Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.06

Anthony Kaldellis, Ethnography after Antiquity: Foreign Lands and Peoples in Byzantine Literature. Empire and after.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.  Pp. x, 277.  ISBN 9780812245318.  x, 277.  

Reviewed by Francesco Borri, Institut für Mittelalterforschung, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften (


Ancient and medieval ethnographies have fascinated historians for decades. The last years in particular have seen the publication of some significant books. Works like Greg Woolf’s Tales of the Barbarians or Erich Gruen’s Rethinking the Other in Antiquity,1 together with Michael Maas’ numerous contributions,2 have added strong analysis to older overviews such as J. P.V.D Balsdon’s or Yves A. Dauge’s.3 Moreover, scholars who work on ethnicity and identity, notably Walter Pohl, have opened new paths in the studies of ethnography. Although much has been done recently, Anthony Kaldellis’s new book is a welcome addition to the hostile world of barbarians and historians. A French version of the monograph (Le discours ethnographique à Byzance: Continuité et rupture) was published in 2012 by Les Belles Lettres. A year later Kaldellis offers an extended and rearranged monograph to an English-speaking audience. The importance of the book lies in the very question that Kaldellis aims to answer: Why does it seem that the Byzantines abandoned the classical genre of ethnography after the seventh century? In order to answer this question, the book covers the evolution of the ethnographical discourse in the Greek literature until the 1360s, with a brief survey of treatments written after Mohammed II’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453, more than two thousand years since the birth of Herodotus.

Kaldellis adopts a very clear definition of ethnography that echoes that used by Grant Parker.4 Departing from this definition, he follows this genre through Byzantine history clearly separating sparse and short information on barbarians that we may encounter in narratives, from lengthier ethnographies, which resemble Classical models. The latter, almost absent from Byzantine literature, are the focus of the monograph. (98-99)

The book consists of five long chapters and an epilogue. They are mainly chronologically arranged. In the first chapter Kaldellis focuses on the ethnographies contained in the work of late Roman authors such as Priscus and Procopius, which he maintains were meant to criticize Roman society.

Chapter two describes the decline of the ethnographic genre after the seventh century. Kaldellis highlights that the Byzantines had information on neighbouring peoples that came from prisoners of war, travellers, or spies. Yet because of changing aims and tastes, this information was seldom reported. Kaldellis is convincing: he shows how Theophanes (9th c.) or, later, Zonaras (12th c.), when re-telling Procopius’ stories, decided to omit his ethnographic excursuses.

Chapter three explains the reasons for this neglect. Kaldellis opens the chapter by questioning an assumption that many have taken for granted: it is misleading to consider the Middle Byzantine authors as part of the same tradition as Procopius or Agathias, because a “fundamental rupture” (44) occurred in the seventh century. There is thus “no reason to expect any ethnography along classical lines” (45) in chronicles like that of Theophanes’, in which the author’s interest was mainly chronological. Also authors such as Genesius or Leo the Deacon, writing in order to support certain factions in Byzantine society, had no interest in composing ancient ethnographies: the external enemies served their purpose better when faceless and blurred. Ethnographies are absent also in the works of Psellos, Attaliates and Choniates, among whom the classical models are apparently dominant. Once more Kaldellis goes counter to the expectations of some of his readers: in his opinion, Choniates and Psellos were not imitating Herodotus or Thucydides, but rather the Procopius of the Secret History. What they wrote was a sort “internal ethnography,” (52) explaining the causes of the Byzantine decline that led eventually to disaster. In this given context, the barbarians mostly had the role of highlighting the Byzantines’ flaws. Even Christian universalism failed to sharpen the Byzantines’ interest in their neighbours. The biblical models were, in fact, merged with Roman chauvinism, which brought an everlasting bias against the barbarians. In Kaldellis’ view the rise of the Caliphate and the complete redefinition of the power in the Mediterranean delivered the final blow to ancient ethnography. Once the Empire was no longer a leading power the attempt of inserting dominant peoples who ignored the supremacy of Rome, such as Muslim Arabs and pagan Bulgarians, into the ethnographic matrix met “formidable ideological blockages.” (75)

