BMCR 2014.10.54

Approaches to the Byzantine Family. Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman studies

, , Approaches to the Byzantine Family. Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman studies. Farnham; London; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, 2013. 446. ISBN 9781409411581. $124.95.


In 1989 Angeliki Laiou observed that ‘the study of the Byzantine family is still in its infancy.’ Despite the appearance of some important publications on the topic,1 the situation has not improved markedly. Unlike the studies on Roman, and recently Greek, family life, Byzantine families remain to a large degree elusive, as Brubaker acknowledges in the Preface (xxi). The aim of the editors to address this imbalance is successful.

The title ‘approaches to the Byzantine family’ reflects well the different source materials of the different chapters, and consequently the different methodologies employed for their analysis: legal texts, theological treatises, saints’ lives, historical sources and archaeological material are all mined for information about interfamilial relations, political and economic presence and mobility, and the space that families inhabited – both social and physical.

The chapters are arranged in chronological order from Late Antiquity to the late Byzantine period, with an introductory chapter on Greek and Roman families (Harlow-Parkin) that presents the main trends in the study of the history of ancient families. Thereafter five chapters deal with topics from Late Antiquity. Hilner’s contribution focuses on the question of domestic violence and whether Christianity changed the outlook and behaviours of people in late antiquity, and follows upon increased interest in violence in the ancient world.2 . Vuolanto’s essay moves away from the typical historiographical approach of childhood from an adult perspective. He tries to recreate the childhood experience from a child’s point of view – as far as that is possible through the use of sources written in adulthood. It also highlights a phenomenon analysed more deeply by Vasileiou, in her essay on the ‘death of the father’ – fatherless children are driven towards an ecclesiastical career by their mothers on the absence of a father. Vasileiou expands on this and shows that the lack of a paternal figure meant increased freedom of choice for aristocratic youths. In contrast it could hinder the career paths of low- and middle-class children. Howard offers an interesting reading of the Life of Macrina: he places it in the context of the dispute between Gregory and Eunomius, former bishop of Cyzicus, about the nature of the Holy Trinity (“one substance (‘ousia’) consisting of three divine entities (‘hypostaseis’)” versus …Eunomius’s “teaching that God the Son and God the Father were unlike in their natures (‘physeis’)” p. 92). In the Life of Macrina, Gregory shows how his family ‘present[s] a human analogy for considering the Godhead, a household composed of multiple members, each one reflecting the same essence’ (p. 102). In the process, Gregory’s family is subtly glorified – something also explored in Kaplan’s essay on the Life of Theodora of Thessalonike.

After this section is an overview of the historiography of western families between 400 and 700 (Southon, Harlow, Callow). They focus on kin (including spiritual kin), marriage, children and women, in order to ‘emphasise areas where thinking about family has changed’ (p. 109). A good example is that of the kin group or clan: the idea that there was one large, homogeneous ‘Germanic’ society organised in large clans dominated scholarship until the 1980s, when the importance of small family groups, and the subsequent recognition of distinct Germanic societies was gradually accepted by historians (pp. 111-113). This paper is important in introducing the main historiographical trends regarding Western families to historians working on families in the East, and also serves as a useful reminder to constantly re-evaluate what is taken as scholarly orthodoxy.

Bray’s essay on medieval Islamic families is the first of the two comparative essays of this volume, and aims to identify ‘some of the general problems of framing families within the mainstream of Islamic history’ (p. 131), starting from the term ‘Islamic’ and its application in relation to specific people, geographical places, cultures and historical periods. This essay is particularly useful for providing a theoretical framework in which we can study families, not just Islamic ones.

The next three essays (Davies, Brubaker, Hennessy) are the most wide-ranging, covering the period from the fifth to the thirteenth century. Davies examines the connections between age, gender and status in hagiographies, and demonstrates that expectations placed on men and women at different life stages complemented those based on gender (masculine/feminine), and status.

Brubaker offers a survey of different material sources (illuminations, paintings, coinage, mosaics) in order to examine how portraits were used as indications of family lineage, documentation of status, commemoration of events, and as a political tool. His thematic approach shows how the imagery of family could be used for a variety of purposes, and how it changes in the Byzantine period, with imperial portraiture becoming more prominent from the eighth century, while elite representations became more important from the eleventh century onwards. Hennessy focuses on the image of the child, and how they were portrayed as part of smaller or larger family groups. Her approach is thematic, covering imperial, biblical and elite representations, and demonstrates the various roles and purposes that images of children could have in Byzantine art. These last two essays work well together and highlight the importance of using iconographic sources for examining family history, since they reveal either how specific families wanted to be portrayed (imperial, elite families), or ways of thinking about family life (mainly through images of biblical families).

Ludwig offers a re-evaluation of prosopographical analysis in the middle Byzantine period. By using the evidence of historiographical texts it is possible to distinguish between people with and without recorded family names. These results have implications about our understanding of specific social groups (such as eunuchs), social mobility in this period, and families ties (for example of monks). Ludwig’s essay shows clearly that prosopography can be a useful tool for examining family continuities and changes despite the limitations of the sources.

