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.

Geography and Narrative in Chronicle of Theophanes: 2018-2019 Resumé

by Nathan Krieger (Wesleyan ’20)

This project, using quantitative methods to study the role of geography through the narrative of the ninth-century Chronicle of Theophanes, took some significant steps in 2018-2019. Our aim has been to analyze this text using new tools and new methodologies including MAXQDA, Recogito, and both the online and desktop versions of ArcGIS. Over the 2018-2019 year we worked towards the goals of: (1) completing and then cleaning our data set; (2) adding descriptive information to the items in that data set; (3) beginning to visualize our data set by so that others scholars and students can use the data we have created to ask new questions.

Because it has been some time since this project has been updated, and readers new to our work may be finding this post first, we will briefly explain the history of the project before moving on to discuss the new steps we’ve made in the past year as well as our plan for moving forward in the 2019-2020 academic year (see here for all posts).

The project began with the task of assembling a set of ‘tags’ marking individual words, places, people, and events that we considered worth tracking throughout the Chronicle. We defined our interests broadly as “geography” but also tracked references to many key figures in the text (emperors, generals, bishops, etc.). Since every entry of the Chronicle begins with the phrase “In this year…” (or something similar), years are the most granular way of splitting up the text. Thus, after using the software MAXQDA to mark (or “tag”) every time one of our terms of interest appeared in the text, we also entered that information as data into a parallel spreadsheet organized by the complete list of terms (vertical rows) and the years in which those terms appeared (horizontal columns). Over the course of 2018-2019 we have worked to turn this spreadsheet (which we call our “Years-Over-Place” file) into a verified database.

The goal was and is to arrange this database so that queries can be made as to how frequently and where certain terms in the text appeared, and so that those results can be compared to the results for other terms. For example, tagging every emperor in the text might allow us to see the legacy of certain rulers by charting how often they are mentioned in the text after their rule, or by putting the data on emperors in conversation with that of bishops and other priests. Or, in theory, to ask more abstract questions such as the role of Christianity in the text and thus empire. For more information of the types of items we chose to tag and how, as well as why we chose MAXQDA, see previous blog posts written by Jesse W. Torgerson and a previous lab member Ethan Yaro (especially here and here).

The Years-Over-Place file is a large spreadsheet with information on every single item we tagged in the text from the city of Abydos to Zilgbi, King of the Huns. This amounts to 1,804 different items tagged over the course of the 526 years which the Chronicle describes, AD 284 – AD 813. The Years-Over-Place spreadsheet contained much of the data that we had extracted from our MAXQDA tagging. It is unwieldy and impossible to “read” even for those of us in the lab who have created it, certainly incomprehensible for anyone besides the members of our small team who might want to use the data we had collected.

Since completing our “reading” of the Chronicle of Theophanes in 2018 and thus completing the Years-Over-Place spreadsheet, the goal has been to transform this spreadsheet into something new that is more user friendly both for us and, more importantly, for any future users who might not be as intimately familiar with the spreadsheet as we are. We decided that our new database would in fact be three sets of databases.

Even when collecting the base data we added our own metadata categories to each item by determining what “type” of item it was. As can bee seen from the above screenshot, we originally noted this information by color-coding the items we were tagging. After spending a great deal of time in discussions and working with some basic descriptive statistics and data visualizations, we came up with eight overall categories for our items, and grouped these eight categories into three sets. Below is the graph that ultimately helped us to see the data in this way. Instead of showing each single year as a distinct bar we grouped years into reigns of emperors. Here each bar is a different emperor’s reign.

The three sets are essential for the analytical work we want to do as we move forward. The form of the data we have been collecting on every item is the same, (i.e. what years it is mentioned in and how frequently) but the types of questions that can be asked of this data depend on what kind of an item each is. As a result, we’ve begun to separate out these three different sets from the original complete Years-Over-Place spreadsheet in order to produce three different but usable databases. As we develop these databases each will come to look somewhat different depending on the types of items. The three sets are now as follows.

  1. Geography. In the above graph these are the green bars. Sample contents: cities, regions, and natural geography such as rivers, mountain ranges, etc.
  2. Prosopography. In the above graph these are the blue and purple bars. Sample contents: individual people such as bishops, emperors, kings.
  3. Ethnography. In the above graph these are the yellow bars. Sample contents: people groups, both ethnic (“Scythians”) and religious (“Christians” or “Arians”)

Dividing our data into these three sets enabled us to zero in on the types of data that are and will be the most useful to collect. This is important to have decided as we expand the databases to include more information than just frequency and years mentioned. For example, we need to include latitude and longitude in our database for items like Antioch, but not for items like Constantine the Great. Similarly we need to include information like length of reign for Constantine the Great, but not for Antioch. The splitting of our data into the three sets described above allows us to give each item the appropriate descriptors and specificity that we need in order to move forward with analysis.

For each of the three sets we are creating two separate spreadsheets. The first spreadsheet in each set is almost exactly the same as the original “Years over Place” file which we have described above. Each of these three Years-Over-Place spreadsheets will have a vertical Y-axis of all of the items that fit within it, and a horizontal X-axis of the years in which they were mentioned. The only difference is that the spreadsheet is now split into these three sections to make the enormous file usable and coherent.

The second file in each set contains entirely new information and we have been working on gathering that this past Spring 2019 semester. We have been referring to them as “descriptive” spreadsheets. They serves to help understand and interpret the data collected in the Years over Place spreadsheets. The Y axis for each of these three descriptive spreadsheets will be identical to its Years-Over-Place pair, but instead of the x axis being the years in which each item is mentioned, it will be a series of descriptors that help describe and specify the item.

For example, the descriptive spreadsheet of the Chronicle’s Geography, these columns are things like latitude and longitude, the type of geographic item (city, region, etc) and the larger item it may be contained within (for example the Hippodrome is within Constantinople). These columns make little to no sense to be included in the descriptive spreadsheets for Ethnography and Prosopography, which have their own set of unique characteristics to keep track of. We have spent a great deal of the semester finding all of this information and creating hierarchies of descriptive categories within which to organize each. We will have a follow-up blog post on some interesting analysis that has arisen as a result of this process on cities mentioned in the Chronicle whose infrastructure is also described (such as Constantinople, and Antioch).

Once all of this work is finished we will have a set of six spreadsheets that in combination will tell someone anything they need to know about the data we have extracted from the Chronicle. In this form no one of these six makes sense or can stand on its own without a pair. By combining the ‘hard’ data of when each item is mentioned along with how frequently the item appears, and its characteristics, we have significantly expanded the number and types of research questions that can be asked of our data. Not only will we simply be able to get overall pictures of the Chronicle’s narrative based on our major categories, but scholars will be able to query items in any number of ways, from geographic region (by isolating certain latitudes and longitudes), to person’s affiliated religion, to during which part of the Chronicle they most frequently appear, to how references to different regions wax or wane over the course of the narrative, etc., etc..

This brings us to the last step of what we’ve been working on this year: going public. It has long been the goal of the Traveler’s Lab as a whole to get our projects up on Github and into the public sphere. Github is an online development platform designed to allow people to share their work. Though it is mostly used by software programmers to work on and share their code, we think it could be a really great way of making our databases public so they can be used by anyone. We want other researchers to see what we’ve been working on, to use our data, but also to actively contribute to our project. In the immediate future we are working towards getting the first of our three sets sufficiently corrected for this “Github Migration.” This will be the “Geography” set, including cities and settlements along with political regions and natural geographic features. By the end of Spring 2019 we had very nearly completed the cities and settlements portions of this set.

Turning Geographic References into Maps with Recogito: Part 2 (of 2)

By Caroline Diemer (Wesleyan ’18) (introductory note by Jesse W. Torgerson)

This blog post is the second part of a description of our work to see what the “geographic references” that we generated from the Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor using MAXQDA looked like when projected onto maps. This is in fact the seventh in a series devoted to the project “Geography and Narrative in the Chronicle of Theophanes.” Previous posts considered, in order: “place” in history; “place” in narrative; how we divided our text; how we coded “geography” in our text; how we organized those codes. Our immediately previous post (please read that first!) from November 2017 discussed the initial steps we took to map the geography of the Chronicle using the free online platform Recogito.

It should be noted that the present blog post is already several months out of date. Currently we are re-working the maps that Ms. Diemer displays here with some of the new features that are now available on Recogito. We are also updating and adding to these maps with more complete geographic date from the Chronicle (we are now only a few months away from having completely indexed the work’s geography).

