Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.04

Pamela Armstrong (ed.), Authority in Byzantium. Publications of the Centre for Hellenic Studies, King's College London, 14.   Farnham; London; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2013.  Pp. xix, 366.  ISBN 9781409436089.  $134.95.  

Reviewed by Diana Gilliland Wright, Seattle, WA (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This is a wonderful collection of papers. Authority in Byzantium publishes the papers from the January 2009 conference at King’s College, London, held to honor the work of retiring Byzantinist Judith Herrin. Herrin has written an appealing Introduction relating her own introduction to Byzantine history, and giving glimpses of the authorities who contributed to her life. She concludes, "The sense of feeling that I am now an authority is discomforting, for I know that there is always so much more to learn." Armstrong allows Authority in Byzantium to convey this sense of open-endedness: its papers are about authority, not statements of authority, and all but the last three respond in some way to ideas Herrin has discussed in her writing.

The last three are essays on three authorities in Byzantine studies: George Ostrogorsky, Hans-Georg Beck, and Robert Browning, who died in 1976, 1999, and 1997, respectively. The reason for their selection over other dead Byzantinists is not given. However, not only was the conference in part to honor a woman, but in 2008, Byzantine studies lost three outstanding women: Julian Chrysostomides, Evelyne Patlagean, and Angeliki Laiou—a point made by Jeffreys at the conference and in her paper on Browning (345n2).

The conference sessions were chaired by scholars of the western Middle Ages: five of the book sections include their responses to the papers. The Greek texts include translations, so non-Byzantinists are not excluded from the evidence.

It is frustrating not to be able to give a full account of this remarkable collection: I will comment briefly on three I found particularly interesting, which incidentally seem to exemplify Weber's three types of authority: traditional, rational-legal, and charismatic (83).

Jonathan Shepards's "Aspects of Moral Leadership" speculates on the comparative lack of disorder within the city of Constantinople. Court ceremonial not only reflected the orderly processes of the universe, but "The entire polis was a working model of good order, braced by the presence of the emperor under God . . .." A particularly interesting point calls attention to the juxtaposition of the "heavenly" palace with the "hellish" prisons in Constantinople, a tableau of imperial moral authority. Shepard's description of the imperial system implies that it had accomplished, as Magdalino writes (194), "the imperative of restoring human society to a state of grace, of rendering the ruler and his people acceptable to God and worthy of divine favour."

Shepard's sources include Leo VI, saints' lives and accounts by Muslim prisoners of war who present a city with a high degree of personal security and little evidence of street violence: violence comes primarily from outside, from the presence of foreigners—"barbarians." He says, "we lack accounts of violent confrontations or regular negotiations between organised groupings and the authorities, or of persistent conflicts . . ." (10) and hedges by omitting the city after the Palaiologan reconquest. Later he says, "most of the serious riots or confrontations were overspills from divisions at court; or attempts at sidelining or overthrowing emperors who appeared rightful in the populace's eyes" (13). There is much less evidence for street crime or violence against individuals: Liutprand apparently says "not a word about robbery, other forms of violence or endemic lawnessness in the streets" (17). Just before Liutprand, Shepard writes, "In other words, Constantinople generally needed to be only lightly policed." I am not so sure that not-a-word and light policing are the equivalent of high personal security: the most vulnerable are the least likely to leave written records. Reynolds (60) in her commentary considers the sources problematical. Despite my dis-ease with Shepard's thesis, I find the essay exceptionally thought-provoking and have been pulled back to it several times.

This essay should be read in parallel with Johannes Koder's discussion of a very different and parallel authority in "The Authority of the Eparchos in the Markets of Constantinople (according to the Book of the Eparch)." As Psellos said, he had "imperial authority without purple." (84) According to the Eisagoge, issued in 886 (text 100-101), he ranked directly after the emperor. He had the authority in Constantinople (and within a hundred miles of it) to investigate all charges and prosecute all crimes, he had authority over exile and movements of individuals, public gatherings and spectacles, the sale of certain goods, and he had his own troop of soldiers who acted as peacekeepers and secret police.

The BE primarily concerns the Eparch's authority over corporations in terms of the public interest, creating a degree of standardization. These include authority for restriction on residency in Constantinople, protection of the value of currency, regulation of scales, measurements, and weights, prohibition of an increase in shop rents, prohibition of price increases, and profit margins. Another group of regulations describes his authority over admission to a corporation, determination of the volume of business, distinction between trades, locations of craftsmen, purchase of goods from importers, wholesalers, or producers, prohibition of hiring away employees of others, and prohibition of worker contracts longer than one month.

For these responsibilities, the Eparch had two groups of officials. The first was a staff of eparchoi, then the descending ranks of symponoi , lefatariori , boullotai and mitotes. The second group of officials were representatives of the various corporations who elected them to be appointed by the Eparch: prostati, exarchoi, and bothroi. The Eparch had, to all appearances, absolute authority in the City. However, Koder concludes by saying that the combined regulations from the BE and Eisagoge indicate limits to that authority: ". . . the regulatory inconsistencies found in the BE . . . give the impression of being coincidental and arbitrary, indicate a strong creative will on the part of the producers and merchants who made up the corporations" (98).

