BMCR 2023.03.08

The invention of Byzantium in early modern Europe

, , The invention of Byzantium in early modern Europe. Extravagantes. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2021. Pp. xviii, 457. ISBN 9780884024842

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]


Since the beginning of this century and in parallel with the trend toward expanding Byzantine studies into new research areas, a growing interest is being shown in tracing the history of the field in previous centuries. On the one hand, priority has been given to the personalities and scholarly work of leading figures who laid the groundwork for the study of Byzantium in a systematic fashion while, on the other, a more comprehensive and synthetic approach focuses on the historical circumstances that shaped the rise and progress of the field. The volume under review must be viewed in light of this retrospective tendency which, like any revision of the past, is useful for rethinking the present and re-orienting the future.

The thirteen essays that make up this extensive volume cover the span of four centuries between the twilight of Byzantium in the fifteenth century and the last decades of the nineteenth century when, first in Russia and then in Germany, Byzantine studies won their autonomy as an academic discipline. The essays move in different directions, from the study of the work of Renaissance and post-Renaissance scholars whose work reflects an interest in medieval Greek culture to a discussion of broader issues shaping how the long-lived eastern Roman empire was perceived. The volume is divided into four sections. The first two are organized chronologically and the next two are thematic.  Its contributors include both Byzantinists and cultural or literary historians of early modern Europe.

As the editors remind us in their introduction, ‘Byzantium’ is a scholarly neologism as ‘no polity calling itself the “Byzantine Empire” ever existed’. The adoption of the term as an international convention came about in the later nineteenth century, yet this followed a long period when early-modern European scholars studied the literature, art, and culture of this empire on a persistent or occasional basis. In that respect, the term ‘invention of Byzantium’ includes the haphazard attention, if not indifference and disdain, that was generally demonstrated towards this long-lived empire in the western Christian world. The interest in things ‘Byzantine’ was usually partial and specific, and mirrored a scholar’s personal motivation, not that of a coherent academic community.

It must be said from the outset that the Invention of Byzantium is an important book featuring excellent discussions that inquire into several scholarly encounters with the Byzantine past. The first of these discussions, by Fabio Pagani, concerns the period prior to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Pagani analyzes the work of the “Greek-speaking east Roman scholar” (as he terms him), Gemistos Pletho(n) (d. 1452). Pletho’s endeavor to Hellenize the identity of his fellow-countrymen drove him to invent a Dorian ancestry for Constantinople and its inhabitants, thereby connecting the origins of the empire to the Peloponnese and more precisely to Sparta, where he lived. Fearing Byzantium’s imminent collapse, he made Sparta a model that the Greeks should revive by studying authors and texts of pre-Christian antiquity. In a sense, Pletho was the first scholar to perceive the Byzantine era as an interlude, a break, and a bridge between the ancient and a new world.

In Chapter 2, Elena Boeck discusses the visual evidence and antiquarian ideas about the Roman past glimpsed in the work of three authors: Manuel Chrysoloras, Cyriacus of Ancona, and Andrea Mantegna. Their lives spanned the late fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries and they treated Byzantium from the perspective of the Italian Renaissance. Her focus is on the colossal equestrian monument of Justinian in the Augustaion of Constantinople, a topic that she researched in detail in a recent monograph. While this and other monuments were lost after 1453, western scholars preserved visual reproductions of them in their treatises, thus granting them a new life and value among intellectual circles.

In his extensive chapter on western humanists and Byzantine historians, Anthony Grafton meticulously rehearses the treatment of Byzantine historical texts at the hands of the humanists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On the one hand, these scholars must be credited with the first serious attempts to systematically edit such texts; on the other, their motivations and approaches merit scrutiny. Their varied interests included the history of Christianity, Roman law and its functions, Greek language, evidence for ancient lost texts, and, last but not least, information about the Turks, a pressing contemporary concern for Christian Europe. As it happens, the same period saw the publication of two provocative historiographical works, which, by their content, were bound to cause trouble: Zosimos’ History and Prokopios’ Secret History.

After Hieronymus Wolf, Martin Crusius (1526-1607) also pioneered the study of Byzantium, a few decades after its end. In his analysis (chapter 4), Richard Calis does justice to this characterization by providing a rich account of the work of this tireless philologist and annotator of texts. In studying the work of earlier Byzantine literati such as Niketas Choniates, Eustathios of Thessaloniki, and later ones (chiefly Chalkokondyles), Crusius applied the tools of biobibliography to explore the bearing that an author’s life had on his work. In other words, Crusius’ endeavor was to historically contextualize major authors and draw out material about the history of the Ottomans and the Greeks, including the Greek language as it evolved in the Byzantine era. Another of Crusius’ significant contributions was the sketching of a chronology of Byzantine affairs in which it becomes apparent that he perceived Byzantium as a precursor to the Ottoman state and the year 1453 as the starting point of Ottoman Greek history.