What to tag as a “geographic reference” in making a Recogito map?

Just as we have described in our previous posts on tagging with MAXQDA, we faced the same nuances here in determining how to capture the many ways in which geographic references manifest themselves in the Chronicle. In making our maps we worked with the same distinction of “explicit” and “indirect” references.

Nevertheless, as will be clear, there are some unique nuances to Recogito’s mapping capabilities that means, in the end, the maps it generates do not coincide exactly with the hierarchies of geographic terms derived in MAXQDA.

1. Tagging Explicit Geographic references in Recogito

To give an example of how I would tag or create such an item consider the sentence example cited in the previous post:

AM 5796

Diocletian lived privately in his own city at Salon in Dalmatia while Maximamus Herculius lived in Lykaonia

To create a map for this sample sentence we would tag the explicit geographic references: Salon (in Dalmatia), Dalmatia, and Lykaonia. Lykaonia and Salon would appear as dots (as cities) while Dalmatia would be a polygon (as a region).

Most of the time, people who are directly associated with geographies (i.e. are from [X place], live in [X place], hold a position at [X place]) would be tagged.

Thus, in this sentence, Lykaonia, Salon, and Dalmatia would be tagged but Diolcetian would not. Readers might recall from our post on MAXQDA that in that program we did tag Diocletian. That was because we use the MAXQDA data differently, for instance to also ask questions of textual proximity.

But in the Recogito side of the project, we are only interested in seeing the actual geography, so we did not to tag Emperors because emperors are, in general, not tied to their city in ways that say a bishop would be.

2. Tagging Indirect Geographic References in Recogito

Not all, or even most of the geographic references in the Chronicle are as clear and straightforward as tagging explicit references.

Some of these are indirect references such as “the city” or “that river.” Geographies like these require reading the surrounding sentences to determine exactly which geographical feature is being referred to. This type of tagging also requires that the tagger go through individually, rather than allowing the program to tag all mentions of “the city” or “that river” because often times that phrase is used to describe different places. It is because of our interest in these sorts of references that we have not been able to use text analysis programs alone to “tag” our document, but have had to also “tag” the entire Chronicle by hand.

One question that is raised with indirect geographic references is whether or not direct references like Constantinople, should be weighed more than indirect references.

It has been our practice to tag the indirect references just as if the text had states the place itself.  “Salon”, “Dalmatia”, and  “that city” each have equal weight in the geographic references.

3. Tagging Vague Geographies in Recogito

Vague or unspecific geographic references also pose some problems

Consider two sentences from one entry (this sentence is also used as an example in a previous post).

AM 5885

In this year the pious emperor Theodosius fought bravely against Eugenios as the passes to the Alps, and, after capturing him alive, executed him,… The most Christian emperor … ordering that bishops from the East should come to Rome for this, among whom was sent Akakios of Beroia.

Some of the limitations of Recogito means that we do not run into some of the problems we would anticipate.

Take the line “Passes to the Alps” in the above sentence. It is both an incredibly specific and incredibly vague statement, which should make it incredibly difficult to know how to map “accurately.” That is, from a mapping standpoint: should I tag the entirety of the Alps or just the passes? If just the passes, which passes?

This would be a major issue if Recogito could be that specific, but at the moment it cannot and this takes this decision out of our hands. At the moment Recogito uses is Map Tiles imported from Pelagios. These do not have region tags for landmarks / geographical features. This means that for the moment the decision of how to tag places such as “the Alps” has been taken out of our hands. This is only a temporary relief, for in the future, when we begin to export and manipulate these maps in a program like ArcGIS, we will have to make decisions about such geographic features as these.

A related issue is when features do have a referent, but are not depicted in the way one might desire. One obvious example of this is the “Nile River.” The great river does not appear as a region, or as a line (as we might hope), but as a singular “dot.” Similarly, we have had to rely on “dots” to stand in for regions. The most notable version of this problem is Persia or the Sasanian Empire, for which there is no tag, due to the fact that no one has yet made a region tag in Pelagios for this area. Persia is a place mentioned quite often in the Chronicle. As a placeholder I used Ctesiphon as the place tag for Persia, because it was the capital during the Sasanian Empire. It should be noted that Ctesiphon the city is actually only mentioned once in the entirety of the Chronographia.

Red Arrow points to the point that represents the Nile. Purple Arrow points to the point which represents the Persian empire

To return to the example of the entry for AM 5885, we can illustrate another difficulty. “Rome” and “Akakios of Beroia” are easy to tag but “Bishops of the East” is much more challenging. In our minds, this is most certainly a geographic reference, but one that is even broader than “the Alps.” What does “the East” exactly mean to the reader? Where does the East start and stop? Should the East be the entirety of the Eastern Mediterranean and Persia? Even if we wanted to express something like that, Recogito does not have such a general region tag. Because there are no other options I annotate “the East” by simply marking it as “Flagged.” This means the word has been tagged but there is no correlating point on the map.

I often run across geographies within the Chronicle, which have points or regions but Recogito does not recognize the spelling or name. This is often due to the fact that there was a misspelling, or the fact that the Pelagios Map Tile does not list a version of a name as being from a particular place.

For example, Skythopolis is a Roman town in the Levant which comes up semi-regularly. Bet She’an is the official name of the site at the moment, and it is the name that Recogito has listed, so when I tag Skythopolis Recogito tells me that there are no towns of that name. From the tagging page I must look up Bet She’an to tag the reference correctly.

To deal with geographies like this, we have kept a running list of all the geographies that have to be tagged with its modern or alternative place name. At this point, this list is about 7 pages long, and so it is not an insignificant issue.

The second type of vague reference is when we don’t know where a specific city, feature, or monument is. In cases like these I have to utilize the flagging option (already mentioned above).  At the moment there are 134 geographic references flagged. There are a couple reasons why there are geographies that need to be flagged. The first is that there are no tags in Recogito, nor are there any modern towns which have evolved from the Byzantine town, which I could tag.

However, sometimes the need to “flag” a reference is due to the name of a place being the same as somewhere much more important. For example: Avroleva is a town or possibly mountain somewhere in Bulgaria. I am not exactly sure where. The reason I know that much about Avroleva is because there is a glacial mountain range in Antartica which is named after Avroleva, Bulgaria. Searching for any information on Avroleva the town is quite difficult to near impossible because all of the results are about Avroleva the glacial range.

A final example of uncharitable geographies in the Chronicle is towns whose only documentation of existence is the Chronicle itself. Take for example “John of Kyrestai.” We do not know where Kyrestai is because that is the only mention of the place, and the mention does not even give us a general idea of where it could be.

These flagged towns will forever be a mystery.


These two posts on our use of Recogito are simply preliminary documentation of our process and ongoing questions. Over the course of this Summer 2018 we will be using Recogito to craft some carefully edited maps for portions of the Chronicle. These will take advantage of some of Recogito’s new tools for analysis, such as color-coding based on item “type.” Look for a blog post in August 2018 on the results of these efforts.

Turning Geographic References into Maps with Recogito: Part 1(of 2)

By Caroline Diemer

Note: This is the sixth in a series devoted to the project “Narrative and Geography in the Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor”.
First post (“place” in history) here; second (“place” in narrative) here; third (how we divided our text) here; fourth (how we coded “geography” in our text) here; fifth (how we organized those codes) here

This blog post will follow very closely the “geographic references” that we have implemented in MaxQDA (as discussed in the previous blog post).

With the easily accessible, incredibly detailed and accurate maps constantly available to us in our daily lives, we must always keep in mind that we do not have the same mental visualizations of the physical world as would those we study in the past (for this project specifically, ninth-century Byzantines).

When reading such geographic reference-rich texts as the Chronographia, it is hard to understand the world that is being constructed for the contemporary (ninth-century) reader. This is due in part to the disjunct created by our own reliance on visualizing the world as maps, but also to our unfamiliarity with the names and connotations specific places would have had for a ninth-century Constantinopolitan.

Our tool of choice: Recogito

To understand the geography of the Chronographia, we are using Recogito, a program which visualizes, or actualizes, written geographies that can cause the modern reader confusion. Why was Recogito the right source for our purposes?

Recogito is an initiative of the Pelagios commons, a text annotation tool for creating maps by turning “tags” of geographic references in a text into either points or polygons (the program’s way of representing a region) on a geographic projection.

