little has been said about this historian––especially vis-à-vis the specific Herodotean parallels that abound in his ethnographic passages. I would thus like to focus on trying to extricate those Herodotean echoes from this Byzantine historian, especially insofar as they relate to Herodotus’ own depiction of Persia. My main question, therefore, will be whether this (always archaizing) Byzantine “lifts” motifs directly from Herodotus, or contrasts his contemporary understanding of the (very different) Sassanids with the Persians of the past.
*Bachrach, B.S. (1970). “Procopius, Agathias, and the Frankish Military” in Speculum, Vol. 45, No. 3. 435-441.
While this article essentially occupies itself with the relative veracity of Procopius and Agathias’ treatments of Frankish weaponry and tactics in light of archaeological remains, it does furnish one passim with important insights about Agathias’ ethnographical “methodology” (or lack thereof), though Bachrach ultimately concludes that Agathias’ testimony is of little historical value and is primarily a literary exercise in Herodotean imitation.
*Cameron, Averil. (1964). “Herodotus and Thucydides in Agathias,” in BZ 57, 33ff.
This article comprises an extremely in-depth survey and scrutinization Franke’s Quaestiones Agathianae. Cameron sets out with a breathtakingly systematic vengeance to discredit, or at least call into question, all of the verbal parallels between Herodotus and Agathias which Franke enumerated, and in almost every instance she succeeds in her goal. She posits that Agathias made recourse to the authentic Sassanid records which his friend Sergios obtained as the basis for his Persian ethnography; that he got most of the rest of his information from the more-reliable Ctesias of Cnidus; that many of the reminiscences of Herodotus are, in fact, reminisces of Procopius alluding to Herodotus. For a number of Herodotean reminiscences, Cameron convincingly proposes that Agathias had access to lexica or other “collections” of antique phrases that any good Byzantine historian would have known about and used. There nevertheless remain, however, some irrefutably clear allusions to Herodotus in Agathias which even her ingenuity cannot explain away. It is also my opinion that her zealousness in pursuing her arguments might sometimes compromise their veracity and lead her into confirmation bias.
*———— (1968). “Agathias on the Early Merovingians,” in Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Ser. 2, 37, 95ff.
*————. (1969/1970). “Agathias on the Sassanians” in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 23/24. 67-183.
Both of the works listed supra follow much the same format despite their appearance in two rather different publications. Of essentially monograph length, Cameron’s two “articles” survey the Agathian ethnographical passages on the Franks and the Persians, respectively. Each contains fresh Greek texts, her own English translations, copiously detailed notes, and a number of appendices. It feels almost like a Cambridge Classical Text written only for a certain excerpt. While they are immensely useful tools, assisting one in finding relevant ethnographical passages and in explicating their (often elusive) meaning, as well as providing useful historical and sometimes literary background, Cameron’s stubbornness in proving Agathias a reliable or “accurate” rather than purely “literary” historian sometimes causes her to focus on what facts can be safely “extricated” from the literary edifice of Agathias’ Histories at the expense of investigating the aesthetic and artistic qualities of that edifice.
*————. (1970). Agathias. Oxford.
No work on Agathias and his oeuvre before or since has ever been so rigorous and probing as Cameron’s monograph; while this is unsurprising considering the obscurity of the subject matter, her capacious study of Agathias’ biography, style, vocabulary, allusion, historiographical process, and even his political and religious leanings is likely to stand as the canonical interpretation of him, his work, and his significance. The monograph is hardly a paean of praise, however, as Cameron notes often and with some irritation his many stylistic, syntactic, and narrative “flaws.” Agathias itself is also not without a few shortcomings, the most prominent of which is how little attention is paid to Agathias’ long career and relatively substantial output as a poet, which receives only a single chapter, and that in need of no small measure of expansion and further investigation. Another paucity which is particularly discouraging is that Agathias’ “Herodotean” ethnography is only sparsely commented upon, Cameron’s focus being more on linguistic and thematic parallels between Agathias and Herodotus than upon Agathias’ ethnographic “methodology.”
*Franke, G. (1914). Quaestiones Agathianae. Diss. Frederick William University.
This indefatigably rigorous Latin dissertation collects in (relatively) small compass all the possible allusions to Herodotus and Thucydides contained within Agathias’ Histories, catalogued and identified with all the resourcefulness, thoroughness, and acumen of German scholarship. While it is obviously quite dated and somewhat cumbersome to use, it forms the basis for Cameron (1964), and is still worthy of occasional reference and consultation on its own merits.
*Frendo, J.D. (1975). Agathias: The Histories. Berlin: De Gruyter.
The only complete translation of Agathias’ magnum opus into English. Being one of Rudolph Keydell’s pupils, Frendo was fortunate not only in his possession of Keydell’s masterful edition, but also had the benefit of the latter’s sage and guiding hand to aid his translation and interpretation of the text. Frendo strives in his translation to represent in English all of the intricacies and obscurities which the Greek presents its reader. The result is nevertheless surprisingly supple and resourceful, though a few interloping colloquialisms detract from Frendo’s attempt to closely replicate Agathias’ style, as it is generally very stilted and archaizing. There are also a number of unfortunate typographical errors that mar its beauty.
*Keydell, R. (1967). Agathiae Myrinaei historiarum libri quinque. Berlin: De Gruyter.
This magisterial critical edition of Agathias’ Historiae was among the last scholarly productions of Rudolph Keydell’s distinguished career as a textual critic. It comprises nearly a decade of labor undertaken shortly after he had published his equally excellent and groundbreaking text of Nonnus’ Dionysiaka. The German introduction delves with impressive comprehensiveness into the usual conspectus of testimonia, MSS., stemmata, etc. It was upon Keydell’s text that J.D. Frendo based his translation of Agathias’ Historiae into English.
*Maas, M. (2003). “‘Delivered from Their Ancient Customs’: Christianity and the Question of Cultural Change in Early Byzantine Ethnography,” in Conversion in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Seeing and Believing, ed. K. Mills and A. Grafton. University of Rochester.
An extremely perceptive (and thankfully recent) investigation of Byzantine ethnography “writ large”, Maas’ work contains not a few penetrating and serviceable observations on Agathias’ ethnographic methods and concerns, though he also delves extensively into Procopius, Menander Protector, Theophylact Simocatta, and various others. His main focus, and the central drift of his argument, is the effect that Christianity has upon “classical” ethnography in these historians; he convincingly contends that their orthodoxy has replaced classicism as the antidote to and opposite of barbarism, and that the latter phenomenon is (at least in the eyes of these Byzantine historians) primarily a byproduct of irreligion rather than symptomatic of a lack of “proper” (sc. Greek) culture, as it was in antiquity. All of his conclusions are relatively sound, but the amount of time he dwells upon Agathias is relatively brief, and he focuses almost exclusively on the Frankish excursus.