An interview with András Németh, author of The Excerpta Constantiniana and the Byzantine Appropriation of the Past

An interview with András Németh, author of The Excerpta Constantiniana and the Byzantine Appropriation of the Past

Andras, thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your book. Can you tell us a little about your work with Greek manuscripts, and what led you to take an interest in the Excerpta Constantiniana? Your line of academic work is very specialised, as is the Byzantine book that you are writing about. Could you set the scene for the general reader, and tell us what your book is about?

When I was a student of Latin, Greek and history in Budapest, I was always fascinated by manuscripts. I very soon discovered that I can spot details in manuscripts, handwritten books, which others had failed to notice. These details helped me reinterpret the common knowledge linked to several manuscripts or handwritten texts, and gave me new dimensions of reading. Over the last two decades, in many library visits across Europe and especially in the last 6 years as a curator of Greek manuscripts at the Vatican Library, my frequent encounters with the handwritten book have developed into deep experience. In my book on the Excerpta Constantiniana, I have tried to share these new dimensions of reading, based mostly on this experience which one cannot learn from printed books. Rather than a new massive world chronicle in the traditional fashion, the Excerpta Constantiniana was a management system of a rich body of historical knowledge that survived in many rare books until the mid-tenth century. Its information management system was newly constructed at the court of the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII. My book presents Constantine VII’s ambitious project in the context of its creation and the age of handwritten books. This approach becomes familiar to today’s readers who are experiencing a radical shift in information management and technology, especially on the Internet where knowledge of every kind is becoming more personalised because access to it is manipulated. The Excerpta Constantiniana show a very similar phenomenon in a highly restricted environment.

The Excerpta Constantiniana consists of a body of excerpts from ancient texts, subdivided into 53 thematic collections. What prompted Emperor Constantine VII to instigate such an endeavour (referred to by some as a sort of Byzantine Google)? He was fascinated by scholarly pursuits and was a passionate collector of manuscripts and art; what was his purpose in collecting and organising these textual fragments?

A few decades after the invention of printing with movable letters in the 1450s, the amount of texts became unmanageable. Publishers and readers were suffering from information overload, something we also experience today on the Internet. As far as information management is concerned, the tenth century was very different from today, but the information overload that Constantine VII’s court diagnosed was similar. The emperor’s circle produced the Excerpta Constantiniana as a remedy. It is much more than a book: it is rather a database, a set of books which makes both the beauty of the historical narratives and the lessons of history easily accessible and retrievable. General readers today seek the same: to easily access what they can learn from history and enjoy their reading. The Excerpta Constantiniana enabled a kind of interactive reading. The structure gave the guidelines and guaranteed fast access to the desired contents as Internet browsers do today. At the same time, it gave the reader the liberty of interpretation free of the historians’ intended message. Since the short sections were on display without their narrative contexts, the reader was encouraged to re-contextualise each section. I think it was a stimulating way of reading: it expanded the profit one could gain from reading narratives on the past. The sections were not conceived as fragments. The concept of the textual fragment is a fifteenth century invention and was applied to the remains of the Excerpta only in the sixteenth century.

Was this an entirely new way of using history? What did the originators of the project think they would get from the past? Did they think history had straightforward lessons for them in their time? 

Byzantine scholars used tradition in a creative way. The elements of compiling anthologies, highlighting key aspects of historical passages, creating lists of contents which reflect the actual reader’s interest rather than that of the author, and seeking to interpret history in a personal way, were all traditional methods. The combination of these various elements, however, was unique. We know similar phenomena of classifying knowledge on a large scale, but doing so with the writing of history is exceptional in the Excerpta Constantiniana. This unique character made its interpretation rather challenging. I think that Constantine VII’s court focused on the lessons history could teach rather than on what the author of these texts wanted to say. It was an intuitive and personalised reading of history. The higher one stood in the hierarchy of decision making, the more sympathy one was able to feel with the agents of the past and find resemblance between past and present situations. In the Excerpta, fiction and history was not separate; the lesson of an event prevailed against its authenticity. For example, Iamblichus’ Babyloniaca, a work of fiction, was included in the Excerpta. This principle is present in the highly important work, ascribed to Constantine, On the Administration of the Empire. It cannot be used as historical evidence in a way many historians do today.

