Dion C. Smythe

title.none: Cavallo, The Byzantines (Smythe)

identifier.other: baj9928.9802.009 98.02.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dion C. Smythe, King's College, London,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Cavallo, Guglielmo, ed. The Byzantines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Pp. vi, 293. $48.00 (hb); $19.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-226-09791-9 (hb); 0-226-09792-7 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.02.09

Cavallo, Guglielmo, ed. The Byzantines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Pp. vi, 293. $48.00 (hb); $19.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-226-09791-9 (hb); 0-226-09792-7 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Dion C. Smythe
King's College, London

In just under 300 pages, consisting of ten edited essays and an introduction by the editor, Cavallo's The Byzantines provides a dense introduction to the range of issues considered currently important by representatives of the world of Byzantine scholarship. The choice of topics -- linked together by the idea that a book about Byzantine history should be about the Byzantine people who made that history -- is wide-ranging: Evelyne Patlagean on 'The Poor' (pp.15-42); Alexander Kazhdan on 'The Peasantry' (pp.43-73); Peter Schreiner on 'Soldiers' (pp.74-94); Robert Browning on 'Teachers' (pp.95-116); Alice- Mary Talbot on 'Women' (pp.117-143); Nicolas Oikonomides on 'Entrepreneurs' (pp.144-171); Vera von Falkenhausen on 'Bishops' (pp.172-196); Andre Guillou on 'Functionaries' (pp.197-229); Michael McCormick on 'Emperors' (pp.230-254); and Cyril Mango on 'Saints' (pp.255-280).

Cavallo unifies the theme of the collection by stressing the Byzantines as actors in their own history: in effect, 'the proper study of mankind is man' though not expressed in those words. His introduction touches base with many of the common topoi of Byzantine Studies. The 'Byzantine Empire' is convenient shorthand for the histories of many ethnic groups and their interactions over a thousand-year history; as 'cotton' was to the Industrial Revolution, so 'ceremonial processions' are to Byzantium; Byzantium is ceremony and order, but also change: traditionalism and continuity but also change and transformation; the celestial order is expressed in the terrestrial order; the polity of the pragmatic Romans is merged with the oriental sense of religion that is Orthodoxy; mimesis of classical patterns and useful innovations; the Byzantines were lonely and insecure individuals (p.11) whose bookish mentality expressed their insecurity and psychological instability (p.8)! One comes away almost with the feeling that the ostentation has indeed 'planted shadows in the eyes.' Cavallo then presents some reasons why the historical experience of the Byzantines is a profitable study for people in the late twentieth-century:

'Byzantium invented the modern centralised state, experimented with "statutory" forms of poverty and public and private welfare from a very early period, accepted capitalistic" types of economic expansion, allowed women -- within the confines of a widespread antifeminism -- a dignity and social role practically denied them until this century, and introduced forms of scholarship (editions of texts, ways of reading) that are part of the modern world.' (p.12)

This introduction is hard-hitting and achieves a home run. One leaves convinced by Cavallo that everyone in the late twentieth-century should be studying Byzantine history to learn its lessons for today. The greatest function of an introduction is to encourage the reader to read on. In this Cavallo's introduction does its job well. And this is not a barbed criticism, saying that the collection of essays that follow do not deliver on the themes Cavallo has mentioned as worthy of further attention. The essays do treat in various ways the grand themes we currently hold to be the universals of Byzantine history. In part, however, there lies the problem, for this book is a collection of essays: a collection of excellent essays, well-written by well-known experts in their fields who hold strong opinions backed by extensive command of the sources. Solid, convincing, erudite and of course not following a single line at all. We have eleven essays and eleven views of what Byzantine history is really about.

Please don't get me wrong: I am not arguing for a universal history of Byzantium: 'Lord Acton and von Ranke revisited.' But the stimulating, divergent views of the scholars collected here, whilst very provoking to the toiler in the vineyard could prove a trifle disconcerting to the newcomer who had stumbled by chance on the subject. Cavallo's The Byzantines does not make it easy for the neophyte; like Sevcenko's literary elite, it wears its distinctive badge on its sleeve (see how annoying it can be?) This is all the more worrying in a book without footnotes, where further reading references to primary sources can be to seven- and eight-volume collections. Reading my way though the essays I frequently found myself saying 'Yes, but . . . .' Such assertions can be supported from the sources, but how representative are they? Notice is taken of how what is said in a text may be for rhetorical effect, but how is one to distinguish rhetorical effect (or indeed even affect) from a 'true' (or 'true-ish') record? Obviously all the contributors do this all the time -- with Cyril Mango perhaps most overtly making this point clear (pp. 260-261 & 266) -- but what is missing is the easy-to-follow route map, the guide for the unwary or even given that its subject is Byzantine, the guide for the perplexed.

