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Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp.

19–31 2000
 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Printed in Great Britain
PII: S0304-4181(99)00011-1 0304-4181/00 - see front matter

Distortion, divine providence and genre in Nicetas

Choniates’s account of the collapse of Byzantium 1180–1204
Jonathan Harris ,*
Hellenic Institute, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX, UK


Historians have differed widely in their assessments of the Byzantine historian, Nicetas Choni-
ates, and his account of the collapse of the Byzantine empire during the years 1180–1204. Some
have seen him as blaming the Latins in general and as doggedly believing that they were planning
to conquer Constantinople from the outset. Others have presented him as a balanced commentator
who could see wrong on both sides, and have suggested that his real explanation for the downfall
of the empire lies in divine providence. This paper argues that neither assessment does justice to
Choniates’s skill as an historian, and that the only way to understand his explanations is to appreci-
ate the literary genre in which he wrote. It was a genre which, although superficially dependent
on classical models, based its conception of historical causation on a very Byzantine preoccupation,
the character and deeds of individual emperors. For Choniates, the main reason for the collapse
of the empire was the weaknesses of the emperors ruling at the time, and their failure to live up
to the divinely ordained ideal.  2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Byzantium; Historiography; Choniates; Crusades

The History of Nicetas Choniates is one of the most important sources of information
on twelfth-century Byzantium. It covers the years 1118–1207, and, along with the
work of John Cinnamus, provides the main Byzantine account of the reign of Manuel
I Comnenus (1143–80) and of the Second Crusade.1 His work is even more informa-

JONATHAN HARRIS is lecturer in Byzantine History at the Hellenic Institute, Royal Holloway, University
of London. His recent publications include Greek Emigres in the West, 1400–1520 (Camberley, 1995), and
articles in Revue des Etudes Byzantines, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, and Crossing Boundaries: Issues
of Cultural and Individual Identity in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. S. McKee (1999).
*Tel.: +44-1784-443086; fax: +44-1784-433032
For the Greek text see Nicetas Choniates, Historia, ed. J.A. Van Dieten, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae,
11, 2 vols. (Berlin and New York, 1975) (hereafter H); English translation: O city of Byzantium. Annals of
Niketas Choniates, trans. H.J. Magoulias (Detroit, 1984) (hereafter OCB). In general see: Paul Magdalino,
‘Aspects of twelfth century Byzantine Kaiserkritik’, Speculum, 58 (1983), 326–46; H. Hunger, Die hochs-
prachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner, 2 vols. (Munich, 1978), vol. 2, 429–41; J.A. van Dieten, Niketas
Choniates. Erläuterungen zu den Reden und Briefen nebst einer Biographie (Berlin and New York, 1971),

20 J. Harris

tive for the years 1180–1204. Not only is it the only significant Byzantine source
for the Third and Fourth Crusades, but its author, who served as imperial secretary
and grand logothete in those years, was an eyewitness to many of the events he
described. He took part in the negotiations surrounding the passage of the army of
Frederick Barbarossa through the Balkans in 1189, and was present in Constantinople
during the sack of the city on 13–15 April 1204.2 Not surprisingly, this last part of
his history, which he wrote as an exile in Nicaea between 1207 and 1217,3 is largely
concerned with finding the reasons which led to these tragic events.
Modern historians have been curiously divided as to the nature of the explanations
given by Choniates for the collapse of the empire. For one group, it was clear that
he placed the blame firmly on the shoulders of the Latins in general. For George
Ostrogorsky, he was a ‘fervent Greek patriot’, whose work reflected ‘the rising
Byzantine nationalism’. The Latins, according to Anthony Bryer and others, he
regarded as unruly barbarians, ever jealous and envious of the wealth and power of
the Byzantines, ‘a standing affront to the God-given order of things’, and his famous
assertion that ‘between us and the Franks is set the widest gulf’, has been used to
typify Byzantine hatred and contempt for all westerners.4 Integral to this view of
Choniates’s outlook is the idea that he saw all the Latins as ‘one hostile block’,
universally dedicated to the overthrow of the empire and the seizure of its riches.
In presenting this picture, he deliberately distorted their motives by assuming that
they were using the crusades merely as a pretext for that end, which they finally
achieved in 1204 with the Fourth Crusade and the capture of Constantinople.5
More recently, however, another group of writers have presented Choniates in
quite a different light, as a balanced observer who could see wrong on both sides.
Ralph-Johannes Lilie, Michael Angold, Catherine Asdracha, and Alfred Andrea have
pointed out that Choniates often had very positive things to say about the Latins,
and that he believed that the Byzantines themselves bore a share of the blame for
the decline and fall of the empire.6 Paul Magdalino has therefore suggested that the

1–60; Alexander Kazhdan and Ann Wharton Epstein, Change in Byzantine culture in the eleventh and twelfth
centuries (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1985), 225–30; Paul Magdalino, The empire of Manuel I Komnenos
1143–1180 (Cambridge, 1993), 4–22; Michael Angold, Church and society in Byzantium under the Comneni,
1081–1261 (Cambridge, 1995), 132–3.
H, vol. 1, 402, lines 49–55, and 587–91; OCB, 221, 323–5.
OCB, xv–xvi; Vassilis Katsaras, ‘A contribution to the exact dating of the death of the Byzantine historian
Nicetas Choniates’, Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik, 32 (1982), 83–91.
H, vol. 1, 301–2, lines 27–37; OCB, 167; George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine state, trans. J.M.
Hussey, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1968), 353; R.J.H. Jenkins, ‘Social life in the Byzantine empire’, in: Cambridge
medieval history, vol. 4, pt. 2, ed. J.M. Hussey (Cambridge, 1967), 78–103, at 80–1; A.A.M. Bryer, ‘The
first encounter with the West, AD 1050–1204’, in: Byzantium. An introduction, ed. Philip Whitting, 2nd
ed. (Oxford, 1981), 83–110, at 103–4; Ernle Bradford, The great betrayal. Constantinople 1204 (London,
1967), 204.
H, vol. 1, 538–9, lines 64–92; OCB, 295; D.M. Nicol, ‘The Byzantine view of Western Europe’, Greek,
Roman and Byzantine Studies, 8 (1967), 315–39, at 330, repr. in: D.M. Nicol, Byzantium: its ecclesiastical
history and relations with the western world (London, 1972), essay 1.
Ralph-Johannes Lilie, Byzantium and the crusader states 1096–1204, trans. J.C. Morris and Jean E. Ridings
(Oxford, 1993), 282–4; Alfred J. Andrea, ‘Essay on the primary sources’, in: Donald E. Queller and Thomas
F. Madden, The Fourth Crusade. The conquest of Constantinople 1201–1204, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, 1997),
310; Catherine Asdracha, ‘L’image de l’homme occidental à Byzance: le témoignage de Kinnamos et de
Distortion, divine providence and genre in Choniates’s account of the collapse of Byzantium 1180–1204 21

