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History, Fiction and Genre in Kaminiates’ Sack of Thessaloniki

Stephen Trzaskoma

John Kaminiates’ Sack of Thessaloniki is a text surrounded by controversy. It purports to be Kaminiates’ tenth-century eye-witness historical account of the sack of the city by an Arab fleet in 904 CE, but almost every element of this self-presentation was strongly attacked by Kazhdan (1978), who argued that it was not by Kaminiates, who did not exist at all, and further maintained that it was not written in the tenth century and therefore was neither an eye-witness account nor of particular historical value. Most commentators have subsequently defended, with greater and lesser success, the text’s authenticity against Kazhdan’s individual attacks, but even those producing these apologias acknowledge the underlying oddity that Kazhdan brought forth: the Sack is a strange text that does not read like any other tenth-century historical account. For instance, Christides (1981) accounted for this by assuming that the text had been reworked in the fifteenth century. Tsaras (1988) presumed that the emotional trauma of the events and the circumstances under which Kaminiates says he wrote (still in Arab captivity) are responsible for the peculiar nature of the narrative. Frendo (1997) suggested that Kaminiates had introduced some unusual literary elements in an attempt to make the text more edifying, a view recently extended and reinforced by Panagopoulos (2014). In this paper I advance a different thesis to account for the Sack’s eccentricity: the text is an authentic work of the tenth century but it is not a history or an eyewitness account at all; rather, it is a work of novelistic fiction based on a historical event. This new argument is based on the author’s overt allusions to Achilles Tatius’ second-century CE novel Leucippe and Clitophon, which have not been taken into account by earlier scholarship because they seem to have escaped our notice until now.

I will proceed with the demonstration of the validity of this approach by laying out three passages where the author of the Sack cites Achilles Tatius verbally. To take one example of this procedure, it is instantly clear that when Kaminiates describes the horse accident that cripples the Greek general Leon he models this directly on the tragic death of Charicles in the novel’s first book.

The ancient novelist (1.12.2-5):

...τοῦ ῥυτῆρος ἀμελήσας...καὶ ὁ ἵππος ἐκταραχθεὶς πηδᾷ ὄρθιος ἀρθεὶς...τὸν γὰρ χαλινὸν δακὼν καὶ τὸν αὐχένα σιμώσας φρίξας τε τὴν κόμην, οἰστρηθεὶς τῷ φόβῳ διαέριος ἵπτατο... ποτὲ μὲν ἐπ’ οὐρὰν κατολισθαίνων, ποτὲ δὲ ἐπὶ τράχηλον κυβιστῶν... ἐκκρούεται μὲν τῆς ἕδρας...

The Byzantine “historian” (19.5-6):

τοῦ ῥυτῆρος ἀμελήσας δεινόν τι πέπονθε πρᾶγμα καὶ πολλῶν δακρύων ἐπάξιον. ἐκταραχθέντες οἱ ἵπποι, καὶ πλέον οὗτος ἐφ’ ὃν ὁ στρατηγὸς κεκαθίκει, τῇ φυσικῇ μανίᾳ πληγεὶς τόν τε αὐχένα σιμώσας καὶ τὴν κόμην φρίξας, ὄρθιον ἀρθεὶς τῆς ἕδρας αὐτὸν ἀπεβάλετο, καὶ ἐκ τοῦ πρὸς οὐρὰν κυβιστήσας καὶ πρὸς τοὔδαφος ῥιφεὶς...

I will conclude the paper with a discussion of the other advantages that this approach holds for analyzing the place of the Sack in literary history. We can, for instance, see why Kazhdan felt that there was some connection between Kaminiates’ text and the twelfth-century novel of Makrembolites. He was wrong to presume that this was due to Kaminiates’ having read the novel, but we can posit now that the resemblance is due to their mutual dependence on Achilles Tatius. Makrembolites need not have read Kaminiates, but the latter can now be seen a precursor to the authors who later revived the novelistic form. We can also, pace Kazhdan, support a tenth-century date for Kaminiates by noting that he joins a growing roster of authors from the same period who were experimenting with the narrative elements and language of the ancient novelists, especially of Achiles Tatius: Symeon Metaphrastes (Poljakova 1973), Theodore Daphnopates (Chernoglazov 2013) and Niketas Magister (Hero 1996 and Jazdzewska 2009). The discovery of the connection between Kaminiates and Achilles Tatius is, therefore, of considerable interest for the history of the reception of ancient fiction.

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Truth and Lies

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