Book Review: Niketas Choniates: A Historiographical Study (Simpson)—Review by Lucas McMahon

Book Review: Alicia Simpson. Niketas Choniates: A Historiographical Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. xvi+372 pp. £80, $168. ISBN-13: 978-0-19-967071-0.

In a 1998 Symbolae Osloenses debate, many of the participants agreed that individual, detailed studies of most Byzantine historians were still needed. Recent years have seen the production of a number of volumes such as the works by Panayotis Yannopoulos on Theophanes,[1] Anthony Kaldellis on Procopius and Laonikos Chalkokondyles,[2] or Catherine Holmes on Skylitzes,[3] and Alicia Simpson’s Niketas Choniates: A Historiographical Study is a fine addition to that corpus. The book is a fundamental study of Niketas Choniates (d. 1216) as a writer, courtier, and intellectual and thus pays attention to works other than his famous history, but also devotes space to the complex transmission and interpretation of his texts. The latter two chapters, comprising roughly half of the book, discuss Niketas as an historian.

Discussing what we know of his life and background, the opening chapter introduces Niketas as an individual. Here Simpson briefly introduces the differences between the two versions of the text of the History and manages to note some variations in the presentation of historical personages, most especially emperors. This allows her to assess Niketas’ personal relations and how they changed, as well as to give some information on the roles that the author played in the Byzantine government. This is particularly important because while Niketas’ elite status is well known, the exact positions he held at the imperial court remain unclear. Niketas was not written about by contemporaries like Theophanes (d. 818) was, nor does he appear in his own work like his model Michael Psellos (d. post 1078).

The remainder of the first chapter deals with Niketas’ two other works: his Dogmatic Panoply and his corpus of orations. The Dogmatike rarely appears in the book after this introduction. Simpson concludes that it was probably written on request at the court of Theodore Laskaris (r. 1204-1222) based on its conciliatory attitude towards the Latin Church. On the other hand, Simpson uses the orations throughout the rest of the book very effectively. She contrasts the positive orations with the much more negative History throughout the book.

The second chapter deals with some of the technical considerations behind Niketas’ History. Simpson concludes that the version that the Byzantines read is different from the critical edition available today, since Niketas revised his work late in life. The two texts are referred to as a(uctior) and b(revior), with the former being the version available today in a critical edition and English translation, and the latter as the one circulated among Niketas’ contemporaries and probably dating from 1196-7. The later version may have been only a series of marginal notes and is more critical and embittered than the earlier text, while also being more grammatically refined. This is explained by Niketas’ experiences during the Fourth Crusade and his impoverished exile in Nicaea. Simpson demonstrates the differences between the two texts by providing a long list of quotations in Greek from both a and b, with generous and helpful explanations.

The third chapter delves into the specifics of the History. Here, Simpson essentially discusses Niketas’ organization of his historical material and comes to several important conclusions as a result. Noting that Niketas continued the trend of writing complex emperor portraits that began in the tenth century, she argues that John II (r. 1118-1143) and Manuel I (r. 1143-1180) are written in the History as monumental figures directing their era, but that with later emperors a loss of control becomes evident. Simpson views this as intimately linked to both Niketas’ theme and situation of the empire, a persuasive point that must be considered when examining the collapse of twelfth century Byzantium. This chapter is also used to examine the specific imperial portraits that Niketas created, resulting in several important points. Although Niketas’ hostile image of Manuel was notably revised by Paul Magdalino in his 1993 monograph The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos 1143-1180,[4] Simpson shows just how nuanced Niketas’ biographies really can be. The section on Andronikos (r. 1183-1185) is particularly important. Despite Andronikos’ reputation in the popular sphere and many general works as an irredeemable tyrant, Simpson shows that Niketas’ portrait of him is much more complex and that, in certain aspects, he embodied traits of the model emperor, yet was ultimately brought down by his cruelty.

The final chapter gives attention to Niketas’ use of sources, with sections devoted to Kinnamos (d. 1185) and Eustathios (d.1195). Simpson argues convincingly that Niketas made extensive use of rhetorical and encomiastic sources based on the language employed throughout the History. For his other sources, Niketas used oral material and rumour, but was careful to distinguish between the two. Simpson sees no real usage of documentary or legal material by Niketas. Simpson also gives attention to how Niketas constructed a few particularly rousing narratives and to his literary models a few unnamed Second Sophistic figures, Plutarch, and Psellos. Finally, Niketas’ use of Biblical and mythological imagery and themes receives some discussion, particularly how they were employed for the purposes of juxtaposition and criticism. Following the last chapter and the conclusion are three appendices, genealogies of the Komnenoi and Angeloi, and an excellent index. The first appendix is discussed below. The second appendix is very useful, as it provides a chapter by chapter summary of Niketas’ History. The third is a discussion of Niketas’ views of foreign peoples. Although much of it is devoted to the Latins, the Turks and Bulgarians receive some attention, and the material is certainly good enough to have been published as a stand-alone article.

Criticisms of this book are few, and some may be better considered as desiderata. Simpson’s discussion is complex, and while the first appendix has a list of the manuscripts, this is not entirely sufficient. A full stemma codicum would have greatly eased understanding the subchapter on the transmission of the History. Comprehending how the manuscripts relate to one another without having to consult Jan Louis van Dieten’s edition[5] would be useful, especially considering that Simpson already went to the trouble to list all the manuscripts in an appendix. As the text stands, the relationships between the manuscripts are rather confusing and are not presented as clearly as they could be.

Twice Simpson refers to the need for a new English translation of Niketas’ History (pp. 3 and 298) to replace the one by Harry Magoulias. Her point that the book has been long out of print is valid, but her questioning of the accuracy of the translation is never expanded upon. Considering the importance of Niketas’ History for students and for scholars of the crusades who may not be able to read the Greek text, and the likelihood that many of them will be consulting this book, some examples or general concerns with the translation would have been appreciated.

Simpson’s book is highly engaging and of great value. Each of the four lengthy chapters represents a major work in themselves, but together they combine to paint a complex picture of an important Byzantine historian. Simpson’s work on the different versions of the History and her cogent arguments towards how Niketas structured his work and how this shapes his material is absolutely fundamental. Any scholar working on the Komnenoi, the Angeloi, the Latinokratia, Byzantine historiography, or Byzantium and the crusades cannot afford to skip this work since it provides a much-needed re-assessment of one of the largest and most important pieces of historiography from this period. This book should be of enduring value, and will ideally be read and cited for many years to come.

Lucas McMahon

Lucas McMahon is an MA student in medieval studies at Central European University in Budapest where he is working on the tenth-century Byzantine military treatise known as De Velitatione Bellica. He is interested in power in Byzantium, foreigners in the empire, and the Byzantine-Muslim conflict, particularly in the seventh through tenth centuries.


[1] Panayotis A. Yannopoulos, Théophane de Sigriani le confesseur (759-818): un héros orthodoxe du second iconoclasme (Brussels: Éditions Safran, 2013).
[2] Anthony Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); Anthony Kaldellis, A New Herodotos: Laonikos Chalkokondyles on the Ottoman Empire, the Fall of Byzantium, and the Emergence of the West (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2014).
[3] Catherine Holmes, Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[4] Paul Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
[5] Niketas Choniates, Nicetae Choniatae Historia, ed. Jan Louis van Dieten (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1975).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s