Latins were not Choniates’s main explanation for the collapse at all. Rather the
Byzantine historian held the ‘conventional view that the empire’s misfortunes were
divine punishments for its sins’.7
In this paper it will be argued that neither approach does justice to the reasons
which Choniates gave for the collapse of Byzantium after 1180. He was guilty neither
of crude distortion in his portrait of the Latins, nor of simplistic piety, but rather
was writing in a particular literary genre. Only by understanding the genre, can we
understand his approach to historical causation.
The genre in which Choniates wrote was largely dictated by his education, which
he embarked upon at the age of nine, when he was sent to Constantinople from his
native town of Chonai in Phrygia.8 The course of learning which he would have
followed was traditional, literary and, unlike in the medieval west, available to laype-
ople. Its initial aim was to teach students to read the New Testament, the Septuagint,
and perhaps a few of the easier Church Fathers, a process necessary because by the
twelfth century the language in which the New Testament was written, the Koine
or Common Greek, was very different from that which people spoke every day.9
However, a minority of students, who like Choniates continued their studies
beyond the age of 14, were expected to go beyond the relatively easy task of under-
standing the Scriptures. They had to move on to the classical, pagan authors, like
Plato, Aristophanes, and Aeschylus, and to the more classicising of the Fathers,
because these writers offered both the most difficult, but also what the Byzantines
considered to be the most perfect, examples of Greek composition. Students not only
read the works of the ancient Greek philosophers, dramatists and historians, but also
had to produce writing of their own in the same idiom, often in the form of dialogues
in the style of Plato or Lucian. Such writers, according to the learned emperor,
Manuel II Palaeologus (1391–1425), should be the models of those who sought to
become perfect in the art of writing.10
This was the education undergone to a greater or lesser degree by all the authors
of the literary histories produced in Byzantium between the sixth and fourteenth
centuries. As a result their works were written in deliberate imitation of the style and
language of antiquity, and specifically of the ancient historians, Herodotus, Polybius,

Choniatès’, Byzantinoslavica, 44 (1983), 31–40, at 37–9; Michael Angold, The Byzantine empire 1025–
1204. A political history, 2nd ed. (London, 1997), 328; Warren Treadgold, A history of the Byzantine state
and society (Stanford, CA, 1997), 694.
Magdalino, Empire of Manuel I, 14. Older works on the Fourth Crusade make little attempt to assess Chonia-
tes’s value as a source: see Charles M. Brand, Byzantium confronts the West 1180–1204 (Cambridge, MA,
1968); John Godfrey, 1204. The unholy crusade (Oxford, 1980).
OCB, xi–xii.
On the development of popular Greek in the medieval period, see Robert Browning, Medieval and modern
Greek (London, 1969), 59–91.
Manuel II Palaeologus, Letters, ed. and trans. G.T. Dennis, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae, 8
(Washington, DC, 1977), 148; J.M. Hussey, Church and learning in the Byzantine empire (London, 1937),
22–4; C.N. Constantinides, Higher education in Byzantium in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries,
1204–c. 1310 (Nicosia, 1982), 1–2; N.G. Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium, 2nd ed. (London, 1996), 18–27.
22 J. Harris

Plutarch, and above all Thucydides.11 The finished product was designed to be read
out loud to an audience of similarly well-educated people, who could be expected
to understand and appreciate the aims and achievement of the author.
Yet while the members of Byzantine literary circles might have gasped with admir-
ation at the polished prose of a writer like Choniates, the modern reader is likely to
be less impressed. Western conceptions of literary merit place value on the ability
of an author to express his or her own experience in clear and readable language.
As even so enthusiastic a Byzantinist as Sir Steven Runciman had to admit, Byzan-
tine literature often displayed ‘an artificiality which few authors were gifted enough
to overcome’.12 Furthermore, when it comes to the Byzantine literary histories, it
could be said that the tendency to imitate the classics not only undermined much of
the value that Byzantine histories might have had as independent sources of infor-
mation, but also distorted the contemporary reality that their authors claimed to
To take one example, a feature of Byzantine histories was the placing of set
speeches in the mouths of historical characters, in imitation of similar speeches in
classical literature. A famous example are the words given by the sixth-century his-
torian Procopius of Caesarea to the Empress Theodora, who, faced with riot and
mayhem in Constantinople, refused to flee, proclaiming that ‘the imperial purple
makes a fair winding sheet’.14 These speeches were highly stylised, and were unlikely
to have born much relation to what was actually said. On occasion they can even
be positively misleading. The post-Byzantine classicising historian Laonicus Chalco-
condyles, put an oration into the mouth of Yildirim Bayezid (1389–1402), which
suggests that the Turkish emir had a detailed knowledge of ancient Greek history,
an accomplishment which he is most unlikely to have possessed.15
More serious was the common practice, when describing events, of simply
incorporating the very words used by a classical historian to describe a similar situ-
ation. The accounts of the plague in Constantinople that appear in the works of
Procopius and the fourteenth-century John Cantacuzenus, are both closely based on

Averil Cameron, Procopius and the sixth century (London, 1985), 40–3; Georgina Buckler, Anna Comnena –
a study (Oxford, 1929), 481–4; Averil Cameron, Agathias (Oxford, 1970), 57–64; William Miller, ‘The last
Athenian historian’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 42 (1922), 36–49, at 48–9; H. Hunger, ‘On the imitation
of Antiquity in Byzantine literature’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 23–4 (1969–70), 15–38; J.N. Ljubarskij,
‘New trends in the study of Byzantine historiography’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 47 (1993), 131–8, at 132.
Steven Runciman, Byzantine style and civilisation (Harmondsworth, 1975), 94; J.M. Hussey, Ascetics and
humanists in eleventh-century Byzantium (London, 1960), 16. For a more sympathetic view, see Margaret
Mullett, ‘The classical tradition in the Byzantine letter’, in: Byzantium and the classical tradition, ed. Marga-
ret Mullett and Roger Scott (Birmingham, 1981), 75–93.
Such is the argument of Cyril Mango, ‘Byzantine literature as a distorting mirror’, inaugural lecture, Univer-
sity of Oxford, May 1974, repr. in: Cyril Mango, Byzantium and its image (London, 1984), essay 2; Alex-
ander Kazhdan and Giles Constable, People and power in Byzantium (Washington, DC, 1982), 163–78.
Procopius, The history of the wars, trans. H.B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library, 5 vols. (London, 1914–28),
vol. 1, 230–3.
Laonicus Chalcocondyles, Demonstrations of histories (Books I–III), trans. N. Nicoloudis (Athens, 1996),
Distortion, divine providence and genre in Choniates’s account of the collapse of Byzantium 1180–1204 23

that written by Thucydides, recounting the decimation of the population of Athens

during the Peloponnesian war.16
The same practice extended to geography. When the seventh-century historian
Theophylact Simocatta wanted to write a description of the Nile flood, he did not
turn to personal experience, even though he was a native of Egypt and had been
educated in Alexandria. Instead he based his account very closely on that found in
the work of the classical author Diodorus Siculus.17 In the fifteenth century, Chalco-
condyles used Diodorus in much the same way as the basis of his description of
Britain, retelling the ancient writer’s tale that Britain was one island when the tide
was out, and three when it was in.18 Clearly both Theophylact and Chalcocondyles
were much more interested in the literary impression that the excursus would make
rather than geographical accuracy, even if they did take the trouble to rephrase
Diodorus’s words a little.
More central to the issues under discussion here, however, is the way in which
Byzantine literary genre affected the treatment of foreign peoples and the role of
providence in human affairs. As far as foreigners were concerned, an obvious prob-
lem arose when using the language of another era to describe contemporary events.
What happened when matters came up for which there was no word in classical
Greek? Turks, Latins, and Patzinaks were unknown in the fifth century BC, and to
include their names in the history would detract from the desired classical tone.
Byzantine historians overcame the difficulty by simply substituting ancient words
for modern ones. Thus Turks had to be called Persians, Franks became Celts, Patzi-
naks Scyths.19
Foreign proper names were problematic for the same reason, but they could not
be avoided so easily. Sometimes they just had to go in as they were. Anna Comnena
included the names of three leaders of a Patzinak raid in the Alexiad, but she felt
compelled to apologise for doing so because it ‘spoils the tone of my history’.20
Alternatively, they could be classicised to preserve euphony. Comnena decided on
this option when she changed Raymond of Toulouse into ‘Isangeles’ (’Iσαγγ⑀´ λη␵),

Cameron, Procopius, 40–3; T.S. Miller, ‘The plague in John VI Cantacuzenus and Thucydides’, Greek,
Roman and Byzantine Studies, 17 (1976), 385–95; H. Hunger, ‘Thukydides bei Johannes Kantakuzenos.
Beobachtungen zur Mimesis’, Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik, 25 (1976), 181–93; D.M. Nicol,
The reluctant emperor. John VI Cantacuzene, theologian, emperor and monk (Cambridge, 1996), 93, 147.
The history of Theophylact Simocatta, trans. Michael and Mary Whitby (Oxford, 1986), 203–8; Michael
Whitby, The Emperor Maurice and his historian (Oxford, 1988), 317–18. Cf. Diodorus Siculus, The library
of history, trans. C.H. Oldfather and F.R. Walton, Loeb Classical Library, 12 vols. (London, 1933–67), vol.
1, 37–41.
Chalcocondyles, Demonstrations of histories, 220–5. Cf. Diodorus Siculus, Library of history, vol. 3, 157.
The claim that Chalcocondyles was confusing Britain with the obscure Friesian island of Watten is uncon-
vincing: see Chalcocondyles, Demonstrations of histories, 258, note 88; F. Gabler and G. Stökl, Europa im
XV Jahrhundert von Byzantern gesehen (Graz, Vienna, and Cologne, 1954), 90, note 26.
Nicol, ‘Byzantine view’, 315.
Anna Comnena, Alexiade, ed. Bernard Leib, 3 vols. (Paris, 1937–45), vol. 2, 81; The Alexiad of Anna Com-
nena, trans. E.R.A. Sewter (Harmondsworth, 1969), 212.
24 J. Harris

while her husband Nicephorus Bryennius turned the Frankish mercenary Roussel of
Bailleul into ‘Ourselios’ (Oν’ ρσ⑀´ λ␫ο␵).21
Imitation of classical style and language also led Byzantine writers to incorporate
classical notions of historical causation into their works. They sometimes copied
Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius, by attributing events for which there was no
obvious explanation to ‘fortune’ or ‘blind fate’ (τ␷´ χη), or to ‘providence’ (πρ␱´ νο␫α),
and explaining disasters by saying that it was fated (⑀’⬘δ⑀␫) to happen. A good example
is Procopius’s description of the fall of Antioch to the Persians in 540. Unable to
explain the disaster, he merely concluded that it must have been fated to occur, in
words reminiscent of Herodotus.22 In the same way, John Cinnamus, speaking of
the accession of Manuel I, rather than his elder brother Isaac in 1143, declared that
‘the decrees of providence were unalterable, not to be opposed by men’s calcu-
Yet it would be a mistake to make too much of imitation of classical models by
Byzantine writers. Modern scholarship has demonstrated that their apparent willing-
ness to admit the existence of impersonal forces controlling human destiny, is only
an incorporation of language and form, in no way reflecting any lack of Christian
belief on the part of the author.24 The same applies to all the other aspects of classical
literature imitated by the Byzantines. They merely constituted a facade, the frame
in which Byzantine writers voiced their serious historical concerns.
Whatever the similarity in language, however slavishly they incorporated whole
passages, the Byzantines had a very different set of concerns from those of their
classical predecessors, arising from a very different world view. The Byzantines
believed that it was God’s will that all Christians should live in one state, and that
that state should be ruled by one man, the emperor, who was God’s vice-gerent on
Earth. This exalted conception of the origin of the emperor’s power meant that he
was much more than just a ruler. He was entrusted with the common interests of
the oecumene, the civilised, Christian world. Consequently, it was clear that if the
emperor were competent and good, then the empire would flourish, or as Procopius
put it ‘when the emperor is pious, divinity walks not afar from human affairs’.25 By

Anna Comnena, Alexiade, vol. 2, 234; Alexiad of Anna Comnena, 329; Nicephorus Bryennius, Historiarum
Libri Quattuor, ed. Paul Gautier, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae, 9 (Brussels, 1975), 147.
Procopius, History of the wars, vol. 1, 328: ‘␬α␫` γ␣` ρ ⑀’⬘δ⑀␫ ’Aντ␫οχ⑀´ α␵ το␷´ τω τω̂ Mήδων στρατω̂ a’ πολ
⑀´ σθα␫’. Cf. Herodotus, Histories, ed. A.D. Godley, Loeb Classical Library, 4 vols. (London, 1920–5), vol.
4, 48–9; Donald Lateiner, The historical method of Herodotus (Toronto, 1989), 201; Kenneth Sacks, Polybius
on the writing of history, University of California Publications in Classical Studies, 24 (Berkeley and Los
Angeles, 1981), 136–8; Simon Hornblower, Thucydides (London, 1987), 30.
John Cinnamus, Rerum ab Ioanne et Alexio (sic) Comnenis gestarum, ed. A. Meineke, Corpus Scriptorum
Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1836),· 32, lines 5–6: ’Aλλ’ h’ ν α ’⬘ ρα τ␣` τη̂ προνο␫´α ␬αθάπαξ δ⑀δογµ⑀´ να
δυσανάλυτα πάντη ␬α␫` λογ␫σµο␫ˆ␵ α̇νθρώπων δυσ⑀π␫βο␷´ λ⑀υτα’. English translation: The deeds of John
and Manuel Comnenus, trans. C.M. Brand (New York, 1976), 34.
Roger Scott, ‘The classical tradition in Byzantine historiography’, in: Byzantium and the classical tradition,
61–74 at 62–3; Cameron, Procopius, 117–19.
Procopius, The buildings, trans. H.B. Dewing and Glanville Downey, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1971),
52–5. In general see Ernest Barker, Social and political thought in Byzantium from Justinian I to the last
Palaeologus (Oxford, 1957), 194–6; Walter Ullmann, Medieval political thought, 2nd ed. (Harmondsworth,
1970), 32–8; Steven Runciman, The Byzantine theocracy (Cambridge, 1977), 22; Donald M. Nicol, ‘Byzan-
Distortion, divine providence and genre in Choniates’s account of the collapse of Byzantium 1180–1204 25

the same token, if he were inept and impious, then disaster would surely follow. It
was therefore inevitable that when it came to assessing historical causation, the main
concern of the historian should be an assessment of the character and actions of
the emperor.26
As a result the work of Byzantine historians was very closely linked to another
genre, that of rhetoric, which aimed to produce a eulogy of a reigning emperor in
appropriately archaic language.27(c In making their assessment historians also used
archaic language and were particularly fond of a classical metaphor, the image of
the helmsman piloting the ship that was used several times by Plato.28 Thus the
emperor and historian Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913–59) claimed that it was
for the emperor to ‘take thought for the safety of all, and to steer and guide the
laden ship of the world’. Anna Comnena praised Alexius I (1081–1118) who ‘like a
good helmsman guided his craft safely through the constant battering of the waves’.29
Yet however classical the metaphor and however rhetorical the form, Byzantine
history differed from rhetoric in adopting a much more critical approach to its sub-
ject. Writing in the wake of the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert in 1071, the eleventh-
century historian Michael Psellus sought to explain the disaster by criticising the
Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (1042–55). In making his assessment, Psellus
resorted to the ship metaphor, describing how Constantine wanted the ship of state
to lie idle in harbour and was unwilling to meet stormy weather,30 but he did not
stop at conventional phraseology, going on to seek explanations based on a balanced
assessment of human character and actions. By investigating the indolent character
of this earlier emperor, who had allowed the frontier defences to decay, he created
a masterly study of imperial psychology and a very sophisticated account of historical
causation.31 That is not to say that Psellus and other Byzantine historians had a
secular outlook, which sought only human causes for events. In criticising the actions
of God’s appointed emperor, they were providing a deeply religious explanation.
All the typical elements of Byzantine historiography outlined so far, can be traced
in the work of Nicetas Choniates. As a result of his education, Choniates was con-
sciously writing in the high style, to impress his fellow literati. Although he did use

tine political thought’, in: The Cambridge history of medieval political thought c. 350–c. 1450, ed. J.H.
Burns (Cambridge, 1988), 51–79.
Scott, ‘Classical tradition’, 63, 71; Franz Tinnefeld, Kategorien der Kaiserkritik in der byzantinische Histori-
ographie von Prokop bis Niketas Choniates (Munich, 1971), 180–93.
The two genres were perceived to be so close, that Michael Psellus felt compelled to explain the difference
between them: Michael Psellus, Chronographie, ed. E. Renauld, 2 vols. (Paris, 1926–8), vol. 1, 129–30;
Fourteen Byzantine rulers. The chronographia of Michael Psellus, trans. E.R.A. Sewter (Harmondsworth,
1966), 167–8; C. Chamberlain, ‘The theory and practice of imperial panegyric in Michael Psellus. The
tension between history and rhetoric’, Byzantion, 56 (1986), 16–27; Magdalino, Empire of Manuel I, 20.
See Plato, The republic, trans. Paul Shorey, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. (London, 1935), vol. 2, 18–27;
The statesman. Philebus, ed. Harold N. Fowler, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA, 1925), 142–3.
Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperio, ed. and trans G. Moravcsik and R.H.J. Jenkins,
Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae, 1 (Washington, DC, 1967), 49; Comnena, Alexiade, vol. 2, 189;
Alexiad of Anna Comnena, 295.
Psellus, Chronographie, vol. 1, 134; Fourteen Byzantine rulers, 190.
Psellus, Chronographie, vol. 1, 124–54, vol. 2, 1–71; Fourteen Byzantine rulers, 155–260; J.M. Hussey,
‘Michael Psellus, the Byzantine historian’, Speculum, 10 (1935), 81–90, at 87–8.
26 J. Harris

the writings of his contemporaries, Eustathios of Thessalonica and John Cinnamus,

as sources of information,32 he presented that information in deliberate imitation of
the ancient historians. He wrote in a complex, convoluted and deliberately archaic
prose, inserted set speeches in heroic tone, and derived his geography from ancient
authority.33 There are countless allusions to classical literature, especially to Homer,34
and numerous graphic and memorable images.35
However, as with other Byzantine writers, the high literary tone is merely the
packaging in which Choniates placed his serious historical concern: to discover why
the Byzantine empire collapsed after 1180, and why such a terrible disaster as the
fall of Constantinople took place. At first sight it may appear that his explanation
is many faceted. It is important to distinguish, however, between those explanations
which belong to the facade of classical imitation, and those which arose from his
deeper concerns.
Take his treatment of the obvious target for blame: the Latins. True to the tradition,
he often referred to them by archaic names, the Germans as ‘Alamanoi’ (’Aλαµανο␫´),
the Hungarians as ‘Huns’ (Ou’ ννο␫).36 He sometimes, though by no means always,
changes proper names for euphony, transforming the king of the Germans, Conrad
III, into ‘Corrados’ (Kορράδο␵).37 He also has some very harsh words for them,
seeing the problem as arising from their character, boastful, undaunted in spirit,
lacking humility, trained to be bloodthirsty, so that even the Saracens were more
humane and merciful.38 He particularly disliked the Venetians, describing how they
descended like a swarm on the empire,39 yet he seems to have regarded all the Latins
as being obsessed by the desire for monetary gain, envious of the Byzantines and
their wealth, ‘unable to sate their love of riches’, and it was this that drove them to
attack the empire.40 In 1196 the German envoys of Henry VI noticed the rich attire
of the emperor and his attendants and ‘longed the sooner to conquer the Greeks as
being cowardly and devoted to servile luxuries’.41 The Fourth Crusade was, from
the very beginning, a Venetian plot to conquer Constantinople and seize its riches.42
There is no shortage of passages which seem to justify the view of Ostrogorsky,

Eustathios of Thessalonica, The capture of Thessaloniki, trans. J.R. Melville-Jones, Byzantina Australiensia,
8 (Canberra, 1988), ix; V. Grecu, ‘Nicétas Choniatès a-t-il connu l’histoire de Jean Cinnamos?’, Revue des
Etudes Byzantines, 7 (1949–50), 194–204.
H, vol. 1, 42–6, lines 20–40, and 86, lines 72–3; OCB, 24–6, 50.
E.g. H, vol. 1, 348–9, lines 87–91; OCB, xvi, 192.
E.g. The corpses impaled by Andronicus I at Prusa which looked like scarecrows swaying in the wind: H,
vol. 1, 289, lines 83–9; OCB, 160. On Choniates’s use of language and imagery, see Alexander Kazhdan,
‘Nicetas Choniates and others: aspects of the art of literature’, in: Alexander Kazhdan (with Simon Franklin),
Studies on Byzantine literature of the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Cambridge, 1984), 256–86.
H, vol. 1, 17, lines 39 and 60, line 47; OCB, xix, 11, 35.
H, vol. 1, 63, line 42; OCB, 37.
H, vol. 1, 199, lines 53–8, and 300–1, lines 90–5, 1–16, and 575, lines 59–77; OCB, 113, 166–7, 316;
Asdracha, ‘L’image’, 34–5.
H, vol. 1, 171, lines 54–5; OCB, 97; Magdalino, Empire of Manuel I, 9–10.
H, vol. 1, 648, lines 35–6; OCB, 357; Asdracha, ‘L’image’, 35–6.
H, vol. 1, 477, lines 74–8; OCB, 262.
H, vol. 1, 538–9, lines 64–92; OCB, 295.
Distortion, divine providence and genre in Choniates’s account of the collapse of Byzantium 1180–1204 27