The placement of the points, as well as the shape of the polygons, come from Pelagios Map Tiles. Recogito collects its place data from the community-built and rigorously edited online gazetteer Pleiades, as well as the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire (DARE). As such it not only has the virtues of being online and open access, but is also backed up by the most up-to-date and rigorous geography of the ancient and late antique world available.

Recogito works to put texts in direct conversation with all of this geographic data.

For instance, Recogito has a function for tagging/annotating all references in a text. For example, when I tag Constantinople, I am given the opportunity to tag all the mentions of Constantinople in the text I am working with.

After I have finished my tagging, Recogito will generate a map that represents points as circles. A point with many tags will be larger than a point with very few (though there is a small standard size, so depending on the range of the distribution of points, points with a few tags may be the same size as one with only 1 tag).

When you click on one of these circles (or “points”) Recogito shows you all the different terms from the text that we have located at that geographic point. This is especially important for our project as this feature allows us to see who is mentioned in association with a specific place. That is, many of our geographic tags are what we have called “implicit geography” – such as bishops who are tagged with the city of their see.

Clicking on a point also displays a portion of the specific passage that point comes from (and if multiple passages, how many), as well as the number of tags for a place.

Both of these features help to show what has determined the nature of the site’s role for this section of the text. Such as: Is Alexandria, as a city, mentioned a lot or are there a lot of people from Alexandria doing things?

The Process

  1. Splitting up the Chronographia into the different emperors

We split up the Chronographia into individual text documents for the reigns of each emperor. We did this first because it is an extremely long document.

But second (and most important for our analytical questions), dividing by emperor allows us to compare the differences between emperors. We are interested in seeing what types of geographies appeared with each emperor. Where are the geographies of concern? Is there one place mentioned more than the others? Is each particular reign more region-based or city-based (as we found when comparing Diocletian to Constantine)? What people groups or regions did the Chronographia consider to be of greatest concern under each emperor?

  1. Uploading the Documents, and Recogito’s self tagging

Recogito has a feature whereby, when you upload a document to the program you can allow it to automatically tag any place it can recognize. In theory this would be an incredibly helpful feature, considering about 25% of the things I tag in Recogito are well-known places. As already stated, Recogito draws place-names from several platforms, not just from Pelagios map tiles, but DARE (Digital Atlas of the Roman empire) and Modern Geonames. It seems that with the automatic tagging feature, however, Recogito currently does not use Pelagios and DARE but only Geonames, or at least prioritizes this database. This is a problem because there are many places around the world which share names. One example of this is Antioch. Syrian Antioch is an often mentioned city in Recogito because it is one of the bishops that is included in the rubrics. But instead of tagging ancient Antioch, Recogito automatically tags the Antioch in southern California, half a world away from where we needed it.

This is what happens when Recogito autotags all of the Chronographia

This problem arose with the majority of the automatic tags. Because Recogito does not have any way to mass edit tags, I would have to go through and fix each tag individually. So instead of letting Recogito try to automatically tag places for us, we had to start with a clean slate. This required us to unclick the automatic annotation button during the uploading process.

  1. With and Without Rubrics comparison

Besides comparing the narratives of different emperors’ reigns to each other within the Chronographia, we are also ultimately interested in comparing two versions of the Chronographia. The main difference between the “geography” of the two versions of the text is quite significant, more so than one would guess as the bulk of the text of the Chronographia is exactly the same in both.

The one version – that which is familiar to historians of Byzantium as the version in all the critical editions and translations – has what we call “dating rubrics,” which are not red-lettered headings, but a list at the beginning of each new entry with the current emperor, the emperor of Persia, and the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and then Antioch.

The other version of the Chronographia (preserved in the ninth-century manuscript Paris BnF Grec 1731) lacks this rubricated system of dividing up each entry.

Since our interest is in studying geographical mentions or references in the Chronography, the difference between these two is significant as the one version initiates each entry with this “dating rubric” rote-mentioning seven places, whereas the other version has none of these.

Thus far, all of the Chronographia with rubrics has been mapped in Recogito. A selected number without rubrics has also been mapped. At this mid-way stage of our project, comparing the two versions allows us to already see exactly what a difference these references make in the geographic “pictures” created in the two versions of the text. The difference is immediately apparent, and quite visually striking:

The Geography of the Reign of Constantine I according to the Chronographia (305-335):
(left) with dating rubrics, (right) without dating rubrics

This is, however, preliminary and is merely a preview of some of the analyses we will use Recogito to perform on the narrative of the Chronographia.

In our second post on Recogito, we will describe some of the procedures and problem solving techniques we have developed in order to use this tool to map our text in a manner aligned with our research questions and agendas.

Chronography’s Geography: To Organize Geographic References

By Ethan Yaro

Note: This is the fifth in a series devoted to the project “Narrative and Geography in the Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor”. First post here; second here; third here; fourth here.

The chronicle is geographically dense. After completely coding only half of the text, we have reached over ten thousand data points.

This immense amount of data, unsorted, represents an impenetrable mass, with little meaning for either the casual observer or someone already well versed in the text. For this reason we developed categories into which we could sort this multitude of geographic references.

Learning how to Categorize Our Data

My creation of the Geography in Theophanes database began with an excel sheet. Initially, when developing the excel-sheet index, I created a few general categories in which to sort all of the geographic references or tags. There were only 11, and I initially imagined that this would do a pretty good job organizing the data.

As I moved the project into MAXQDA the number of data points that had been coded in the text steadily climbed into the hundreds and then thousands. It became clear that there had to be a more in-depth organizing principle for all the different types of codes.

Oddly enough, the first step in separating out the different types of data was creating fewer distinct archetypes (or super categories): rather than the initial eleven categories, I boiled the data down to four main types of geographic data within the text. These were:

1: Explicit Geography – References to geographical places, such as Jerusalem, Africa, or Hagia Sofia.
2: Geographical Titles – References to geography that are not a place, but someone associated with a place, such as The Persian Emperor (associated with Persia), The Bishop of Constantinople (associated with Constantinople), or The Dux of Palestine (associated with Palestine).
3: Geographically Related People Groups – References to groups of people that have a distinct geographical association, such as The Citizens of Constantinople (associated with Constantinople), the Bulgars (associated with Bulgaria), and Romans (associated with Rome).
4: Geographically Related Events – References to occurrences that are geographically tied, all of which are synods and councils, such as the Holy Ecumenical Synod of Chalcedon (associated with Chalcedon).

It should be noted that the last three categories of references are all dependent on the existence of the first. Many references in these categoires are also references to the actual geographical place with which they are associated (see our fourth blog post in this series to see how this nesting works).

From these categories I then generated a multitude of different stemma into which I would sort the data.

Making Friends with MaxQDA

Initially, I thought of these four different groupings in terms of ArcGIS. ArcGIS separates geographical data into three different kinds: polygons, lines, and points. Deserts, some bodies of water (lakes, oceans, etc.), continents, and regions were thought of as polygons. Other bodies of water (rivers, streams, etc.) and roads were thought of as lines. Cities, forts, and monasteries were thought of as points.

This way of thinking gave me a problematic structure. Once the number of places within cities grew, it seemed illogical to think of these (place) points as being within (city) points. Cities could have become polygons, but it would have been impossible to plot out such polygons for all cities. This classification scheme was soon was dropped in favor of MaxQDA’s “way of thinking” about the data.

MaxQDA is efficient for sorting and resorting. The code groups one generates are easily movable and can be made subsets of other codes. Often these subset chains are three or four levels deep. For example I made Hagia Sofia a subset of Constantinople, which in turn is a subset of Cities, which is in turn a subset of Explicit Geography.

It should also be noted that, as described in our second post and as demonstrated above, we made the decision to adopt a capacious concept of “geography.” One value of MaxQDA is that it easily allows us to select only particular tags or references. Thus, if we want, we can easily choose to run analysis only for “explicit geography” and suppress references which are more subjectively geographic.

Now, using a portion of the category Explicit Geography as an example, I will follow one of these larger code groups down to its smaller parts to demonstrate how the sorting process works for our project.

Note, for this and all the images that follow, that there are some categories and items which have few or even zero instances. This is due to the fact that these are screen shots of in-process coding, and due to the fact that MaxQDA has some difficulty with the amount of data I am working with, I work with small sections of the text at a time. Items with “0” tags noted are there because they are holdovers from previously-coded sections of the text.

