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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The Iconoclastic epoch (717-867)

Literature, learning, and art 


Icon of the Christ and New Testament Reader

A movement so profound, complex, and intense as iconoclasm was bound to arouse wide literary activity. Unfortunately, however, the literature of the iconoclasts was destroyed almost completely by the triumphant image-worshipers, and is known today only by scanty fragments preserved in the works of the opponents of iconoclasm, who cited them for the purpose of refutation. It may be said, then, that practically all the surviving literary works of the iconoclastic period represent only one point of view.

Like the preceding period of the Heraclian dynasty, the iconoclastic epoch had no historians, though the chroniclers of this period have left numerous works, helpful to a correct understanding of Byzantine chronography and its sources and also highly valuable for the study of the iconoclastic period itself. George Syncellus, who died in the early part of the ninth century, left a Chronography from the creation of the universe to the reign of Diocletian (284 A.D.), which he wrote during his stay in a monastery. While this work does not throw any light on the iconoclastic period, for the author did not deal with contemporary events, it is of considerable value for the elucidation of some problems of earlier Greek chronography, whose works George used as sources.

At the instance of George Syncellus his chronicle was continued in the early part of the same century by his friend, Theophanes the Confessor, whose influence as a chronicler upon the literature of subsequent periods was very great. He was a vehement enemy of the iconoclasts in the second period of the movement. He was submitted by Leo V the Armenian to an inquest, and after being confined in jail for some time, was exiled to one of the islands of the Aegean Sea, where he died in the year 817. The chronicle of Theophanes deals with the period from the reign of Diocletian, where George Syncellus left off his record of events, up to the fall of Emperor Michael I Rangabe, in the year 813. In spite of the clearly expressed eastern-orthodox point of view, very apparent in his analysis of historical events and personalities, and in spite of the biased nature of the account, the work of Theophanes is very valuable, not only because of its rich material from earlier sources, some of which have not been preserved but also because, as a contemporary source on the iconoclastic movement, it devotes more space to it than was usual with other Byzantine chroniclers. The work of Theophanes was the favorite source of subsequent chroniclers. The Latin translation of his chronicle, made by the papal librarian, Anastasius, in the second half of the ninth century, was of the same value to the medieval chronography of the West as the Greek original was for the East.

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