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Agathias

Byzantine historian and man of letters, b. at Myrina in Asia Minor about 536; d. at Constantinople 582 (594?)

Agathias, a Byzantine historian and man of letters, b. at Myrina in Asia Minor about 536; d. at Constantinople 582 (594?). He is a principal authority for the reign of Justinian (527-65), and is often quoted by ecclesiastical historians. He was probably educated at Constantinople, spent some time at Alexandria, and returned to the royal city in 554, where he took up the profession of law and became a successful pleader at the bar. His tastes, however, were literary, and he soon produced nine books of erotic poetry (Daphniaca), also epigrams and sonnets, many of which are preserved in the so-called Palatine Anthology. He wrote also marginal notes on the Periegetes of Pausanias. He is the last in whom we can yet trace some sparks of the poetic fire of the classic epigrammatists. At the age of thirty he turned to the writing of history and composed a work in five books “On the Reign of Justinian”. It deals with the events of 552-558, and depicts the wars with the Goths, Vandals, and Franks, as well as those against the Persians and the Huns. He is the continuator of Procopius, whom he imitates in form and also in the abundance of attractive episodes. Agathias, it has been said, is a poet and a rhetorician, while Procopius is a soldier and a statesman. The former loves to give free play to his imagination, and his pages abound in philosophic reflexion. He is able and reliable, though he gathered his information from eyewitnesses, and not, as Procopius, in the exercise of high military and political offices. He delights in depicting the manners, customs, and religion of the foreign peoples of whom he writes; the great disturbances of his time, earthquakes, plagues, famines, attract his attention, and he does not fail to insert “many incidental notices of cities, forts, and rivers, philosophers, and subordinate commanders”. Many of his facts are not to be found elsewhere, and he has always been looked on as a valuable authority for the period he describes. There are reasons for doubting that he was a Christian, though it seems improbable that he could have been at that late date a genuine pagan. Dr. Milligan thinks (Dict. of Chr. Biogr. I, 59) that “he had gained from Christianity those just notions of God and religion to which he often gives expression, but that he had not embraced its more peculiar truths.” His history was edited by B. G. Niebuhr for the “Corpus SS. Byzant.” (Bonn, 1828; P.G., LXXXVIII, 1248-1608), and is also in Dindorf, “Hist. Graeci minores” (1871), II, 132-453.

THOMAS J. SHAHAN


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