BMCR 2016.02.23

Byzantium, Its Neighbours and Its Cultures. Byzantina australiensia, 20

, , Byzantium, Its Neighbours and Its Cultures. Byzantina australiensia, 20. Brisbane: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 2014. vi, 294. ISBN 9781876503017. (pb).


The book under review here consists of fourteen chapters (including the introduction) on the subject of Byzantium’s interactions with its neighbours. The word “cultures” in the title to this book has been understood broadly, and ranges anywhere from specific communities within the Byzantine Empire, such as seafarers and the intellectual elite, to physical communities (Zadar, Philoppopolis) and surrounding states (Eastern and Western Empires). The quality of the contributions is inconsistent, for there are some infelicities of expression and some questionable points in some parts. Nevertheless, there is much material of value here in each and every chapter, and the volume as a whole deserves a closer look. After the introduction, the first chapter, by Jonathan Shepard (“Bunkers, open cities and boats in Byzantine diplomacy”), explores the various diplomatic ties that Byzantium maintained with its allies and subordinates. In this wide-ranging discussion, Shepard, who characterizes the Byzantine Empire as low-maintenance, concentrates on two types of neighbouring state: bunkers and open cities. He notes Justinian’s awareness of the geopolitical situation, and his efforts to strengthen Constantinople’s defences. Besides Constantinople, other bunkers covered by Shepard include Thessalonica, Dyrrhacium, Cherson, and Syracuse. In the discussion of open cities, Shepard argues for a practical character to Byzantine foreign policy, and a general reluctance amongst Byzantines to maintain territory at all costs.

The second chapter, by Caillan Davenport (“Imperial ideology and commemorative culture in the Eastern Roman Empire, 284-450 CE”), explores imperial ideology in the east in late antiquity, and covers four issues: four statues erected in honour of the Tetrarchs, including the famous St. Mark’s Tetrarchs; the role of the provincial governor in mediating ideology; the emperors’ choice of epithets in Greek and Latin like providentissimus and tropeouchos; and commemorative patterns in both east and west. With respect to the Tetrarchs, Davenport argues that the statues should be understood as the response of provincial governors to ideals of concordia. Turning to the provinces, Davenports argues for the important role played by governors in bestowing honours on the emperors, that is, they are seen as taking an active role in the process. Davenport notes the role of the audience in determining which epithets were used in individual contexts. Lastly, Davenport argues for the role of statuary and inscriptions in promoting imperial unity at a time of apparent discord, namely the fourth the fifth centuries.

In the third chapter (“Church with incomplete biography: Plans for the consolidation of Byzantine rule on the Adriatic at the beginning of the ninth century”), though ostensibly concerned with the Church of the Holy Trinity in Dalmatia, Mladen Ančić covers a diverse range of issues from problems with modern historiography to the early medieval history of Zadar. The sketch provided paints a bleak picture of the region in late antiquity—much more of a decline of Rome and much less of a transformation. When the discussion eventually turns to the Church of the Holy Trinity, Ančić argues that it was built specifically for a representative of the emperor, whose palace would have been attached to the existing complex. By the reign of the emperor Michael II (820s AD), Ančić notes that the Byzantine state was not in a position to work with local authorities to maintain order during periods of unrest, which contributed to the development of an autonomous state/s in Dalmatia.

In chapter 4, “Local knowledge and wider contexts: stories of the arrival of the Croats in De Administrando Imperio in the past and present,”Danijel Dzino explores the different ways that the Croat migration into southeast Europe has been reported in the early medieval period, with an emphasis on the variations between the local perspective and the global (centred on Constantinople) perspective. Amongst other things, Dzino provides an interesting survey of some of the problems modern scholars have had in incorporating research from southeast Europe on that same region into larger narratives of the Byzantine and medieval worlds. When the focus shifts to Croat migrations into Dalmatia, Dzino notes how the accounts vary depending on their context, namely global or local. Parallels are drawn between the Croat origin story in the De Administrando Imperio and that of the Bulgars in Theophanes (Confessor), and in the end Dzino makes a strong case in support of some sort of embedded local knowledge of the distant past, in this case of events from a few hundred years earlier.

