Liz James (ed.), A Companion to Byzantium.
Liz James (pp. 1-8) defines her edition of A Companion to Byzantium as a 'pro-Byzantium' work, thereby strongly criticising and rejecting the Western European viewpoint that 'the classics and the Renaissance are the two high points of civilization' and that 'Byzantium is neither'. Therefore she stresses that Byzantium should not be measured against what 'we' believe quality to be, but that one should try to understand Byzantium in its own terms, that is, 'to consider how it used and developed its Greco-Roman heritage into something different but nevertheless worth our attention' (pp. 3, 7).
Fiona K. Haarer (pp. 9-22) gives a useful overview of Byzantine scholarship starting with Edward Gibbon, and going on to cover Byzantine Studies in Britain, the triumph of Byzantine Studies from the 1950s onward, and the contemporary approach to Byzantium.
The book is built around four main themes which are intended to comply with the general guidelines given by Liz James. There are twenty-seven chapters of unequal interest and quality.
In Part One, 'Being Byzantine', a mosaic of themes is presented: economics, trade, feudalism, the identification of Byzantium with Constantinople --including both the provinces and the capital--insiders and outsiders, and such themes as youngsters, the good, bad and ugly, memory, culture, emotions and fun. Liz James sees this section as an exploration of Byzantine life as well as 'how the Byzantines defined themselves' (pp. 23-24).
P. Sarris (pp. 25-42) examines the sources and their problems, thereby underlining the fact that especially archaeology and numismatics have transformed opinions and perspectives on Byzantium. The economy of Byzantium has a much smaller body of documentary evidence than that of the West, except for Egypt (before its occupation by the Arabs). Sarris's chapter gives a well-documented and very understandable picture of the economic development and its sources, including laws, hagiography and archaeology. Cash, credit and commerce are duly discussed as well as the variables and mechanisms of Byzantine economic development. Sarris illustrates the continued existence of large estates till well into the 8th century. In the eastern marshlands, out of the need for strong military leaders to protect the peasants, a wealthy military aristocracy developed. In the 10th century the Macedonian emperors sought to prohibit the 'powerful' (dynatoi) from buying up the properties of poorer neighbours.
In Late Byzantine times, Byzantium became more and more dependent on its 'allies', especially the Venetians. Sarris also poses the question of a possible Byzantine feudalism and concludes that the fief-focused model of feudalism is of little relevance. The rise of the aristocracy in the Early and Middle Byzantine periods did not have a deleterious impact on the Byzantine state in economic terms. Sarris completely ignores the economy and feudalism for the period from after the fall of Constantinople to the onset of the crusades in 1204. In fact, he never touches this period, evidently considering it unrepresentative of Byzantine history and culture --an attitude unfortunately found among many Byzantinists.
In a second chapter (pp. 43-54), P. Magdalino is very clear on the identification of Byzantium with Constantinople and states that 'the city of Constantinople was essential to the existence and identity of Byzantium.' He nevertheless correctly makes some room for the post-1204 period, where the provincial Byzantines sought to promote their own capitals and a more detached sense of 'national' identity appeared. His study of Constantinople is thorough, discussing the city as the 'last ancient polis', becoming thereafter the greatest Christian city of the Middle Ages.
Catherine Holmes (pp. 55-66) opposes the provinces (presented as cultural backwaters by the sources) to the capital. According to her this makes writing provincial history difficult. She also dedicates some pages to alternative centres (mainly Nicaea, Trebizond, Thessaloniki, Mystra and Athos), thereby very briefly referring to post-1204 Byzantium, during which time, she believes, the regional regimes of the eastern Mediterranean world continued to look to Constantinople for models of governance and ceremonial.
D.C. Smythe reports on 'Insiders and Outsiders', examining the important problem of Byzantine identity, for which he seeks a 'broad' definition, trying to gather as many characteristics as possible in order to define who is a 'Byzantine' (pp. 67-80).