In the above example, “Explicit Geography” has one direct subcode, which is “The World.” “The World” is the largest, most all-encompassing data point of Explicit Geography, and correspondingly, all the other geographical data within Explicit Geography has been made a subset of the world. Within “The World” are the subcodes Deserts, Bodies of Water, Cardinal Regions, Cities, Continents, Forts, Monasteries (that are not in cities, as monasteries in cities become subcodes of the city), Mountains, and Regions.

Unlike “The World,” which not only exists as a category I created, but as a “geographic reference” in the text (i.e., the Chronicle does talk about “The World”), some of these subcodes (such as “Cities”) have no independent tags of their own, and so will also show “0”.

Within all of these are more subcodes. In order not to be tedious, I will only examine one single subset – “Cities” – within “The World.” “Cities” contains good examples of how the smaller subcode structures often work.

As can be seen below, the subcodes within “Cities” are specific cities. These cities are sorted alphabetically (except for Constantinople which, as the axis around which the text revolves, I made accessible to expedite coding within Constantinople).

As indicated by this small selection of the subcodes within cities (many being hapax legomena), we currently have hundreds of distinct cities mentioned by the Chronicle.

Codes within Codes: Constantinople

Let’s look one subcode level lower. I will use Constantinople as the example, since it has the most fleshed out set of subcodes of any city in the text.

While we could sort everything Constantinopolitan together (all could all be conceived of as equivalent points on the map, and sorted as similar data), there are certain subsets within Constantinople which seemed distinct enough to separate from each other.

Separating all items by type allows more comparisons. Furthermore (as we will see in a future post), developing these categories allows us to activate MaxQDAs analytical capabilities. But I did make editorial decisions.

Within “Constantinople,” I sorted items into subcode groups by type when, alternatively, they could have been organized into other groupings, such as regions. Thus, “churches” is a subcode group, instead of sorting all the churches into the districts that they are actually in. Getting all the data together by type at the smaller levels is useful for our interest in comparing different data groups.

On the other hand, in the case of certain buildings (The Hippodrome and The Great Palace), I made them their own unique subcode groups, because this seemed more logical than creating other subgroups for “statues” for instance.

Geographic Misnomers or Comparative Categories?

Setting up the data for analysis in this way has also meant that there are few items that still found a place in our code system even though they do not necessarily fit into the category of geography (even with the wide net that we have cast over that concept, as described in post ?? of this series).

The two most significant groups are the Eastern Emperors (within Geographical Titles) and Religious People Groups (within Geographically Related People Groups). Emperors can be conceived of as having geographical significance—the emperor calls to mind the territory over which he is emperor—but they have been included predominantly as a tool for analysis. In the Chronicle of Theophanes, the change between byzantine emperors is a significant textual marker: they are the most important figure in the chronicle’s dating system, and to some degree each emperor represents a different temporal period.

Religious people groups too can be conceived of in a geographical way—Christians would call to the mind of the reader the Christian world, whereas Muslims would call to mind the territories of the border and beyond — but they have primarily been included for analytical purposes of comparison, rather than for the strength of their geographical reference. We eventually want to ask questions comparing the geographies associated with these different groups of people.

We coded religious groups so that we could locate where and when the text creates different geographic associations with different religious groupings (Christian or otherwise), as well as which emperors have passages filled with criticism, and which emperors are lauded as virtuous and pious, and if particular geographies are consistently associated with either category.

Conclusions : our reading of the Chronicle

It should be clear by this point that while there is a logic for sorting all of these codes the way that I have, it should not be taken as absolutist, normative, or prescriptive. Our categories arose from our reading of the text itself, and the particular research questions we anticipate wanting to ask.

This process should also recall our principle that the text is its own geography. We made our analytical categories derive from this principle.

This decision and method means that though our decision process and rationale should provide a helpful model for other similar projects, we have not developed a universal system. Our coding structure will not necessarily work well for another project. In fact, it would be strange if it did. The decisions outlined above were made because they were practical for this research project: the tagging pattern fits the text.

Our system of coding is itself a reading of the chronicle.

Chronography’s Geography: What counts as Geographic Reference?

By Jesse W. Torgerson and Ethan Yaro

Note: This is the fourth in a series devoted to the project “Narrative and Geography in the Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor“. First post here; second here; third here.

The approach we are describing in detail here allows us to artificially reconstruct, in our database, something of the passive geography that a ninth-century Byzantine (reading about her or his own City and Empire) would have been relying upon to follow the narrative of the Chronography.

Though the process of revealing this geography — and of explaining our methodology! — is painstaking, we find the direct impact of these decisions upon our results makes each of them quite fascinating. In this post, we continue the explication of our methodology for capturing the geography – or, to be more exact, the geographic references – of the Chronography of Synkellos and Theophanes.

Having described how – into what sort of sections – we decided to divide up the text content of the Chronography, here we explain what items we decided to “tag” as geographic references.

What to tag as a “geographic reference”?

A careful reading of the text immediately revealed that geographic references manifest themselves in a number of ways, some more explicit than others.

  1. Explicit Geographic References

Many geographic references are simple, explicit references to “mapeable” locations: places such as cities & buildings; landforms such as mountains & rivers; political zones such as regions & districts, etc..

To give an example of how we would “tag” such items, consider the one-sentence example from the Chronography cited in the previous post:

AM 5796

Diocletian lived privately in his own city at Salon in Dalmatia while Maximianus Herculius lived in Lykaonia.

We have already “tagged” Diocletian as reigning emperor. If we were to now tag this sample sentence for its geography, we would tag (or code) the explicit geographic references: “Lykaonia”, “Salon” (in Dalmatia), and “Dalmatia” (itself).

AM 5796

Diocletian lived privately in his own city at Salon in Dalmatia while Maximianus Herculius lived in Lykaonia.

Even with these “explicit” geographic references, we had to make a subjective decision. Does “Salon in Dalmatia” count as a single reference, or as two?

Our project goals led us to tag “Salon” (in Dalmatia), and “Dalmatia” as two distinct references. Since our primary goal is to track how the text works with a reader’s mental associations, it is undeniable that the text calling attention to Salon’s Dalmatian location brings Dalmatia to mind;  for us it is not sufficient to exclusively specify the correct (Dalmatian) “Salon,” but not Dalmatia.

  1. Indirect Geographic References

A significant percentage of the geographic references we tag are not nearly so straightforward.

Some of these are indirect references like “the city,” or “that region,” in which reading the surrounding sentences determines exactly which city, or region is referred to.

An important secondary consideration here is the strength of an evocation. When the Chronography states “the city,” and means “Constantinople,” is that just as much of a geographic reference as if it had stated “Constantinople”? Should we somehow rate indirect geographic references lower since they do not set a specific place name before the reader’s eyes? Or, should we rate them higher since the reader needs to make the stronger mental effort to retain in memory which city or region is being discussed?

Our practice has been: having determined the place that these references mean, we tag indirect references just as though the text had stated the place itself. We have not differentiated for “strength of reference” in our database. “Salon,” “Constantinople,” or “that city” count for the exact same “weight” of geographic reference.

  1. Vague Geographic References

A similar issue arises with vague, gesturing geographic references.

Consider two sentences from one entry:

AM 5885, AD 392/393

In this year the pious emperor Theodosius fought bravely against Eugenios at the passes to the Alps, and, after capturing him alive, executed him. … The most Christian emperor … ordering that bishops from the East should come to Rome for this, among whom was sent Akakios of Beroia.

“Passes to the Alps” surely counts as an explicit geographic reference, and it is easy enough to “tag” in MaxQDA as a reference to a mountain range. However – as we will discuss in detail in a future post – this sort of entry is extremely perplexing for one of our desired outputs: a map of all geographic references. What does “the passes to the Alps” look like on a map?

An even more difficult example arises in the second sentence. Plotting “Rome,” or “Beroia” is simple enough, but what about “bishops from the East”? Surely this is a “geographic” reference in that it evokes a region in the mind of the reader. But it is exponentially more difficult to map “the East” than even “passes to the Alps”: should we think of “the East” as shading the entire Eastern Mediterranean and Persia on a map? We also have to be able to decide what kind of a geographic reference this is in order to tag and categoize this reference within MaxQDA. For now we will also set this issue of categorization aside as the subject of our next post.

A second type of “vague” reference is when the current state of scholarship does not allow us to know exactly what is being referred to: we simply cannot be certain what each reference evokes.

