Probably sometime between 498 and 518, ZOSIMUS, a Byzantine civil-servant and pagan, wrote, in Greek, his ‘New History’. Perhaps in 845, Photius, who would become patriarch of Constantinople, wrote, in Greek, a collection of some 279 book-reviews for his brother.* Zosimus is one of the authors critiqued:
“Read the History of count Zosimus, ex-advocate of the fisc [the imperial treasury], in six books. Being an impious heathen, he frequently yelps at those of the true faith. His style is concise, clear, and pure, and not devoid of charm. He begins his history almost from the time of Augustus, and glances rapidly at the emperors down to Diocletian [ruled 284–305], merely mentioning their proclamation and the order of succession. From Diocletian he treats at greater length of his successors in five books. The first book contains the emperors from Augustus to Diocletian and the sixth book ends at the time when Alaric, who was besieging Rome for the second time, when the citizens were reduced to desperate straits, raised the siege and proclaimed Attalus emperor. Soon afterwards he deposed him because of his incapacity, and sent an embassy to Honorius, who was then at Ravenna, with proposals for peace. But Sarus, himself a Goth and an enemy of Alaric, with about 300 men attached himself to Honorius, and, promising to do his utmost to assist him against Alaric, succeeded in making the negotiations unsuccessful. Here [in 410] the sixth book ends.
It may be said that Zosimus did not himself write the history, but that he copied that of Eunapius, from which it only differs in brevity and in being less abusive of Stilicho. In other respects his account is much the same, especially in the attacks upon the Christian emperors. I think that both these authors brought out new editions, although I have not seen the first edition, but it may be conjectured from the title of the ‘new edition’, which I have read, that, like Eunapius, he published a second edition.* He is clearer and more concise, as we have said, than Eunapius, and rarely employs figures of speech.”
Photius ‘Bibliotheca’ Codex 98
Until the murder of Commodus (in 192), Book I is, indeed, little more than a recital of names. Thereafter, however, Zosimus starts to become more expansive. He apparently draws on Dexippus of Athens – who wrote a chronicle extending from legendary times up to the reign of Claudius Gothicus (268–270), and a history of wars against the “Scythians”, i.e. Goths, up to at least 270 (both of which survive only in fragments) – preserving some valuable snippets of information concerning the, so-called, ‘third-century crisis’ (235–284).* Then, as Photius says, Zosimus uses Eunapius – whose chronicle picked up where Dexippus' left off (and which also only survives in fragments). Photius remarks upon the closeness with which Zosimus follows Eunapius. Indeed, Zosimus follows his sources so slavishly that when, midway through Book V, he switches from Eunapius to his final source, Olympiodorus of Thebes (whose ‘Histories’ only exist in Photius' summary*), his attitude towards Stilicho switches from that of Eunapius to that of Olympiodorus – a change noticed by Photius. Photius also mentions that Zosimus “only differs in brevity” from Eunapius. The length of a book is, of course, as uniform as the length of a piece of string, but fourteen books of Eunapius are condensed to about four of Zosimus.
The text of the ‘New History’ has been transmitted to modern times via a single manuscript. The end of Book I and the beginning of Book II are missing (roughly the period 282–305), a gathering of eight leaves being lost, and one leaf has been cut from Book V. Book VI is rather short and ends somewhat abruptly.* It seems reasonable to suppose that death prevented Zosimus from continuing.
Photius ‘Bibliotheca’ translated by J.H. Freese
“Read the new edition of the continuation of the Chronicle of Dexippus by Eunapius, in fourteen books. It begins with the reign of Claudius Caesar [Claudius Gothicus, 268–270], when the history of Dexippus ends, and goes down to the time of Honorius [sole emperor of the West, 395–423] and Arcadius [sole emperor of the East, 395–408] the sons of Theodosius. The work actually ends at the time when Arsacius, after the banishment of John Chysostom, was raised to the archbishopric of Constantinople, and the wife of Arcadius died of a miscarriage [404]. This Eunapius was a native of Sardes in Lydia, and an impious heathen. He slanders and abuses in every way and without restraint all who have adorned the empire by their piety, especially Constantine the Great; on the other hand, he extols the impious, above all Julian the Apostate. Indeed, it almost seems as if the work was written as an elaborate panegyric upon him.