Greek language was a key interest of Charles Du Cange (1610-1688), the humanist whose work, perhaps more than anyone else’s in the period covered by this book, has survived the test of time. In two consecutive chapters, Teresa Shawcross draws a detailed portrait and highlights the aspirations of the French polymath and prolific author (ch. 5) before dealing with Du Cange’s reception by posterity, concentrating on the posthumous fate of his books and papers, especially in the course of the eighteenth century (ch. 6). Much of her account is based on archival research that she conducted in Paris, resulting in the publication and translation, in an appendix to this book, of the 1756 inventory of Du Cange’s acquisitions.

Early modern European theater showcases the impression of Byzantium as an ‘exotic empire’, explored only as ‘a floating signifier’, as Przemysław Marciniak puts it in his survey (ch. 7). For instance, Jesuit theater viewed Byzantium as an empire where Church and state were one and displayed both positive (e.g., Constantine the Great) and negative figures (e.g., Leo V the Armenian and Andronikos I Komnenos). Playwrights who picked up Byzantine topics were ready to reiterate and imprint adverse stereotypes about Byzantine mentality and politics. They were likewise ready, in the early nineteenth century, to draw inspiration from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and contrast Byzantine decay with the rise of the Greeks in their struggle for independence in the 1820s.

The editions of lexica dating from the Byzantine period and their consultation in manuscript or in print by early modern European scholars occupies John Considine’s attention in the next chapter (8). By this time, well-known Byzantine lexica that, prior to the TLG, were commonly used by classicists and Byzantinists alike were for Hieronymus Wolf, Martin Crusius, Henri Estienne, Nicolas Rigault, and Johannes Meursius a valuable source for unlocking the secrets of Greek language; they associated them, moreover, with the transition from the pagan to the Christian world. The word graecobarbarus that was used to designate Byzantine Greek denoted the ambivalence posed by the decline of a language that had a glorious literary past, and at the same time pointed to the virtues of a postclassical Christian society.

The following chapter by William North (ch. 9) investigates the figure and work of Martin Hanke (1633-1709), a rather solitary Silesian scholar whose opus magnum, the De Byzantinarum rerum scriptoribus Graecis, deserves to be considered ‘the first history of Byzantine historiography’. This was indeed a comprehensive biobibliographical guide to Greek writers of history from Constantine I (306-337) to Constantine XI (1449-1453). In presenting them, Hanke was puzzled by several issues that would challenge subsequent Byzantinists. His perspective, as North points out, was that of a historian of the Roman empire’s longue durée, making him a forefather of Gibbon.

Bernard de Montfaucon (1655-1741), the father of Greek paleography and a scholar who always studied Byzantine history and culture with a sympathetic eye, is succinctly surveyed by Shane Bobrycki (ch. 10). Since Montfaucon’s lifetime fell in an age when the threat of the Ottomans had subsided, his antiquarianism was prompted by and confined to academic concerns. As he was reaching old age, negative sentiments about the Byzantines and their authoritarian state started to develop as a result of the Enlightenment and the ideals it championed.

A scholar who is also member of the Bollandist Society, Xavier Lequeux, reviews the history of the Jesuit community that is inextricably connected to the study of pre-modern hagiography (ch. 11). They owe their name to Jean Bolland (1596-1665), the Jesuit who was commissioned to pursue the pioneering work and ambitious project of Héribert Rosweyde (1569-1629), whose intention was to produce systematic editions of texts on saints, a task that he left incomplete. Installed first in Antwerp, then in Brussels, Bolland and his younger collaborators shaped the idea of a ‘hagiographical dossier’ pertaining to each saint while launching a still ongoing, albeit currently dormant, publishing project, the Acta Sanctorum. Taking their cue from Rosweyde’s inclusion of ‘eastern’ saints, they established a tradition of ‘documenting’ Greek texts and, to a lesser extent, Slavonic ones too. The ultimate fruits of this pursuit would be borne in the last decades of the nineteenth century with the publication of catalogs of Greek hagiographical manuscripts and what became an indispensable tool for researchers, the Bibliotheca hagiographica graeca.