For instance, consider this statement in the Chronography:

AM 5887 (AD 394/5)

In this year Arkadios, on being appointed autokrator, built the big portico opposite the Praetorium.

The Praetorium of Constantinople is understood to be located in the Southern curve of the round Forum of Constantine, but there is no known “Portico of Arkadios” in Constantinople.

There may well have been a portico, as yet unexcavated, heading South out of the Forum of Constantine; one could imagine this portico described as starting “oppposite the Praetorium.” However, Arkadios’ known building activity within Constantinople is focused much further to the West, dominated by his Forum and famous Column. Thus the Chronography’s translator, Cyril Mango – a leading expert on the archaeology of Constantinople – was so doubtful as to the existence of an otherwise unattested Portico of Arkadios that he suggested:

Since Theophanes was making considerable use of his Alexandrian material at this period, this too may well have come from the Alexandrian source and so refer to Alexandria rather than Constantinople.
(p. 113, footnote 2)

What to do? Not only are we unclear where within Constantinople to place this reference to a “Portico of Arkadios,” we don’t actually know if this is Constantinople, Alexandria, or elsewhere. In this case, we decided to follow Mango’s lead, and mark this as a reference to Alexandria. There are many similar judgment calls that we have had to make in creating our database of geographic references.

One more such example – another instance where the simple lack of historical information we possess requires us to take significant interpretive liberties – is worth considering:

AM 5878,

… a small basilica … built at the old Basilica, near the Great one

The city of Antioch on the Orontes, the location of these buildings, is one of the most important and populous cities of the Eastern Roman empire and, as such, is often mentioned in detail in the Chronography. However, archaeology has had little chance to recover its topography.

We can deduce that this sentence almost certainly describes an extension to the pre-Constantinian basilica church (“the old Basilica”), near the famous Constantinian Octagonal Church (“the Great One”).

In these phrases we have, in total, three distinct references to the internal topography of Antioch on the Orontes. The “Old” (pre-Constantinian) basilica would receive two tags, thus:

  • the phrase “a small basilica” (tagged as “The Old Basilica” as an extension on said church)
  • the phrase “the old Basilica” itself (tagged of course as “The Old Basilica”)
  • the phrase the “the Great one” (tagged as the “New (Constantinian) Basilica”)

By now the point should be clear: the work of tagging geographic references in a narrative text is much more heavily interpretative than might initially be supposed.

  1. People and Events as Geographic References

This category of interpretive decisions captures several different types of items that we have determined are geographic references, but which other readers may think are not.

Potentially the least controversial of these decisions was to tag events tied to specific places.

The most obvious examples of these are church councils, such as the Council of Nicaea in 325. It is true that a mention of the “Council of Nicaea” in an entry hundreds of years after it happened is not a direct reference to the physical city of Nicaea. Nevertheless, while we grant it is indirect, we find the point that “the Council of Nicaea” does recall the city of Nicaea to the mind of the reader compelling enough, to tag such phrases as a geographic reference.

Our decision to identify people groups as geographic references opens up a second category of interpretative tagging. Some might consider people groups as only very tangentially “geographic,” but we have taken instances of “the Gauls” (for example) as geographic references to Gaul (Gallia).

Our justification is that in almost all cases the name of a people group (Gauls/Gallia, Sklavenoi/Sklavinia, Khazars/Khazaria, etc.) is the land wherein this people live.

As with our earlier discussion, the reasoning here is based on our central goal: to capture the place-based references that the text would evoke in the mind of its reader.

A third category of border-line decisions was to tag all references to titles which were themselves tied to any location. Most of these references are explicit, such as citations of episcopal figures, whose very titles are an undeniable reference to a place: “Peter, Bishop of Alexandria.” Thus, every mention of a bishop (and many mentions of priests or monks) ends up counting as a geographic reference. This reasoning process also applies to a number of secular officials.

As a final example of how the decision to include all these sorts of items in our database works in practice, we can consider the first sentence in the following entry.

AM 5937

In this year Kyros, the City prefect and praetorian prefect, a very learned  and competent man, who had both built the city walls and restored all Constantinople, was acclaimed by the Byzantines in the Hippodrome, in the presence and hearing of the emperor [follows]: “Constantine built [the city], but Kyros restored the City!”

“Kyros the City Prefect” is tagged with the office of “City Prefect,” since this office cannot be understood without reference to Constantinople itself. Likewise, Kyros’ second posting as “Praetorian Prefect” inevitably evokes the Praetorium within Constantinople: in our understanding a reference to a location that is just as strong as “the city walls” or “the Hippodrome.” Furthermore, and more controversially, the final reference to “Kyros” alone is given two geographic references. Reasoning that the reader now understands “Kyros” as “Kyros the City Prefect and Praetorian Prefect,” this second reference to Kyros would be tagged as both “City Prefect” and “Praetorian Prefect.”

We can also use this example to tie in some of this post’s previous points.

“The Emperor” here would be tagged as Theodosius II (the reigning emperor).
“Constantine” would be tagged as Constantine I. Even though Constantine is not the reigning emperor, tagging emperors comprehensively allows us to track their relative importance throughout the Chronography.
“The City” and “Constantinople” would be tagged identically.
“The Byzantines” would also be a reference to “Constantinople” since it evokes the people that live in that location, the city of Byzantium.

It should now be clear how we arrived at the statement with which we began our previous post, that approximately 20% of the text can be categorized as making geographic references. In the above example of 51 words, we tagged 16 words (31%) as “geography,” and 3 words as references to an emperor.

Conclusion: the mind of the Reader

As a transition into our next post, in which we will break down how each of these tags would be categorized, and why, here is an image of these overlapping tags in our MaxQDA database:

In all of our decisions about indirect, vague, and other implicit geographic references, we have opted to tag an item as “geography” when we think it is viable to assume that an attentive reader would make a connection between a word (or phrase), and a place. The image above provides an analytical map of how we are using MaxQDA to try to capture something of the associative, overlapping references to place and space that the mind of an attentive reader would categorize as they proceed through the text. Our procedures are directly derived from our primary goal: to capture all of the “place-references” swirling about the mind of a reader of the Chronography.

It is worth recalling an important point made earlier in this post: once we have determined that a phrase is a geographic reference it receives the same tagging “weight” as any other reference, no matter how “indirect” it may seem. In our database, all geographic references are created equal.

The driving principle behind our methodology is to tease out references that would otherwise be lost upon the modern reader. By running the risk of possibly over-emphasizing geography, we believe we gain a more careful reading and a fuller appreciation of the density of references that can become a hazy fog for even the most seasoned Byzantinist. Our approach allows us to artificially reconstruct, in our database, something of the passive geography that a ninth-century Byzantine, reading about her or his own City and Empire, would have been relying upon to follow the narrative of the Chronography.

Chronography’s Geography: Software & Database Structure

By Jesse W. Torgerson and Ethan Yaro

Note: This is the third in a series devoted to the project “Narrative and Geography in the Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor“. Our first post considered what the question of place in narrative means for historical research, and our second the question of  mapping ‘space’ v ‘place’. A subsequent post will explain what we consider ‘geography’ in the Chronography.

When we began this project, we had a vague inkling that it might prove productive to analyze the geographical content of the Chronography of George Synkellos and Theophanes the Confessor.

Despite having read the Chronography many times, when we began to actually hunt, line by line, for “geography,” we quickly realized that we had actually  under-estimated the extent to which the Chronography hung on such references. We also realized how difficult it was to determine what, exactly, counted as a geographic reference.

In a previous post we hinted at what we have already discovered, stating “in an exploratory attempt to determine the percentage of the text’s words that were explicitly devoted to ‘geography,’ we came up with the shockingly high figure of 20%.”
We then promised to explain what we meant by this and how we arrived at this number.

The next three posts on our Narrative and Geography project constitute that explanation. We will attempt to explicate our methodology for capturing the way geography works – or, to be more exact, the way geographic references work – over the course of the narrative of the Chronography of Synkellos and Theophanes.

Choosing an Analytic Software

Based on the advice of lab “network” member Jason Simms (Lafayette College), we opted to use MaxQDA to “capture” the geography in the Chronography, and then to perform initial analysis on this data.

Using MaxQDA, we set out to:

  • tag (in MaxQDA’s terminology, to “code”) all geographic references
  • categorize each reference
  • track where references occurred in a way conducive to comparative analyses

MaxQDA’s selling point for this project was the degree of flexibility it allows us in manually coding each section of the text, from extended sections down to specific one-word references, in exactly the way we wanted. This has proven analytically productive especially for the second goal (above).

