Rewriting the Historical Geography of Rome with the Chronicle of Theophanes

Text by Rachel Chung (’20), Grant van Inwegen (’20), Ezra Kohn (’20), Nathan Krieger (’20), and Jonah Skolnik (’21).
Mapping by Jesse Simmons (’21) and Grant van Inwegen (’20).
Data visualizations by Weiliang Song (’20) with assistance from Rachel Chung (’20).

This blog post presents a paper that the Theophanes Project team wrote to present at the 2020 CTW (Connecticut College, Wesleyan University, Trinity College) Undergraduate Symposium in the Arts and Humanities, originally planned to be held at Wesleyan University on March 28, 2020. The global pandemic of COVID-19 necessitated that the symposium be cancelled. In lieu of presenting our paper, we have converted it into this blog post. The paper here summarizes the goals and issues of the Geography and Narrative in the Chronicle of Theophanes project as it currently stands, presenting some of our most recent work and analyses. For a description of the project’s origins and evolution, please read the previous blog posts.

Nathan Krieger and Ezra Kohn with Jonah Skolnik

Standard narratives of the Roman empire tend to rely on strict periodization, and though this can take several forms, each brings with it a strong perspective on how to read history and Rome. Many periodizations carry with them certain biases, or at least don’t show the full picture. Since these ways of categorizing eras are decided by modern historians, there is a certain amount of hindsight bias that must be recognized.  

Resulting maps of the Roman empire, regardless of time period, then display these biases. Choices such as how to split up eras, which cities to highlight prominently, or even how to ‘crop’ the map (i.e. which section of the world to put into focus) all reflect certain ways or schools of reading Roman history. One of the main goals of our project is to find a way of taking the histories and chronicles written during the Roman empire and to translate how those histories of the time narrated their world into forms that we can understand.

Given the fact that the empire did not write narratives in the way we write them nor draw maps in the way we draw them, we end up confronting problems of historical translation. The questions we have to ask are, how would medieval Byzantines conceptualize the world they were living in? And, how can we represent this understanding from a modern viewpoint? 

To better understand the empire from a medieval perspective, we turn to arguably the most comprehensive historical text of the time: the Chronicle of Theophanes, a tome of a book recording each year between the years of 284 and 813. The chronicle was only part of a greater narrative written by George Syncellus, beginning its timeline at the Garden of Eden. Each section of the chronicle records the emperor of that time; the reigning bishops in the cities of Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch; the political events of the year; the outcome of wars, the construction and destruction of cities and monuments; extreme weather; supernatural phenomena, as well as even more detailed and esoteric information. 

One can’t really read the chronicle as literature or a standard textbook, because it’s almost impossible for any one person to track the trends, names, place names, or biases of such an overwhelmingly dense source. To solve this problem, our research lab uses digital methods to visualize the chronicle’s content, converting otherwise undetectable trends into understandable mediums. As the chronicle includes geographical information for every single year between 284 and 813, we can construct exact visualizations charting change in the empire over time. 

How does the Chronicle‘s Historical Geography differ from our Textbooks?
Grant van Inwegen with Jonah Skolnik

Something to consider when attempting to understand the medieval perspective of the Roman Empire was that people living in it did not have an aerial map of their empire’s territory in their brain. Romans identified themselves with their cities rather than understanding themselves as living in the territorial domain of the Roman Empire. Romans didn’t think of space in terms of distance. Despite its closer proximity to Rome, Ravenna seemed further away than Carthage because it took a much longer time to travel across Italy on foot than it did to sail to Carthage.

So, to better understand how people living in the Roman Empire thought of themselves, we tracked mentions of cities in the entire Chronicle of Theophanes. Cities are important because they were the primary way of noting specific locations. For example, the chronicle might describe the location of a battle in terms of which city it took place near.

Cities were also significant to Romans because they used cities as their primary system of governance. In the medieval period, the church used cities as their primary means of organization. To demonstrate this, we included, “the Bishop of Antioch,” for example, in our tracking of city mentions throughout the chronicle.

