The Medieval Review 11.03.03

James, Liz. A Companion to Byzantium. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2010. Pp. 451. $199.95 ISBN 9781405126540. .

Reviewed by:

Warren Treadgold
St. Louis University

Four multi-author reference works on Byzantium published within three years and priced between $150.00 and $250.00 are probably too many, especially for libraries with limited acquisitions budgets that give priority to buying reference works rather than original scholarship. (Besides A Companion to Byzantium, the others are Jonathan Shepard, ed., The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire [Cambridge, 2008, mostly just reprinted from The New Cambridge Medieval History], Elizabeth Jeffreys et al., eds., The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies [Oxford, 2008], and Paul Stephenson, ed., The Byzantine World [London, 2010].) Nonetheless, reviewers should review these books in their own right and on their own terms, accepting that, as Anthony Cutler writes here, they "cannot be directly about the topic, but will, of course, be about what others have written" (301).

Unlike its three recent competitors, and perhaps wisely, A Companion to Byzantium makes no effort to be comprehensive. Liz James writes in the introduction, "Rather than a straightforward guide to Byzantium with a retelling of historical facts, and a detailed coverage of all aspects of life in Byzantium, this book offers the reader an introduction to some new approaches, new areas of research and new questions in Byzantine studies" (8). Thus as a rule readers are spared chapters on material that has ceased to interest even their authors, and the book is a fairly reliable indicator of recent trends in the field, for better or worse. Naturally the twenty-seven chapters by twenty-eight contributors represent different points of view, and differ considerably in quality.

A second introductory chapter on modern histories of Byzantium by Fiona Haarer is understandably centered on Britain, though the title of one of her sections, "The Triumph of Byzantium: Byzantine Studies from the 1950s" (14), seems unduly triumphalist. She does not however shrink from writing of the widely influential work of Peter Brown, "Despite the optimistic Brownian approach, questions of decline and its causes are still hotly disputed" (15). A few brave scholars, including Wolf Liebeschuetz and Bryan Ward-Perkins, have indeed disputed Brown's attempt to write history without the concept of decline; but more often those who disagree with Brown have simply avoided saying anything about his ideas, whether negative or positive.

The rest of the book is divided into four parts, beginning with Part I, "Being Byzantine." In its first chapter, on the economy, Peter Sarris observes that his topic is slowly freeing itself from "largely unhelpful" (40) theories of Byzantine "feudalism" (though one might add that Marxists are still defending an equally unhelpful theoretical substitute, "the tributary mode of production"). In two complementary chapters, Paul Magdalino and Catherine Holmes agree on the overwhelming importance of Constantinople and accurately (if unfortunately) reflect most Byzantinists' continuing neglect of the empire's provinces. Dion Smythe discusses Byzantine identity by using several modern theoretical categories, but fails to find a use for one of them (sexual orientation), and uses another (gender) to reach the implausible conclusion that virtually all Byzantine women were "outsiders," even when they ruled the empire (74-75). In a chapter on children, Cecily Hennessy is surely right that most Byzantines cared about their offspring, but not necessarily that they thought children belonged to a different category from adults.

Myrto Hatzaki makes some interesting comments on Byzantine concepts of physical beauty, but fails to convince me that the Byzantines paid much attention to the body below the neck. Amy Papalexandrou discusses another currently fashionable concept, memory, but cannot show that the Byzantines were much interested in memory apart from written records. (In Greek, mneme can mean either "memory" or "record.") Martin Hinterberger contributes a pioneering and perceptive chapter on emotions, though his contention that "some characteristic emotions of modern life (stress and guilt, for example) are completely absent in Byzantium" is dubious; for example, the emperor Heraclius (610-41) showed signs of stress during the Arab invasions, and Michael IV (1034-41) showed signs of guilt over the murder of his predecessor Romanus III. I would rather say that the Byzantines felt stress and guilt in somewhat different ways from moderns. Although Shaun Tougher has trouble being serious in his chapter on "Having Fun in Byzantium," he raises some neglected questions about the Byzantines' supposed solemnity.

Part II, "God and the World," opens with an excellent chapter by Mary Cunningham on "Byzantine Views of God and the Universe," which avoids anachronistic modern theorizing and shows a real understanding of Byzantine thinking. The four chapters in the rest of this part show a similar grasp of the overriding importance of religion for the Byzantines: Vassiliki Dimitropoulou on artistic patronage, Jonathan Shepard on Byzantine relations with the Slavs, Andrew Louth on Christology (a particularly good job of intelligent compression), and Niall Finneran on the Eastern churches that rejected the Council of Chalcedon of 451. Unlike some others even in this volume, these five scholars recognize that Byzantine religion was primarily about God, not about patronage, identity, ethnicity, "narratology," or some other modern theoretical construct.

