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Zosimus the historian

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Roger C. BlockleyRoger C. Blockley

Zosimus the historian (c.435–c.501) 

Described by Photius (cod. 98) as a comes and advocatus fisci and called by the Excerpta a native of Ascalon in Palestine (perhaps through confusion with a contemporary rhetorician also called Zosimus), Zosimus is the author of a so-called New History, of which five books survive complete (except for a considerable lacuna at the end of the first book and the beginning of the second) and a brief sixth which stops abruptly just before Alaric’s capture of Rome in 410. Zosimus mentions the tax called collatio lustralis, abolished by Anastasius in 498, in the past tense (II, 38, 2–4); the New History was cited in the History of Eustathius of Epiphania which itself ended in 503. The abrupt early 5th-century ending of Zosimus’ work (which was already in the text read by Photius in the 9th century) was probably the result of the author’s death, The text which we have may therefore be a first draft, which might account for many of its faults.

The first book, after a discussion of Polybius’ explanation of the rapid rise of Roman power, offers a summary of Greek history followed by a brief account of the Julio-Claudian, Flavian, and Antonine dynasties and an expanding narrative from Septimius Severus to the reign of Probus, which is interrupted by the lacuna (that covers the years 278–305). The second book begins with an extended discussion of Constantine I’s failure to hold the Secular Games in 313, and thereafter the narrative continues almost intact until it breaks off in 410.

Zosimus, as an adherent of traditional Roman religion, uses his History to provide a systematic explanation of the demise of Roman power. Hence, his initial discussion of Polybius points out that the Romans acquired their empire within fifty-three years through divine providence cooperating with spiritual well-being. In contrast, Zosimus proposes to show how spiritual barrenness has led to its present demise. His overarching themes are, therefore, the abandonment of the old cults by the Christian emperors and their consequent inability to ward off barbarian attacks. As might be expected in such a work, the Emperor Julian is the hero, and Constantine I and Theodosius I the villains.

The New History is the only complete (or nearly complete) secular history that survives in Greek between Herodian (in the 3rd cent.) and Procopius (in the 6th). As it stands, it is almost completely derivative. With the exception of some additions by the author himself, mainly concerned with religion, it is a compilation from Dexippus, Eunapius, and Olympiodorus. Its Greek, however, is not the Attic of its sources but the literary Koine, probably because its avowed model was Polybius. The main value of the New History is that it preserves material from these sources which survive otherwise only in fragments.

Roger C. Blockley


PLRE II, Zosimus 6.

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ed. (with FT and comm.) F. Paschoud, 3 vols. in 5 (Budé, new edn., 2000–3).

ET R. T. Ridley (Byzantina Australiensia 2, 1982).Find this resource:

F. Paschoud, Cinq études sur Zosime (1975).Find this resource:

W. Treadgold, The Early Byzantine Historians (2007), 107–14.Find this resource:

J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz, ‘Pagan Historiography and the Decline of Empire’, in G. Marasco, ed., Greek and Roman Historiography in Late Antiquity: Fourth to Sixth Centuries a.d. (2003), 176–218.Find this resource: