Theophanes the Confessor Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Theophanes the Confessor was a monk and author whose chronicle, Chronographia, is for modern scholars the main source for the history of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire from about 600 to 813.

Early Life

Theophanes was born to a wealthy family sometime around 752. At this time, the Byzantine Empire was mired in the Iconoclastic Controversy. The iconoclasts were Christians who believed that all religious art was idolatry and should be destroyed. (The characteristic religious art form of East Christian churches is the icon, hence the name iconoclasts, or “icon breakers.”) Those who defended the use of religious art were called iconodoules (icon servers) or iconophiles (icon lovers). At the time of Theophanes’ birth, the imperial government was sympathetic to the iconoclasts, and iconophiles were being persecuted. Theophanes’ parents were secret iconophiles. As he grew up, Theophanes followed their lead in concealing his iconophile sympathies; as a result, he held a number of government posts under Emperor Constantine V, who reigned from 741 to 775. After Constantine’s death, government policy changed; iconoclasm ceased to enjoy official support. Theophanes could now openly reveal his iconophilism. He became a monk and founded a monastery near Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Life’s Work

Theophanes’ importance lies principally in his authorship of Chronographia (c. 810-815), a chronicle covering the history of the Eastern Roman Empire to August, 813. Theophanes undertook this project at the suggestion of a friend, George Syncellus. George had written a chronicle that began with the creation of the world and continued through the beginning of the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian (late 284). When he learned that he was dying, George requested that his friend Theophanes complete the chronicle down to their own day, and Theophanes agreed.

The Chronographia is marred by Theophanes’ extremely negative depiction of people with views other than his own. He disliked Muslims and hated iconoclasts. His attitude toward the iconoclasts is understandable, for he and his family had suffered under their rule. Still, two of the most important iconoclastic emperors, Leo III (717-741) and Constantine V, had been mighty generals who won great victories over the Arabs, Bulgars, and Slavs. The empire owed its survival to them.

Theophanes also made some errors in the chronology of his Chronographia. Today, virtually the entire world uses the Christian or common era system of dating, which dates everything before or after the approximate year Jesus Christ was born. In Theophanes’ time, the b.c.-a.d. system was just coming into use, and he used it only occasionally and incorrectly, since he was not completely familiar with it. Eastern Christians and Jews most often used the annus mundi system (dating things from the year of the Creation), a system Jews still employ for religious purposes. In addition to the annus mundi, Theophanes dated events by the indiction, a fifteen-year cycle originally used by the imperial government for reassessment of property for tax purposes. From September, 610 (the Byzantine year began on September 1), through August, 773, except for the years between 715 and 725, Theophanes’ annus mundi and the indiction were one year out of synchronization.

Yet another major problem with the Chronographia lies in its format. A chronicle is not a true history, but rather a year-by-year record of events. Because of its structure, a chronicle cannot give a proper account of events such as long wars that stretch over more than one year. A great Roman historian, Tacitus, deliberately used a modified chronicle format for one of his books, Ab excessu divi Augusti (c. 116 c.e.; Annals, 1793). In general, however, sophisticated historians avoid writing chronicles.


(The entire section is 1643 words.)