C. Hennessy writes on young people in Byzantium (pp. 81-92). The author examines the vocabulary used for children, the Byzantine concept of childhood (referring, of course, to Aries), (47) legal coming of age, infanticide, children in monasteries, child prostitution, informal rites of passage, education, children in trade, the work force and the army, as well as the emotions of young people and their relationships with adults.
The article by Myrto Hatzaki on 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' is well written and has useful illustrations (unfortunately, only in black and white). She looks at the Byzantine ideal of beauty, the relationship between beauty and power, ugliness and 'Beauty between Good and Evil' (passim). She pictures how the Byzantines saw themselves and the world around them (pp. 93-107).
Amy Papalexandrou writes on the 'Memory Culture of Byzantium' (pp. 108-22), including categories of memory, bodily reminders (such as tattooing) and the fight against time. An interesting article on 'Emotions' is presented by M. Hinterberger (pp. 123-34). Finally, 'fun' is examined by S. Tougher (pp. 135-46), who looks at joy, sorrow, fear, envy, anger, penthos and pathos with references to the Church Fathers and Christian authors. He finds a lot of fun in literature, mimes and sport, while paying special attention to Julian's Misopogon.
Part Two (pp. 147-229) explores Byzantium in relation to God, orthodoxy and heterodoxy.
Mary Cunningham (pp. 149-60) examines the Byzantine views of God and the universe in a chapter researching how the Byzantines theologised within the framework of their concept of the universe (referring to taxis, but not to oikonomia). She also discusses the Christian Topography of the sixth-century Alexandrian, Kosmas Indikopleustes. Humanity as a creation of God in his own image is also examined. Cunningham notes the inadequate approach of scholars (beginning with Gibbon), stressing the fact that Byzantine Tradition 'engaged continuously not only with Christological doctrine, but also with developing cults of icons, the Theotokos, and saints.' She also notes some new focus point of study, such as the way doctrine was taught in Byzantium, the use of the polemic (vs. heresies) and the role a multi-ethnic pluralist society played in spite of imperial efforts to impose uniformity.
Vassiliki Dimitropoulou (pp. 161-70) looks at 'Giving Gifts to God: Aspects of Patronage in Byzantium Art', thereby paying due attention to phenomena such as the well-known practice of commissioning paintings, manuscripts and icons as gifts to God (and monasteries and churches), as well as to the concept of philanthropia.
J. Shepard (pp. 171-86), in 'Orthodoxy and Northern Peoples: Goods, Gods and Guidelines', takes as starting-point the Byzantine adherence to religious 'Orthodoxy', examining the ingredients of 'immanent holiness and imperial holiness', the role of objets d'art in Byzantine diplomacy as well as imperial philanthropia.
Christology and heresy are discussed by A. Louth (pp. 187-98), who looks at synodoi and the oikoumene, and stresses the identification of Orthodoxy with the creed of Christ being homoousios with the Father. Attention is also paid to the Theotokos as a result of an unconfused 'union of natures' of Christ (pp. 190-98).
N. Finneran (pp. 119-224) in a chapter on the non-Chalcedonian churches illustrates the existence and essence of the Oriental Orthodox churches, showing how they were different from the self-proclaimed 'Orthodoxy' of Byzantium, and thereby stressing how the term 'monophysite' remains problematic. Thus the survey, which is well presented, includes the Coptic Church in Egypt, the Nubian Church in medieval Sudan and the Ethiopian one, beginning with the Axumite Kingdom. In Asia, the Syrian Orthodox Church is discussed (as well as the Maronites in Lebanon), and the Armenian variety of the Eastern Syrian rite - all of them belonging to the so-called Nestorian world. Georgia and the neighbouring areas receive due attention, and Finneran also looks at the Church of the East in Persia, Assyria and the Far East (China).
Part Three has the title 'Reading Byzantine Texts'. It pays special attention to rhetoric, Byzantine historiography, narrative, story-telling and book culture.
