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The Suda, The Byzantine Encyclopedia Written in the Year 1100

Suda
Credit: Jean Le Tavernier /Public Domain

The Suda, the massive tome written by a Byzantine scholar around the year 1100, was one of the world’s first encyclopedias and lexicons.

Created as both a syllabary of the Greek language and an overview of events in the known world up until that time, it is a benchmark in scholarship of the Medieval period.

The Suda, or Souda (Σοῦδα,) was formerly attributed to an author called Soudas or Souidas.

It is an encyclopedic lexicon, written in Greek, with a staggering 30,000 entries, many drawing from ancient sources that have since been lost, and often derived from medieval Christian compilers. The derivation of the word “Suda” is from the Byzantine Greek word souda, meaning “fortress” or “stronghold,” with the alternate name, Suidas, stemming from an error made by Eustathius, who mistook the title for the author’s name.

Suda
The Suda, the Byzantine encyclopedia from the year 1100. Credit: daten.digitale-sammlungen.de

The Suda is somewhere between a grammatical dictionary and an encyclopedia in the modern sense. It explains the source, derivation, and meaning of words according to the philology of its period, using such earlier authorities as Harpocration and Helladios.

It stands today as a rich source of ancient and Byzantine history and life, although not every article is of equal quality, judging by our modern standards, and it is an “uncritical” compilation of historical events.

Much of the work is probably interpolated, meaning material often finds it way into other subjects. The Suda passages that refer to Michael Psellos, who lived from c. 1017–78, are believed to be interpolations which were added in later copies.

The Suda is a Valuable repository of Ancient Literary Works

Priceless biographical sketches of political, ecclesiastical, and literary figures of the Byzantine Empire up to the tenth century are included in the groundbreaking work, while many of these are condensations from the works of Hesychius of Miletus, as the author himself avers.

However, considering the ravages of time and how easily information can be lost forever, these citations of more ancient works allows The Suda to serve as a priceless chronicle in itself.

Other sources used in the work were the encyclopedia of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, who lived from 912–59 for the figures in ancient history, excerpts written by John of Antioch during the seventh century for its treatment of Roman history, and the chronicle of Hamartolus, written in the ninth century by Georgios Monachos, for the Byzantine age.

The biographies of Diogenes Laërtius, and the works of Athenaeus and Philostratus also served as important sources for The Suda. Other principal sources include a lexicon by the writer known as “Eudemus,” which perhaps was derived from the work “On Rhetorical Language” by Eudemus of Argos.

The lexicon copiously draws from scholia to the classics of the greatest Greek writers, including Homer, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Sophocles, and others. Later, the works of  Polybius, Josephus, the Chronicon Paschale, George Syncellus, George Hamartolus, were used as sources.

The Suda quotes or paraphrases these sources at length. Since many of the original works have indeed been lost, The Suda serves an invaluable repository of literary history; this preservation of literary history is more vital than the lexicographical compilation itself, some scholars believe.

The Suda as a lexicon is arranged alphabetically with some slight deviations from common vowel order and place in the Greek alphabet according to a system which was formerly common in many languages called antistoichia (ἀντιστοιχία); namely the letters follow phonetically in order of sound, in the pronunciation of the tenth century — which is similar to that of Modern Greek.

The order is: α, β, γ, δ, αι, ε, ζ, ει, η, ι, θ, κ, λ, μ, ν, ξ, ο, ω, π, ρ, σ, τ, οι, υ, φ, χ, ψ[8]
In addition, double letters are treated as single for the purposes of collation. The system is not difficult to learn and remember, but some editors — for example, Immanuel Bekker – rearranged the Suda alphabetically.

Will We Ever Know Who Wrote the Suda?

Sadly, little is known about the author, who was named “Suidas” in its prefatory note. He most likely lived in the second half of the 10th century, because the death of emperor John I Tzimiskes and his succession by Basil II and Constantine VIII are mentioned in the entry under “Adam,” which is appended with a brief chronology of the world.

At any rate, the work must have appeared by before the 12th century, since it is frequently quoted from and alluded to by Eustathius who lived from about 1115 AD to about 1195 or 1196.

The work deals with biblical as well as pagan subjects, from which it is inferred that the writer was a Christian.

The only other remotely comparable work of around that time would be the Speculum Maius, written in Latin  in the 13th century by Vincent of Beauvais.

Alexander Pope References the Suda in Poetry

The great classically-educated English writer Alexander Pope even mentioned The Suda in his writings:

“For Attic phrase in Plato let them seek,
I poach in Suidas for unlicens’d Greek.”

― Alexander Pope, “The Dunciad,” 4.227-8

Pope’s “Suidas” is not a man, of course, but the encyclopedia, of which he would have known as one who had been educated in ancient Greek in the English public school system.

Preserved in several medieval manuscripts, The Suda has been edited and published several times since the end of the 14th century in traditional hard-copy scholarly editions, most recently that of Ada Adler , in five volumes, printed from 1928-1938 and reprinted in 1971.

A modern translation that is available to everyone in the world, a result of a labor of love on the part of scholars all around the world, called the Suda On Line, was completed on July 21, 2014.

Suda Online Forms Invaluable Resource to Scholars Worldwide

The Suda On Line (SOL) project, begun in 1998 as part of the Stoa Consortium, makes available this “stronghold” of information by sharing a freely accessible, keyword-searchable database, with English translations, notes, bibliography, and links to other electronic resources.

With contributions as translators and/or editors from more than two hundred people worldwide, the SOL reached the landmark of all entries being translated and edited to a usable standard on July 21, 2014.

The link to the Suda Online may be found here while a fuller history of the project may be found here.

The SOL has been the focus of numerous articles and conference presentations for those interested in Byzantine history and the medieval period. In 2000 the managing Editors jointly published an article “The Suda On-Line” in the journal Syllecta Classica.

Scholarly Papers about SOL have been presented at international conferences in Hawaii and Aberdeen, Scotland and Newport, Rhode Island. In 2002 a panel about SOL entitled “On to 10,000: The Inexorable March of the Suda On Line,” was held at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South in Austin, TX.

In 2007, Catharine Roth won a Titus Fellowship at the University of Cincinnati’s Blegen Library to study early scholarship on the Suda.

According to the Suda Online group, the family of active and emerita/us SOL contributors comprises well over over 200 individuals, hailing from five continents and more than 20 countries. They represent specialists from all over the academic spectrum.

The Suda, and especially its online version, offers modern scholars the opportunity to delve into the world as the Byzantines knew it.

Its creator could never have known that almost one thousand years after he compiled it, his labs of love would still be used as a vital source of information — and that some of what he wrote would be the only surviving record of priceless works of the distant past.

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