Bryer and Nicol that Choniates was a Greek patriot, who placed the blame on the
foreign aggressor.
Yet a closer examination of the text sows doubt on this interpretation. His use of
archaic names for westerners, which might be thought to denote ignorance or con-
tempt, is all part of the literary facade, which occasionally slips enough to show that
he was rather better informed than he would have his readers believe. At one point
he described Richard the Lionheart as King of the English (’Iγγλ␫´νο␫), rather than
the more classical ‘British’ (Bρ⑀ταν␫␬␱´ ␫), showing both that he was aware of the
modern term and that he knew that the English were to be distinguished from the
Just as the tradition dictated that Choniates should use antiquated terms to describe
the Latins, so it prompted him sometimes to present them within the topos of unruly
barbarians. Such an approach has strong correlation with the Persians in Herodotus,
as well as a much more recent parallel in the treatment of the Latins by Anna Com-
nena. Comnena’s description of them contains almost all the elements found in Chon-
iates, from greed for money to a constant desire to conquer the empire.44
Yet once again the conventional facade often slips to show that Choniates was,
in fact, well aware that not all Latins were necessarily antagonistic towards the
Byzantines. He notes that it was not only the Byzantines but also the Sicilians who
rejoiced at the death of the Emperor Henry VI in 1197, and that the people of Ancona
courageously resisted the armies of Frederick Barbarossa, rather than hand over some
Byzantine envoys.45 Although he regarded the aim of the Fourth Crusade as being
the capture of Constantinople, he did not necessarily see all the Crusades as merely
a pretext for anti-Byzantine aggression, believing that the Third Crusade was entirely
genuine in its goal of liberating Jerusalem.46 Most tellingly of all, he describes how,
during the sack of Constantinople in 1204, he and his family took refuge in the
house of a Venetian, who protected them against the marauding French.47
Far from seeing the Latins as ‘one hostile block’, therefore, as Nicol claimed,
Choniates was also prepared to give them praise where he thought it due. He
recounted the atrocities of the Sicilians in Thessalonica in 1185, but at the same
time described how reverent they were to the cult of Saint Demetrius.48 Individual
westerners are singled out for particular approval, like Conrad of Montferrat, the
brother-in-law of the Byzantine emperor, who organised the resistance when Con-
stantinople was besieged by a rebel army in 1187, and the German emperor, Freder-
ick Barbarossa, whose death Choniates depicted as a sort of martyrdom.49

H, vol. 1, 417, line 68; OCB, 229; Kazhdan and Epstein, Change in Byzantine culture, 182–5.
Comnena, Alexiade, vol. 2, 211–12; Alexiad of Anna Comnena, 308, 313; R.D. Thomas, ‘Anna Comnena’s
account of the First Crusade’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 15 (1991), 269–312, at 296; John
France, ‘Anna Comnena, the Alexiad and the First Crusade’, Reading Medieval Studies, 10 (1984), 20–38,
at 22; Jonathan Shepard, ‘Cross-purposes: Alexius Comnenus and the First Crusade’, The First Crusade
origins and impact, ed. Jonathan Phillips (Manchester, 1997), 107–29, at 109.
H, vol. 1, 201–2, lines 10–44, and 480, lines 61–72; OCB, 114–15, 263.
H, vol. 1, 395, lines 52–6; OCB, 217.
H, vol. 1, 588, lines 13–31; OCB, 323.
H, vol. 1, 305–6, lines 36–47; OCB, 169.
H, vol. 1, 382–3, lines 60–85 and 416–17, lines 26–50; OCB, 210, 228–9.
28 J. Harris

Alongside this readiness to see good in some of the Latins, we find numerous
criticisms of the Byzantines themselves. Much of the blame is apportioned to the
Comnenus family, whose internecine quarrels and rebellions, often waged with the
help of barbarians, Choniates regarded as a major cause of the destruction of the
empire, and cited it as a reason why outsiders regarded the Byzantines with con-
tempt.50 He also picked out individuals and their role in particular events. The fall
of Thessalonica to the Sicilians in 1185, for example, he blamed on the governor
of the city, David Comnenus, who allowed the disaster to happen by his laziness
and negligence. Choniates also criticised John Comnenus, the son of Andronicus I,
who ignored the disaster and carried on hunting in the area of Philippopolis.51 Some-
times, Choniates went still further, and blamed the cowardice and treachery of all
Byzantines, not only the Comnenoi, for the fall of the empire. Many preferred to
quit their homeland and live among the barbarians, and some imperial officials, hard
pressed by taxation, surrendered key cities and castles without a fight.52
There can only be one conclusion. To believe that Choniates blamed the collapse
of the empire between 1180 and 1204 solely on the Latins, is to be deceived by the
classical facade. If Choniates was not blaming the Latins alone, it is tempting to
suggest that he in fact favoured the typical medieval explanation for disasters, namely
that they were a well-merited punishment for sin, which is found in Byzantine mon-
astic chroniclers.53 As a pious Christian, he would have believed that nothing could
have happened without the permission of God, and occasionally he voices that belief
directly, as in his assertion that Thessalonica was given up to fire and sword in 1185
as a punishment for the sins of the Byzantines.54
Yet here too the problem of the literary facade arises. Just like Procopius and
Cinnamus, Choniates sometimes attributed good and bad events solely to impersonal
fate, in imitation of his classical models. He discussed the role of providence (πρ
␱´ νο␫α) in creating and altering situations for the benefit of man,55 and in language
similar to that used by Herodotus and Procopius before him, claimed that Prusa was
fated to fall to Andronicus I in 1183.56 Even in cases where he attributes an event
to God’s wrath, Choniates often cannot resist inserting classical echoes. Discussing
the fall of Constantinople in 1204, he used the familiar ‘it was fated’ construction,
before going on to say that these events were permitted by God.57 To identify divine
providence as Choniates’s central explanation for the collapse seems therefore to be
very unsatisfactory. Conventional phrases occur here and there but they hardly con-
stitute an overall vision or theme in the work.