Of the 53 thematic selections in the Excerpta, only 6 survive. What do we know of the other 47 titles? What sorts of topics were covered?  What criteria were applied in choosing ‘worthy’ texts for the Excerpta?

We know roughly half of the 53 topics, mostly from internal references and the working method of the imperial scholars; these may give an idea about the whole. It seems that the selection of the 53 topics satisfied the need of a small circle at the Byzantine court in Constantinople in the mid-tenth century. A group of topics focused on courtly life and the life of rulers such as On Imperial AccessionsOn MarriagesOn Ambushes against MonarchsOn Succession of MonarchsOn Throne Heirs. All show likely worries and concerns by Constantine VII, who initially lacked secure legitimacy on the throne. At the same time, an overwhelming number of topics related to the military, diplomacy and government. These topics included On Leading of the ArmyOn VictoryOn DefeatOn Recovering from DefeatOn BattlesOn Preparation for WarOn Embassies and On Political Affairs. These titles demonstrate the interest of a broader group of people who participated in the military and political administration of the empire. Only a single heading, On Ecclesiastical Matters, reflects interest in Church politics. The Excerpta was not only considered a rich repository of facts but also a collection of edifying examples from the past to be followed or avoided (On Feats of Valour and On Virtues and Vices) and on entertaining curiosities (On Hunting and On Portents). Importantly enough, short, discrete sections within longer historical works enjoyed high esteem for their style as samples for a wide range of literary genres worthy of enjoyment and imitation. These genres, including descriptions of objects, epigrams, letters, public (mostly military) speeches, gnomic statements and pagan mythology, were extracted from their original contexts under the headings of their respective genres. As these titles demonstrate, the selection was quite subjective but intended to create a framework which is able to host all passages of historical works without loss. In practice, the application of these categories to the historical narratives was somewhat distorted by the choice of the excerptor who had to resolve ambiguities linked to the conservative principle of excerpting without loss. This was only possible with compromise and close collaboration with others.

You explain what a mammoth task this was for the Court scribes and scholars to execute. Did you become fascinated by the practical aspects of obtaining the manuscripts, chopping up the contents and reassembling it differently, as you got deeper into analysing how it may have been done?

The court of Constantine VII was a hub of intellectual endeavours. Man’s relationship with the past, stylistic values in art, and various genres of literature all underwent a process of transformation. Coping with the burdening heritage of the past produced results with far reaching consequences, of which I will mention just a few examples: The Book of Ceremonies (the most important sources on Byzantine court life), the work On the Administration of the Empire, with many details on the formation of Southern and Central and Eastern Europe between the sixth and the early tenth century, and the renewal of Byzantine historiography; all of these took shape in the same environment as the Excerpta. These activities certainly influenced each other. As I am a manuscript scholar, I became very curious about how it was possible to get from the typical manuscripts with complete historical narratives, which were hiding in different libraries, to the excerpts we have today. The answer to this question may illuminate the management of historical data at Constantine’s court beyond the Excerpta. The production of the Excerpta was an expensive, highly complex and unusual task. Many small traces of the actual work survive, as a side product of this activity. I attempted to re-assemble them to get a much better picture of this activity than what we had before. I think that the work proceeded in three phases. First, imperial employees in charge read the historical narratives and classified each section under one of the 53 topic headings. In a second phase, someone else produced drafts where the discrete sections from each historian’s work were regrouped by topics. We do not know much about this phase. The third and last phase was the production of the imperial deluxe manuscripts where all the sections that belonged to each topic were copied to separate manuscripts in groups (classified by historian) and in the order of the original works. In addition, these final manuscripts were provided with a retrieval system, which assisted non-linear reading and enabled fast access to specific details with the option to know precisely from which part of a particular historian’s work they come from. It is a sophisticated textual method adapted to a particular project, where collaboration between assistants guaranteed an end product that satisfied a superior authority. In this sense, it resembles many modern-day projects, where for reasons of practical necessity, scholars with specific knowledge must follow guidelines which do not satisfy their own interest, but enable them to make a worthwhile contribution as part of a team effort.