Margaret Mullett (pp. 227-38) rejects the older, general conception (starting with Gibbon and stretching to the 1990s with Spadaro and many others) that in Byzantium we have a society where we find 'no drama, no poetry, no fiction, no readership, no literature' (p. 228).
Mary Whitby (pp. 239-50) sees rhetoric as an important element in a wider, visual communication system, for which a number of text books were written. 'Rhetoric in practice' in secular contexts is used for all kind of reasons such as diplomacy, legislation and civil administration. Skill in rhetoric, resulting from a long, rigorous intellectual training, was for the emperors 'far more important than specialist financial or military knowledge'. Another use was the 'rhetoric in practice' in Christian contexts.
Two interesting articles are dedicated to Byzantine history-writing, narratives, chronicles, hagiography, extended fiction and the form of storytelling (R. Scott, pp. 251-62; E.C. Bourbouhakis & I. Nilsson, pp. 263-74). The Byzantines liked a good 'story', especially in their chronicles. Both histories and chronicles operate by subtle variations on old stories while either pretending to follow their source precisely (in the case of the chronicles) or building on their audience's expectation, memory and acceptance of such stories (in the historians and occasionally the chronicles). Often truth is established by plagiarism in the chronicles. Writing a history was also used for propaganda or counter-propaganda and to 'correct' old interpretations.
Judith Waring (pp. 275-88) states that the book culture in Byzantium was 'a dynamic phenomenon, with evolving technologies reflecting the changing needs of readers and their wider society.' Subsequently the papyrus roll made place for the parchment codex and later paper was introduced. Waring examines the sources, methodologies, and the cultural history of a Byzantine book in respect of John Klimakos and 'The Ladder of Divine Ascent'.
Part Four (pp. 289-370) is occupied with questions regarding material culture, examining archaeology (J. Crow), makers and users (A. Cutler), Byzantine Art and its limits (A. Eastmond), icons (L. Brubaker), the Macedonian Renaissance (J. Hanson) and Late- and Post-Byzantine Art under Venetian rule (A. Lymberopoulou). Some of these contributions merit special attention.
A. Eastmond (pp. 313-22) defines the 'Limits of Byzantine Art' in his chapter, asking whether these were determined by the extension of the Empire, whether they should be defined in theological terms, or whether they incorporate all art produced under the general cultural sway of the Empire and its religious world view? The author opts for a broad definition of Byzantine Art, which brings out the strengths of this movement.
Leslie Brubaker (pp. 323-37) analyses 'Icons and Iconomachy', discussing the latter in a clear and useful way. The same can be said of J. Hanson's presentation of the 'Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Renaissance' (pp. 338-50).
Angeliki Lymberopoulou presents the 'Late and Post-Byzantine Art under Venetian Rule: Frescoes vs. Icons, and Crete in the Middle'. It is one of the exceptional chapters, dealing extensively with the post-1204 period. The author's presentation is limited to art and it is done in a very competent way. It is therefore a pity that this chapter is 'stuck' onto the end of the book and is left hanging as an appendix in the air.
This book too often ignores the post-1204 period, its history, culture and the last Palaeologian Renaissance. The Frankokratia and in general the new historical framework created by the Fourth Crusade as well as the influence of feudality, Catholicism and Western institutions on the Late-Byzantine politeia have not been discussed at all. This is perhaps the most important criticism that one should level against this book, which otherwise, as a whole, is generally of a good standard. Notwithstanding the inequalities in quality and interest of the different articles, it is quite successful in presenting Byzantium and its problems not only to the larger public, but also to specialists.
Finally, there are a few spelling mistakes and inconsistencies in the book and the bibliography, and there is no uniformity of spelling of Byzantine terms and names. The bibliography is adequate, although some important works, written in languages other than English, have been disregarded.
Benjamin Hendrickx (University of Johannesburg)
(47) See, for example, P. Aries, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Transl. R. Baldick (New York 1962).
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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