Olympiodorus of Thebes Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Olympiodorus of Thebes c. 375-c. 430

Egyptian historian.

One of several figures from late antiquity who composed historical records of the Roman Empire in decline, the self-styled poet Olympiodorus of Thebes is most remembered for his twenty-two volume Historikoi logoi (c. 425-30; Books of History), now lost, which detail events that occurred in the western Imperium during the period 407 to 425. Preserved in fragments from a ninth-century summary, the History takes as its central theme the process of political decay that preceded the sack of Rome by the Visigoth King Alaric I in 410, and examines the subsequent decade and a half of instability and partial recovery. Although now incomplete, the History Olympiodorus wrote is considered unique because of its pagan Egyptian tone, independent judgment of character, and limited inclusion of complex historical analysis. Additionally, Olympiodorus's open support for the Roman Empress Augusta Placidia in the work and his realistic view of the necessity for cooperation between Visigoths and the central government in Rome contribute to the enduring significance of the document.

Biographical Information

Scholars believe that Olympiodorus was born in Thebes, Egypt, sometime between 365 and 380 a.d. Very little is known of his life and no information exists concerning his early activities. He is generally thought to have been well educated and to have traveled extensively in the eastern Mediterranean region, frequently in an official capacity as a diplomatic representative of the Roman government. In his writings he describes himself as a poet, although no surviving works support this claim aside from the existence of a minor Theban epic poem called the Blemmyonachia, which is sometimes attributed to him. In his History Olympiodorus shows himself an ardent pagan (Hellene). He limits his criticism of Christianity, however, to the denigration of only a few select individuals of that faith, while allusions to his belief in the powers of magic and pagan ritual are extensive. Scholars hypothesize that as a man of learning, he probably spent some time in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. He mentions an adopted son, whose premature death caused him great distress. Almost no other information is available. While the details of Olympiodorus's bureaucratic activities remain obscure, the first record of his travels as an ambassador in the service of Rome are documented in his History, which tells of a visit to the Huns in 412 on behalf of either the eastern Emperor Theodosius II or the western ruler at that time, Honorius. As part of the story, Olympiodorus recounts a dangerous overseas journey as well as a voyage along the Danube River. He visited Athens in about 415, completing some business involving the Athenian university. Subsequently, he returned to Upper Egypt in about 418 to 419, and probably visited the nearby region inhabited by the Blemmyes. By 421, Olympiodorus appears to have joined the entourage of Valentinian, and almost certainly accompanied the future western emperor on his 424 expedition to Rome in order to assert his rule. While the precise date of Olympiodorus's death is unknown, the events described in his writings leave off in late 425, and most scholars agree that he died sometime around 430.

Major Works

Although Olympiodorus dedicated his lengthy history of the late Imperial period in Rome to the eastern emperor Theodosius II, most of the events it relates occur in the western half of the Empire. Its eighteen-year time-frame of 407 to 425 covers the period from the seventh consulship of Honorius to the crowning of Valentinian III as western emperor in November of 425. The work itself is now lost, but has been reconstructed by modern scholars, largely through the evidence of forty-six fragments from an extensive summary found within the Bibliotheca of the ninth-century Byzantine cleric Photius, as well as from commentary by the fifth-century Roman historian Zosimus. As reconstructed, the work is usually divided into two decads, or volumes of ten books each, with its two concluding portions usually discussed in conjunction with the second decad. Despite its now fragmentary state, Olympiodorus's History contains a variety of topical material and protracted digressions that account for roughly one fourth of the material available from Photius, and include extensive personal commentary by the author as well as reminiscences of his travels. The principal subject of the History is a steep decline in the stability of the central government in Rome during the first quarter of the fifth century, beginning in 407 with increasing Germanic migration from the Rhine valley into the Roman region of Gaul. Olympiodorus detailed the subsequent decades of material destruction and political turmoil prompted by an insufficient Imperial response to the situation, prior to the ameliorative coronation of Emperor Valentinian III in Rome. Critics have remarked on a number of secondary themes in the work as well, including blame for Roman shortsightedness, the moral laxity that contributed to the sack of Rome, balanced praise for the pragmatic qualities of the Goths, and an assessment of the efficacy of east-west cooperation in securing Valentinian's political position. A series of individual historical portraits are also included in the work, the first of them being that of the Vandal general Stilicho. Olympiodorus offers a sympathetic portrayal of this frequently maligned figure, murdered by conspirators in the early fifth century. He subsequently recounts several Visigoth sieges of Rome, which culminate in a third, successful attack led by Alaric in 410 and a subsequent barbarian sack of the city. The remaining books of the first decad detail the steady decline of Rome after these invasions in a subsequent period of political instability punctuated by usurpation and internal revolt. Principal figures in the second half of the History include: Ataulf, a Visigoth with strong ties to the Roman court who, like Stilicho, is murdered; Empress Augusta Placidia, mother and regent to Valentinian; and the consul Constantius, husband to Placidia from 417 to his death in 421. Following Constantius's demise, Olympiodorus reports another round of usurpation and disruption, as well as the exile of Placidia to the East. Her return to Rome and the triumphant coronation of her son closes the account. Stylistically, Olympiodorus narrates his History in a plain, unadorned manner, rarely composing passages for dramatic effect or taking opportunities to display set speeches in an elevated fashion. Contrasting with this “low” style, Olympiodorus's extensive use of Latin words and phrases in the otherwise Greek text, however, is considered unusual. Other aspects of his idiosyncratic technique include varied digressions on such tangential subjects as his embassy to the Huns in 412, the travels of the mythical hero Odysseus in Italy, and numerous references to descriptive sums and statistics in the work. Although scholars generally caution that the accuracy of such additions is suspect; nevertheless, the work offers extensive detail and reflects a concern for exactitude that commentators deem quite unconventional by the standards of the day.

Critical Reception

Aside from the late Roman historian Zosimus, who made considerable use of Olympiodorus's work in his own unfinished account of the decline of the Roman Empire, and several other writers in antiquity who used his research, the principal pre-modern commentator on Olympiodorus is the Byzantine scholar Photius. It is Photius who is credited with preserving the extant fragments of the History, and his ninth-century analysis includes remarks on the disorderly construction and limp style of Olympiodorus's writing. Photius also observed that Olympiodorus himself designated the work as a collection of “material for history,” rather than a formal or polished historical narrative. Later scholars have acknowledged this fact, leading to suppositions that Olympiodorus may have intended to rework the contents of his History before his death. In any case, modern critics generally agree that Olympiodorus should be viewed as a discursive historian in the tradition of Herodotus, but with little pretension toward elevated, literary history in the grand manner represented by his predecessor. In evaluating Olympiodorus's historical method, contemporary scholars have observed that the historian focused principally on character and the interaction between individuals rather than on cultural, economic, or intellectual forces. While this is not surprising for the late antique period, commentators such as R. C. Blockley and Charles Chaffin nevertheless have remarked that Olympiodorus's analyses of events, though often moral in nature, are far from superficial, and frequently search for underlying causes. Likewise, both critics have noted that Olympiodorus consistently departed from his contemporaries in offering a balanced evaluation of the barbarian, Germanic peoples who constituted the principal external threat to Roman security in the period, as well as of such historical figures as Stilicho and Alaric. Overall, while aware of numerous stylistic flaws in the work—which Blockley characterizes as “topical, geographical, repetitive, and confusing”—modern critics continue to value Olympiodorus's realistic, balanced, and intellectually independent understanding of historical events in early fifth-century Rome as displayed in his Historikoi logoi.