The period you are writing about is the tenth century CE, the middle Byzantine period. The prevailing religion and way of thinking by then was Christian. But the Excerpta project looked back – in part – to pre-Christian writers and thinkers. Were there influences on the emperor Constantine VII that prompted his effort to get to grips with that distant past?

Constantinople and the Byzantine court saw a renaissance of classical Greek-Roman, mostly Late Antique culture from the late ninth century on. Constantine’s grandfather, Basil I, and his father Leo VI played an important role in promoting these renewed cultural values as opposed to the imperial heresy of iconoclasm. Methods of classical and late antique art and ancient literary traditions were creatively imitated or reenacted in Christian contexts. Emperors and wealthy members of the emperor’s entourage competed in collecting models of inspiration, objects of art, illustrated manuscripts, or simply rare texts or unique sources of information on the ideal past. At the same time, the creative application of these models was also important. The Excerpta satisfied both needs. The selected texts were mostly unique and rare already in the tenth century: a high portion of classical Greek and Roman history, especially Late Antique history and that of Early Byzantium are known today from the Excerpta. Actually, these texts opened a new window on preceding centuries and filled gaps of knowledge that the traditional Christian presentation of history, the world chronicle left blank: the history of Greek city states and classical Greece, Hellenistic history, Rome’s regal period, the Roman Republic, many details of the Roman imperial period which other presentations of history ignored. The featured historians were selected to provide the reader with an exclusive knowledge in a unique structure which complemented easily-accessible common knowledge. Pre-Christian authors were highly appreciated for their linguistic, literary, poetic, rhetorical and philosophical values, which enriched contemporary Christian culture by offering models for creative self-expression rooted in the classical tradition.

The Excerpta project was characterised, by its originators, Emperor Constantine and his successor, as the “appropriation” of the past. Could you give us a brief explanation of their concept of appropriation?

The preface to the Excerpta describes its method with the Greek term, oikeiōsis. This can be be best translated as „appropriation”, in the sense of assigning each excerpt to its appropriate place. Appropriation means an active mediation between an old context and a new one, which turns the remote and distant into something meaningful to the present, a source of inspiration and excitement.

You make some comparisons between the Byzantines’ concept of appropriation of history and the way they went about this in the Excerpta, and some work in China from very much the same date. It seems a remarkable coincidence. You say there is no question of contact between the two sets of people – but is it really inconceivable that ideas may have travelled along the silk road, in one direction or the other? The coincidence in time seems so strikingly close.

Ideas did travel on the silk road and were able to cross large distances fast. So I cannot exclude the option that the two cultures had contacts. However, I think that similar cultural circumstances may lead to similar phenomena. Both Byzantium and China experienced rapid changes in the tenth century that prompted reactions at court. Returning to the past and systematising its messages into historical accounts, anthologies and various forms of encyclopedias are ways of responding to these challenges. These responses can be rooted in each culture’s own tradition, separately from any other’s. Administration and the writing of history were concentrated in the hands of mandarin historians, and could easily produce very similar phenomena in both cultures in the tenth century.

You say that your approach to the Excerpta differs from that of the scholars who have worked on it before you. Can you tell us in what ways it differs? And how did you come to your views? Was it partly through your previous work on the history of science? 

