Agathias or Agathias Scholasticus (c. AD 536-582/594), of Myrina, an Aeolian city in western Asia Minor, was a Greek poet and the historian who is a principal source for that part of the reign of Justinian I covered in his history.
He studied law at Alexandria, returned to Constantinople in 554 to finish his training and practised as an advocate (scholasticus) in the courts. Literature, however, was his favourite pursuit.
He wrote a number of short love-poems in epic metre, called Daphniaca. He also put together an anthology of epigrams by earlier and contemporary poets and himself, under the title of a Cycle of New Epigrams. Agathias re-edited the Greek Anthology, which preserves about a hundred of his epigrams, showing considerable taste and elegance. He also wrote marginal notes on the Periegetes of Pausanias.
After the death of Justinian (565), some of Agathias's friends persuaded him to write the history of his own times. This work in five books, On the Reign of Justinian, continues the history of Procopius, whose style it imitates, and is the chief authority for the period 552-558. It deals chiefly with the struggles of the Byzantine army, under the command of the eunuch Narses, against the Goths, Vandals, Franks and Persians.
"The author prides himself on his honesty and impartiality, but he is lacking in judgment and knowledge of facts; the work, however, is valuable from the importance of the events of which it treats" (Enc. Brit. 1911). Gibbon contrasts Agathias as "a poet and rhetorician" with Procopius, "a statesman and soldier." Christian commentators note the superficiality of Agathias' nominal Christianity: "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" (Catholic Encyclopedia). "No overt pagan could expect a public career during the reign of Justinian, yet the depth and breadth of Agathias' culture was not Christian" (Kaldellis).
Agathias (Histories 2.31) is the only authority for the story of Justinian's closing of the re-founded Platonic (actually neoplatonic) Academy in Athens (529), which is often cited as the closing date of Antiquity. The dispersed scholars, with as much of their library as could be transported, found temporary refuge in the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, and return— under treaty guarantees of security that form a document in the history of freedom of thought— to Edessa, where just a century later the forces of Islam encountered the classical Greek culture of Antiquity, especially its science and medicine.
The Histories are similarly an important source on Pre-Islamic Iran, including - in very summary form - "our earliest substantial evidence for the Khvadhaynamagh tradition" that later formed the basis of Ferdowsi's Shahname and provided much of the Iranian material for al-Tabari's History.
Full article ▸