Hugh Elton

title.none: Olster, Politics of Usurpation

identifier.other: baj9928.9503.007 95.03.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Hugh Elton, Trinity College

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Olster, D.M. The Politics of Usurpation in the Seventh Century: Rhetoric and Revolution in Byzantium. Amsterdam: A.M. Hakkert, 1993. Pp. vii + 209; 8 black and white plates. ISBN: ISBN 90-256-1010-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.03.07

Olster, D.M. The Politics of Usurpation in the Seventh Century: Rhetoric and Revolution in Byzantium. Amsterdam: A.M. Hakkert, 1993. Pp. vii + 209; 8 black and white plates. ISBN: ISBN 90-256-1010-2.

Reviewed by:

Hugh Elton
Trinity College

Olster's main thesis is that Phocas has had a raw deal from history, his suffering starting with the reign of Heraclius. Heraclius, on the other hand, has had a good press. Like Constantine the Great, he proved that if you can outlive your enemies, you can get away with much. The core of this book is a detailed analysis of the literary material covering Phocas' reign, testing the main sources (Theophylact and the Chronicon Paschale [CP]) against hitherto less used material. The result is a new picture of Phocas' reign and of Heraclius' usurpation.

At first glance, there appears to be little need for a detailed study of Phocas since Theophylact and the CP provide contemporary accounts of the seizure of power and can be supplemented by the ninth-century Theophanes. It is not as easy as it appears, however, since Theophylact does not cover Phocas' reign itself while the CP is fragmentary. In his first chapter, O. shows how Theophylact is the main source for Theophanes, which thus loses its value as an independent source. Theophanes' annalistic format has previously been used to provide the chronology of Phocas' reign, even though it clashes with the chronology of the contemporary CP.

This understanding of the source material is not in itself new, but most previous scholars have simply followed Theophanes. The accounts of Haldon and Stratos provide a good (though brief) statement of orthodoxy. O. confronts the disjunction of the sources and uses other sources to explain this. Of particular importance here are the Chronicles of John of Nikiu and of John of Antioch. In common with all the sources used here, both are still lacking modern editions, though the recent work on Malalas 1 should facilitate any future study of John of Antioch 2 . However, modern translations exist of Theophylact, the CP and part of Theophanes 3 . At times O.'s arguments are hard to follow without a text and given the shortness of the relevant pages of Theophanes and the CP, it is a pity they were not included as an appendix.

Chapter 2 outlines the early-seventh century Empire, showing the dislocation between the city of Constantinople and the countryside, with the emperor keeping control as much as by the army as by consent, a middle stage between the Late Roman Empire and the Middle Byzantine period. Mauricius lost the support of the army and was deposed, with the army then electing Phocas. Chapters 3-4 discuss the usurpation of Phocas and the events of his reign. The role of the Blue and Green demes in Phocas' seizure of power is minimized after deep analysis, again rejecting Theophylact's account. John of Antioch's account is preferred, an account which places greater emphasis on the role of the Balkan army, located just outside the walls of Constantinople. Phocas' reign, when interpreted without the hostility of Theophanes and Theophylact, emerges as no more popular or unpopular than that of most emperors.

It is with the discussion of the war against Persia that the importance of Olster's revisionism really appears (Chapters 5-7). The Greek sources are supplemented by the local Syriac and Armenian material, usefully summarised in tabular form (98-100). Although the early stages of the war did not go well for the Byzantines, with the loss of Dara, it had settled to a stalemate by 608. Severe problems then occurred in 609. These disasters were the result of the diversion of troops under Bonosus, sent from the Persian front to Egypt. They were sent to oppose Heraclius who had sent troops from Africa into Egypt as early as 608 (114). Blaming the foreign defeats on the civil war is crucial to O.'s interpretation. Unless Heraclius took positive steps afterwards to blacken Phocas' reputation, he would find himself being blamed for the collapse in the east - easier to blame it on a predecessor who just happened to be a usurper.

This interpretation is consistent with the Egyptian chronicle of the late seventh century John of Nikiu which mentions the fighting. It also fits the numismatic evidence, which shows coins minted in Heraclius' name as early as 607/8 in both Egypt and Africa (121 and note). There is some controversy over the dating of some of the coins, but O.'s seems sound, while objectors still have to deal with John of Nikiu's evidence. Some of the coins are illustrated in the plates. Although these are blown up to a generous size (c 5 cm), some of the photographs are rather dark. The quality of the coins is also disappointing and many are hard to interpret though I am not certain whether this is the coins or the photography.

A useful appendix discusses what is known of imperial accession ceremonies in the fifth and sixth centuries, followed by chapter 9, discussing how Phocas coped with his lack of legitimacy in a highly ritualized accession context. None of the elements used by Phocas were new, though the combination was. It is also clear that at this period there was no single defined ceremony for imperial accession.

Though short, this book is at times a demanding read. Nonetheless, it is a useful contribution to the question of usurpation in the Roman and Byzantine Empires. The short time period and range of issues (usurpation, civil war, foreign war, emperor-aristocratic relations) make this an excellent introduction to important themes of the early and middle Byzantine periods. In its detailed attention to the different interpretations of the sources and reasons for these interpretations it has much in common with Cameron and Long's recent book on Synesius, "Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius". There is still plenty of scope for detailed work on primary sources in the late antique/early Byzantine era and where this is done, as here, results often appear which upset the previous orthodoxy.

1 The Chronicle of John Malalas, tr. E. and M. Jeffreys and R. Scott (Melbourne, 1986), with accompanying volume, Studies in John Malalas (Sydney, 1990)
2 I have not seen P. Sotiroudis, Untersuchungen zum Geschichtswerk des Johannes von Antiocheia (Thessaloniki, 1989); text, Muller, C., FHG vol 4 and 5.

The History of Theophylact Simocatta, tr. M. and M. Whitby (Oxford, 1986); text, de Boor, Teubner, 1887

The Chronicon Paschale, tr. M. and M. Whitby, (Liverpool, 1989); text, Migne, PG 92

Chronicle of Theophanes, partial tr. H. Turtledove (Philadelphia, 1982), forthcoming translation by R. Scott and C. Mango; text, de Boor, Teubner 1883-5.