Agathias of Myrina Open this page in a new tab

Frendo (1975:ix-x) summarized Agathias of Myrina's life and works as follows:
Most of the information we possess concerning the life of Agathias derives from his own writings.

...Agathias was a native of Myrina in Asia Minor. His date of birth cannot be determined exactly but may be placed somewhere around the year 532 A.D. His father, Memnonius, was a "rhetor", a title which may imply, as has been suggested,2 that he was a provincial lawyer in Myrina. His mother, Pericleia, died in Constantinople when he was only three years of age. It was probably in Constantinople too that Agathias' boyhood days were spent. He received an expensive education, studying rhetoric in Alexandria and law in Constantinople. Once qualified he practised as a lawyer in the capital where, from all accounts, he had to work hard in order to make a living. The date of his death is as uncertain as that of his birth. It must have occurred some time after the death of Chosroes (r. 531-579 CE) in 579 (the last datable event mentioned in the Histories) and before the accession of the Emperor Maurice (r. 582-602 CE) in 582 in view of the apparent ignorance of this latter event betrayed by Agathias when he refers to the future Emperor simply as "Maurice (r. 582-602 CE) the son of Paul".3 On this reckoning, then, it will be seen that he was 33 years old when Justinian (r. 527-565 CE) died in 565 and that he lived through the reign of Justin II (r. 565-578 CE) and a part of that of Tiberius II Constantine (r. 578-582 CE).

Agathias' literary activity is marked in its first and youthful phase by the production of "a number of short pieces in hexameters entitled "Daphniaca", adorned with certain amorous motifs and replete with similarly enchanting topics".4 The Daphniaca have not come down to us. They were probably completed before their author had reached the age of thirty.5 To an intermediate period belongs his work of compiling a collection of epigrams by contemporary poets, generally known as the Cycle,6 to which Agathias himself contributed approximately one hundred poems. This anthology was published early on in the reign of Justin II (r. 565-578 CE), probably in 567.7

For the work of his maturity, the Histories, Agathias was equipped neither by natural inclination nor by personal experience.8 His life had, it seems, been an uneventful one and the oppressive picture of routine dullness and unremitting toil conjured up by his portrayal of the busy working life of a lawyer in the capital9 is but slightly relieved by the recollection of a few memorable occasions — the experience of mild earth-tremors during his student days in Alexandria,10 a landing at Cos shortly after its destruction by a tidal wave and the awful scene of devastation that confronted him there11, a visit to Tralles.12 Certainly his friend and fellow poet Paul the Silentiary (d. 575-580 CE) was a man of wealth and influence who moved in court circles, but it seems that the range of Agathias' acquaintance was confined to a narrow coterie of poets and literati and there is nothing to suggest that he came into direct contact with any of the important political and military figures of his day. Moreover the lack of official patronage of which he complains so bitterly provides a further indication that he always remained something of an outsider.13 Agathias must have begun the writing of his Histories some time after the accession of Justin II (r. 565-578 CE). He was still writing in the reign of Tiberius (r. 578-582 CE) and it clear from IV, 22,9 and V, 25,5. that he did not live to finish them. The five books that he has left us cover a period of seven years (A.D. 552-9).

2 By Mrs. Cameron: op. cit. p. 4.

3 Histories IV, 29, 8.

4 Preface, 7.

5 cf. Mrs. Cameron: Op. cit. p. 9.

6 Much of it has been preserved and is to be found in the Greek Anthology.

7 cf. Mrs. Cameron: ibid.

8 He himself claims that he turned to the writing of history partly in response to his friends' encouragement (Preface, 11—12) and confesses that he found the prospect daunting but took comfort in the thought that history and poetry had much in common.

9 Histories III, 1,4.

10 Histories II, 15,5—8.

11 Histories II, 16,4—6.

12 Histories II, 17,6.

13 cf. Preface 18—20. An unmistakeable note of personal bitterness is struck in Histories V20,7.