Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.03.15

Liz James (ed.), A Companion to Byzantium. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Ancient History.   Chichester/Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.  Pp. xxx, 451.  ISBN 9781405126540.  $199.95.  

Reviewed by Stephen H. Rapp, Jr., University of Bern (


A Companion to Byzantium is a solid addition to Blackwell’s ambitious Companions to the Ancient World series. Edited by Liz James, this hefty volume’s twenty-seven essays present recent findings on an array of topics and frequently provide an overview of essential “primary” sources and modern scholarship. There is unevenness, however: some of the chapters are more engaging than others. The expertise and background of the contributors are apt reminders of the inherently inter- and cross-disciplinary nature of Byzantine Studies. More than half the authors are based in the UK.

Two essays serve as an introduction: James, “Byzantium: A Very, Very Short Introduction,” and F.K. Haarer, “Writing Histories of Byzantium: The Historiography of Byzantine History.” The remaining are logically grouped into four sections: Part One—“Being Byzantine,” comprising nine chapters (Peter Sarris, “Economics, Trade, and ‘Feudalism’”; Paul Magdalino, “Byzantium = Constantinople”; Catherine Holmes, “Provinces and Capital”; Dion C. Smythe, “Insiders and Outsiders”; Cecily Hennessy, “Young People in Byzantium”; Myrto Hatzaki, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”; Amy Papalexandrou, “The Memory Culture of Byzantium”; Martin Hinterberger, “Emotions in Byzantium”; and Shaun Tougher, “Having Fun in Byzantium”); Part Two—“God and the World,” comprising five chapters (Mary Cunningham, “Byzantine Views of God and the Universe”; Vassiliki Dimitropoulou, “Giving Gifts to God: Aspects of Patronage in Byzantine Art”; Jonathan Shepard, “Orthodoxy and Northern Peoples: Goods, Gods and Guidelines”; Andrew Louth, “Christology and Heresy”; and Niall Finneran, “Beyond Byzantium: the Non-Chalcedonian Churches”); Part Three—“Reading Byzantine Texts,” consisting of five chapters (Margaret Mullett, “No Drama, No Poetry, No Fiction, No Readership, No Literature”; Mary Whitby, “Rhetorical Questions”; Roger Scott, “Text and Context in Byzantine Historiography”; Emmanuel C. Bourbouhakis and Ingela Nilsson, “Byzantine Narrative: The Form of Storytelling in Byzantium”; and Judith Waring, “Byzantine Book Culture”); and, finally, Part Four—“Some Questions in Material Culture,” consisting of six chapters (James Crow, “Archaeology”; Anthony Cutler, “Makers and Users”; Antony Eastmond, “The Limits of Byzantine Art”; Leslie Brubaker, “Icons and Iconomachy”; John Hanson, “The Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Renaissance”; and Angeliki Lymberopoulou, “Late and Post-Byzantine Art under Venetian Rule: Frescoes versus Icons, and Crete in the Middle”).

In the initial essay, which occupies just eight pages (including two full-page maps), the editor offers a revealing disclaimer: “This is not an ‘all you ever wanted to know about Byzantium but never dared to ask’ book… [rather,] this book offers the reader an introduction to some new approaches, new areas of research and new questions in Byzantine studies” (p. 8). Fair enough. This is, then, not a cohesive, from-the-ground-up introduction to Byzantine history and culture. It is not the kind of book one is likely to read from cover to cover. And unless it is reprinted in a paperback edition this volume’s eye-popping $200 price tag will relegate it to an in-library reference work. Without question, professional academics, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates will appreciate the concise, well-written notices highlighting the latest research. Undergraduates and casual readers may be apprehensive: the thematic essays assume a basic understanding of Byzantine and Mediterranean history.

Reviewing a composite work such as this is an impossible task owing to its divergent voices, topics, and methodologies. In the space remaining, therefore, I have chosen to make some concrete remarks about the framework in which the ambitious Companion operates (and does not operate).

