Byzantium in Five Books: A History of Byzantine State and Society

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Warren Treadgold: A History of Byzantine State and Society, Stanford University Press 1997

An earlier work by Professor Treadgold, The Byzantine Revival 780-842, has long seemed to me a model of well written Byzantine history. Central to that work was a rejection of deterministic theories of historical decay, as if states and cultures were subject to some sort of inexorable biological law. As Treadgold dryly noted: "Byzantine historians have a tradition of liking decline". In response he took a neglected but pivotal period in Byzantine affairs and painted a compelling picture of an ancient state and society in the process of reinvention and recovery.

A History of the Byzantine State and Society builds upon the many virtues of the earlier work, and expands its scope to cover the entire span of Byzantine history - which Treadgold extends from Byzantine pre-history with Diocletian’s radical re-organisation of the Roman Empire in the late 3rd century through to the fall of Trebizond, the last Byzantine successor state, in 1461.

The book is organised into six sections of perceptive and clearly written narrative history, each with a corresponding chapter of analysis summarising the key developments within that period of historical time. The section headings are in themselves instructive and provide a very useful framework for understanding the general shape of Byzantine history:

The Enlarged State and the Burdened Society (284-457)
The Interrupted Advance (457-610)
The Contained Catastrophe (610-780)
The Long Revival (780-1025)
The Weak State and the Wealthy Society (1025-1204)
The Failed Restoration (1204-1461)

An attractive aspect of Treadgold's work is his willingness within sensible boundaries to seek concrete, or at least carefully prescribed answers to questions such as the size of Byzantium's state finances, the Empire's rural and urban population, territorial extent and the strength and organisation of its armed forces. A series of charts, maps and tables are presented which summarise such bottom-line factors in the Empire's strength and wealth. Treadgold's conclusions in these areas, especially on military matters, are certainly open to challenge but they provide a valid basis for understanding issues which are usually treated as inponderables by recent scholarship.

Without wishing to emphasis its traditional nature, Treadgold's book takes a very non-post-modern approach to Byzantine history. He explicitly avoids addressing "the contradictions and omissions in modern scholarship" and instead emphasises the value of primary sources and their capacity to deliver real evidence. The result is an original and individual work which challenges both received and revisionist versions of Byzantine history.

Treadgold's stated intention was to provide a single volume "updated, detailed and complete" history of Byzantine State and Society - in effect a replacement for the much older large-scale surveys of Ostrogorsky and Vasiliev. In my opinion he has succeeded. Anyone prepared to invest the time and effort required (with appendices and index the book runs to more than a thousand pages) will find themselves armed with a reliable and engaging companion as they navigate through the complexities and controversies of Byzantine history.

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