Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

The emperor of books

In my novel The Scattering Winds, set seven hundred years in the future, an inquisitive and adventurous young man stumbles upon a relic of the distant past -- a library that somehow survived the cataclysms of our own time, and all the vagaries of circumstance in the following seven centuries.  When he starts going through the treasure-trove of books that have survived, he's struck by the tragic and devastating fact that what was preserved and what was lost was merely a matter of luck, and that for every precious title still in existence, there were a hundred others for which every copy had been destroyed forever.

My inspiration for writing this was that this is, honestly, the situation we're already in.  The vast majority of works from the ancient world are long gone, lost through violence, mishap, and the fact that before the invention of the printing press, making additional copies of books was a long and arduous process, so many of them only ever existed in the form of a copy or two in some monastic library somewhere.  We extol the works of authors like Sophocles and Euripides, but it bears keeping in mind that most of their writing no longer exists.  Our understanding of their work is as fragmentary as if we tried to comprehend the depth and breadth of Shakespeare using only five randomly chosen sonnets, Timon of Athens, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

It's curious, though, how sometimes circumstances conspire to allow a work to survive.  This is the subject of Stephen Greenblatt's wonderful book The Swerve, looking at how sheer luck resulted in the rediscovery of the single extant copy of the first century B.C.E. philosopher Lucretius's poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), the concepts of which were pivotal to the development of science during the Renaissance.  There's another example of this phenomenon, though, which I wonder if you've heard of.  Just about everything we know about the fifth century C.E. turmoil, which resulted in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the near-collapse of the Eastern one, is due to the efforts of a single man -- Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus of Byzantium, who reigned from 913 to 959.

Constantine was the son of Emperor Leo VI "the Wise" and his mistress, Zoë Karbonopsina ("Zoë of the Coal-Black Eyes"), and so he was "born to the royal purple" (that's what his mouthful of a sobriquet means).  When his mother gave birth to him, she insisted on doing so in the Purple Room of the Imperial Palace to emphasize his royal-purple origins in fact as well as symbolically.

Constantine was one of those people who probably shouldn't ever have been involved in politics.  He had a reputation for being smart, honest, generous, and kind, which certainly wasn't (and isn't) a combination that does all that well in office.  He was far more interested in history than he was in administration (a leaning I definitely understand), but was fortunate to have capable ministers who took care of most of the duties of office for him.  All in all, his reign went far better than other times there's been a bookish scholarly type on the throne.  King Henry VI of England comes to mind -- during whose chaotic reign the English got their asses handed to them repeatedly in wars with the French, and the War of the Roses broke out on the home island.

That Constantine fared better is largely due to his smart choices of helpers.  Fortunately for us, because this left him free to pursue his passion, which was saving old manuscripts.  He realized how much of the work of ancient writers had been lost in the paroxysms of the fifth and sixth centuries, so he set about pulling together and recopying everything he could find of what was left. 

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Wooofer, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (2), CC BY-SA 4.0]

The result was a 53-volume set called Excerpta Historica, which contained everything from fragments to whole books by hundreds of ancient authors, some of whom have no other surviving works.  These include Polybius, Nicolaus of Damascus, Dexippus, Eunapius, Peter the Patrician, Menander the ProtectorJohn of AntiochThucydides, Xenophon, Diodorus of Sicily, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Josephus, Arrian of Nicomedia, Iamblichus, Appian of Alexandria, Cassius Dio, Socrates of Constantinople, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Sozomen, Philostorgius, Procopius, Agathias of Myrina, Theophylact Simocatta, John Malalas and Malchus of Philadelphia.

To name a few.

Two of the historians that Constantine included were Priscus and Zosimus, who lived in Constantinople in the fifth and early sixth centuries (respectively), and from whose writings we know as much as we do about the events leading up to the fall of the Roman Empire.  Imagine it -- without Constantine's preservation of these two writers' histories, we might only know that there had been this huge empire surrounding the Mediterranean, and then... something mysterious happened, and it collapsed.

It does leave you wondering, though, what other major events in history we know nothing about, because any records chronicling them have been lost over the years.  The sad fact is that the depredations of time in the last thousand years continued after Constantine's death, and even of his original 53 volumes, we only have four left -- we only know of the 49 lost volumes from references in other works, and can only speculate about what we might have learned from them.

But at least we have the four that survived.  Without the work of a brilliant, book-loving Byzantine emperor, our knowledge of the ancient history of Europe would be even more incomplete than it is.  And like my main character in The Scattering Winds, from these fragments we can get at least a glimpse into a long-gone world that otherwise we'd know almost nothing about.


1 comment:

  1. Absolutely fascinating! And now I must consider all that has been lost completely, and wonder how much we have lost partially. My weekend musings.