Seminar CCVIII: too close to the action and yet too far

As you know, I dither about reporting on postgraduate seminars—in fact I dither about going to them but I always feel that more staff should, and you know, be the change you wish to see in the world, and so on—but the 19th June 2014 meeting of Birmingham’s Gate to the East Mediterranean Forum seems like fair game, partly because it was not a postgraduate speaking, but an alumnus of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, Kyle Sinclair, but also because the paper was interesting. It was entitled “Michael Attaleites and Eyewitness Accounts of Warfare in Byzantine Literature”.

The autograph signature of civil servant and historian Michael Attaleites, at the end of a manuscript of his Diataxis

Allegedly, the autograph signature of the man behind our key source for this post, the civil servant and historian Michael Attaleites, at the end of a manuscript of his Diataxis. By Dimik72 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the basic questions historians of any stamp have to ask about their sources is how they know what they claim to know, obviously, and in the hierarchy of the possible answers to that question there isn’t usually much to trump the eye-witness report. Obviously, they may still be mistaken or lying but at least they had the chance to get it right. Right? Dr Sinclair was testing this argumentative position with the sources for the Battle of Mantzikert in 1071, when the Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV fought against the Seljuk Turks and lost, badly, his forces being routed in confusion and he himself captured by his opponents. In the subsequent government confusion, the Turks were able to sweep quite a lot of the local authority in what is now Turkey out of the way and take over while the empire was still trying to reconstitute its centre.1 And the chronicler Michael Attaleites was there.2

Sketch-map of the army routes to Mantzikert (now Malazgird, Turkey)

Sketch-map of the army routes to Mantzikert (now Malazgird, Turkey). By Bakayna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Well, we say he was there: he was on the campaign, indeed he was the army’s judge (krites ton stratepedou, say my notes), but when the actual battle was being fought, as Dr Sinclair excavated from his testimony for us, he was at the camp, not in the field. So rather than seeing the outcome himself, what he knew about was the reports of the survivors, every one of whom had of course been scattered in confusion and none of whom, it becomes clear as one goes through the account, knew what had happened to the emperor. Now, by the time Attaleites was writing that was in fact well-known, and he knew and used the work of fellow historian Michael Psellos on the battle, but Attaleites seems to have worked to give his contemporary impression as an eye-witness, and what he witnessed was, well, not very much but still more than most of the actual participants could have determined individually.3 All the same, what he tells us about is fear, confusion and the limits of everyone’s understanding of what was going on.

Obverse of a gold histamenon nomisma of Romanos IV struck at Constantinople in 1068-1071, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4526

Emperor Romanos IV in happier times, as who could not be happy being crowned alongside your wife by Christ himself? Obverse of a gold histamenon nomisma of Romanos IV struck at Constantinople in 1068-1071, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4526, and currently on exhibition in Inheriting Rome, along with its sibling B4524 the other way up! Yup; that should bring ’em in.

Now, it is of course possible that that is actually what being involved in or close to the losers in a battle that ends in an utter rout is like, but we did push a bit deeper on this. For a start, Attaleites seems to have been making the most of his own status as a witness, not least to raise the value of his testimony, a lot more favourable to his old boss Romanos than had Michael Psellos been. This also involved emphasising his own connection to the emperor, the importance of his role in the army and so on, in general trying to make sure that whatever had gone wrong didn’t reflect on him. As Dr Sinclair concluded, just because it’s eye-witness doesn’t make a source unbiased or without purpose! And here, the purpose was not least to give the ring of eye-witness testimony to events that our chronicler had not in fact seen, and didn’t really understand at the time. As usual, the methodological conclusion is that every source is evidence for something, even if only the motives of its maker, but you do need to consider those before pretty much anything else…4

1. Mantzikert has been much studied, but I’m afraid that I was writing in a hurry so I crib from Timothy Gregory, A History of Byzantium (Oxford 2005), pp. 254-256. He and the work in the next note both spell Manzikert ‘Mantzikert’ so although Wikipedia and my own education vie against them, I’ve done so too.

2. Lately available in English as Michael Attaleites, The History, transl. Anthony Kaldellis, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 16 (Cambridge MA 2012).

3. As well as the Internet Medieval Sourcebook version linked, you can if you like get more or less the same translation of Michael Psellos’s Chronographia as Michael Psellus, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: the Chronographia, transl. E. R. A. Sewter (London 1966).

4. Cited at several points on such issues in the course of the paper was Ruth Macrides, “The Historian in the History”, in Costas N. Constantinides, Nikolaos M. Panagiotakes, Elizabeth Jeffreys and Athanasios D. Angelou (edd.), Philellen: studies in honour of Robert Browning, Biblioteca dell’Istituto ellenico di studi bizantini e postbizantini di Venezia 17 (Venice 1996), pp. 205-224, which sounded really interesting, but good luck getting hold of it…

One response to “Seminar CCVIII: too close to the action and yet too far

  1. Pingback: Seminar CXXXII: technical change in Byzantine history-writing | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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