In recent years, historians of Byzantium have attempted to repackage their field for non-specialists (including western medievalists) who still cling tenaciously to the misconception that the history of the Eastern Roman Empire from the rise of Constantine (312 CE) to the fall of Constantinople (1453 CE) is, in a word, boring. Judith Herrin’s Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (Princeton UP, 2008) and Averil Cameron’s Byzantine Matters (Princeton UP, 2014) are two recent examples of this rehabilitation project. Although they are different in scope and emphasis, they share the same agenda. Written by British Byzantinists at the very top of their field, both of these books present the Eastern Roman Empire as a place of surprising possibilities, as a reservoir of textual and material sources that are useful to think with, and as a millennium-long empire whose history we ignore at our own peril. In short, they make the clear and convincing case that Byzantium is anything but boring.
Anthony Kaldellis’s A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities follows in the footsteps of the books by Herrin and Cameron, but takes a completely different approach. Kaldellis is well known as a prolific and intrepid author on Byzantine history, whose published studies and translations range from Procopius to Laonikos Chalkokondyles. His new book is not a history per se, but a collection of pithy anecdotes, both direct translations and paraphrases, drawn primarily from Byzantine authors writing during the millennium between late antiquity and the fall of Constantinople. It is divided into eighteen thematic chapters on the following topics: marriage and the family; unorthodox sex; animals; food and dining; eunuchs; medical practice; science and technology; war; saints; heresy and scandal; “a gallery of rogues”; inventive insults; punishments; foreign lands and people, A.D. 330-641; foreigners and stereotypes, A.D. 641-1453; Latins, Franks, and Germans; disasters; and emperors. As a tribute to the Byzantine compilers he so clearly admires, Kaldellis has produced an entertaining florilegium filled with intriguing and sometimes downright strange information drawn from a thousand years of Byzantine history. His primary purpose is to entertain the reader, but he also hopes to provide scholars lecturing on Byzantium with “a handy reservoir of tales and anecdotes that amusingly illustrate a range of contexts and situations.” (p. xi). The book is successful on both counts.
Since A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities has no argument and no structure beyond its chapter themes, it is difficult to summarize coherently, so a few examples will have to suffice. Readers will be surprised to learn that the stereotypically staid and orthodox authors of Byzantium had opinions on a wide range of unexpected topics, including the existence of dragons (p. 41); the consumption and production of cheese (pp. 46 and 48); the fear of dentists, who “wage war against the tongue, the teeth, and the lips” (p. 78); the utility of human excrement during siege warfare (p. 85); spies (p. 102); the art of compound insults (pp. 141-144); gold prosthetic noses (p. 153); and, perhaps most surprisingly, cunnilingus (pp. 15-16). Kaldellis has a good eye for humorous anecdotes, including this piece of advice from a nobleman irritated by the influence of eunuchs in the imperial court: “If you have a eunuch, kill him. If you don’t, buy one and then kill him” (p. 62). He also finds gold hidden in manuscript folia, like Tzetzes’ colorful marginal notation in a poorly copied exemplar of Thucydides (Palatinus graecus 252, fol. 184v): “The shit of the copyist stinks the worst here” (p. 144).
Most scholars and students will find A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities amusing and informative. A few may find it irreverent and alarming. But no one will doubt that Kaldellis has brought to bear the depth of his knowledge of Byzantine sources to produce a book about Byzantium that non-Byzantinists are very likely to read (even if they do so on the kabinés). In doing so, Kaldellis has performed a valuable work of outreach. Through the lens of this fascinating little florilegium, the stereotypes of Byzantine civilization dissolve and the story of the Eastern Roman Empire becomes more familiar, more humane, and more humorous, that anyone would have expected.