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An Alexandrian World Chronicle

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To purchase Apocalypse

Title: Apocalypse | An Alexandrian World Chronicle
Author: Pseudo-Methodius
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: ca. 692
Length: 341 pages
Original in: Syriac
Availability: Apocalypse | An Alexandrian World Chronicle - US
Apocalypse | An Alexandrian World Chronicle - UK
Apocalypse | An Alexandrian World Chronicle - Canada
Die Syrische Apokalypse des Pseudo-Methodius - Deutschland
  • This volume includes both Apocalypse and An Alexandrian World Chronicle (Excerpta Latina Barbari)
  • Edited and translated by Benjamin Garstad
  • This volume includes both the Greek and Latin translations of Apocalypse, with English translations facing them, as well as the Latin original of An Alexandrian World Chronicle

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Our Assessment:

(--) : interesting (if limited) texts; excellent presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Speculum . 88:2 (4/2013) R.M.Pollard

  From the Reviews:
  • "These criticisms are all quite minor, especially in light of the excellent, careful work that Garstad has done in making these texts available, with good translations and learned commentary. No doubt their interpretations will be the subject of continuing debates, all of which will need to refer to this volume." - Richard Matthew Pollard, Speculum

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       This volume in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library-series presents two historical works: an Apocalypse, long wrongly attributed to Saint Methodius of Olympus and originally written in Syriac, and the Excerpta Latina Barbari, also of (different) unknown authorship, here presented as An Alexandrian World Chronicle, originally written in Greek but here presented in the Latin translation.

       Apocalypse is a fairly short work, a chronicle from biblical beginnings -- Adam and Eve leaving paradise -- through then-modern history and a promise of what is to come (yes, the apocalypse). Translator Benjamin Garstad explains in his Introduction that: "The influence of the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius throughout the Christian world was immense" -- and that:

     Perhaps few works are as evocative of the anxiety of the Middle Ages as the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius. It is a real anxiety, occasioned by the pressure of immense and shocking geopolitical forces, and it is focused on the very real calamities of subjection and servitude, poverty and exile.
       Much of the material is familiar from the Bible, as the account follows the (repeated) falls of mankind (and parts thereof), and God's occasional involvement in changing the course of things. It is noteworthy how, from early on, sexual looseness is blamed for a great deal, seen as the obvious sign that things (specifically morality) have gone wrong. Already in Adam's times:
In the six hundredth year of this first millennium their women were possessed by the sting of the love of fornication and turned to madness and used their own men as women, and they became indeed a manifest shame to those who saw, prostituting their modesty.
     In the eight hundredth year of the life of Adam the stain of fornication spread abroad in the earth under the sons of the brother-slayer Cain.
       The story follows the familiar biblical progression, but also ties in other history; Alexander the Great, barely rating a mention in the Bible, figures much more prominently here -- notably as protector of the Holy Land. Here Alexander comes across: "the descendants of the sons of Japheth" -- a really unpleasant lot:
For all of them eat in the manner of beetles what is loathsome and debased: dogs, mice, cats, snakes, dead bodies, abortions, miscarriages, fetuses not completely formed or some preserving the marks of formation, and these of unclean animals. And they do not bury the dead, but eat them.
       Alexander takes it upon himself to ensure that they can't reach the Holy Land "and pollute it with their abominable practices", taking matters into his own hands and driving them into the: "lands beyond the North". At this point, God does give a helping hand:
     As soon, therefore, as Alexander called upon God, the Lord God heard his prayer and commanded two mountains, whose name is the Paps of the North, and they drew as close as twelve cubits to one another.
     And he prepared brazen gates and covered them with asyncite, so that if they should want to open them with iron they would not be able or to dissolve them with fire they would not prevail
       Kind of a shame that they didn't shove those mountains all the way together, as gates ... well, even seemingly impregnable gates seem to have a tendency to get opened at one point or another. So too here, in the nicely overheated end-o'-times; sure, there will come that time when there: "will be gladness upon the earth and men will settle down in peace and they will rebuild the cities", but you know the good times can't last:
     In that peace, therefore, men will sit down upon the earth with joy and gladness, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, jumping for joy and rejoicing, and they will build buildings and there will be no fear or worry in their hearts.
     Then the gates of the North will be opened up and out will come the powers of the nations which were enclosed within, and the whole earth will reel from their face, and men will cry aloud and flee and hide themselves in the mountains and in the caves and among gravestones. And they will be deadened with fear and many will perish and there will be none to bury the bodies.
       Not having anyone to bury the bodies is, in this instance, of course less of a problem since we are then also reminded at some length about the nasty eating habits of those from the North, which includes the eating of corpses ..... Anyway, things go south fast, yet again -- "they will corrupt the earth and befoul it and deface it, and there will be none able to stand before them" -- until of course God steps in (for some reason biding his time -- waiting until: "after a week of years") and has one of his chief commanders: "smite them in a single moment of time".
       That just makes for the next respite; after all: "upon the completion of ten and a half years the son of perdition will appear". This, too, of course, doesn't bode well and he deviously does his dirty work. But of course we also know how this ends, with the "Coming of the Son of Man" and everything set right.
       The back and forth, of calm and calamity, is dizzying. As noted, punishment often comes because of sexual looseness -- which is indeed impressively loose:
Men put on the apparel of adulterous and wanton women and adorned themselves as women and stood in the streets and squares of the cities openly and "did change the natural use into that which is against nature" as the Holy Apostle says. Likewise women also did the same things as men.
       The costs for these transgressions are high:
     And the land Persia will be handed over to ruin and destruction and those who dwell in it will be driven into captivity and slaughter. Armenia and those who dwell in it will be handed over to captivity and sword. Cappadocia to perdition and desolation, and her inhabitants will be swallowed up in captivity and destruction.
       And so on.
       It's an odd sort of warning-tale. On the one hand, the sense of historical inevitability is near-overwhelming. There have been and will be times of peace -- but catastrophe will follow (until that final time). Mankind --- or parts of it -- seem to blame for some of what is visited upon them, especially because of that annoying tendency to embrace ever-increasing sexual looseness, but often, too, there just seems no way around things: trials and tribulations come with the territory.
       For a quick apocalypse-story, this does do the trick: it's action packed, and a roller-coaster of ups and downs. It's kind of hard to discern what one might learn from this -- it certainly suggests that the forces of history are more powerful than man can handle, and God remains fickle as always, only intervening at select points, so he can't really be counted on to set things right (except in the big, big picture, which doesn't really seem much use to the individual, except in the final reckoning ...). So it's not exactly reässuring. But perhaps in those times -- and these ? -- it at least suggested to readers that their uncertain situation was just the way things had to be.
       Originally written in Syriac, Apocalypse is presented here in both the Greek translation, and the Latin one (from the Greek). Garstad translates both translations, so we get the text twice: first in Greek, with the English facing it, and then in Latin, with that English facing it. (All quotes in this review are taken from the translation of the Greek translation.) This may seem somewhat redundant, but is an interesting exercise; there are differences in the translations, and for those who enjoy this sort of thing it's interesting to compare them. Of course, a direct translation into English from the Syriac would also have been of interest .....