Koder provides texts and translations from his main sources (98-108), and a list of ten eparchs who held authority between 850 and 912, the last but one holding office in the period in which The Book of the Eparch was compiled (108). The dates are confusing: Koder gives what Prosopographie der mittelbyzantinischen Zeit II has.

Charalambos Bakirtzis' lyrical essay on "The Authority of Knowledge in the Name of the Authority of Mimesis ," is an evocation of wonder at the realities to be found in Byzantine churches. He begins by examining the slender paired columns of the Kosmosoteira in Thrace, and then the typikon of its founder who was concerned with its proper maintenance. As restoration architect Bakitzis worked under the direction of the typikon to maintain the church’s original authority. The essay continues with his progressive understanding, first, of candlelight inside a church as a mimesis of natural lighting, and then the frescoed warrior saints as a mimesis of the imperial family, before discussing the intuitive authority behind mimesis in the Byzantine world.

He writes of a monastery he restored at Synaxis where the post-Iconoclastic structure built inside the Early Christian apse is a mimesis of the earlier building, and he echoes the paired columns of Kosmosoteira with "the two olive trees growing in the central nave of the Early Christian basilica, and at the same time in the couryard of the later Byzantine monstery, their roots upsetting the logical sequence of time" (215).

Bakirtzis offers a litany of wonder: "I cannot understand on the basis of what authority a woman in Thessalonike felt she could openly proclaim her love . . . How is it physically possible . . . how is it possible for the cave . . . what wind on the Mount of Olives . . . impelled by what authority . . . what kind of knowledge?" These are interspersed with the woman's radiant epitaph for her husband and its reflections in lines from other Greek poetry. The essay ends with, "Hail, Akrites, hail with your beloved."

I want to conclude with a delightful passage from Marc Lauxtermann’s humorous essay on library catalogs (269), which looks at the root of "authority" in αὐθέντης:

This word indeed means ’master’ or ’ruler’ in later Greek. In ancient Greek, however, it has a radically different meaning: it means ’perpetrator’ and even ’murderer’. So, the modern authority is the ancient perpetrator, and somehow one is reminded of original sin, the primordial misdemeanour that forms the commencement of history as we know it. The root of authority/authorship is a crime: it all started with the apple in paradise . . . Is Eve our first author? And Adam our first reader? And is reading in itself a re-enactment of original sin" are we eating the forbidden fruit when we indulge in the pleasure of reading?

Table of Contents

Preface, Pamela Armstrong
Introduction, Judith Herrin

Part I The Authority of the State
1. Aspects of Moral Leadership: The Imperial City and Lucre from Legality, Jonathan Shepard
2. Trial by Ordeal in Byzantium: on whose Authority? Ruth Macrides
3. A Case Study: The Use of the Nominative on Imperial Portraits from Antiquity to Byzantium, Sergey Ivanov
4. Response, Susan Reynolds

Part II Authority in the Marketplace
5. Displaying the Emperor’s Authority and Kharaktèr on the Marketplace, Cécile Morrison
6. The Authority of the Eparchos in the Markets of Constantinople (according to the Book of the Eparch), Johannes Koder
7. Response, Chris Wickham

Part III The Authority of the Church
8. Coming of Age in Byzantium: Agency and Authority in Rites of Passage from Infancy to Adulthood, Jane Baun
9. The Authority of the Church in Uneasy Times: The Example of Demetrios Chomatenos, Archbishop of Ohrid, in the State of Epiros 1216-1236, Günter Prinzing
10. Response, Miri Rubin

Part IV Authority Within the Family
11. Family Ties, Bonds of Kinship (9th-11th Centuries), Christine Angelidi
12. The Limits of Marital Authority: Examining Continence in the Lives of Saints Julian and Basilissa, and Saints Chrysanthus and Daria, Anne P. Alwis
13. Response, Janet Nelson

Part V The Authority of Knowledge
14. Knowledge in Authority and Authorised History: The Imperial Intellectual Programme of Leo VI and Constantine VII, Paul Magdalino
15. The Authority of Knowledge in the Name of the Authority of Mimesis, Charalambos Bakirtzis
16. On Whose Authority? Regulating Medical Practice in the Twelfth and Early Thirteenth Centuries, Dionysios Stathakopoulos
17. Response, Alexander Murray

Part VI The Authority of the Text
18. Believe it or Not: Authority in Religious Tests, Albrecht Berger
19. From the Workshop of Niketas Choniates: The Authority of Tradition and Literary Mimesis, Alicia Simpson
20. 'And many, many more’: A Sixteenth-Century Description of Private Libraries in Constantinople and the Authority of Books, Marc D. Lauxtermann

Part VII Exhibiting Authority in Provincial Societies
21. Organic Local Government and Village Authority, Leonora Neville

Part VIII Exhibiting Authority in Museums
22. Maria Vassilaki

Part IX Authority in Byzantine Studies
23. George Ostrogorsky St Petersburg, 19 January 1902-Belgrade, 24 October, 1976, Ljubomir Maksimović
24. Hans-Georg Beck, Vera von Falkenhausen
25. Robert Browning, Elizabeth Jeffreys
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