In chapter 5, “Female virtue, Euripides, and the Byzantine manuscript tradition in the fourteenth century,” Eva Anagnostou- Laoutides looks at the impact of contemporary (13th to 15th century) discussions of female virtue on the interest and reception of Euripides in Byzantine manuscripts. Anagnostou-Laoutides notes the interest of medieval Byzantine priests and scholars alike in the virtues of women, and how this interest manifested itself in the transmission of manuscripts. In turn, Anagnostou-Laoutides provides some examples of this impact extending into late Byzantine and medieval (that is western) sermons and speeches, with one particular example being a speech of St Bernadino in 1424 to an audience in Florence that echoes a few lines from fragments of Euripides’ Melanippe Desmotis. Much of this chapter echoes what was going on in the fourth and fifth centuries, as church fathers grappled with the relationship between leading a virtuous Christian life and the studying of classical texts, which played such a significant role in late antique education. In the end, Anagnostou-Laoutides argues that Euripides served as a bridge between Byzantium and its neighbours.

With chapter 6, “Exchange of palatine architectural motifs between Byzantium, Persia and the Caliphate,” Nigel Westbrook returns to an emphasis on architecture, and in particular the exchange of architectural motifs between Byzantium, Persia, and the Caliphate. For Parry, some of the familiarity between buildings in these various near eastern states could be attributed to the activities of embassies. As with so much else, however, Parry notes that our evidence is often insufficient, and so claims of a direct influence are often hard to come by. Indeed, that we have to rely in many instances on literary descriptions—the buildings do not survive—is problematic, to say the least. Nevertheless, Westbrook is probably right to stress the existence of “an ongoing exchange, appropriation and emulation of palace ceremonial and motifs from the third through to the tenth centuries” (p. 143).

Though touching on religion, Tim Bricoe’s chapter (“Rome and Persia: rhetoric and religion”) is primarily a survey of Roman (early Byzantine) characterizations of Persians in late antique literature. In the sweeping review of Roman views on Persians, Briscoe ranges from Lactantius to George of Pisidia, so covering a wide range of authors and even genres. Given the length of this contribution (in line with the others), Briscoe can only scratch the surface of this large and complicated topic, a point acknowledged at the end (p. 165). The lack of opportunities for the inclusion of sufficient evidence and clear argumentation makes many of the claims, for instance about whether Heraclius’ war against the Persians should be considered a holy war, hard to corroborate. It might even be fair to ask whether we should look at these varied authors with their varied approaches—and intended audiences—together in a manner like this.

In chapter 8, “Faith as a frontier: The Photian homilies on the invasion of the Rus,” Dimitri Kepreotes examines the patriarch Photius’ reaction to Rus invasions, as evidenced by select homilies. In keeping with some of the other contributions, after a comparatively lengthy discussion of the context, Kepreotes turns to the homilies and makes a number of interesting points. For instance, Kepreotes notes the role of morality in the outcome of the siege of Constantinople presented in Homily III, which calls to mind the siege descriptions of earlier late antique authors, like Procopius. In Homily IV, we also find language that evokes the works of classical and classicizing authors, historians especially. Photius would seem to be emphasizing his familiarity with classical historiography, clear in his famed Bibliotheca, and the attendant topoi associated with classical descriptions of sieges. Indeed, Kepreotes makes a similar point (p. 179), near the end.

In “Egypt in the Byzantine imagination: Cultural memory and historiography, fourth to ninth centuries,” Ken Parry explores the place of Egypt in the Byzantine imagination, with an emphasis on the physical (obelisks), the literary (historiography), and religious (the Byzantine fathers and hagiography). Parry presents the view that the pyramids were understood by some to have been grain silos built by the Israelites. Further, he argues that topoi such as this—pyramids as silos—reflect embedded cultural memories, which is very much in keeping with the theme of the chapter. Rather intriguingly, Parry argues that one of the reasons why Egypt had such a prominent place in the Roman/Byzantine imagination was because of its associations with magic and soothsaying. In the end, Parry suggests that memory might have played such an important part in Egypt’s place in Byzantium because of limited literacy rates.

Chapter 10, “History of Wars: Narratives of crises in power relations between Constantinople and Italy in the sixth century,” by Renato Viana Boy, uses Procopius’ Wars to re-evaluate the place of the Gothic wars in Constantinopolitan consciousness in the sixth century. Where Scott1 has argued for the limited importance of the Italian reconquest using Malalas, Boy, intriguingly, focuses squarely on the Wars itself and comes to a similar conclusion. Boy notes that Procopius never uses terms for “restoration” or “reconquest”, even though he is the usual source in modern accounts that characterize the Gothic wars as the reconquest of the west. It is an interesting, and largely persuasive, argument, though more attention to Procopius’ language would have made the case even stronger.

In chapter 11, “The barbarians and the city: Comparative study of the impact of the barbarian invasions in 376-378 and 442-447 on the urbanism of Philippopolis, Thrace,” Ivo Topalilov provides a detailed comparison of differing scholarly positions regarding the impact of barbarian (Gothic and Hunnic) invasions on Philoppopolis in late antique Thrace. Indeed, in some respects Topalilov’s chapter reads as if it comes from the pages of a classical history that uses mende s to full effect. For Topalilov begins by laying out the arguments for attributing apparent destruction to Gothic and Hunnic invasions, before turning to alternative explanations that highlight the lack of clear markers for destruction caused by war (Gothic or Hunnic invasions). Topalilov notes the evident prosperity in Philoppopolis around, and sometime after, the invasions under consideration (fifth through seventh centuries): the city’s walls served their purpose, even if there is some evidence for destruction.

Chapter 12, “Between the old Rome and the new: Imperial co-operation ca. 400-500 CE,” by Meaghan McEvoy, explores the relationship between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires in the fifth century. In looking at the participation of the Eastern Empire in western military campaigns, the often shared administrative structures, and the forging of a host of dynastic alliances between east and west, McEvoy makes the case for a strong desire to maintain and even build ties well in both east and west into the fifth century. Other interesting points include the plethora of examples of one state (Eastern or Western Empire) providing military aid to the other; and the fact that in some cases not only did east and west share consuls, but sometimes both consuls were from one empire (Eastern or Western).

In the thirteenth and final chapter, “Sailors, merchants and the maritime cults that sailed into the ports (and streets) of early Byzantium,” Janet Wade explores the communities and sub-communities of seafarers across the eastern Mediterranean in late antiquity, with an especial emphasis on their religious affiliations. Wade makes it clear that pagan beliefs (used here in the basic sense of non-Christian or non-Jewish) persisted well into late antiquity in coastal communities, and so not only in the inland communities that are usually thought to have held out (that is, not witnessed a widespread conversion to Christianity of their inhabitants). On the other hand, Wade notes that the invocation of pagan deities, often found in the context of stormy seas, for some was due to ingrained maritime rituals rather than any deep-seated loyalty to pagan religious practices.

Considerations of space prevent detailed discussion of the volume as a whole. Still, as we have seen, though the topics of the chapters often vary considerably, some larger themes pervade many of the essays, so contributing meaningfully to wider debates. For example, the theme of unity between east and west at the end of late antiquity surfaces on a few occasions. Whereas in the past the usual image was one of discord between east and west in the late fourth and fifth centuries, the papers found here add to the growing body of evidence that supports continued connectivity in the former Roman Empire, and a real desire to maintain, or at least encourage, imperial unity in the fifth century. Another common theme is the vital and important role played by classical literature and a classical education in Byzantine understandings, and presentations, of their relationship with their neighbours and various communities.

On the other hand, I do have a few quibbles. A number of contributions in this volume spend too time on the background, perhaps a product of their original public presentation. Still, one half to three-quarters of a chapter should probably not be devoted to setting the scene at the expense of the primary content, especially when space is at a premium. On the other hand, despite the inclusion of these background discussions, the bibliographies are not always as detailed as they could have been. There is also the odd typo, and some of the pages with images have been jumbled (they are in the wrong part of the book).

Ultimately, however, this book makes an important contribution to the study of Byzantium and its neighbours, and one hopes that the topics discussed therein receive more attention in due course.


1. R. Scott, Byzantine Chronicles and the Sixth Century, Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012.