Part III, "Reading Byzantine Texts," begins with an ironically titled chapter by Margaret Mullet ("No Drama, No Poetry, No Fiction, No Readership, No Literature"), a blanket defense of Byzantine literature that would be more persuasive if it simply conceded a few obvious points (like the virtual absence of Byzantine drama). In the next chapter Mary Whitby tries to defend the Byzantines' almost incomprehensible oratory by asserting that it would have gained by being performed, a defense that cannot be used for their similarly unreadable epistolography. Then Roger Scott discusses historiography by ignoring the question of its accuracy, which most Byzantine historians declared was their primary aim, and concentrates on praising their storytelling skills, an approach that would probably have puzzled or infuriated most of them. Emmanuel Bourbouhakis and Ingela Nilsson implausibly assert that "Byzantine writers themselves would have had great sympathy" for "'narratological' approaches" (263) in an unusually inaccurate chapter; for example, they claim that "one- fifth of George Synkellos's chronicle" (a work that actually concludes with the year 284) "takes up events from the period 740 to 813" (267). Judith Waring's chapter on "Byzantine Book Culture" offers some intriguing if ultimately inconclusive evidence about Byzantine readers through a study of the manuscripts of John Climacus' Ladder of Divine Ascent.

The book concludes with Part IV, "Some Questions in Material Culture." In it James Crow admits, "Among the various archaeologies of the Mediterranean world, Byzantine archaeology has not fared especially well" (291), identifies some of the reasons for this, and optimistically concludes by emphasizing the field's potential (without giving many reasons to think the potential will be fulfilled). Anthony Cutler refreshingly observes of Byzantine art that "things that are ugly or, at best, incompetently made...redound to the maker's discredit: to argue otherwise would be to separate entirely our opinion from the act of craftsmanship, an absurd position even in an age that espouses the utter relativity of aesthetic judgment" (306). Anthony Eastmond pursues Cutler's point by arguing against the assumption that "low-quality art" necessarily came from outside Constantinople or even outside the empire (320-21).

Leslie Brubaker's chapter on Iconoclasm is hard to evaluate, because it depends heavily on a book she co-authored with John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era (Cambridge, 2011), which I have yet to see; to judge from this chapter, the book's method is to arrive at revisionist conclusions by throwing out most of the evidence. John Hanson's chapter, "The Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Renaissance," declares that Kurt Weitzmann's "concept of a tenth-century renaissance in the arts in Byzantium, once a central fixture in Byzantine art history...has been discarded because it relies on outdated beliefs about genius and evolution" (338); what Hanson does not show is that those beliefs are wrong, except on the assumption that all art is equally good. Hanson is himself mistaken that the tenth century saw a hiatus "in literary humanism" so that "literature and art" could not be "parts of a general renaissance" (346); he ignores the vast program of scholarly projects sponsored by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913-59), the Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda, and several similar works. Angeliki Lymberopoulou's final chapter on mostly post- Byzantine art in Crete, though not badly done, is longer and narrower in focus than most of the other chapters and has little to do with the rest of the book. The general index is sometimes inaccurate, and some of the works cited in abbreviations in the chapters are missing from the bibliography.

What does this inevitably uneven collection suggest about the current state of Byzantine studies? Omissions need not mean very much (for example, the scarcity of references to gender is unlikely to show any waning of interest in it); but two observations seem worth making. First, forty years after Peter Brown published The World of Late Antiquity (London, 1971), his influence appears to have passed its peak. Some contributors to A Companion to Byzantium are willing to entertain the possibility that some sort of decline may sometimes have occurred, and few have much to say about the importance of court ceremonies or living holy men, the two phenomena especially emphasized by Brown. Neither seems actually to have been very important in Byzantine life--not nearly as important as Byzantine emperors and biographies and icons of saints. Cutler points out that "many of the greatest and most widely diffused saints...had no character (or even a life) beyond their depiction in hagiography and its visual expression" (302). Although indisputably correct, this is not the sort of thing one saw much in print even ten years ago. The field will almost certainly profit from this widening of the scope of historical discussion.

Second, after a period of decades when "value judgments" were often discarded out of hand, some scholars are again ready to say that some Byzantine art is poorly executed, although few seem to be equally comfortable with saying that some Byzantine literature is poorly written. While this expansion of the discussion is good for art history, the absence of such an expansion is bad for literary history. Serious literary criticism is impossible if we cannot consider whether Byzantine authors succeeded in what they set out to do, or whether what they set out to do was worth doing (at least for some purpose besides advancing themselves by vapid praise of the emperor), or whether even they believed that what they were doing was an inferior form of literature (as was the case for most works in "popular" Greek, including hagiography). This point is obviously related to the question of historical decline: we need to entertain the possibility that in some periods the level of artistic or literary achievement was higher or lower than in others, just as in some periods the level of economic prosperity or military or administrative efficiency was higher or lower than in others. Even if such conclusions remain controversial, they are apparently becoming harder to dismiss as "outdated" without reflection or discussion.