Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.10.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.10.11

Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic. People and Power in New Rome.   Cambridge, Mass; London:  Harvard University Press, 2015.  Pp. xvi, 290.  ISBN 9780674365407.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Mark Whittow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford (

As readers of Anthony Kaldellis’s previous books will have learnt to expect, his latest is highly readable, grounded in a deep knowledge of the sources, and (at least on the face of it) radically revisionist. You thought Byzantium was a Greek, Christian, orthodox and absolutist empire? Wrong. Kaldellis will show you that it was these things only secondarily, if at all. At heart Byzantium was the Roman republic, with all the implications of consent and political involvement that terminology carries.

Chapter 1 ‘Introducing the Roman Republic’ defines terms: ‘ideology’ and ‘politeia’. For Kaldellis the important to thing to grasp about both is the element of community and consent. Ideology should be understood as the package of basic notions by which Byzantines made sense of the political society of which they were part; a political society which they termed a politeia. To translate politeia as ‘state’ is misleading. State understood as a separate sphere from society at large is not at all what the term implies. Using Leo VI’s novels, the writings of Syrianos Magister, the Geoponika, and Corippus’ speech in praise of Justin II as illustrative sources, Kaldellis leaves no doubt that what the term implied was the community of all Byzantines, a community with a personality whose benefit amounted to the common good. ‘Commonweal’ or ‘commonwealth’ in their medieval and early modern sense would translate politeia well, but since those whom we, for reasons of habit and convenience, call Byzantines were neither more nor less than Romans, and the Greek politeia uncontroversially translates the Latin res publica, the natural English translation can only be ‘republic’.

To historians familiar with the post eighteenth-century usage of republic to mean ‘not a monarchy’, or with the similarly recent notion that the Roman Republic came to end with Augustus, this may seem strange; but the Romans themselves would have found it quite normal. Cassius Dio, for example, describing the age of Augustus was in no doubt that the republic continued, simply now better ordered under a monarchy than under the consuls (29).

Chapter 2, ‘The Emperor in the Republic’, takes the discussion of politeia further, and explores its relationship with basileia. They were not the same thing. As Kaldellis puts it, emperors were “nominally in charge of the public space of the politeia but only as its custodians, not its owners” (43). Palaces, for example were public buildings, not the emperor’s private property. Public revenues were just that, and from 500 to 1204 (roughly the period Kaldellis chooses to treat here) emperors who forgot that fact opened themselves to harsh criticism. Hellenistic kings were different. They did not rule republics;.they owned their kingdoms as personal possessions, and could pass them on without question to their chosen heirs. Roman emperors on the other hand ruled only by sufferance of the Roman people. The republic was not theirs to bestow. Repeatedly the sources over the centuries make the point that the emperor was effectively a magistrate, working for the common good.

If this is the case, how should we treat those cases where the emperor is said to be above the law? As Kaldellis explains, however, in chapter 3 (‘Extralegal Authority in a Lawful Polity’), this is not a problem. Everyone agreed that the Roman empire was an ennomos politeia, a republic of laws, and popular emperors were seen as abiding by the laws. Indeed to be secure on his throne an emperor had to be seen in this way. On the other hand, the role of the emperor in the republic was to be the supreme legislative authority, a function that in some senses placed him above the law, but perhaps more to the point required that he could make exceptions, and apply the laws with discretion and flexibility, in other words what was known as oikonomia. In order for his actions to carry legitimacy, the emperor needed to abide by the laws, but at the same time he needed to be above them in order to serve the ultimate end for which the law was only a means, namely the common good of the republic. Being above the law did not make the emperor an absolute monarch. As that touchstone of Byzantine normality and eleventh-century Lord Chesterfield, Kekaumenos, explained, if the emperor legislates well, we should obey him, but if he were to say “drink poison”, then we should not (79). The test is the common good, of which the republic as a whole will be the judge.

The implication that the Roman people were sovereign may seem farfetched, but as Kaldellis explains in chapters 4 (‘The Sovereignty of the People in Theory’) and 5 (‘The Sovereignty of The People in Practice’), the narrative sources are actually full of evidence to this effect. The key, as Kaldellis perceptively points out, lies in treating the sovereignty of the Roman people in terms made familiar by Rousseau, namely that the people are sovereign but in day-to-day practice they have delegated power, in this case to a monarch, who nonetheless remains the servant of the people.