The last two chapters follow different paths of inquiry. Frederic Clark’s contribution (ch. 12) starts and ends with Gibbon’s ‘concession’ to go beyond the year 476, to move from west to east, and to continue ancient, Roman history down to 1453. In between, Clark treats the question of periodization and the early modern divide between antiquity (antiquitas) and the ‘Middle Ages’ (media tempestas) as applied to the study of the period that today we call ‘Byzantine’. He surveys the views of scholars who approached the temporal problems caused by the ‘gap of Byzantium’: from the ‘spokesmen’ of the Italian Renaissance Petrarch, Biondo, and Bruni to the Dutch G.J. Vossius, the German G. Horn (both classical scholars), and the Parisian Jesuit Jean Garnier. All in all, not unlike Gibbon, they ‘wished to define their own modernity against an ancient and medieval past’ (p. 346).

Anthony Kaldellis addresses the question of how the terms ‘Byzantium’ and ‘Byzantine’ came to denote the eastern Roman empire as a whole (ch. 13). First and foremost, he disputes the idea that the adjective ‘Byzantine’ became conventional and commonly used following Hieronymus Wolf’s coining of the term. In reality, the dominant historiographical term remained ‘Greek’, which, moreover, had a negative connotation when contrasted to the Romans of the west. For Kaldellis the crucial turn for the hegemony of the term ‘Byzantine’ came about in the mid-nineteenth century as a result of the so-called Eastern question. It was the Crimean war (1853-1856) that made the term ‘empire of the Greeks’ problematic, since this potentially legitimated the expansion of the then tiny Greek state at the expense of the Ottoman empire and for the benefit of the Russian empire. The total adoption of such a neutral and politically non-committal label as ‘Byzantine’ was meant to head off ‘Graecophobia stemming from Russophobia’.

In their conclusion, which functions as both a recapitulation and a synthesis of what can be read in the previous chapters, Aschenbrenner and Ransohoff reconstruct the various early modern efforts to study the history and legacy of this long-lived empire, first and foremost in terms of personal curiosity and pursuit, yet later under the auspices of institutions. Although they admit in the end that much of the landscape of Byzantine scholarship remains imperfectly known, they must be congratulated for having put together a panel of experts who bring the question of the study of Byzantium before Byzantine studies proper into better focus.


Authors and Titles

Nathanael Aschenbrenner and Jake Ransohoff, “The Invention of Byzantium in Early Modern Europe”

Part One: Reinventing Byzantium in the Fifteenth Century
Fabio Pagani, “Greek Identity and Ideas of Decline in Fifteenth-Century Byzantium: Gemistos Pletho and Bessarion
Elena N. Boeck, “Making the Roman Past(s) Come Alive: Manuel Chrysoloras, Cyriac of Ancona, and Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar”

Part Two: Exploiting and Enacting Byzantium, ca. 1500–1750
Anthony Grafton, “Western Humanists and Byzantine Historians”
Richard Calis, “Martin Crusius’s Lost Byzantine Legacy”
Teresa Shawcross, “Editing, Lexicography, and History under Louis XIV: Charles Du Cange and La byzantine du Louvre”
Teresa Shawcross. “The Eighteenth-Century Reinvention of Du Cange as the French Nation’s Historian”
Przemysław Marciniak, “Performing Byzantium in Early Modern Theater”

Part Three: Categorizing and Contextualizing Byzantium, ca. 1500 –1750
John Considine, “The Lexicography of Byzantine Greek from Anna Notaras to Johannes Meursius”
William North, “Erudition, Documentation, and Organization in the Making of Early Modern Byzantine Studies. The Case of Martin Hanke’s De Byzantinarum rerum scriptoribus Graecis liber (1677)
Shane Bobrycki, “Montfaucon’s Byzantium”
Xavier Lequeux, “Hagiography, Erudition, and the Emergence of Byzantinisme (Sixteenth–Nineteenth Centuries)”

Part Four: Chronologies of Byzantium from the Enlightenment to Modernity
Frederic Clark, “From the Rise of Constantine to the Fall of Constantinople: Defining Byzantium and the ‘Middle Age’ in Early Modern Scholarship”
Anthony Kaldellis, “From ‘Empire of the Greeks’ to ‘Byzantium’. The Politics of a Modern Paradigm Shift”

Nathanael Aschenbrenner and Jake Ransohoff, “Byzance avant Byzance: Toward a New History of Byzantine Scholarship”

Appendix I
Teresa Shawcross, “Works by Du Cange Published during His Lifetime or in Press at His Death”

Appendix II
Teresa Shawcross, “The 1756 Inventory of Du Cange’s Papers: An Edition and Translation”