The Medieval Review 11.05.09

Oman, Charles W.C. The Byzantine Empire. Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2008. Pp. 364. . $15.95 pb ISBN 978-1-59416-079-0.

Reviewed by:

Przemyslaw Marciniak
University of Silesia
kfk@us.edu.pl

Sir Charles William Chadwick Oman (1860-1946) was Professor of History at Oxford, President of the Royal Historical Society, the Numismatic Society, etc. His interests covered many areas such as Roman antiquity, the Middles Ages, as well as modern military history. The Byzantine Empire was first published in 1892 in a series called The Story of the Nations.

While it might be somewhat oxymoronic, it is, actually, both easy and difficult to write a review of such a book. It is easy because its author cannot protest or write a counter-review nor can he be offended. Also it is easy to assess, with a pinch of scholarly superiority, a book written over a century ago. Yet, at the same time it is difficult to write a fair review bearing in mind that this text should be judged against the knowledge and standards set during the times in which it was written.

By the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, Byzantine studies were slowly commencing to (re)gain their position in the world of academia. Unique interactions between scholars working on Byzantium and writers using (and at times abusing) Byzantine motifs created an unprecedented interest in the Eastern Empire. According to scholars such as Karl Krumbacher and Charles Diehl, the founding fathers of modern Byzantine studies, some literary oeuvres repeated the old stereotypes and unscholarly gibberish rather than try and attempt to enlighten the readership. To some extent, however, it is through writers such as Paul Adam or the playwright Victorien Sardou that Byzantium became so popular. [1]

Nonetheless, a stereotypical image of a decadent, corrupted state was, in fact, disseminated mainly by historians dealing with the history of Byzantium. The worst of them was, of course, Edward Gibbon (here I simplify the issue of Gibbon's attitude towards Byzantium as being nothing more than the topic of a plethora of books and articles). Charles Oman, very clearly stated in the Introduction as to why his book was meant to be different than other histories concerning the Eastern Empire: "The writer of this book has endeavoured to tell the story of Byzantium in the spirit of Finlay and Bury, not in that of Gibbon". What is more, even the very title The Byzantine Empire signals, as the author says, the change in attitude towards the Eastern Empire: "Fifty years ago the word 'Byzantine' was used as a synonym for all that was corrupt and decadent, and the tale of the East-Roman Empire was dismissed by modern historians as depressing and monotonous". Oman may be being slightly overoptimistic (the negative connotations of the word "Byzantium" and its derivatives are to be found, with very few exceptions, in the majority of languages [2]), his book was, indeed, amongst a few nineteenth- century works whose title actually included the word "Byzantine" (one may point out here Finlay's The History of the Byzantine Empire, Gasquet's L'empire byzantin). [3] Be that as it may, the "Introduction" can be read as an auctorial manifesto--this book was meant to speak about the Eastern Empire favourably. And it does so in many places, for instance the "splendid organisation of Byzantine civil service" is praised.

Oman's book covers the history of Byzantium in its entirety (from the foundation of Byzantium to its fall) although some periods are discussed more than others. While Justinian is given almost fifty pages, the Komnenian dynasty merely gets sixteen (the numbers may vary between editions but the disproportion is clear anyway). This obviously shows what the author considered to be the most important periods of Byzantine history, but it forces me to wonder as to what extent the emphasis is put on those times and persons who enjoyed popularity in the literature of the time. Maybe that is why so much space is devoted to the descriptions of the characters of Theodora (an immensely popular figure after the publication of Sardou's play) and Justinian; the time of the iconoclasm and of the empress Irene. But, as far as I am concerned, Oman did make an effort to be as fair as possible, for instance, he acknowledges that there are many instances of gossip concerning Theodora to be found in the Secret History but "the very virulence of the book makes its tales incredible" (66). Similarly, the book was influenced by the nineteenth century discourse which placed the fall of Constantinople in the tradition of the struggle between the East and West, Europe and Asia, that had commenced with the Greek- Persian wars [4]:

"Riding through the hippodrome towards St. Sophia, Mohammed noted the Delphictripod with its three snakes (...) Either because the menacing heads of the serpents provoked him, or merely because he wished to try the strength of his arm, the Sultan rose in his stirrups and smote away the jaws of the nearest snake with one blow of his mace. There was something typical in the deed though Mohammed knew it not. He had defaced the monument of the first great victory of the West over the East. He, the successor in spirit not only of Xerxes but of Chosroes and Moslemah and many another Oriental potentate, who had failed where he succeeded, could not better signalise the end of Greek freedom than by dealing a scornful blow at that ancient memorial, erected in the first days of Grecian greatness, to celebrate the turning back of the Persians on the field of Plataea" (349).

The danger of this book (at least for a reader who seeks a general introduction to Byzantium), lies in the fact that it repeats many statements that in the nineteenth century were considered to be true but are no longer valid. And so, to the best of my knowledge, nobody today really denies the Procopian authorship of the Secret History so Oman's judgement: "Certainly not by Procopius, whose name it bears" (66, note 1) is simply misleading and reflects late nineteenth-century discussions. Similarly, dismissing Michael III simply as a "drunkard" does not seem to be so obvious nowadays (212-213).

The book reads surprisingly well even for a non-native speaker and only sometimes unusual words or syntax reminds us that it was written so long ago. But the most important question is whether this book is recommendable? Yes and no. I would recommend it to a person who is already familiar with the history of Byzantium and is interested in the reception of Byzantium. At the same time I would not recommend it to a complete beginner because it is, at least in some parts, out-of-date. And finally, while it is always nicer to have a real book in your hands, this one is available in the public domain and can be accessed online, maybe it is better to save some trees and to read it electronically.

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Notes:

1. It must be noted that even Charles Diehl acknowledged Sardou's contribution to the dissemination of knowledge on Byzantium in France, see Ch. Diehl, "Les ├ętudes byzantines en France," Byzantinische Zeitschrift 9 (1900), pp. 11-12.

2. P. Marciniak, Ikona dekadencji. Wybrane problemy europejskiej recepcji Bizancjum od XVII do XX wieku (The Icon of Decadence. Selected problems of the European reception of Byzantium from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries), (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Slaskiego, 2009), pp. 41-51.

3. J.B. Bury's, to whom Oman referred, used the phrases "Later Roman Empire" and "Eastern Roman Empire". On Bury's decision to avoid the word "Byzantine" see R. Aerts, "Dull Gold and Gory Purple: Images of Byzantium", in: Polyphonia Byzantina. Studies in Honour of Willem J. Aerts, (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1993), p. 312 and a different view in Marciniak 2009, p. 46.

4. P. Marciniak, "Der Mythos des Falls des Konstantinopel in der Literatur (17.Jh. - 20. Jh.)," Acta Byzantina Fennica 3 (2009-2010), pp. 196-214.