Being Byzantine: Greek Identity before the Ottomans, 1200-1420.
This book is a jewel of writing on Byzantine identity, one of the best the discipline has seen. It is fine in content and presentation, accompanied by very useful auxiliary materials, including maps and illustrations, and a glossary of Greek terms used. Its adventurous nature is also reflected in the bibliography, which includes items on Greek identity from many different periods and schools of thought. Gill Page makes excellent use of these in Being Byzantine: Greek Identity Before the Ottomans, 1200-1420, which is a revised version of a doctoral thesis written at the University of Leeds. It is a thorough and ambitious analysis of Greek texts between 1200 and 1420, combined with a history of the Frankish Peloponnese in the same period. The two superb maps that adorn the book underline this dual focus: one is a map of the Aegean region, the other of the Peloponnese. They are the author's own, and a great asset to the book.
Page's main sources for the first part of the work are the histories of Niketas Choniates, George Akropolites, George Pachymeres, Nikephoros Gregoras, and John VI Kantakouzenos. For the second part, the author's attention centres on the Chronicle of the Morea. The book is organized in such a way that the analysis of the first part gains accumulative power and, in a continuous crescendo, leads to the presentation of the principal argument, which is the breakdown of late Byzantine identity in the Peloponnesian world. The four elements of Byzantine identity as articulated by Page are ethnic identity, religious (Orthodox) identity, Hellenic (classical) identity, and regional, cross-cultural identity. The concepts of multiple and changing identities are used alongside them. Of these elements, only three are said to be applicable to the Peloponnese, with Hellenic (classical) identity being argued as completely absent from the region. The four categories of Peloponnesian identity suggested by the author offer a model that can be robust and flexible at the same time, a very useful methodological tool for others to build on. One may not completely agree with all of the book's conclusions, but it must be stated that they are clearly the result of careful examination of complex and meticulously collected data. Shades of grey in intellectual positions are common in the humanities, as one's conclusions are often a matter of subjective judgment.
Some small points regarding such interpretations will follow. Part of the function of the five Byzantine historians mentioned above is to serve as exponents of a privileged upper class, out of touch with the deprived provinces. This fact, following the author's line of argument, disqualifies them from being competent to speak for the likes of the Peloponnesian people. This presents us with a number of issues. First, the title of the book could be modified to include the "Byzantines of the Peloponnese" as opposed to the Byzantines in general, which is implied by it currently. In other words, as far as Byzantine identity goes, the slightly dismissed privileged Byzantines have an equal claire to one. The reader initially might expect a discussion of their identity, too, from reading this title. There is partial coverage of this topic by Page in the discussion of multiple identities. Additionally, the case of the formidable intellectual and hellenist George Gemistos Plethon (sometimes called Pletho), who lived in Mistra and became something of a local cult, perhaps deserves more than the two mentions Page grants him. This uniquely eccentric Neo-Platonist/polytheist was taken seriously as a possible social and religious reformer and was allowed to attempt to solve the problem of the Schism of the Churches. Even if not your typical Byzantine, Plethon had a considerable following, with the ear of many emperors and political power in the region. With a significant number of pupils learning the classics under him in Mistra (and also in Italy), he can be seen as one of the initiators of an important cultural movement: a Peloponnesian proto-Renaissance. This aspect of Peloponnesian Hellenic identity was another reality of this Greco-Frankish, fragmented, pluralist, brave new world. Its recognition would not have taken anything away from Page's argument.
Page silently avoids the discussion of any connections between Byzantine and "Greek" or "Modern Greek" identity, a belief long-held by Greek scholars, most memorably by Apostolos Vakalopoulos, Vassileios Laourdas, and Spyridon Lambros. Whether for reasons of space or simplicity, the author's decision to leave the topic alone may be a wise choice. In any case, as Being Byzantine focuses on the identity of the Peloponnese, it is regrettable that a particular book dealing with the modern identity of the Peloponnese is left out of it completely. This is the hefty monograph by Thessalonica-based American scholar William W. McGrew, entitled Land and Revolution in Modern Greece 1800-1881 (Kent, OH, 1986). For its important place in modern Greek history, for its insightful connections to the Byzantine and Ottoman past, and for its contrasting methodology to this author's textual analysis, reference to such a book would have made an interesting epilogue to this excellent work. It may, in fact, be one of its few omissions.
The questions this reviewer raises are minor in view of the many strengths and achievements of this book. It is hoped that it will be adopted in the undergraduate and postgraduate classroom, both for its discussion of a work of the Greek High Vernacular, the Chronicle of the Morea, and as a textbook on Middle and Late Byzantine historiography. The fine portraits of the five Byzantine historians in it are sure to give students all the tools they need for their own interpretative departures.
Royal Holloway, University of London
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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