H, vol. 1, 453, lines 12–15, and 529, lines 25–31; OCB, 249, 290.
H, vol. 1, 297–8, lines 9–20, and 318, lines 29–31; OCB, 164–5, 175.
H, vol. 1, 73, lines 1–11, and 495–6, lines 47–53; OCB, 43, 273.
See the explanation given for the fall of Pergamon in 716 in Nicephorus, Short chronicle, ed. Cyril Mango,
Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 13 (Washington, DC, 1990), 120–3; The chronicle of Theophanes
Confessor, ed. Cyril Mango and Roger Scott (Oxford, 1997), 541.
H, vol. 1, 361, lines 62–74; OCB, 200. See also H, vol. 1, 154, lines 50–2; OCB, 87.
H, vol. 1, 424, lines 50–1; OCB, 234.
H, vol. 1, 287, lines 34–5: ’Eπ⑀␫` δ⑀` ’⑀´ δ⑀␫ ␬α␫` τὴν π␱´ λ␫ν τα␷´ την υ‘ πο␬␷´ ψα␫ τω̂ ’Aνδρον␫`␬ω. See OCB, 159.
H, vol. 1, 569, lines 7–10: ⑀’ π⑀␫` δ⑀` ⑀’′ δ⑀␫ o␷´ λ␫oν ζυγòν ν’ πoδ␷˜ vα␫ τὴν τω̂ν πóλ⑀ων πασω̂ν α ’⬘ ρχoυσαν,

⑀’ ν␬ηµω̂ T⑀ ␬α␫` χαλ␫νω̃ τ␣` ␵ σ␫αγóνα␵ h‘ µω̂ν α ’⬘

γξα␫ θ⑀ò␵ ⑀’ δ␫␬αı́ωσ⑀ν. OCB, 313
Distortion, divine providence and genre in Choniates’s account of the collapse of Byzantium 1180–1204 29

There is, however, a theme which runs constantly from beginning to end, and that
is criticism of the emperors. It could be said that much of this criticism is the conven-
tional stock in trade of Byzantine Kaiserkritik. For John II Comnenus Choniates had
nothing but praise, ‘of emperors the most royal and best versed in generalship’.58
Alexius III (1195–1203), on the other hand, was accused of all the misdemeanours
traditionally attributed to bad emperors, and which Procopius had attributed to Justin-
ian some 600 years before: Alexius failed to live up to the ideal, neglecting the
interests of the empire. Rather than preserving the God-given order, as a pious
emperor should, he introduced innovations and overthrew established practices.
Worst of all, he allowed his wife, the Empress Euphrosyne, to wield power in her
own right, making affairs of state ‘the sport of the women’s apartments’.59 The
hackneyed image of the ship crops up once more, Alexius III being described as a
steersman who had let go of the rudder.60
Yet Choniates’s criticisms go beyond conventional eulogy and invective. Like
Psellus with Constantine IX he sought to make a balanced assessment of character
and ability, finding both positive as well as negative aspects.
In approaching Manuel I, for example, Choniates took a different line to the unre-
servedly favourable accounts written by Cinnamus and the Latin chronicler, William
of Tyre.61 He called a number of Manuel’s actions into question, recording that the
emperor’s policy towards the West was criticised by contemporaries as too grandiose
and extravagant, because he set his eyes upon the very ends of the earth in his
attempt to destabilise the Norman kingdom of Sicily. He over–taxed his people, and
Choniates particularly criticised the system of grants of Pronoia, where the tax rev-
enues of an area went directly to the soldier who had received the grant, claiming
that the practice delivered the inhabitants of the provinces over to a far worse tyranny
than that of the state.62
These charges are not just hurled at Manuel, though, for Choniates was at pains
to discuss the extent to which they were valid. He offers a defence of Manuel’s
Italian adventure, saying that the Latins presented a terrible threat to the empire and
were likely to form a conspiracy to overthrow it. In making a final assessment of
Manuel’s reign, he comes down in the emperor’s favour, behind the screen of the
ship metaphor: ‘As events were to demonstrate after he had departed this life, his
thoughts and actions were both sound and reasonable; and shortly after this wise
helmsman was cast overboard, the ship of state sank.’63

H, vol. 1, 77, lines 25–6; OCB, 45.
H, vol. 1, 460–1, lines 78–13, 483–4, lines 58–87; OCB, 252–3, 265–6. Cf. Procopius, The anecdota or
secret history, ed. H.B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1935), 128–31, 176–87, 222–7; Cameron,
Procopius, 67–83.
H, vol. 1, 459, lines 68–70, and 484, lines 71–5; OCB, 252, 265.
Cf. Cinnamus, Rerum ab Ioanne et Alexio (sic) Comnenis gestarum, 274–8; Deeds of John and Manuel
Comnenus, 205–8; William of Tyre, A history of deeds done beyond the sea, trans. E.A. Babcock and A.C.
Krey, 2 vols. (New York, 1943), vol. 2, 461; Magdalino, Empire of Manuel I, 2–3.
H, vol. 1, 203, lines 58–60, 204, lines 79–89, and 208, lines 16–35; OCB, 115–16, 118. On Choniates’s
attitude to Manuel, see Magdalino, ‘Aspects of Byzantine Kaiserkritik’, 326–9; Magdalino, Empire of Man-
uel I, 4–13, 477–82; Tinnefeld, Kategorien, 158–79.
H, vol. 1, 203–4, lines 75–8; OCB, 115.
30 J. Harris