The Goal: Tracking Geographic References

As argued in the previous post, we started with the premise that a chronography establishes its own geography for a reader. That is, while a Chronography may look to us, today, like some form of a chronlogical encyclopedia (“I wonder what happened in …”), we believe the text rewards readers who (at the very least) read significant sections straight through and – even more – actually read the work from cover to cover as though it contained a narrative and argument that could be, or need be, followed.

With this premise, our goal in tracking geographic references is to better follow, or re-create, a ninth-century reader’s experience with the Chronography. If a ninth-century Constantinopolitan sat down and read through the Chronography, what regions of the empire would be consistently dwelt upon? What regions would be gradually abandoned? What regions would come into focus? Which regions would be associated with which historical characters or emperors? Which regions would be associated with which conflicts – whether military or philosophical or political? Where, in short, would a reader see, in their mind’s eye, the different parts of the story play out?

We thus designed our methods with the over-arching goal: to make the mass of place-specific references coherent to twenty-first century readers in something closer to the way they would have been for a ninth-century reader, to better approximate the mental image that the Chronography might have formed in an attentive reader’s mind.

What our methodology cannot do – of course – is to recreate the associations a reader would already have had with any specific place. Our methodology seeks to simply plot the associations that the Chronography makes internally, for itself, as though in isolation, all to find out:

What is the geographic world that the Chronography actively created for its readers?

Questions and Procedures

In order to determine what proportion of the text was concerned with geography, our initial task was to determine what constituted a geographical reference. This project began in the Summer of 2016, and so our thinking has evolved somewhat as we carried out the research.

In describing our current methodology, we can now distinguish two central issues:

First, how – into what sort of sections – do we divide up the text content?

Second, how do we decide what items we “tag” as geographic references?

Third, how do we go about categorizing these “tagged” references?

We will deal with the first in this post, the second and third in the posts that follow.

How to break down the text and group the geographic references?

Before actually tagging any specific geographic references, we had to decide how we would group (or, from another perspective, separate) them, once we had them.

What constitutes a “textual unit” or “section” of the text that we can use for comparative analysis (i.e., that would allow us to viably compare a section X of the text with a section Y)?

Deciding how to divide the text, how to group the geographic references, is a decision with consequences for the entire project, ultimately determining the research questions our database can answer.

Realizing that the analytical questions we will be able to ask were at stake, we focused on what we conceived to be our ultimate goal.

Since our goal can be described (above) as seeking to better understand how the text is working with the mind of its reader (reading with, rather than against, the grain of the text), we wanted our groupings to reflect the most explicit divisions of the text itself.

  • Group by Yearly Entry

The most obvious way to divide the Chronography, and thus the geographic references we find, is by the Chronography‘s own yearly entries.

What does this mean for our data-gathering process?

To use a one-sentence example from the chronicle:

AM 5796
Diocletian lived privately in his own city at Salon in Dalmatia
while Maximianus Herculius lived in Lykaonia.

In this citation, any geographic references (e.g., to Salon, and Lykaonia) would be linked by falling under AM 5796.*

*As a brief aside for those who have not read the work, the Chronography organized entries primarily by “Years of the World” (Greek: κόσμου ἔτη), conventionally expressed in scholarship by the abbreviation “AM” from the Latin “Anni Mundi.”

This seemed to us a fairly straightforward and uncontroversial decision.

As an added benefit, there are some significant differences in what content falls under which years between the earliest Greek manuscripts (Paris Grec 1710 vs. Oxford Christ Church College Wake Greek 5 vs. Vaticanus Latinus 155). Dividing geographic references by year will allow us, in the future, to tweak the database to reflect the content of each of these individual manuscripts and so compare whether the change in reckoning between these manuscripts changes the function of the geographic references in each.

  • Group by Reigning Emperor

The science of late antique and medieval chronography was primarily built around coordinating reigns of emperors, kings, and bishops.

It was only once these lists of reigns had been coordinated that a “Year of the World,” or a “Universal Year” could be asserted.

Thus, the most obvious way to establish a comparative division of the Chronography was to also divide the text by reigning emperor.

In practice, this meant that not only did we divide the text into the sections that corresponded to each Roman emperor’s reign, we also tagged each mention of each emperor in the text itself, in the same way that we “tagged” places. This allows us to establish a “geography” for each emperors on two levels.

First, there is the general geography for each emperors’ reign, in which all geographic references under, for instance, Diocletian, are simply a single group.

Second, by tagging each emperor as a historical character, Max QDA’s analytical functions allow us to track the specific geography with which these “main characters” of the narrative are most closely associated.

This second method allows us to also apply our “geographic references” data as supplements to more narrative analyses that might want to, for instance, ask whether there are certain geographic trends that correspond to a praise-, or blame-worthy emperor.

Thus, by tagging emperors in these two manners, we are able to track how geographic references change, compare, or contrast between emperor’s reigns, between emperors as characters in the narrative, as well as between all specific yearly entries.

To Conclude:

If we consider the example sentence, above, the entire sentence (and the rest of the entry) would first be tagged as “AM 5796.” This means any specific geographic reference is also coded for this year: if we pulled all references to Salon (for example), we would also know that one reference occurred here, in AM 5796.

In addition, this entry and all other entries for the reign of Diocletian (AM 5777-5796 inclusive), would be tagged as “Diocletian.” This means we are also tracking all geographic references made under Diocletian’s reign as a coherent group, attributing them all to that emperor’s reign. This allows MaxQDA to immediately give us a picture of the “geography” used to tell the story of Dioclectian’s reign.

Finally, the appearance of Diocletian’s name in the text proper would mean we tag this single word in AM 5796, “Diocletian,” as a direct reference to the reigning emperor. When we pull references with a close association of grammatical proximity to “Diocletian,” we would find Salon, Lykaonia, and Dalmatia among the results.

We believe these analytical divisions not only correspond to the explicit way in which the Chronography is organized, but also correspond to the substantial content, much of which has to do with assigning praise or blame to specific emperors. This latter connection will allow our tagging of geographic references to not only tell us something about how geography – in and of itself – works in the Chronography, but will allow us to incorporate these findings in arguments about how to interpret, or read, the text and its polemic.

Having established our means of dividing up the text of the Chronography, in our next post on methodology we will turn to how we determined which words and phrases to count as geographic references.

How to Show Chronography’s Geography?

by Jesse W. Torgerson

Note: This is the second in a series devoted to the project “Narrative and Geography in the Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor“. Our first post considered what the question of place in narrative means for historical research. Subsequent posts are concerned with how we set up our database; and, what we consider ‘geography’ in the Chronography.

This second introductory post justifies the procedures previously outlined, stating how, for the time being, my team and I are worrying over the methods by which we collect “geography” from the Chronography (better known as the “Chronicle”) of Theophanes the Confessor.

Here is our current worrying (in the way my canine companion ensures a bone is behaving properly before proceeding) over what it means to grab place-names and plug them into a map, broken out into two questions.

Question 1. What happens when one takes Geography from Chronography? What does it mean to collect geo-graphical (world-writ) data from a chronology (time-writ)?

We begin by interrogating the premise: are we imposing something onto the Chronology, or are we so sure that a chronology is not a geographic text?

Duane Roller, in his recent overview of the development of geographical knowledge from the world of Homer to the “Christian Topography” of Late Antiquity (Ancient Geography: the discovery of the world in classical Greece and Rome, Routledge, 2015) emphasizes the act of translation that is involved in reading ancient geographies with a twenty-first century mind:

It is difficult for a person … accustomed to maps, aerial photographs, and instant access to views of any place in the world, to comprehend the astonishing feats of ancient travelers and geographers. (Roller, p. 1)

What the ancient and medieval texts considered to be geographic, and what we accept as such, are not the same thing. Nevertheless, according to Roller, we can advance in the face of this communication challenge by re-considering what we are willing to accept as “geographic” data.

How many of us consider the catalogue of ships in Homer’s Iliad (Book 2) to be “the earliest geographic document in Greek Literature” (Roller, p. 13)? We don’t but we must. We must expand our view such that we can read Odysseus’ wanderings not as a literary journey that should (or can) be made “geographic” via mapping, but as an actual geographic text as such.

That is because, for Roller, ancient or medieval “geography” is not only the theoretical structure of the world based on reasoning and calculations (Ptolemy), or the cumulative handbooks on earth-knowledge that survive (Strabo), but “geography” also includes any account of people traveling (Roller, pp. 2-5). Granting this, we must be willing to allow “geography” to include a great deal more than we would otherwise.

We must also not pine over what seems to be missing. In ancient works, narratives and mathematics combined to create a special kind of ekphrastic literature. The surviving textual relics of the ancient discipline constitute a very abstract genre in comparison with our notion of geography.

Our geography (especially in practice) has come to be essentially co-terminus with the production, and study, of maps and map-worthy images (i.e., sattelite and aerial photographs).

We look at the ancient material as a lot of words and numbers, with almost no maps to speak of. But ancient geography does not seem to have worried about this: ancient geographers were not overly concerned with maps. We are obsessed with them. Ancient geography is an activity of the mind. Our geography is an activity of the hand.

If we want to re-capture something of the ancient “geography”, we must re-calibrate our reading so that we exchange our geography’s emphasis on space (quantifiable, measurable) over place (bounded locus of meaning, memory, identity) for an older geography with the opposite emphasis: place over space.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider what this means for our practices of reading. When we are confronted with a text that is an ancient geography (think again of the catalogue of ships in the Iliad), we actually have to pause and help ourselves understand this as geography. We have to translate it into our geographic “language” to understand it as such: we have to “map it”.

Image Credit: ( Jenny Strauss Clay, Courtney Evans, Ben Jasnow, and team (
Image Credit: ( Jenny Strauss Clay, Courtney Evans, Ben Jasnow, and team (

How can we effect such a translation for other “geographic” texts that we would not tend to read “as geographies”? What does this mean for how we map the Chronography of Theophanes the Confessor?

To answer this challenge, we are building our methodology from a controversial premise: the Chronography (better known as the “Chronicle”) of Theophanes the Confessor, in all of its complex convoluted opacities, is (among other things) its own geography.

Today, we read “pre-modern” texts as though they are missing maps – usually helpfully supplied in our critical editions and translations. However, while this practice serves an important practical purpose of translation, in the Traveler’s Lab we aim to realize the presumption that for its contemporary, ninth-century audience, a text like the Chronography of Theophanes was not missing a map: it was the map.

The problem is, we simply can’t say this to be so, and then proceed as though we have changed our reading and thinking practices. We’ve lost the habit of thinking a text in this way, to the degree that we can’t simply recapture this other way of thinking by willing it to be so (or, at least, we aren’t convinced we have yet succeeded).

The question, or the challenge, is how to approximate and show what-it-looked-(or, thought-) like? How can we translate this narrated geography into a uniquely-mapped geography we can read?

Our best effort thus far involves, in our data-gathering stage, “capturing” and “tagging” as “geography” many items that would not be considered to be “geographic” by a contemporary 21st-century reader. To give one example, we would tag “… the bishop of Neapolis wrote to the emperor …” as (at minimum) three “geographic” statements: one about Neapolis, one about the journey of a letter, and one about Constantinople. The thousands of these sorts of phrases combined – in this account of the known world from the beginning of time and matter – to create what we must acknowledge as a geography of the entire known world, embedded within an account of the entire known world through time.

By tagging all of these statements for their “geographic” content, we plan to create a data set that we will then seek to manipulate into multiple visualizations, which in sum allow us to understand something of how the geographical reading of this ninth-century text.

This results in the three approaches mentioned in our previous post: first, trying to represent data in ways that convey something like the mental, or conceptual map in which places work together in this narrative; second, trying to “plug in” of all of this data onto projections of the world current at the time: e.g., Ptolemy’s geography; and, third, trying to translate the above two projections for our own eyes, by “plugging” them into a a projection of the world that makes sense to us, a twenty-first century map.

Question 2: What kind of place and space are we dealing with, and how will we show it? How can one describe and utilize the geographic and topographic data within a work that is composed in a milieu, whose geography is other than ours?

In all of this, we are equally concerned with how this approach to place-ness works with narrative theory. In the end, in all of our translating of geography, we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the topography of Theophanes’ chronography is embedded in story.

Theophanes’ geography is fully narrativized; it functions as a very real but also very abstracted narrative topography. Isn’t it likely that many if not most ninth-century readers did not spend the entire Chronography tracking places on a mental map from Ptolemy’s Geography (as plausible and productive as we think such a reconstruction would be)?

In this, we are thinking with works of criticism and theory concerned with the question of how narrative works.

Elana Gomel, for instance, justifies the project of her recent Narrative Space and Time: Representing Impossible Topologies in Literature (Routledge, 2014) as embarking upon a journey to fulfill a void that feels strikingly like that we have identified:

There has never been a sustained study of narrative techniques used to represent [non-Newtonian spaces], or of their cultural significance. (p. 3)

Though above we stated that our ancient geographies (here including Theophanes’ Chronography) are dominated by spaces that may be heavy on inter-relationality, locality, and regionality (i.e., “places”), at the same time, these spaces in sum make the claim of universality, of accounting for cosmos.

Thus, both pre-modern geography and post-modern narrative, need:

… study of the narrative and cultural poetics of impossible spaces. … spaces that refuse to be mere places.

Image: Cover of “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges, a text discussed by E. Gomel (“Narrative Space and Time” 2014) as creating an “impossible space” through the technique of embedding, or the creation of a “pocket universe” within the “universe” of the text.

If postmodern literatures feel the need to develop a language for discussing how narratives work with space and place in a non- (or post-) Newtonian universe, then though our pre-Newtonian texts may in theory work within a Euclidean (rationalist) universe, they are so much more dominated by the rules of story than by the rules of rationalized space, that the “impossible spaces” of postmodern literature would seem to have more to offer for sense-making than modern concepts of geographic location.

As the philosopher Jeff Malpas recently put it (“Thinking Topographically: Place, Space, and Geography,” 2013), the ideal would be to

… sustain contradictory aspects of the narrative, preserving their complexity and refusing the impulse to reduce the narrative to a stable meaning or coherent project. (p. 3)

Or, to repeat our own phrasing, to

… evoke the imaginative fictive world that a historical text works with, as an imaginative fictive world, when we also know that when our ninth-century chronicle writes ‘Constantinople’ it does also mean a certain metropolis in which the author was physically sitting at that moment.

We will have an answer to these problems when we can articulate a multi-faceted answer to how it is that this text meant, when it stated: “Constantinople.”


Even now, these questions already help us to articulate that, in deciding what and how we map whole texts (even bits of texts), we are stepping into a recognized inter-disciplinary problem. To address this problem well, we need to be aware of the resources produced, and questions posed, by (at the least) geographers, philosophers, and literature scholars.

In the previous post I posed the overall question as one that concerns primarily the discipline of history, and as a question primarily for historical texts. However, I hope that it is now clear that though the answer we are looking for is colored by historians’ lenses and historical goals, this is not only a historical question and this is not a problem that historians are alone in still struggling for the tools to solve. The answer, likewise, will not come from historians alone.

For now, we will claim that (building on the above definition of place as relational and as such distinct from the extensible “universe” of space) we historians might first work to “map” both the inter-related places and then the entire inter-relatedness of these places in our historical and chronological texts. It is only then that we might consider that we have enough material to embark upon the entirely different conversation: that of deciding what relationship these places have to space.

Can We Map Space & Place in Historical Narratives?

by Jesse W. Torgerson

Prefatory note: This is the prosaic introduction to what will be an ongoing series of posts tagged as “Narrative and Geography.” Subsequent posts concern the question of  mapping ‘space’ v ‘place’; how we set up our database; and, what we consider ‘geography’ in the Chronography.

The late antique and medieval world read texts called histories as literature. As just one example: Isidore, the seventh-century Bishop of Seville (Spain), put historia (“history”) and annales (“annals”) just after myth and fable in his encyclopedic Etymologiae.

Current thinking about the type of text that we call “history” has been indelibly shaped by the work of Hayden White. White has spent decades pushing the field to consider that each and every history works in and with narrative.

A contemporary historian thinking about embedded narrative structures in historical writing is not exactly the same thing as Isidore thinking of history as belonging on the same bookshelves as “myths and fables.” But if we are interested in trying to equip ourselves to read medieval texts with a greater sensitivity to how they might have been read at the time they were written, there is a productive connection to be made here.

One of the ongoing projects here in the Traveler’s Lab is dedicated to making this very connection: Geography and Narrative in the Chronography of Synkellos and Theophanes.