Chapter four opens with a discussion of the Taktika of Leo VI and Constantine Porphyrogenitus’ De Administrando Imperio (DAI), two of the most complex texts to be found in Middle Byzantine literature. The DAI is introduced at length, highlighting the many pitfalls that the narrative presents, together with some of the recent efforts to decipher it. Constantine is particularly interesting because, unlike most Byzantine authors, he recorded long descriptions of Byzantium’s neighbours. Kaldellis, however, believes that this singularity has been somehow overestimated: in his view the DAI contains less ethnography than has often been assumed (90-91). In order to overcome the narrative’s alleged uniqueness, Kaldellis finds coherence between the ethnographical modes of the DAI and the broader Byzantine genre of the origo gentis. Kaldellis maintains that official briefings containing information on the barbarians, including their origines, were continuously collected between the seventh and the twelfth century for military purposes. These briefings do not survive, but, according to Kaldellis, narratives like those of Anna Comnena or John Scylitzes preserve traces of them (94). Beginning with these briefings, Kaldellis tries to define the three ethnographic genres of the Middle Byzantine Period. (93) The briefings were allegedly the largest of these subgenres, a discovery of the author’s. A second category is the narratives focused on the Petchenegs in the eleventh century. Finally there were rare moments when a Byzantine writer described the habits of neighbouring peoples, the Rus’ being one of the favourites. Kaldellis discusses the representation of Orthodox barbarians, stressing in his reading the Roman roots of Byzantine identity, often denied by modern historiography. A foreign people did not become Byzantine simply by embracing Christian orthodoxy: Bulgarians, Serbs and Rus’, though they shared the religion of the Byzantines, were still depicted as barbarians.

Chapter five covers the Palaiologan period. Kaldellis evocatively depicts the massive impact of the political upheaval on Byzantine thought, literature, and ethnography. The chapter has a different, thematically organized structure. Different sections are dedicated to travel literature, the Mongols and, finally, the Latins. The first section deals primarily with Nicephorus Gregoras’ voyage to the Serbs; Andreas Libadenus’ journey to Egypt; and most of all with Gregoras’ long (perhaps fictional) account of Agathangelos, his former student who travelled the Eastern Mediterranean, and concludes with Gregory Palamas. Finally, a long section is dedicated to the Latins – a label that the Byzantines used to describe many peoples of Western Europe. Kaldellis proposes that under the Palaiologoi the Latins became a sort of mirror in whose reflection the Byzantines, in a growing crisis of identity, tried to find their own role and nature.

In a brief epilogue, Kaldellis surveys Byzantine ethnography after the 1360s. An appropriate concluding point is found in Laonikos Chalkokondyles and his detailed ethnography of the Ottomans.

The book has a complex structure, but the author manages to give coherence to his rich material. My quibbles are marginal. The reader would have expected to find some more works on the methodology of ethnicity and identity and for the subject of each chapters.5 Yet Kaldellis’ main concern is the sources.

Kaldellis’ idea is straightforward: in the Byzantine period very little ethnography is to be found. This lack was due to the Byzantine reading of history as a relationship between two partners: God and themselves, while the barbarians were only instrumental. (78) That is the core point of Kaldellis’ book. It is hardly the only achievement, however: due to the chronological span, the work reflects Byzantine identity as a whole. It is in fact clear that the way that the Byzantines looked at their neighbours from Justinian to the Palaiologoi was necessarily influenced by the perception that they had of themselves. The growing threat to their Romanness triggered a constant process of adjustment in narrating the other. One of the thoughts most elegantly expressed in this direction is to be found in Kaldellis’ discussion of the narratives on the Mongols. When the Romans held no more than a handful of strongholds around Nicaea, while the Scythian “antitype stretched from Korea to Poland,” (157) the ancient models became of little use. Recalling this long story, Kaldellis tackles some of the great questions of Byzantine literature such as the persistence of ancient tropes in shifting political and social context, or the paramount custom of calling new people with old names (106-17). These are very old questions burdened with historiography, but the author’s answers are often convincing. Moreover Kaldellis has the taste for a good story. Some of them, like John Tzetzes’ ethnographic descriptions (134-36) or the voyage of the Nubian prince Lalibela to Constantinople (35-36), are particularly memorable.


1.   Gruen, E.S. 2010. Rethinking the Other in Antiquity. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Woolf, G. 2011. Tales of the Barbarians: Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West. Blackwell Bristol Lectures on Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition. Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
2.   Maas, M. 2012. “Barbarians in Late Antiquity: Problems and Approaches.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, ed. S. Fitzgerald Johnson. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 60-91.
3.   Balsdon, J.P.V.D. 1979. Roman and Aliens. London: Duckworth; Dauge, Y.A. 1981. Le Barbare. Recherches sur la conception romaine de la barbarie et de la civilisation. (Collection Latomus, 176). Bruxelles: Latomus.
4.   Parker, G. 2008. The Making of Roman India: Greek Culture in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 82.
5.   The analysis of the narratives about the Bulgarians could have benefited from Daniel Ziemann’s work, and the pages on the De Administrando Imperio from Danijel Dzino on the Croats. Ziemann, D. 2007. Vom Wandervolk zur Großmacht: die Entstehung Bulgariens im frühen Mittelalter (7.-9. Jahrhundert). Cologne, Weimar: Böhlau; Dzino, D. 2010. Becoming Slav, Becoming Croat: Identity Transformations in Post-Roman and Early Medieval Dalmatia. (East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages 450 – 1450, 12) Leiden: Brill.

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