So why did the ship sink after 1180? Choniates moved on to Manuel’s successors.
His son, Alexius II (1180–3) was a mere boy who was easily dominated by ambitious
courtiers.64 The elderly Andronicus I (1183–5) was a bloodthirsty tyrant who pre-
ferred to spend time with his mistresses, instead of making repairs to the walls as
the Sicilian army drew near to Constantinople in 1185.65 Alexius and Andronicus,
however, only reigned a few short years. For Choniates, the real villains were the
emperors of the Angelos family, who held power between 1185 and 1204.
Isaac II Angelos (1185–95) he regarded as a feeble ruler, whose complacency led
to the numerous revolts which broke out in the provinces following his accession.
Isaac was indecisive, appointing and dismissing his officials in rapid succession, and
often hawking the public offices ‘as vendors peddle their fruit’.66 At the same time,
however, Choniates felt compelled to point out that Isaac took care to ensure that
the tax gatherers were honest and that the revenues they collected would reach
the treasury.67
Isaac’s brother, Alexius III, received much the same treatment. The problem lay
in Alexius’s character, his ‘light-mindedness’. Fond of a self-indulgent and luxurious
lifestyle, he squandered the money built up by Isaac to pay for military operations,
and resorted to every device to extort ever greater sums of money for the treasury.68
In Choniates’s opinion, these personal failings were to have disastrous results for
the empire. Alexius had no idea what was going on in the provinces, and was hardly
respected by his subjects. When the fleet of the Fourth Crusade approached Con-
stantinople in 1203 he failed to make any adequate preparations.69 Yet once again,
Choniates had some good words even for the worst of emperors. He paid tribute to
Alexius’s courage during illness. When his legs became inflamed, the emperor him-
self burned them with red hot irons, in the forlorn hope of restoring himself to health.
Choniates also noted that Alexius was fair-minded and approachable, not swayed by
the words of flatterers.70
Choniates was not indulging in secular psychology here. Because, as is made clear
throughout the History, the emperor was entrusted with the care of the common good
(τ␱` ␬ο␫ν␱´ ν) of all Christians.71 His failure was ultimately the withdrawal of God’s
favour from his people. Choniates, and others who wrote in the same genre differed
from the monastic chroniclers in their more detailed and balanced explanation of the
ways in which an emperor failed to live up to the ideal, or, in the case of Anna
Comnena on Alexius I, saved the empire by their piety and excellence.
It was this outlook that dictated Choniates’s approach to the Latins. Because the
emperor was his main concern, he had no desire to build up a consistent picture of
them. They were not discussed for their own sake, but in order to assess how effective

H, vol. 1, 223–4; OCB, 127.
H, vol. 1, 321–2, lines 10–41; OCB, 177.
H, vol. 1, 423–4, lines 21–32, and 437, lines 16–23, and 444, lines 3–7; OCB, 233, 240, 244.
H, vol. 1, 444, lines 7–10; OCB, 244.
H, vol. 1, 454, lines 28–32, and 459, lines 54–67, and 483, lines 39–57; OCB, 249, 252, 265.
H, vol. 1, 484, lines 71–3, and 540–1, lines 26–42; OCB, 265, 296.
H, vol. 1, 496–7, lines 74–91, and 547, lines 85–93; OCB, 273, 299.
H, vol. 1, 265, line 87, 362, line 7, and 485, line 20; OCB, 147, 201, 266.
Distortion, divine providence and genre in Choniates’s account of the collapse of Byzantium 1180–1204 31

a particular emperor was in dealing with them, and hence at protecting the public
good of the oecumene. Choniates’s account of the relations between Manuel I and
the Latins is a good example. At one point he criticised the emperor for harshness
to the Latins and for alienating them by failing to prevent the sale of adulterated
bread at the time of the Second Crusade.72 Shortly afterwards, however, he
denounced Manuel for being too favourable to the Latins, providing them with quar-
ters in Constantinople, loading them with gifts and preferring them in his service
over his own subjects, by appointing them as judges when they could not even speak
Greek properly.73 There is no contradiction here because Choniates was not trying
to show whether or not the Latins were good or bad for the empire, but whether
Manuel was.
Turning to the collapse of the empire after 1180, for the same reason Choniates
did not present a picture of one-sided Latin aggression, but rather sought to show
how particular emperors mishandled the situation, causing a series of incidents which
left a legacy of hatred and revenge. Thus William of Sicily’s attack on Thessalonica
was, in Choniates’s opinion, in retaliation for ill-treatment meted out to Latins in
imperial service by the Emperor Andronicus I.74
It was a series of such incidents, stretching back many years, which culminated
in the disaster of 1204. Manuel I’s seizure of Venetian property in 1171 was mot-
ivated by a desire for revenge for the actions of the Venetians at the siege of Corfu
more than ten years earlier, when they had mounted a mocking charade at the
emperor’s expense.75 The events of 1171 were, in turn, one of the factors which,
according to Choniates, led to the Fourth Crusade. The leading plotter, the Venetian
Doge, Enrico Dandolo, was eager to take revenge, and he was also reacting to the
ill-judged refusal of the Byzantine emperors of the Angelos family to pay the balance
of the compensation promised by Manuel I.76 It was therefore not so much the Latins
themselves who brought about the downfall of the empire, but the failure of the
emperors to deal with them properly.
It therefore seems clear enough that in the eyes of Nicetas Choniates, and those
who wrote in the same genre, the emperor was the central concern of the historian.
In the character and actions of the imperial incumbent, rather than divine wrath or
Latin guile, lay the major cause of the disaster of 1204. The only question that
remains is why this has not always been fully appreciated in the past. Surely the
answer lies in the failure of the Byzantines to accord us the importance which we
assign to ourselves. That our forebears, the crusaders, were marginal to the Byzantine
view of the world is perhaps the hardest lesson for western European historians
to learn.

H, vol. 1, 66–7, lines 14–40; OCB, 38–9; Magdalino, Empire of Manuel I, 5, 51–2.
H, vol. 1, 199, lines 59–62, and 204, lines 4–15; OCB, 113, 116.
H, vol. 1, 296–7, lines 88–93; OCB, 164.
H, vol. 1, 86–7, lines 87–95, and 171–2, lines 56–62; OCB, 50–1, 97.
H, vol. 1, 537–8, lines 55–80; OCB, 295; Asdracha, ‘L’image’, 38–9.