When we tracked cities, we paired it with the year in which it was mentioned in the chronicle. This is a useful approach for displaying where the drama in historical narratives is occurring over time. For example, we found most of the mentions of Carthage throughout the chronicle in the year 533 A.D. This was because the Byzantine Empire fought a war with Carthage in that year, marking the beginning of Justinian’s reconquest of the West.

When comparing traditional textbook maps of the Roman Empire to the maps we made based on city mentions, we notice different themes.

Map 1: A standard historical map of the Roman Empire under Constantine I (r. 306-337)

Map 2: Cities mentioned in the Chronicle of Theophanes during its account of the reign of Constantine I (r. 306-337). Map by Jesse Simmons with Grant van Inwegen.

Traditional textbook maps depicting the period of the rise of Constantine and subsequent “decline of Western Rome” put most of their focus on the West. Constantinople is typically the Easternmost city that is depicted as relevant in this period. However, our maps displaying city mentions in this period show a large clustering of cities in Asia Minor, the Holy Land, and Egypt. In contrast to traditional maps of this period, only a handful of cities West of Greece are mentioned in the chronicle.

Map 3: A standard map of the Roman Empire under Justinian I (r. 527-565), taken from George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State

The second period we looked at was the reign of Justinian, who was a polarizing figure in textbooks as well as one of the most mentioned emperors in the chronicle. He is often thought of in textbooks as one of the last “Roman” emperors of late antiquity because the empire changes so drastically over the course of his reign to become “Byzantine.” He is well known for his reconquest of the Western Empire. This textbook map heavily emphasizes the Eastern empire surrounding Constantinople, but also gives emphasis to reconquered cities in Italy and Spain.

Map 4: Cities mentioned in the Chronicle of Theophanes during its account of the reign of Justinian I (r. 527-565). Map by Jesse Simmons with Grant van Inwegen.

While our map showed a similar emphasis on the Eastern empire, we found that the drama of the chronicle was emphasized in the clustering of cities in Northern Africa. The textbook map would seem to make Justinian’s reconquest of Africa much less significant (only three cities are labeled) than in the geography discussed by the Chronicle of Theophanes.

The final period we looked at was the period of the so-called iconoclast (or, Isaurian) emperors Leo III and Constantine V (r. 717-775), often thought of as the dark ages of Byzantine history. By this period, the territorial re-conquests of Justinian had all been lost. Standard textbook maps of this period (like Warren Treadgold’s) focus almost exclusively on Western Anatolia, the Southern Balkans, and Greece.

Map 5: A standard map of the Roman Empire under the Iconoclast or Isaurian emperors (717-775), taken from Warren Treadgold, History of the Byzantine State and Society

Our map was fairly similar, only our map also had a significant clustering of cities in the Holy Land. Treadgold didn’t even bother to include cities from the Holy Land on his map, displaying a contrast between traditional historical narratives and the narrative of contemporary Byzantines.

Map 6: Cities mentioned in the Chronicle of Theophanes during its account of the reigns of the Iconoclast or Isaurian emperors (r. 717-775). Map by Jesse Simmons; formatted for the blog with Grant van Inwegen.

A general theme we noticed on our maps that differed from traditional textbook maps was a focus on the frontiers of the empire. Most notably, the Middle East and North Africa seemed to be important regions that our ninth-century history of the Roman Empire, the Chronicle of Theophanes, gave much more significant attention to than did modern textbook accounts.

Map 7: Time sensitive map of all cities and settlements mentioned in the Chronicle of Theophanes with provinces or themata overlaid, and cities colored to show emperor reigning when mentioned. Map by Jesse Simmons with Grant van Inwegen.

To counter typical periodizations of the history of the Roman Empire, we decided to create a time sensitive map that displays cities throughout the empire in the year that they are mentioned in the Chronicle of Theophanes. This map allows the viewer to see a more natural progression of change throughout the empire rather than an abrupt sequence of drastically different maps. The cities are sized by total mentions to display their prominence within the chronicle.

