BMCR 1998.02.02

98.2.02, The Byzantines

, The Byzantines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. 293 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780226097916 $19.95.

The Byzantines is a series of essays by prominent Byzantinists; each essay is focused on a particular class or group within East Roman society, from the exalted rank of emperor to the lowest and largest category, the peasants. The essays discuss these classes of Byzantines in the following order: the poor, the peasants, soldiers, teachers, women, entrepreneurs, bishops, functionaries, emperors, and saints. Despite two excellent essays—Alexander Kazhdan’s “Peasantry” and Nicholas Oikonomides’ “Entrepreneurs”, this collection does not offer much to assist either Byzantine specialists or the general readers in deepening their understanding of East Roman society.

Collections of articles such as this have become popular in recent years. I myself edited a series of articles on Byzantine warfare as a Festschrift for Professor George Dennis, S.J., of the Catholic University of America. In 1994 Emily Albu Hanawalt and Carter Linberg published a fascinating collection of articles concerning the Jewish-Christian roots of philanthropy and social welfare. I do not know the history of this form of historical study. I first saw such collections in college where professors often assigned readings from the Problems in European Civilization Series, short booklets which reprinted passages from key primary sources and from important articles and monographs. Each booklet dealt with a single problem such as the fall of the Roman Empire or the Coronation of Charlemagne. Where the selection of excerpts maintained a focus on a well-defined issue, they were extremely helpful. Where the questions discussed were too broad or the excerpts included did not fit the topics, they lacked the unity of a monograph.

To return to The Byzantines, this collection of essays lacks a well-defined focus capable of uniting these articles into a useful study. Cavallo’s introduction makes some interesting observations on the importance of social and ceremonial order in Byzantine society and the seeming contradiction of the individual’s isolation within this tightly structured, hierarchical world, but he fails to establish any connection among the articles which follow. In fact, the articles have no common theme which Cavallo could have highlighted.

Some articles discuss classes—the peasants, the entrepreneurs, functionaries, and the emperors—but the essay on saints by Cyril Mango deals with people from many different classes. By its very nature, sainthood transcends social ranks as Mango correctly points out. An essay on the subject of saints, then, does not fit the other articles, nor does Alice Mary Talbot’s article on women.

Robert Browning’s excellent article on teachers and Peter Schreiner’s essay on soldiers deal with specific professions. Had these two articles appeared together with essays on lawyers, physicians, pharmacists, mariners, and scribes they would have contributed to a much needed study of professions in Byzantium, but they do belong in a collection which includes articles on women, the poor, and the saints.

Another problem with The Byzantines is its total lack of footnotes. In 1991 the renowned historian of Victorian England, Gertrude Himmelfarb, published an article in which she attacked the elimination of scholarly footnotes from recent historical studies. She maintained that the first step in the demise of the footnote came with the invention of the endnotes which relegated the essential documentation of any serious work of history to an appendix at the back of the book. Authors and publishing houses have subsequently justified omitting footnotes by claiming that they interfere with reflective reading of the main texts or that they distract or even frighten the general reader.

The Byzantines is the first work on ancient or medieval history I have read without footnotes. The University of Chicago Press shares the blame for this decision with Laterza, the Italian publishing house which originally printed the collection. By releasing the English version in this form, however, the University of Chicago has rendered it almost useless for scholars. Whenever serious researchers find useful information in The Byzantines, they will have to contact the authors personally to discover the primary sources. Clearly, omitting footnotes inconveniences the professional historian, but does it really make a book more appealing to the general reader?

Gertrude Himmelfarb suspected a more sinister contempt for facts behind those who chose not to include footnotes in their scholarly writings. The authors who contributed to this collection have committed their careers to discovering the truth about Byzantine society; they surely intended to document their work. The decision to publish The Byzantines without footnotes was initially made by the people at Laterza, not to deceive but in the mistaken belief that this policy would boost the number of copies sold.