With rare exceptions, modern historians have missed this point, and for many the reaction to Kaldellis’ argument may be a raised eyebrow, but that flies in the face of the facts. Revolt after revolt, all our accounts of these events make it clear that the attitude of the people was decisive, and recognised as legitimately so. Indeed seen over the eight centuries that Kaldellis is covering, what is most remarkable about the Nika riots of the sixth century is that they are the only recorded instance of an emperor who managed to defy popular judgement, send in the troops, and keep his throne. Otherwise the brutal message of Byzantine politics was that emperors who had lost popular support were doomed; or, to put it the other way round, imperial power was at the mercy of public opinion. Byzantine political culture was one of ordered ceremony barely keeping riot at bay, of a narrow line between dutiful acclamation and mocking abuse, a world where power could leach away in hours. Kaldellis cites familiar episodes and well-known sources, and it is a fair point that in our concentration on Byzantine politics as a court-centred business, entirely decided by the actions of an office-holding elite, the power of the people has been too much overlooked. As long ago as the 1st century AD, the emperor Tiberius is said to have compared governing the Roman people to holding a wolf by the ears, and one suspects that Byzantine emperors needed little reminding of what a tense job that was, and what happened to those who couldn’t manage to hang on.

The final chapter, chapter 6 (‘The Secular Republic and the Theocratic Imperial Idea’), turns to the familiar model of Byzantium as a theocratic state, ruled by a God-given emperor. Kaldellis is not denying this was an aspect of Byzantine ideology; rather he is concerned to keep it in perspective. In his view court ceremony and rhetoric harked on the theme not because it was so central and so accepted by everyone, but rather because the position of individual emperors was so insecure. Constant reminders that the emperor had been chosen by God were a defensive move to reinforce his fragile grip on power. It was a discourse that papered over the sordid facts of fickle popularity and contested competence. That is not to say that the Byzantines did not believe quite sincerely that the imperial system was in some sense divinely validated, but it was something they were able to believe at the same time as they turned out to topple an inadequate emperor with never a qualm about that individual’s divinely-protected status. But what else would we expect? Modern politicians and electorates find no difficulty in holding a portfolio of incompatible beliefs; why should the Byzantines have been any different?

Kaldellis puts his arguments clearly and forcefully, and explicitly labels it a revisionist book. Some Byzantinists will find the arguments come as a surprise, but perhaps not that many. For some time now historians, particularly of the late medieval and early modern period, have been rethinking the role of the people in politics and finding that absolutism is often not what it seems. The notion of the monarchical republic, the idea of the God-given emperor or sultan being at the mercy of public opinion, may be novelties applied to Byzantium, but they are familiar elsewhere. Indeed perhaps the most lasting impact of this important book will be to make Byzantium less peculiar and easier to place in a wider comparative context.

Byzantines as Romans, the importance of the Roman ideological inheritance, the sovereign role of the people, the essentially secular nature of Byzantine politics, and the fragility of imperial power—will everyone agree? I had two concerns. First, in the case being made against Byzantium as a theocratic absolute monarchy, I sometimes felt religious ideology was not being given the weight it deserved. Kaldellis draws a number of effective parallels with contemporary events and political leaders, but it seemed telling that he cites the Arab Spring and not ISIL or the Taliban. It is perhaps telling as well that his illustrative evidence comes more from the fifth, sixth and eleventh centuries than from the more Talibanesque Age of Iconoclasm. Need the ideology of the Byzantine republic have always been as secular as it is presented here? Does the recognition that Byzantium was not an imperial theocracy mean that religion had no practical influence on Byzantine politics? Second, I have already mentioned that historians of other empires have for some time been showing that imperial power was not anything like so absolute, or popular participation anything like so irrelevant as we had imagined. The Ottoman empire has come to look much more republican, using Kaldellis’ term, than it once did;1 and the Ming empire looks less absolutist.2 Since neither owed anything to Rome or a Roman inheritance, does that call the Roman roots of the Byzantine republic into question? Rather than being explained by a particular ideological inheritance, fixed as it were in the Byzantine DNA, might the characteristics Kaldellis has brought to our attention not be a more general phenomenon of large pre-modern polities?

Answers to both my questions are likely to be forthcoming. Kaldellis acknowledges that he has focused less upon imperial image than other aspects of Byzantine political ideology, and that the role of the Roman inheritance in Byzantium is only half covered here. Further discussion is promised. I need only say that Kaldellis is a wonderful historian, full of interesting ideas, whose works add hugely to the entertainment value of Byzantine studies. What is emerging from his successive publications is an increasingly complex and nuanced picture of the Byzantine empire, and I look forward with keen anticipation to the next instalment.


1.   B. Tezcan, The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World (Cambridge, 2010), 1-13; E. Boyar, K. Fleet, A Social History of Ottoman Istanbul (Cambridge, 2010), 28-71.
2.   R. Huang, 1587, A Year of No Significance: the Ming Dynasty in Decline (New Haven, CT, 1981), 74-6, 85-6, 100; T. Brook, The Chinese State in Ming Society (London, 2005), 5-14, 182-90.

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