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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The Heraclian epoch (610-717)

Literature, learning, and art 


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During this entire period the Byzantine Empire had not a single historian. Only the deacon of St. Sophia, George of Pisidia (a province in Asia Minor), who lived in the days of Heraclius, described in harmonious and correct verses the military campaigns of Heraclius against the Persians and the Avars. He left three historical works: (1) On the Expedition of Emperor Heraclius against the Persians, (2) On the Attack of the Avars on Constantinople in the Year 626, and Their Defeat through the Intercession of the Holy Virgin, and (3) Heraclias, a panegyric in honor of the Emperor on the occasion of his final victory over the Persians. Among other works of a polemic, elegiac, and theological nature we might point out the Hexaemeron (Six Days), a kind of philosophical-theological didactic poem on the creation of the universe with allusions to contemporary events. This work, dealing with the favorite subject of Christian writers, spread beyond the borders of the Byzantine Empire; for instance, a Slavo-Russian translation was made in the fourteenth century. The poetical genius of George of Pisidia was appreciated in later centuries, and in the eleventh century the famous Byzantine scholar and philosopher, Michael Psellus, was even asked to solve the problem: Who was a better writer of verse, Euripides or George of Pisidia? The modern scholarly world regards George as the best secular poet of the Byzantine period.

Among the chroniclers were John of Antioch and the anonymous author of the Chronicon Paschale (Easter Chronicle). John of Antioch, who lived probably in the time of Heraclius, wrote a universal chronicle including the period from Adam to the death of the Emperor Phocas (610). In view of the fact that this work has survived only in fragments, there have been long disputes among scholars with regard to the identity of the author. Sometimes he has been even identified with John Malalas, also a native of Syrian Antioch. Insofar as the surviving fragments show, the work of John of Antioch should be recognized as much superior to the work of Malalas, for it does not consider world history from the narrow confines of a native of Antioch, and has, therefore, a much broader historical aim. It also exhibits a more skillful use of early sources. It was also in the time of Heraclius that some unknown clergyman composed the so-called Chronicon Paschale (Easter Chronicle) which, although it is nothing but a list of events from Adam until A.D. 629, contains several rather interesting historical remarks. The main value of this unoriginal work lies in the determination of the sources used and in that part which deals with events contemporary with the author.

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