In recent years one of the questions preoccupying Byzantinists is the slippery meaning of “Byzantium” and its attributive “Byzantine,” a matter complicated by the fact that the Greek-speaking people highlighted in this volume called themselves Rhomaioi, “Romans.” In the first chapter James submits a conventional and straightforward definition of Byzantium: the empire, based at Constantinople, from the city’s dedication in 330 until its fall to the Ottomans in 1453 (p. 2). While I applaud the editor’s decision to keep her introduction short and elegant, this particular case is unintentionally detrimental (and a departure from her otherwise historically-minded observations), for it does not adequately reflect the divergent, highly-nuanced viewpoints currently debated by specialists. There are merits to assigning the start of the Empire to this time, of course, but further elucidation is absolutely necessary. Some of the essays advance alternate interpretations, although within limits and usually in a circuitous way (see below). Almost all deal squarely with Constantinople, its environs, and adjacent provinces. This raises the issue of the relationship between Constantinople and the empire as a whole. In Magdalino’s view, “‘Romania’ was defined not by its fluctuating, shifting, and porous territorial borders, but by its secure and stable center where political and religious authority resided” (p. 43). He reminds us of Constantinople’s essential place in the Byzantine experience at a time when Byzantinists—especially those examining minorities within the empire and the tapestry of non-Greeks just beyond it but part of the Byzantine/Eastern Christian Commonwealth1—are increasingly recasting Constantinople’s central role. Yet throughout much—arguably all—of its history the empire was polycentric, as Holmes underscores in her examination of Constantinople and the provinces. Holmes proposes alternative centers such as the monastic networks on Athos and the Black Mountain in Syria (pp. 61-64). Read together, Magdalino and Holmes paint a fascinating picture: in many ways the imperial Byzantine experience revolved around Constantinople, but at the same time the empire was far more than the Queen of Cities.

This volume particularly excels in its explorations of gender, class, age, religious confession, production and consumption, urban and rural life, material culture, historiography, memory, emotion, and patronage. If there is an ubiquitous blemish, it is that too often these subjects are investigated within the cozy, convenient, and conservative context of Greek-speaking literates inside Byzantium’s imperial core without sufficient—and sometimes meaningful—consideration of minority populations let alone those peoples and lands closely aligned with the empire which lay beyond its direct authority.2 To repeat: the Greek nucleus and its epicenter Constantinople are extremely important; they shall forever remain at the heart of Byzantine Studies. But this volume’s avowed objective to advance new findings and innovative approaches falls unexpectedly flat on this point. In the first place, the Byzantine Empire from its establishment—whenever it might have occurred—to the bitter end was a multicultural and pluralistic organism. For a polity of such importance and endurance, which placed tremendous value on the written word, astonishingly few literary sources have survived, an important fact raised by several contributors. Not surprisingly, documentary evidence tends to privilege the centers of power. In ethno-linguistic terms, extant sources overwhelmingly favor elite Greeks and those assimilators to Greek culture whose primary language was Greek, e.g. the Armenian and mixed Armeno-Georgian families studied by Alexander Kazhdan.3 Second, the empire was a part—perhaps the central part, but hardly the solitary component—of a considerably larger, dynamic Byzantine or Eastern Christian Commonwealth which, at its greatest extent, stretched from the Caspian Sea and the steppes of what is now Ukraine and the Russian Federation to Western Europe and south to Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

In my estimation, only four essays directly address these issues. (To be fair, the contributors seem not to have been charged with locating their topics within the context of the commonwealth; indeed, one gets the sense that the editor has generally applied a light hand). Smythe applies social-science methodologies to the notion of what it meant to be “Byzantine,” especially insofar as the problematic, binary opposition “insiders”/“outsiders” is concerned. It’s an intriguing model, but it deserves deeper real-world application in an extended analysis. Eastmond’s insightful chapter cogently argues for “as broad a definition of Byzantine art as possible” (p. 314) even though this necessitates a fundamental rethinking of what “Byzantine” means today and what it might have meant then. At least in terms of art, “Byzantium” should encompass not just the empire proper but also non-Chalcedonian and even Latin communities who were joined in the larger commonwealth. Yet the danger, as Eastmond acknowledges (and as proponents of large-scale connective approaches, including the so-called New World History, are aware), is to lose sight of regional distinctiveness (p. 322).4 Shepard’s essay on the “northern peoples,” including Bulgars, Rus’, and Alans, cautions against the diffusionist models typically used in traditional civilizational paradigms. Such peoples had a great deal of agency and were active contributors to the commonwealth: “… those beyond imperial borders who turned to the Byzantines for a religious cult mostly had their own agendas, personal or political. They were not, for the most part, responding to Byzantine urgings to convert” (p. 173).

