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James of Edessa, Chronicle.  Preface to the online edition


The Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea introduced the concept of a table of dates and events for the known world, with each row of the table being one year, and the olympiads signalled every four years.  Once this concept existed, continuation was inevitable.  Every copyist who reached the end of Eusebius in 325 AD would be tempted to add a few more lines, dates, events.  

In the west St. Jerome did just this, translating the table into Latin and bringing it down to his own time.  He also added events before 325 which were important in the Latin world but not included by Eusebius.  Later Latin continuators added their own years and events on the end.

In the Syriac-speaking world, the scholar bishop James of Edessa did exactly the same.  Like Jerome, he added a preface of his own.  Like Jerome, he translated the Chronicle into his own language.  Like Jerome, he added events to the narrative of Eusebius which the latter had omitted, mostly relating to Persian events.  And like Jerome, he continued the table of years down to his own time, ca. 700 AD.  And like Jerome, he found continuators who extended his table down the years.  He was also quoted verbatim by historians who abandoned the tabular format but made use of his material.

In the west the Chronicle in Jerome's version remained a definitive guide to world history to the end of the middle ages, and formed the foundation of modern chronology.  But the Mongol invasions in the 13th century almost destroyed the tradition of Syriac literature, and caused vast losses.

Discovery of the Chronicle

In the 19th century a hoard of Syriac manuscripts were discovered in Egypt at the monastery of Deir al-Suryani in the Nitrian desert and brought to England by Henry Tattam.  Among these was a manuscript containing a chronicle in tabular form by "James Philoponus" (James Lover-of-work).  This was recognised as a copy of the Chronicle of James of Edessa.  The manuscript is today in the British Library where it has the shelfmark Additional 14685.

The manuscript is not complete.  It contains almost none of James' translation of Eusebius.  A few lines only at the top of the first page seem to be from this translation.  The manuscript then contains 9 folios (18 pages) of an introduction, discussing the calculations of who lived when by Eusebius and pointing out some errors.  It then begins the "canon", or table of years and events, starting in 326 AD.  This continues down to 630 AD, and then the manuscript breaks off.  There are several gaps in the middle also.  Finally the manuscript is nearly illegible as a result of damage.

Quotations in later writers

The Chronicle of James of Edessa was quoted by later writers, themselves mostly lost.  But substantial quotations exist in the extant history by Elias of Nisibis, and in the massive 12th century Chronicle by Michael the Syrian, who also includes tables of years in his work.  These sources allow us to continue the table of year numbers and rulers down to James' time, and also fill in some events not present in the British Library manuscript.  


The Syriac text of the table portion, in tabular format, was printed by E.W.Brooks in the Zeitschrift für deutschen morgenlandischen Gesellschaft 53, p. 261f.  He also added an introduction, which is reproduced on this site, and an English translation of the event-data in the Chronicle given in non-tabular format.  He also printed the Syriac text of both the introduction and the canon-table in the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Latinorum series vol. 5 with a Latin translation in tabular format in vol. 6.  In the latter case he filled some gaps that he was unable to read in ZDMG, and supplemented the text from Elias of Nisibis and Michael the Syrian.  Even so, extensive portions consist of dotted lines, indicating material that he knew was in the manuscript but was unable to read.

The publication is unsatisfactory.  Brooks acknowledges that reproducing the exact format in printed form is nearly impossible.  Which events relate precisely to which years is sometimes far from clear, in the tabular form.  The English translation contained guesses, since it was printed in flat form.  

A modern publication would seem to be desirable.  The use of ultra-violet light would certainly reveal more than Brooks could read; the use of multi-spectral imaging would probably recover all of it.

The online edition

When I learned that an English translation of this text existed, I felt that it should be placed online and made more accessible.  This feeling was increased by learning that Moslem sites make use of the testimony of the Chronicle as early evidence of the life and date of Mohammed.  They make use of an entry, in fact, that Brooks did not translate in the ZMDG publication.

On the face of it, it seemed like a simple task to draw the lines on a webpage, using the Latin translation as a guide, and pop into the boxes the English translation made by Brooks.  This was not so.  Brooks Latin version is more complete and better than his English version.  Important entries inside the canon table itself -- of the accession of rulers -- are not included in the English.  Brooks never translated the introduction into anything but Latin.

The text placed online consists of my best effort at combining the Latin text from the CSCO with Brooks English version.  Where necessary I have translated material from the Latin.  I have been forced to omit cross-reference data to other chronicles supplied with the English, as there is really nowhere to put it.  Merely drawing the Chronicle in HTML has not been a trivial task.

Unfortunately the introduction is too lengthy for me to attempt to translate it from the Latin.  Present circumstances render it impossible for me to commission a translation of the introduction direct from the Syriac, as I would like to do anyway.  I hope this may become financially possible in future.

The layout follows that of the Latin version in CSCO 6.  I hope that it will be useful, and will encourage interest in this important but neglected text.

Roger Pearse
2nd November 2009

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This text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, 2009. This file and all material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.

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