AGATHIAS, Byzantine historian, b. 536 or 537 in Myrina, a small village in Asia Minor, d. about 580. He completed his legal studies in Constantinople, where he practiced the profession of advocate, whence the surname scholasticus. More interested in belles-lettres than in the bar, he at first devoted himself to poetry and composed a collection of erotic poems and numerous epigrams. When he was about thirty, he decided to continue the work of Procopius of Caesarea and turned to history. His History of Justinian covers the years 553-59 and comprises five volumes; it was not completed because of his premature death. As a result of his previous interest in poetry, Agathias’ style is marked by a profusion of poetic terms.
Among other matters, Agathias’ History treats the war which was fought between Justinian and Xusraw I (Chosroes) in Lazica in 552-56—a war successfully conducted on the Persian side by the generals Mihr-Mihrōē (Mermeroes) and Naxwaragān (Nachoragan). But besides this account, there are digressions, on the Persians in general and the Sasanians in particular, which contain much information of interest. The author gives exact information taken from the Sasanian royal archives with the help of a certain Sergius (4.30). This Syrian was a distinguished interpreter who was greatly appreciated by King Xusraw himself; at Agathias’ request, he contacted the guardians of the royal annals and obtained authorization to consult these official documents. The learned interpreter then took note of names, chronology, and principal events and translated this resume for the historian. (These annals were the principal source of the Xwadāy-nāmag [“Book of kings”], which, in the Muslim period, was to be translated or adapted by Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ and others.) The resume of Sergius is evidently the basis for the long digression listing the Sasanian kings (4.24ff.) from Ardašīr, founder of the dynasty, who acceded to the throne “538 years after the death of Alexander,” to Xusraw I, whose reign had recently ended. The list indicates the duration of each reign and, despite errors, is the best and most accurate source available for Sasanian chronology. (Cf. Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 400; A. Cameron, “Agathias on the Sassanians,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 23, 1969, p. 117.) Other details are also valuable. There is a detailed account with regard to Wahrām III (called Segansaa, i.e., Sagānšāh “king of Sagistān”) of the custom by which the Sasanians gave their sons titles of kings of the regions they had conquered (4.24). In many cases he greatly abbreviates annals, e.g., in the sketchy outline of Šāpūr II’s foreign policy (4.25; cf. Cameron, op. cit., p. 146). In other cases one can find traces of a Syrian and Christian tendency inimical to the Sasanians and perhaps transmitted by Sergius; for example, he judges Šāpūr I severely (4.23-24; cf. Cameron, op. cit., pp. 139-40). On the lineage of Ardašīr I (who is presented as the son of an obscure artisan, 2.27), the historian echoes a popular tradition which is far from the truth and has no basis in the annals. For the pre-Sasanian period, he draws on many ancient sources, notably Polyhistor, Dion, Ctesias, Diodorus Siculus (cf. Cameron, op. cit., p. 113; J. Suolahti, “On the Persian Sources used by the Byzantine Historian Agathias,” Studia Orientalia 13, 1947, p. 8); the duration of the reign of the Parthians is given only as 270 years.
As a contemporary of Xusraw I, Agathias was particularly qualified to etch the portrait of this celebrated monarch. Xusraw was considered to be thoroughly acquainted with Aristotle and Plato, whom he had read in Pahlavi translation. Agathias conscientiously records this reputation of the well-read philosopher-king but does not really believe it and sets out to discredit it (2.28). In his opinion the superiority of Xusraw is primarily military; by his brave accomplishments, this sovereign surpasses all his predecessors, including Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes (4.29). Agathias does not lack objectivity in his appreciation of the valor of certain conspicuous Persians, such as the general Mihr-Mihrōē, whom he praises in eloquent terms. The treatment of the Persian religion (2.24-25) emphasizes certain important characteristics: e.g., veneration for water, which is not used except for drinking and for irrigation, and reforms introduced by Zoroaster; however, he advances some rather confused ideas, especially concerning the names of the Persian gods (e.g., by speaking of Sandes as a Persian Heracles). While being inspired by written sources, this discussion certainly owes something to the verbal information furnished by the interpreter Sergius (cf. Suolahti, op. cit., p. 8). In the passage on funeral customs, the author stresses the contemporary Persian practice of exposing corpses, although he does not ignore the fact that the Medes buried their dead and used tombs. In short, if Agathias seems to have principally borrowed from an extract translated into Greek from the Sasanian annals, he did not neglect to use widely differing written sources, as well as information obtained from Sergius and other travelers.
Principal editions: B. G. Niebuhr in Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonn, 1828 (with Latin tr.).
Dindorf in Historici Graeci Minores II, Leipzig, 1871.
R. Keydell, Berlin, 1967. S. Costanza, Biblioteca di Helikon (Testi e studi 7), Messina, 1969.
J. D. Frendo, tr., The Histories, Berlin, 1975.
Other works: A. Cameron, “Agathias on the Sassanians,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 23, 1969.
Idem, Agathias, Oxford, 1970.
M. Hartmann, “Agathias,” Pauly-Wissowa, I, 1893, cols. 743-45.
R. Keydell, “Agathias,” Der Kleine Pauly I, 1969, cols. 116-17.
M. Ites, “Zur Bewertung des Agathias,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 26, 1926, pp. 273-85.
C. Krumbacher, Geschichte der byzantinischen Literatur, Munich, 1891, pp. 49ff.
E. Stein, Histoire du Bas-Empire II, Paris, 1949.
Originally Published: December 15, 1984
Last Updated: July 28, 2011
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