My team for this project currently includes Wesleyan University students Ethan Yaro (’17) and Andrew Ling (’18), and Marlboro College student Emma Holtsinger (’18). The idea behind our investigations is to figure out what it would mean for a historian to fully apply the reality that histories are narratives, and were read as literature to the texts (written in various historical genres such as annales or calendaria or chronica), that she or he studies.

Our question implies, of course, that historians aren’t doing so, or at least not very much or very systematically. Few studies (there are important exceptions, such as Gabrielle Spiegel’s work) have really pushed the idea as far as the premises seem to make necessary. Why?

I do not think historians’ supposed methodological conservatism is a sufficient explanation, and in any case getting worked up about the failings of one’s field usually does not tell us what to do otherwise. Instead, based on my own efforts, I can state that it is very, very hard to fully evoke the imaginative fictive world that a historical text works with, as an imaginative fictive world, when we also know that when our ninth-century chronicle writes “Constantinople” it does also mean a certain metropolis in which the author was physically sitting at that moment. That is, we can accept historical texts as literature, but in the end we also want to, indeed have to, account for their being set in and telling readers about “real” places like the kingdom of France, and ‘Abbasid Baghdad.

I am distinguishing here between “setting” or space on the one hand, and “geography” or place on the other. In doing so I am drawing upon a terminology familiar to narrative theory or narratology. We can find this distinction in the first line of Ruth Ronen’s classic 1986 article, “Space in Fiction”:

Space, the domain of settings and surroundings of events, characters and objects in literary narrative, along with other domains (story, character, time and ideology), constitutes a fictional universe.

If we are willing to be friends with Hayden White’s ideas, we must acknowledge and reconstruct this “fictional universe” of space for every historical text we use for historical study. If we also remain interested in the historian’s project of explaining past lived worlds (we do), we must also reconstruct the relevant “universe” of geographic places.

How can one do both? How, practically, would historians acknowledge the “fictional universe” in their texts – distinguishing space (narrative – “fictional”) from place (geography – “real”)? And, once we’ve done so, however, how do we confront the even more monumental task: to account for the way these two work together – as they would have and do – in the mind of any reader? How – practically – can historians read and interpret a narrative setting that is simultaneously “real” and “fictive”?

To work through such a problem, we are focusing on one specific work which, because of its textual unity, allows us to ground our answer: however wild the theories we end up producing may appear, we will at least be able to say that these work for one piece of literature in a “historical” genre, for this one chronography.

The text we are focusing all of our efforts on, is the ninth-century Byzantine Chronography (or Chronicle) attributed to two authors: George Synkellos and Theophanes the Confessor. This text is heavily geographic. In an exploratory attempt to determine the percentage of the text’s words that were explicitly devoted to “geography,” we came up with the shockingly high figure of 20% (a forthcoming post deals with exactly what we mean by this and how we arrived at this number).

The Chronography was not “only fiction.” It was the default historical reference point for at least a century after it was written. Later Byzantine authors attribute a great weight of authority to this text: by citing directly from it; by claiming that they sought to continue in the same method and style; and, by continuing historical narratives up to their own day from the year the Chronography had ended. In other words, this Chronography was understood to refer to a “real historical geography” – it told the ninth and tenth century Byzantine world about the past of the places around them. It has almost exclusively been understood in this way by contemporary, modern, historians as well: it tells us what happened at particular times in real geographic places.

On the other hand, this chronography – as narrative theory reminds us – must also be read as literature, if for no other reason than that it would have been. There have been almost no studies from this perspective.

Our all-encompassing approach to narrative and geography, then, must first seek to capture multiple approaches to (geographic) place and (narrative) space in the text, by two sets of readers (medieval, and modern).


First, I will be working to plot the “historical” geography of the Chronography in two ways. These are (A) the contemporary, scientific geography of, and (B) the lived experience of, the ninth-century East Roman world.

For (A), we will draw upon the scientific, or learned, place-geography produced by the second-century Alexandrian, Ptolemy. This scientific geography was preserved and updated throughout the Byzantine period. In the fourteenth century, the scholar Maximus Planudes created a projection of Ptolemy’s geography which still survives in a manuscript now housed at the Vatican Library in Rome (Vaticanus Urbinas Graecus 82, s. xiii). Planudes was working at the Chora Monastery in Constantinople, a monatery whose historical importance and influence truly began with the intellectual and political circles that produced the very ninth-century Chronography of Synkellos and Theophanes which we are studying. In other words, though the situation is not ideal (welcome to study of the middle ages), we can operate on the assumption that the apparently fairly consistent intellectual tradition in geography between Ptolemy and Planudes allows us to use the same projection for Synkellos and Theophanes’ Chronography.


{Image credit: Wikimedia Commons}

I will be plotting the geography of the Chronography on this map in order to represent how an educated ninth-century audience might have conceived of references to, for instance, Euboea, or Alexandria.

For (B), we will draw upon the lived or traveled place-geography of the early medieval world. Travel in our own world, today, is experienced in terms of airline routes, interstate highways, and railway lines. All of these serve to turn distance into time. In the world before these landscape-altering technologies, distance and time were far from co-relative and usually had very little to do with each other. Time for travel instead had to do with things like mountains, rivers, pathways, seas, and seasons. A team of researchers working under Walter Scheidel at Stanford University has sought to recapture the actual lived place-geography of the Ancient Mediterranean by encompassing everything we know about movements between places, and turning it into a web-based platform that functions something like a mapping app for ancient long-distance travel: Orbis: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.

In this projection (below) of average time of travel from the city of Rome, for instance, we see that Southern France and North Africa were able to be reached from Rome within a week, whereas the entire Eastern Coast of the Italian Peninsula was, in real terms, between eight and eleven days away. Similarly, it was possible to get from Rome to Constantinople in less than three weeks, but after three weeks of Northward travel one would barely have made it through the Alps.

From Rome - Orbis

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We must consider this to be as much of a “real” geography as the intelletual-scientific geography of Ptolemy, and perhaps more so. We have not yet begun actually plotting Orbis’ distance-times against our data (as we are still collecting mentioned locations). When we do, this will give us a representation of how ninth-century readers may have imagined the relationship between different places in the Chronography based on their own experiences, and others’ tales, of travel.

The Second approach we are taking to place-geography seeks to represent what we now think of as the “real” or “actual” physical geography of the world captured by the text of the Chronography. This is, in other words, the standard practice of historians today. Historians cull lists of places mentioned in texts, and from these reproduce things like the helpful maps of “Places Mentioned in the Text” at the beginning of a translation or critical edition.

These illustrations, however, do not actually tell us how to read this text with medieval eyes, or a medieval mind. In fact, such projections simply reflect to us, in advance, how we will end up reading the setting of the text. These maps take places mentioned in the text and represent them in our version of geography: a satellite view of the earth. In our lab group, Andrew Ling is drawing on platforms and resources such as the Pelagios Commons and the Pleiades Gazetteer to produce a satellite-view map marking each of the places and geographic features mentioned in the Chronography. This approach does not help us to understand how the medieval reader approached the text, but rather confronts us with the way that we understand the text. The contrast between this second approach, and the two historical representations produced by the first approach (above) will, at the least, allow us to identify presumptions that we bring to the text that may inhibit our understanding of how the text works and was read in the middle ages.

Until we are able to set these different representions side-by-side we will not know what further insights are to be gained in the comparison and contrast, but certainly all three are a part of the interpretive work that must be done to capture the place-geography of the Chronography.

Finally, our Third approach addresses the space-narrative, “fictional universe” of the Chronography by performing both quantitative and qualitative analyses on the geographic network created by the plot of the text itself. What geographies are associated with different emperors? What places are consistently adjacent in the text? What places are associated with different positively or negatively-presented groups (i.e., “heretics”)? Ethan Yaro is leading this investigation and, with the collaboration of Emma Holtsinger, is using the qualitative textual analysis tool MaxQDA to answer these and other questions. The next blog posts will describe Ethan and Emma’s work, and will present some preliminary results.

In conclusion, it should be clear that we believe the problem of accounting for both place-geography and space-narrative in historical texts is one that must be worked out. Ways of reading are not self-evident, and so ours is an intentionally heuristic approach. Because of the multiplicty of the question, we believe that we must work through to multiple answers. Even with these answers in hand, we will not have anything like a single solution. One of our ongoing challenges will be to sustain this multiplicity, even as we push towards greater understanding and clarity.