Scholars who use the Excerpta today regard them as a repository of many unique fragments that do not survive elsewhere. The focus on the individual historians led to ignoring the actual work of excerpting, mostly because of the high concentration of important and unique texts in this odd framework. Instead, I found my main interest in the Excerpta for its Byzantine context and appreciated it as an important but undervalued source for the intellectual history of Byzantium. When I worked at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin with Prof. Lorrain Daston, Prof. Glenn Most and Prof. Anthony Grafton, I saw the latest trends on the history of the natural sciences and the potential of applying these trends on the study of textual practices. The focus of study today is on the history of scientific practices which are subject to changes and depend on cultural circumstances. Textual practices have been crucial in shaping various ancient cultures and have far reaching impacts. For example, textual practices served as models for scientific methods of the natural sciences in the early modern period. Today, the significance of textual methods is highly undervalued compared to those of natural sciences. I think I managed to reframe the discourse on the Excerpta, which can stimulate the study of the middle-Byzantine culture and textual compilations in general as sources for the intellectual history of their producers.

Nowadays, Google and Wikipedia are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. In the 10th century, who read the Excerpta?

The Excerpta was designed to serve an exclusive readership at court: imperial family, friends of the emperor, court functionaries, visitors of the imperial palace of Constantinople where the whole set was probably housed. Knowledge is power: imperial control over access to precious knowledge was part of its design. Interestingly enough, the end result was defined as serving the public good. The hierarchical structure of information present in historical narratives was defined by imperial authority rather than based on widely shared values and interests. This is the main reason that it easily went out of use and lost its attraction to the few readers who had access to the existing volumes in the centuries to come. The collection of the Excerpta which existed in a single copy, if ever accomplished, consisted of more than 53 volumes. Excerpts on two surviving topics filled two massive volumes each. So the whole set could go up to ca. 100 volumes. Its physical location and peculiar structure was quite limiting, but we should not ignore the people who participated in the production of the Excerpta without being its end users.

What was the impact of the Excerpta Constantiniana? Was the work viewed simply as a sort of filing system for ancient texts, or did the choice of texts and their organisation help readers to learn from history? 

I think it influenced, directly and indirectly, the intellectual activity of the Byzantine court in the second half of the tenth century. Basically, it was a rich resource of knowledge of history complimentary to common knowledge. Despite its restricted access, it had far reaching influences. For example, certain previously unnoticed details of historical narratives became highlighted and visible. This was a source of inspiration in the renewal of Byzantine historiography at Constantine VII’s court, in which biography gained favour against chronicle writing. Several works of the age of Constantine VII and his successors cited various historians from the Excerpta and took advantage of its special retrieval system. In addition, the Excerpta must have had practical value. For example, the distinction between embassies sent and those received by the Roman emperor were classified apart. In diplomacy, historical precedence is important and the distinction criteria reflect the Byzantine administrative structure. Byzantine delegations could read about embassies sent to the same political entities in the preceding centuries and the results achieved. Those who received foreign delegation could access historical experience useful to them. Military examples which were linked to places in the war zones of Byzantium with its enemies in the tenth century may have inspired decision making on the battlefield or served as stimulating reading. The Suda lexicon, a uniquely rich body of knowledge on ancient – predominantly Greek – culture, used the Excerpta extensively for biographical entries and word usage by historians. In my view, the production process of the Excerpta led to this impact. Unlike the Excerpta, the Suda was copied and widely consulted, with the result that information indirectly reached beyond the narrow readership of the Excerpta. Since the late sixteenth century, the Excerpta has become a significant source of unique textual fragments from more than 15 ancient historians. The Excerpta even today continue to inspire the reinterpretation of ancient historical texts and prompt new discoveries. With the help of modern technology, for example, I managed to discover new fragments from two of these historians, Polybius and Dexippus, in a Vatican palimpsest manuscript of the Excerpta. My experience with the Excerpta helped me decipher and interpret these unique texts. I hope scholars of ancient, late antique and early Byzantine historiography will also profit from my book.


Please follow and like us:

Leave a Comment

17 + 7 =