John Malalas’s chronicle of the world, written in Greek in the sixth century CE, not only offered information but also entertainment and enjoyed great popularity over a long period of time. Historians criticized the work, because Malalas mixed fact and fiction and did not identify his sources. However, some of his descriptions are quite plausible and provide useful hints.
Current state of knowledge
John Malalas was an East Roman historian in late antiquity. He was born around 490 CE in Antioch on the Orontes in Syria, where he most likely worked in the imperial administration or as a legal scholar in the service of the Antiochian Patriarch. Soon after the catastrophic earthquake that occurred in Antioch in 526, Malalas moved to Constantinople and thus into the center of the Eastern Roman Empire; there he died at the age of about 80 years. His name, Malalas, is Syrian and means rhetorician.
John is the author of the oldest almost completely preserved world chronicle. Consisting of eighteen books, it was written in Greek. The main manuscript from the 12th century is partially damaged and contains text that had been worked on by someone else and, furthermore, is no longer complete. The work enjoyed great popularity and, even centuries later, was imitated by many. Malalas used an almost colloquial writing style to make his work accessible and to entertain his audience. In his colorful account of the events, he mixes historical and mythological moments of the story without ever citing his sources. Since Malalas’s source material could not be understood, researchers have treated his work with contempt and for a long time have deemed it inadequate.
Tros built two cities: Troy and Ilion
It cannot be stated clearly enough: No source can be regarded as historically accurate, regardless of whether it is the chronicle of a Byzantine historian, a hexameter by Homer, or an ancient Egyptian temple inscription. Ancient texts only become relevant and helpful when their contents can be matched with findings from archaeological excavations. Even then, ancient documents will not provide historical truth; they can, however, provide helpful suggestions for further research and ways of interpreting finds.
Excavations in Crete that have been conducted since 1900 revealed a horizon of destruction at the end of the Neopalatial period (around 1430 BCE) across almost the entire island. Palaces were destroyed and set on fire, most likely by Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland who had been conquering Crete. It is worth noting that the palaces had been abandoned prior to the destruction and that the fugitives had taken portable and valuable goods with them. It was long doubted that the Greeks would have been sufficiently powerful to conquer the whole island of Crete by themselves. But John Malalas provides a surprising explanation for the seemingly unopposed advance of the Greeks: He claims that the Cretan king Minos had an illegitimate son named Minotaur, who was to follow his famous father on the throne. The minor kings of the island considered the rule of a bastard to be an affront and were thus plotting against him. They invited Theseus, the king of Thessaly, the northernmost Mycenaean kingdom, to fight against Minos’s successor. In the case of a victory, they would leave him not only Minotaur, but the whole country without a fight. “So Theseus went immediately to Crete to attack Minotaur, while all the [Minoan] senators and the army abandoned Minotaur and decided to flee to the city Gortyn” (4.23; Jeffreys).
If the events had actually happened in this or in a similar way, the voluntary surrender of the Minoan petty kingdoms may be regarded as one of the most unsound strategic decisions in world history. After this happened, Minoan domination of the sea trade was lost once and for all.
Malalas offers more stimulating information. For example, he states that the Mycenaeans went through the Hellespont and were suddenly attacked by the king of the region (4.12). Subsequently there was a naval battle, in the course of which the Anatolian attacker died. The Greeks then stormed his metropolis (possibly Maidos, located on the north shore of the Dardanelles). Many medieval authors consider this incident to have been the actual cause of the dispute between the Greeks and Trojans.
Furthermore, Malalas writes that the Kingdom of Troy extended all across Phrygia:
At that time Tros, the father of Ilios and Ganymede, reigned over Phrygia. He built two cities, one called Troy, after himself, and the other called Ilion, after Ilios his elder son. When he had completed the walls of the cities, he summoned all the toparchs, or rulers, of the land of Europe, except for Tantalos, emperor of the land of the Mykenaians.
Malalas, 4.15 (Jeffreys)
Those who allow themselves to be inspired by the writings of ancient historians may recognize in this an echo of the Aššuwa league or of the Trojan contingents listed in the Iliad, whose territories extended all the way to the Axios River in Macedonia. Furthermore, there may have been a city called Troy in addition to the fortress Ilion on Hisarlık.
Barker Webb, Philip (1822): Untersuchungen über den ehemaligen und jetzigen Zustand der Ebene von Troia. Im Verlag des Geographischen Instituts, Weimar, 1-132.
Jeffreys, Elizabeth, Michael Jeffreys & Roger Scott (1986): The Chronicle of John Malalas – A Translation. Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, Melbourne, 1-371.
Momigliano, Arnaldo Dante (1970): Malalas. Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford, 641.
Olmstead, Albert Ten Eyck (1941): “Chronicle of John Malalas; Review of Spinka and Downey 1940.” The Chicago Theological Seminary Register 31 (4), 22-23.
Vasiliev, Alexander Alexandrovich (1958): History of the Byzantine Empire: 324-1453. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1-846.
Confused in content, mixing fable with facts, important events and minor incidents, it is clearly intended not for educated readers but for the masses.
Alexander Alexandrovich Vasiliev 1952, 184
Malalas’s direct or indirect sources have not yet been established with certainty: they must have included official records and local chronicles of Antioch together with general histories and universal chronicles. Uncriticial, confused, and often childish, Malalas preserves many otherwise unknown facts.
Arnaldo Dante Momigliano 1970, 641
Malalas has preserved a great amount of the most important data which otherwise would have been lost.
Albert T. Olmstead 1941, 22