BMCR 2004.10.26

Byzantium. British Museum Paperbacks

, Byzantium. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 96 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm. ISBN 0674013891 $17.95 (pb).

This marvellous little book would serve as an excellent supplementary textbook for students engaged in a survey of medieval Europe, particularly when the instructor has selected a more traditional narrative. Even if one is using, as I do, a more recent synthesis which seeks to incorporate Byzantium and the Islamicate, for example that by B. Rosenwein, Loverance’s focus on Byzantine culture would enrich the political outline. The elegant narrative, which would occupy fewer than fifty pages without the rich illustrations, can be read effortlessly in a couple of hours.

Loverance works for the Education and Information Department of the British Museum, whose press produced the first version of her book in 1988. A second, revised edition followed in 1994, in preparation for a major Byzantine exhibition in London. This third edition, now in an American imprint, coincided nicely with the third Byzantine blockbuster at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “Byzantium: Faith and Power, 1261-1557.” Consequently, the prose is punctuated by delightful art historical vignettes which describe artefacts housed in the BM and elsewhere. A description in the first chapter of two fourth-century silver-gilt furniture ornaments, part of the Esquiline Treasure discovered in 1793, serves as an example. These are cast in the forms of Tyches, or Fortunes, of the cities of Rome and Constantinople. “Rome is an embattled figure, resting on her shield, her lance in hand, but Constantinople holds a cornucopia, a horn overflowing with fruit and grain, the Roman symbol of plenty.” They are the perfect illustration of Loverance’s narrative presentation of the fate of the old and new Romes. A later but equally compelling vignette concerns an ivory panel depicting the Vision of Ezekiel, generally dated to the tenth century (as are most Byzantine ivory carvings, although not without some skepticism). “The Byzantines had a deep attachment to the concept of God existing in three persons and kept a keen sense of the separate character of each … [This] scene … refers to Ezekiel’s vision in the valley of dry bones. The text [which accompanies it] speaks of Ezekiel raising the bones, but the figure shown here is Christ; the rainbow and mandorla which supports Christ’s footstool emphasise that He is shown out of time.”

If used in a survey class, an instructor would have a rich source of issues to raise in discussion sections, for Loverance makes a number of bold statements which deserve close scrutiny or have received it in recent scholarship. Thus Constantine is converted to Christianity in 312, and his new city of Constantinople is founded as a Christian city. These facts, baldly stated, may be questioned in the light of Loverance’s nuanced view of the interaction of Christianity and paganism well into the sixth century. Similarly, the Roman Empire is still subjected to waves of barbarian invasions, without those hordes being scrutinized for signs of ongoing “ethnogenesis.” Not only adherents of the Vienna School will be shocked to learn that a Bulgarian “nation-state” was installed within the empire after 680. The Blues and Greens return to the status they enjoyed before Alan Cameron revoked their credentials as representatives of social and religious factions. The use of the Virgin’s robe in the defense of the city in 626 seems odd given Loverance’s observation that the veneration of relics and icons was rare at that time. As B. Pentcheva has demonstrated, the story of its role in the Avar Siege was likely created after the defeat of Iconoclasm. Tenth-century legislation is invoked as evidence for imperial defense of the poor against the powerful rather than as an attempt to maintain the integrity of the tax base.

Several sentences would make excellent midterm questions, inviting contrary responses from engaged undergraduates. For example, one might question both aspects of the following statement “It is not surprising that Byzantium, a society that defined itself in religious terms, should have undergone a religious crisis” in the form of Iconoclasm. One might equally challenge the following: “On 13 April 1204 the Crusaders entered Constantinople again, this time to sack it. They stripped the city and partitioned the empire. Byzantium had ceased to exist.” One could make this argument politically, since thereafter one can scarcely consider Byzantium to be an empire. But, as Loverance’s book demonstrates so very clearly, not least its final chapter, Byzantium was a cultural entity, and this continued well past 1204.

These are issues where one can offer alternative interpretations, and one finds only a few mistakes of fact. I was particularly struck by several relating to the tenth and eleventh centuries. The Macedonian dynasty did not perpetuate itself by careful marriages with warlords and generals. Rather, it was remarkable that it endured forced betrothals and usurpations by powerful families like the Lekapenoi and Phokades. Basil II was not hailed as “Bulgar-slayer” after his final victory over the Bulgars, which was not a consequence of his blinding all his prisoners. The latter took place in 1014, the victory came in 1018, and the epithet was not used until after 1185. Loverance seems most comfortable when dealing with the period before Iconoclasm, to which four hundred years she devotes more than half the book, thus giving slightly short shrift to the remaining eight centuries.

The book is, for the most part, well produced, and flaws are few. The most egregious comes on pages 26-28, where a typesetting error has resulted in the omission of a sentence at the top of p. 26, and the duplication of another at the top of p. 27, with a knock-on omission at the top of p.28. A glance at the first edition supplies the following lost words (1988, p. 120, add to top of 2004, p. 26): “One of the most successful prostitutes in history is another star character of Justinian’s reign, his wife Theodora. Her life, both in its …”; (1988, p. 21, add to top of 2004, p. 28) ” … to hold the elements of the Eucharist, but may nevertheless feature the same lolling shepherds, complete with pipes and cymbals to divert their flocks. And on the mosaic floors of the Great palace in Constantinople, the only parts of this elusive building to have survived, the pastoral theme apparently appealed …” Typographical errors include: on p. 78, Mitytene for Mitylene; on p. 83, a bold dot above the terminal i of Tekfur Sarayi, which in fact takes no dot at all; on p. 89, TamerIaine, with a capital I, for Tamerla[i]ne.

This book is produced in the best tradition of British scholarship, in crisp prose with a host of allusions only natives and Anglophiles will understand, for example the reference to the motto one might find in “a modern cracker.” I loved it and think undergraduates would too, if one took the time to explain the allusions, and if Harvard University Press would reduce the price by five dollars.