       In his Introduction, Garstad explains the pairing of Apocalypse with An Alexandrian World Chronicle (generally known as: Excerpta Latina Barbari), suggesting there are sufficient affinities that justify the presentation of them together in one volume. These include that both were composed: "in the East" -- "both were first written outside the orbit of the metropolitan culture of Constantinople, and both were co-opted by the same culture for its own", and both were first translated into Latin at about the same time. They also are similar in their history-spanning presentation -- as An Alexandrian World Chronicle is indeed nothing less than it claims, a chronology, keeping careful track of the dates (or at least time-spans) from the first man: like Apocalypse, it begins with Adam and Eve.
       An Alexandrian World Chronicle is essentially a chronology, the history of the world as chronicled in its generations and leaders. There is some commentary on some of what happened at certain times -- the Tower of Babel story for example -- but mostly it focuses on specific, leading personages. There's also an emphasis on tracking time: life-spans as well as, less frequently, durations of rule are noted, and a running total of time-on-earth is kept. So, for example:
     Cainan lived 130 years (altogether this makes 2,608 years), and begat Salah.
     Salah lived 130 years (altogether this makes 2,738 years), and begat Eber.
       Etc. And there's a lot of etcetera -- long sections merely list and list, which is, of course, not the most riveting reading.
       Interesting, however, is in how An Alexandrian World Chronicle goes beyond the biblical and tries to be more comprehensive it it's listings (as well as continuing to more recent times). The rulers of various nations, well beyond the near and familiar, of the times are collected -- as are, notably, the stories of the Greek gods and heroes, for example, from Zeus to Aeneas. Alexander the Great again gets quite prominent mention, but the chroniclers also add information such as:
     The philosophers in Athens renowned in the time of Alexander the Founder were Demosthenes the rhetorician and Aristotle and Aeschines and Demades and Plato and Lysias and the other Democritus.
       The scope of the chronicle is impressive -- though with not that much more than name- and ruler-listings only goes so far. The occasional additional information is of interest, such as, regarding Rome, for example:
This is Gaius Julius Caesar who discovered the intercalary day and the course of the sun. He was also the one who decided that each consulship should be for a given year.
       But it's rare that, among these thousands of names, much more than their dates is ascribed to those listed here.
       Obviously, An Alexandrian World Chronicle isn't the sort of text one reads for simple entertainment purposes; it isn't much of a read -- all together -- at all. But it's an interesting overview of history -- biblical, mythical, and actual --, focused on the (leading) men (and a few women) behind it. Along with Garstad's quite detailed introduction to it, it does prove more than of simply historical interest.

       The bilingual presentation of the texts and the supporting material, including Garstad's accessible and informative Introduction, make for an excellent presentation of these quite intriguing (if limited) texts.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 January 2021

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Apocalypse: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Authorship of Apocalypse has been wrongly ascribed to Saint Methodius of Olympus; its author remains unknown.

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© 2021 the complete review

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