Byzantium in Five Books: The Byzantines

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Guglielmo Cavallo (editor): The Byzantines, The University of Chicago Press 1997

Most works on Byzantium accessible to the general reader tend to concentrate either upon the political history of the Byzantine state, or upon Byzantine art and architecture. This is unsurprising; the narrative political and military history of Byzantium makes for stimulating reading, with a series of dramatic crises involving larger-than-life characters and set against a picturesque background. Similarly, Byzantine art makes an immediate visual impact, which does not require detailed knowledge of its themes and techniques but at the same time invites closer study.

Byzantine social history is generally less visible. It can be frustratingly difficult to glean details about daily life, or how 'ordinary' Byzantines saw themselves, their world and their society. There are inherent problems in researching and writing on such subjects of course - not the least of which is the scarce and fragmentary nature of surviving records, coupled with apparent disinterest from literate Byzantines in recording the messy realities of their daily lives.

The Byzantines (Guglielmo Cavallo editor) surmounts some these apparent difficulties to produce a compelling portrait of Byzantine life and society. In ten chapters The Byzantines covers the entire range of Byzantine society - from Evelyne Patlagean's essay on the Byzantine poor, through to chapters by Michael McCormick on Emperors, and Cyril Mango on Saints. A complete subject listing is set out below:

  • The Poor (Evelyne Patlagean)
  • The Peasantry (Alexander Kazhdan)
  • Soldiers (Peter Schreiner)
  • Teachers (Robert Browning)
  • Women (Alice-Mary Talbot)
  • Entrepreneurs (Nicolas Oikonomides)
  • Bishops (Vera von Falkenhausen)
  • Functionaries (Andre Guillou)
  • Emperors (Michael McCormick)
  • Saints (Cyril Mango)

Primary sources are skilfully employed by each author - though these are rather more abundant in some cases than others. The late Robert Browning, for example quotes extensively from the surviving correspondence of Byzantine teachers. One letter, written in exasperation to the father of a spoiled and inattentive teenaged student is priceless:

"Your dear son is neglecting his studies and devoting himself to horsemanship; he gallops around and dashes through the streets at full tilt, speeding through hippodromes and theaters, arrogant and exultant .I have repeatedly rebuked him, but he neither blushed nor mended his ways ."

Elsewhere, Andre Guillou's essay on functionaries quotes the ideal, and quintessentially Byzantine characteristics of a public notary from the tenth century:

"He must, in fact, have perfect knowledge of the laws, excellent handwriting, be neither a chatterbox nor insolent, nor have dissolute habits; his character must command respect, his judgement must be sound, he must combine training with intelligence, speak with ease, and possess a perfectly correct style ."

Each essay differs somewhat in approach and emphasis: For example, from Evelyne Patlagean we have an extended, and illuminating, discussion which focuses upon the cultural meaning of poverty in the Byzantine world, and how this changed over time. On the other hand Alexander Kazdhan, in perhaps the finest essay in a uniformly excellent collection, presents a wealth of detail on the lifeways, economic circumstances and attitudes of the Byzantine peasantry.

The Byzantines is highly recommended as a detailed, but engaging and accessible work, which presents a valuable survey of Byzantine society.

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