His style is elegant, if one cuts out terms and expressions such as “fowl-like”, “more deer-like”, “more swine-like”, “hawk-like”, “crow-like”, “ape-like”, “a tear like a river”, and so on, which vitiate and debase the nobility of the rest of the language. He also makes use of figures of speech capriciously, a fault which the rule of historical writing forbids, but in general his forcible style combined with urbanity palliates the offence. His method of composition, his clearness and his use of periods are exactly suited, and appropriate to historical narrative; sometimes, however, the style is wordy with a tendency towards forensic rather than historical language. In construction he introduces numerous innovations, but not so as to cause unpleasantness nor to afford an excuse for attacking his methods.
He wrote two volumes, covering the same period. In the first, he bespatters with abuse the pure faith of us Christians, glorifies the heathen superstition, and attacks many pious emperors. In the second volume, which he calls a “new edition”, he has cut out the insults and brutal abuse which he had showered upon Christian piety, and, having connected the rest of the body of the work, calls it, as we have said, a “new edition”, although it still shows considerable traces of the original frenzy. We have come across old copies of both editions, both in separate volumes and combined, and, having read both, are in a position to estimate the difference. The result is that in the new edition many passages, owing to the omissions, are mutilated and obscure, although generally the author shows a great regard for clearness. Somehow or other in this second edition he has not connected the narrative with due regard to the omissions, and so has spoiled the meaning.”
‘Bibliotheca’ Codex 77
Eunapius' ‘Chronicle’ only survives in fragments. He also wrote ‘Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists’, which still exists.
The reviews in Photius' ‘Bibliotheca’ (or ‘Myriobiblon’), as it is known, are particularly valuable for the, sometimes copious, fragments (excerpts) from now-lost works that they contain.
The dates of the ‘New History’ and the ‘Bibliotheca’ have both been the subject of debate. Whilst the date for Zosimus, 498–518, is now, apparently, well established, there seems to be less consensus regarding Photius. The argument for 845 (Warren T. Treadgold ‘The Nature of the Bibliotheca of Photius’, 1980) is persuasive, though 855 is also a contender. (Other dates have been suggested, e.g. 838 and after 875.)
Photius begins his review of Dexippus:
“Read the History of the events that happened after the death of Alexander the Great, by Dexippus, in four books; also his Historical Epitome, a chronicle going down to the time of Claudius. Also read his Scythica, describing the wars between the Scythians and Romans and other things of note. His style is free from redundancies, massive, and dignified; he might be called a second Thucydides, although he writes more clearly. His characteristics are chiefly shown in his last-mentioned work.”
‘Bibliotheca’ Codex 82
After the above opening, Photius continues his review of Dexippus with a brief summary of the ‘Events after Alexander’.
See: Photius' review of Eunapius.
The first paragraph of Photius' review of Olympiodorus:
“Read the Histories of Olympiodorus, in twenty-two books. They begin with the seventh consulship of the emperor Honorius and the second of Theodosius [407], and go down to the time when Valentinian [Valentinian III], the son of Placidia and Constantius, was proclaimed emperor of the Romans [425]. The author, a heathen, was a native of Thebes in Egypt, a poet by profession, according to his own account. His style is clear but loose and wanting in vigour, and sometimes degenerates into commonplace vulgarity, so that the work does not deserve to be considered a history. Perhaps that is the reason why the author himself, conscious of these defects, declares that his work is not a history, but a collection of materials for a history, so destitute of regular form did he himself consider his style and phraseology. He is not distinguished for form, except so far as one might assert that he now and again approaches simplicity; but even in this, owing to the excessive meanness and paltriness of his diction, he is unsuccessful and gradually descends to vulgar mannerism. He calls his work Silva, but divides it into books and strives to embellish it with prefaces. It is dedicated to the emperor Theodosius [Theodosius II], the son of Arcadius, and nephew of Honorius and Placidia.”
‘Bibliotheca’ Codex 80
Photius continues with a lengthy rundown of the events recorded in the ‘Histories’. His review is occasionally referred to as ‘the forty-six fragments of Olympiodorus’.
Photius has assumed that ‘New’, in the title of Zosimus' ‘History’, refers to a second edition, but it seems more likely that ‘New’ is used in the sense of ‘Recent’.
To give an idea – in the 1814 translation, printed by Green and Chaplin, the book lengths are (roughly):
Book I = 30 pages
Book II = 31 pages
Book III = 28 pages
Book IV = 40 pages
Book V = 40 pages
Book VI = 8 pages