Ellis relies on a combination of literary sources and archaeological material. Excavations at Corinth, Pergamon and Amorium, as well as in Cappadocia, brought to light the remains of middle Byzantine structures. The re-evaluation of the Cappadocian material as domestic buildings, previously identified as monastic structures, shows that there is a different attitude to housing that reflects the different social conditions of safe, urban centres and frontier estates. Field survey results are used for establishing a wide network of villages connected to estates, while literary sources are used to recreate houses in Constantinople. Undoubtedly the most interesting part of this essay is his examination of early Turkish houses based on the archaeological material from Central Asia, and how they should be seen as the ‘missing link’ in the development of housing from the ninth to the twelfth century in the Mediterranean.

Constantinou and Kaplan return to two more hagiographical sources, the Life of Saint Alexios and the Life of Theodora of Thessalonike, which offer two different ways of presenting the families of the saints. Tougher’s essay on the Macedonian dynasty and its complex interrelations is the last middle Byzantine topic, followed by El Cheikh’s essay presenting the equally complex relations of the members of families of the Abbasid caliph.

Krausmüller’s essay on monastic communities examines hagiographies and monastic rules in the middle Byzantine period in order to understand how they functioned as families. The paper provides an interesting contrast to the family lives of saints analysed in earlier essays. The previous essays explored situations where monastic life was deemed incompatible with family life, and the ascetic life was either a rejection of normal family life (supporting one’s elders,or marriage), or something that could be pursued after such demands had been met (for example, after the death of supported family members), while here we see how the family can serve as a model for ascetic life.

There are only two chapters on late Byzantine families. Neville examines another imperial family, the Komnenoi, while Kondyli uses monastic archives together with the results from a survey on Lesvos to reconstruct family structures and changes in the island.

The importance of this book lies in two areas: first, it presents a collection of insightful papers that combine careful analysis of sources (both textual and archaeological) with current scholarly knowledge. For example, Vuolanto shows how it is possible to recreate typical and individual experiences of a child in Late Antiquity, even with biases of class, age and agenda obvious in the sources. This forms part of a larger trend in childhood studies to recreate ‘a history of children’ (Vuolanto, 47), where effort is made to understand the role and presence of children (usually through the archaeological material) and to present the children’s perspectives and experiences.3

Secondly, the collection highlights areas that are still underexplored. The distribution of the essays reveals that even in the field of family studies, Late Antiquity proves a popular subject4 Middle Byzantine families come second, and seem to draw most of the scholarly attention, while late Byzantine families are the least explored so far. Textual sources are the most analysed, with hagiographical sources featuring heavily (Vuolanto, Vasileiou, Howard, Constantinou, Kaplan). Archaeological material is the least represented (Ellis, Kondyli), while essays on iconographic sources (mainly art historical) are also limited (Brubaker, Hennessy).

Geographically, the area covered is even more limited: there are no contributions dealing with families in areas such as Sicily (under Byzantine occupation until the 9th century), the Balkans outside of Greece, or Cyprus. This means that there is still a great scope for supraregional and regional studies in the field, apart from studies on specific topics or periods.

The book is well produced and well edited. I have only a minor complaint about the state of the images: the black-and-white images are not always easily legible (for example, fig. 9.4 on p. 183, fig. 10.2 on p. 210, fig. 12.1 on p. 261) and one image is unhappily cropped (fig. 10.3, p. 212). This is not a criticism aimed at the authors or the editors, however, but rather at the constraints of modern academic publishing. The authors present the current scholarship in their areas of expertise in a consistently accessible way that will make this book an ideal resource for students and scholars of the Byzantine family, and a standard reference point for any future explorations on Byzantine and medieval families.


1. For example, C. Hennessy, Images of Children in Byzantium (Farnham: Ashgate, 2008).

2. Some recent publications are: J.-M. Bertrand, La violence dans les mondes grec et romain : actes du colloque international (Paris, 2-4 mai 2002) (Paris : Publications de la Sorbonne, 2005); H. A. Drake (ed.), Violence in Late Antiquity. Perceptions and Practices. (Burlington, VT and Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006); T. Sizgorich, Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); G. G. Fagan, The Lure of the Arena : Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games (Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2011); Christopher J. Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire : Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2012).

3. Some of the first publications on the history of children date from the early 2000s – for example: J.R. Sofaer, Children and Material Culture (London: Routledge, 2000); N. Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2001); J.E. Baxter, The Archaeology of Childhood: Children, Gender, and Material Culture (Walnut Creek, CA, Oxford : AltaMira Press, 2005), all dealing with the topic in distinct historical periods.

4. Scholarly research in late antiquity has been renewed since the late 2000s, with numerous publications, and the creation of databases (for example: Last Statues of Antiquity; digilibLT: Digital library of late-antique latin texts).