Our map is not a perfect visualization of the narrative. One issue with this map is that the cities are sized based on total mentions throughout the chronicle, when they ought to be sized by mentions within their respective emperor’s reign. This could confuse the viewer who might think that the sizing is based on mentions in that period. Another issue with our approach is that mentions of cities throughout the chronicle do not necessarily denote importance. The writing style of the author might mention a certain city multiple times in a single sentence, when another city that is only mentioned one time in a sentence could hold a similar level of narrative significance.

Alternative Means of Visualizing Cities and Settlements in the Chronicle
text: Rachel Chung; visualizations: Weiliang Song

Presenting the settlements mentioned by the Chronicle on a GIS map is a way of making visible to us a way to understand the geography through which the text’s narrative progresses. However, presenting medieval places on a modern map is the visual equivalent of a translation from Medieval Greek into Modern English. Our GIS maps, as helpful as they are, show us the geography of the Chronicle on our terms. One way we might think about the geography of the Chronicle on its own terms is–as discussed in our first post on “Geography and Narrative in the Chronicle of Theophanes”–to put places mentioned onto a medieval map of the Mediterranean world, such as surviving maps in medieval copies of Ptolemy’s Geography. We have not yet done this, and even if we were to do so it remains an open question how many medievals would have thought of their experience of the world in terms of such maps. We use aerial maps on a daily basis to navigate through errands and trips. So far as we know a medieval person only ever utilized such maps for theoretical, not practical, discussions. 

Thus, a fundamental challenge of our project–to re-imagine the geography that the narrative of the Chronicle of Theophanes would create in the minds of its ninth-century readers–is to determine what visualizations could possibly capture that “imagined” geography. 

One method we use to read and represent the geography embedded in the Chronicle is to forego geographic maps entirely, and to consider the geography as data visualizations. Using data visualizations, we can analyze our geographical information from different contexts and perspectives whether that’s zeroing in on mentions of bridges during Nikephoros’s reign or taking a birds-eye view of all mentions of settlements in the Chronicle. 

The geographic data we have collected is grouped into three categories: mentions of individual people, mentions of people groups, and mentions of geography. Within our category of “geography,” we group natural geography (mountains, rivers, etc.), political geography (regions and provinces), and civic geography (settlements of all kinds, and their infrastructure). Our settlement data consists of an index of all the settlements mentioned in the Chronicle and tallies of the frequency with which these settlements are mentioned in each annual entry of the Chronicle. In this blog post, we have only been considering our data on civic geography, or settlements (but not the data on the infrastructure of those settlements, which we will discuss in a subsequent post). 

It should be noted that all visualizations to follow are based on a provisional version of our data, which is still undergoing correction and checking against the original text of the Chronicle. These visualizations were generated out of our data as it stood in December 2019.

Figure 1, below, shows one way in which we began to consider how to understand our data on settlements and the frequency with which the Chronicle mentions each of them. This visualization is a “tree-map.”

Figure 1: Tree Map of Settlements mentioned in the ChronicleFigure 1: Tree Map of Settlements mentioned in the Chronicle of Theophanes. Size reflects number of mentions; Colors merely differentiate distinct boxes. Visualization by Weiliang Song. 

In the “tree map” above, each box represents each settlement mentioned in the Chronicle. The size of the box reflects the number of times that settlement is mentioned. The majority of the settlements mentioned are only mentioned one or two times across the 530 annual entries of the Chronicle. These fall into the unlabeled squares in the bottom right quadrant of the visualization. A select number of cities–Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Rome–clearly dwarf all the other cities in mentions. Another group of cities–including the times Constantinople is called Byzantium, as well as Edessa, Nicaea, Chalcedon, and others–have a notable but not enormous presence in the Chronicle. 

There is much that might still improve this visualization. First of all, as with all of our current visualizations, this was produced in order to allow us to continue exploring and checking our data. One surprise from this visualization was the apparent frequency with which a small and relatively insignificant settlement, Damatrys, appeared (below Carthage, above). This surprise prompted us to return to our data, where we discovered that most of the supposed mentions of Damatrys were actually mis-recorded mentions of Damasus, the bishop of Rome. This, and all of our visualizations remain means of exploring the data and continuing to improve its reliability.