Finneran examines “non-Chalcedonian churches” on the “fringe regions of the Byzantine world” (p. 199), in Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia, Syria, Armenia, and Georgia, and the discontiguous Church of the East. This coverage is extremely welcome (and necessary!), but the conceptualization of these sites as peripheries obscures more than it reveals. An inadvertent consequence is the perpetuation of the image of these places as exotica, curiosities and novelties to “mainstream” Byzantium. Yet, at a minimum, Egypt, Syria, and Armenia Minor were integral parts of the later Roman and early Byzantine empires before the Islamic conquest and all three, in different ways, were instrumental in the development of Eastern Christendom. None existed in a vacuum; for that matter neither did Greek/imperial/Byzantine Christianity. All remained important centers even after the christological debates of the fifth and sixth centuries and the Arab invasions of the seventh. None was confessionally homogenous. Further, notwithstanding the brief disclaimer (pp. 200-201), Georgia’s inclusion is odd to say the least, for although the church in eastern Georgia (Iberia) was at one time aligned with its counterpart in Armenia Major against Chalcedon, the early seventh-century Katholikos Kwrion (probably to be identified with the later patriarch of Alexandria, Cyrus; Finneran variously renders his name as Cyrion and Kyprion [p. 217]) pushed the eastern Georgian church firmly into the dyophysite camp. In the context of Caucasia, the lack of references to any of the essential Western-language publications of Adontz, Toumanoff, Garsoïan, and Thomson (e.g.) is regrettable.5 Finally, Finneran’s argument that “these [‘non-Chalcedonian’] Churches were largely a vehicle for popular national resistance against the political power of the Greek-speaking world” is debatable (p. 222).

The essays by Hennessy, Hatzaki, Papalexandrou, Hinterberger, and Tougher examine youth, emotions, beauty, memory, and popular amusements largely within an imperial, Greek-speaking framework. While received sources overwhelmingly project this perspective, some attention to ethno-linguistic minorities within the Empire and peoples beyond would have been worth the extra pages. The impressive section on reading Byzantine texts and books would have been propelled to a higher level of excellence by a consideration of, say, Armenian and Georgian historiographical, hagiographical, and epic literature which has its origins in the fifth century and of works produced in other languages, including Syriac, Coptic, Ge’ez (Ethiopic), Arabic, and Old Church Slavonic. On a more positive note, all the essays in this volume embraced the editor’s charge to see Byzantium on its own terms so far as the sources allow. But I cannot help but apply Mullett’s astute observations to how most Byzantinists seem to be aware of non-Greek literatures yet fail to engage with them adequately, even in translation. Scott’s excellent essay, which advocates for sensitivity both to a text’s context and the effect of tradition upon its author (and, for that matter, later copyists), could be applied to non-Greek historiography with enormous profit. Whitby’s careful examination of the development of rhetoric in the imperial core and among peoples falling within the Greek cultural and linguistic orbit makes us wonder about different approaches elsewhere in the commonwealth.

While these chapters collectively raise more questions than they answer about the nature and extent of “Byzantium,” they succeed in presenting an articulate, thoughtful, and up-to-date assessment of the complexities of surviving (Greek) textual, material, and visual evidence. If someday A Companion to a Companion to Byzantium is assembled, perhaps at last the histories, cultures, and experiences of Greeks and non-Greeks within the commonwealth, on both sides of the imperial border, will be combined into an integrated vision of this diverse yet interconnected world. Diversity and all the cooperation and tension which accompanied it are, after all, essential and inescapable dimensions of what it meant to be “Byzantine.”


1.   See Dimitri Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe 500-1453 (New York, 1971) and Garth Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Princeton, 1993).
2.   The empire’s cultural and ethnic diversity is explored in Studies on the Internal Diaspora of the Byzantine Empire, Hélène Ahrweiler and Angeliki E. Laiou eds. (Washington, DC, 1998).
3.   A.P. Kazhdan, Armiane v sostave gospodstvuiushchego klassa vizantiiskoi imperii v XI-XII vv. (Erevan, 1975).
4.   Also Antony Eastmond, Art and Identity in Thirteenth-Century Byzantium: Hagia Sophia and the Empire of Trebizond (Aldershot, 2004).
5.   E.g.: Adontz with Garsoïan, Armenia in the Period of Justinian: The Political Conditions Based on the Naxarar System (Lisbon, 1970); Toumanoff, Studies in Christian Caucasian History (Washington, DC, 1963); Garsoïan, L’Église arménienne et le Grand Schisme d’Orient, (Louvain, 1999); and Thomson’s numerous translations and textual analyses, including Rewriting Caucasian History: The Medieval Armenian Adaptation of the Georgian Chronicles (Oxford, 1996).

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