Nevertheless, even in the still in-progress state of our work, and this rudimentary visualization of it it can be thought of as giving us a geography of the Chronicle’s settlements in terms of their familiarity to a reader. We might imagine the “center” of the reader’s point of view to be  the most frequently-mentioned settlement in the upper left quadrant: Constantinople. From this point of view, the “nearness” or clarity with which a reader would view the other settlements mentioned in the Chronicle is expressed by their relative size and nearness to the “center” of Constantinople. The visualization in Figure 1 can thus help us see and discover which places might be perceived as “near” to a reader in terms of how familiar the narrative of the Chronicle would make them seem. 

On the whole, Figure 1 presents one way of looking at all of our data at once. As such it is overwhelming, at least as a static image. One way to get a better sense of how we might explore this data and get into the experience of a reader is to limit our field or range to the most-mentioned settlements. Figure 2 is a bar-chart that does this. The bar chart uses the exact same data that produced the visualization in Figure 1, but is limited to only the top 15 most-mentioned settlements. 

Figure 2: Bar Chart comparing the number of mentions over the entire Chronicle for the fifteen most-mentioned cities. Visualization: Weiliang Song. Rachel Chung prepared an interactive version of this visualization for the web here.

Mentions of Constantinople outnumber the second-most mentioned settlement, Alexandria, by 288 mentions (making Constantinople’s total 188% of Alexandria’s). Constantinople’s true frequency is actually even higher than this: when labeled Byzantium, is also the sixth-most mentioned settlement indicating the outsized prominence of this location in the Chronicle. The division between two groups of cities in accordance with their mentions is accentuated in this graph. The top 5 most mentioned settlements (counting “Byzantium” and “Constantinople” as a single settlement) all have between 200 and 600 mentions. The remaining nine settlements (Chalcedon, Carthage, etc.) in this group each have between 25 and 100 mentions. 

Given that Constantinople is our mostly highly-mentioned settlement, we wanted to look deeper into how mentions of that city varied over the progression of the Chronicle. Figure 3 is a scatter plot layered with a line chart. Here the number of mentions for Constantinople is on the x axis and the year of each annual entry in the Chronicle is on the y-axis. Mentions are fairly evenly distributed across the book’s chapters with occasional spikes, including the nine times when there are six or more mentions of Constantinople in a single year’s entry. 

Figure 3: Scatter plot layered with a line chart of number of mentions of “Constantinople” in each annual entry over the entire Chronicle. Years refer to the “Annus Mundi” (“AM”) or Year-of-the-World under which each mention appears. The Chronicle covers AM 5777 – AM 6305, which corresponds to our AD 284-813 (for simplicity the Chronicle’s “Preface” was labeled AM 5776). Visualization by Weiliang Song. Rachel Chung prepared an interactive version of this visualization for the web here. Notes: dots do not indicate exact values, as jitter was applied to create visual distinctions.

One immediate observation from this data is that while Constantinople is mentioned in many of the annual entries, it is not mentioned in every entry. Nevertheless, the distribution of Constantinople’s mentions is relatively even across the entire Chronicle

This observation led us to wonder whether this is also the case with the other most frequently-mentioned cities. In order to compare the relative frequency and density of mentions of Constantinople to the other top ten most-mentioned settlements (the same group as in Figure 2, above), we made an area plot, as below. 

Figure 4: Area plot of ten (the chart is incorrectly labeled) most-mentioned cities in the Chronicle of Theophanes by Annus Mundi entry. AM 5800 = AD 307; AM 6300 = AD 807. Visualization by Weiliang Song. Rachel Chung prepared an interactive version of this visualization for the web here. 

In this Area Plot, the number of mentions of each of the top ten (the chart is incorrectly labeled) settlements in each annual entry are color-coded and stacked (alphabetically) on top of each other. We can build on what we have already observed from previous visualizations to learn some additional points. First, while we saw that Constantinople acquired its many mentions through a fairly steady frequency over the course of the Chronicle, many of the other most-mentioned settlements are emphasized in one portion of the Chronicle, but less so or not at all in other portions. For instance, Rome’s pink color is much more frequent in the first half of the Chronicle (up to around AM 6050 / AD 558). Antioch and Alexandria seem to be mentioned in comparable patterns. The city of Carthage is an extreme example of acquiring a great number of mentions in a short portion of the narrative, accounting almost single-handedly for the massive “spike” in a single entry near the middle of the Chronicle (in AM 6022 / AD 530) during the emperor Justinian I’s reconquest of Vandal North Africa. More generally, all of these cities are much more frequently mentioned in the first half of the Chronicle than in the second half.

None of these visualizations offer a comprehensive account for how a reader might experience or process the mentions of settlements that accrue over the course of reading the Chronicle. However, they do present a variety of approaches, and a set of observations from which we might pursue additional, more focused investigations into the world that the Chronicle creates for its reader to imagine the progress of six hundred years of medieval Roman history.

Jesse W. Torgerson

This adapted conference paper presents well the current multi-pronged approach of our research on the geographic data in the Chronicle of Theophanes. Behind our research is an insistence on always remembering for what we can use our source, the text of the Chronicle. The Chronicle is an indelibly early ninth-century work. As such, it does not tell us what a Roman of the fourth century thought of their empire: it tells us what a Roman of the ninth century thought of the past of their empire. Keeping this stricture in mind, our approach already offers to add to our historical knowledge in two important ways.

First, as outlined by Grant van Inwegen, our own textbook historical mapped representations of Rome emphasize political “borders” of empire and guess at “true” political or military importance of different locations at the time they purport to represent. These maps may be “correct” in these representations. However, it is truly fascinating to see how differently we understand the “action” of the reign of Constantine (for instance), as being largely located in the West until it comes to center on the focused “Eastern” stage of Constantinople and Nicaea. But in the ninth-century historical image created by Theophanes’ text, the regions of Eastern Asia Minor, Egypt, and especially Syria-Palestine, are the most densely articulated with a local civic geography. The Western theatre of Constantine’s reign was little animated in comparison to the stage of the far Eastern end of the realm. Similarly, under the Isaurian emperors of the eighth century, Treadgold’s map indicated a fairly heavy civic articulation through the empire, but gave no sense of the fact that the dominant historical narrative of that period–our Chronicle–continued to tell its story through a much larger region, essentially the size of Justinian’s empire pre-expansion. In practice we use our own historical maps as shorthand means to presume what geography individuals might have thought of if they thought of themselves as “belonging” as citizens of the Roman Empire of the time. In comparison to what we have seen from the geography invoked by the Chronicle, our presumptions fail to recognize that medieval Romans understood their empire within a much larger context than what we might think of as its “borders.”

Second, as outlined by Rachel Chung and Weiliang Song, the actual historical world that the Chronicle presented to its readers was complex, and changed over time. Besides clarifying how consistently the Chronicle maintained its narrative focus on the city of Constantinople, there is no simple formula for visualizing the geography it understood as “Roman” for the period it covered (AD 284-AD 813). However, many avenues for future research continue to be suggested by creative and exploratory visualizations of the data. Figure 4, for instance, would seem to indicate something of a “dark age” in the years between approximately AD 620-700 (ca. AM 6120-6200), when the top fifteen cities see a steep decline in their mentions. This can be compared with Map 6 (above) of the cities mentioned in the following 80 years, to AD 775. Though it appears from Figure 4 that there are still not many mentions of the largest metropoleis of the empire, perhaps the total mentions of cities and settlements remains somewhat constant since there is such a dense articulation of settlements for that period as compared to even the reigns of Constantine I and Justinian I.

There is much ongoing work to do. Nevertheless, we are all encouraged with the progress we continue to make in discovering how to know something about the past that we have not previously known. The collection and visualization of geographic data from historical texts can indeed be used to articulate the world imagined (whether in terms of narrative progression, or in terms of a mental image of places in the world) by the humans of the past. We cannot yet say what it looked like. But we can say that it looked and was looked at, very differently.