Having launched the broadside of the main drawback to the book as I see it, I continue with a few ranging shots. This reviewer found the term 'God's Lieutenant' in Cavallo's introduction striking at its first use, but wearing at its second and irritating thereafter. I suspect that Patlagean's French was slightly more distant than the 'truck farming' on page 21, and the vivid, vibrant colours of the silk should have caught the 'dying' of the purple silk by the Syrian merchants (p.147). These are minor faults, and 'even' as the poets say 'Homer nods'.

However, leaving such criticisms to one side, what does this collection of essays achieve? Individually the essays have a tendency to 'take no prisoners.' Patlagean's essay displays a Gallic acute awareness of Byzantine differentiated poverty between ptochos and penes. She makes great play of the development of Christianity's role in perpetuating the ideological need for the 'deserving poor,' for without them how could Christian charity -- much more individualistic that its classical civic-minded antecedents -- be expressed. The clear drive through the undergrowth is also seen in Kazhdan's article on the peasants. With the soldiers, the peasants are an eternal verity of Byzantium, along with taxes and military service. Whether villages were 'communal' or not is attacked with vigour, if no clear conclusion (not unsurprisingly) is reached. Holdings were dispersed, settlements nucleated or not, fortified or not. The influence of geomorphology and climate are cited, the forms of horticulture, viticulture and transhumance stressed. Crops are ennumerated, the ever-present Byzantine beans mentioned. Ploughs are clearly 'scratch' not 'heavy' (no controversy for the Byzantinists over plough type!). Mills, bread-ovens, olive and wine presses, livestock and housing are dealt with in due order. Kazhdan concludes with a contrast between the collectivity of the village commune and the individuality (not to say loneliness) of the Byzantine peasant.

Schreiner begins his article on soldiers by identifying war as a part of the reality of Byzantine life, and he concludes by saying that the Byzantine Empire would have existed without Photios, Psellos and Theodore Metochites but not without the Byzantine soldier. But this begs the question of what manner of Byzantium would it have been? On a more philosophical level, issue can be taken with Schreiner's assertion that "while the mercenary certainly performed the function of a soldier, he can hardly be described as 'Byzantine,'" though this in part may be a means of reducing the time span to be covered. Schreiner enumerates the sections of his essay: sources and literature; the function of the soldier and the military environment; the material and social background; the role of the soldier within the state; the soldier and death; faith and religion; and the splendour and misery of the soldier. These bare bones are the skeleton of a book, and the essay suffers a little in attempting to be what it cannot. The picture of the Byzantine soldier is impressionistic, and I wonder if more limited objective would have resulted in a more complete picture.

As one might have expected, Robert Browning's essay on 'Teachers' stresses that classical origins of Byzantine education, and the role of rote learning and tradition. Learning was 'active' in the modern jargon because it involved lots of recitation due to the expense of manuscripts and the need to correct them. Output was equally oral. Browning's description of the teachers' feeling of status dissonance (p. 99) may find an echo in the hearts of modern readers. There was a gradual appearance of Christian elements and with no fixed curriculum, the teachers did not all blindly follow traditions like fools (p.102). Browning's picture of the teachers working at churches though not in church schools and striving to get paid their fees is enlivened with discussion of what they looked like (p.105) and bad pupils chasing quails (p.107).

Alice-Mary Talbot's essay on 'Women' does not make overt its feminist analysis. She starts with the ambivalence of Byzantium as a patriarchal society which sees women in terms of either the whore or the ever-virgin Theotokos. She suggests using evidence drawn from language and from the law. She uses a threefold analysis of women in time: girlhood; motherhood; widowhood. This analysis has several advantages: it works; it is memorable; and it covers most of the aspects of women's experience about which we know anything. Similarly, the role of women at the liminal points of life point to some manner of sociological treatment. I felt the matter of female seclusion was treated in too axiomatic a fashion: women may have been secluded from male gaze, but I think this pivotal point in Byzantium's gendered history deserved a little more discussion. The final envoie: "woman was always linked with a family, whether at home or in the convent" should have been developed further.

The central thesis of Oikonomides's article on 'Entrepreneurs' is the difference between capital and the regions; between consumption and production, a division that works well throughout the empire's history. The central difficulty that Oikonomides identifies for the group of artisans and merchants was that the gain of money for no addition of value was frowned upon -- and the rationale of transportation was closed to them as for most of their history Byzantine merchants waited in Constantinople for the world to come to them, rather than seeking out new commodities and markets.

In Vera von Falkenhausen's essay on 'Bishops', they emerge as Byzantine society's unsung heroes. As monks, they would, one would think, share in the popularity of that group, but their education which led to their co-option to a quasi governmental official status meant that they were perceived often as being too close to Caesar, for all the restrictions that were placed upon them. The sign of a bishop was his education, or at the very least his ability to speak, to exercise the parrhesia by which he could call those in authority to account. However, von Falkenhausen paints a gloomy picture of those shepherds of their flocks who attempted to carry out this function.

Guillou's essay on 'Functionaries' attempts to come to grips with the Byzantine administration and in doing so seems to fall between dealing with the high level civil servants, the career bureaucrats and those who carried out some manner of administrative function no matter what their rank or title. We are used to the idea that a distinguishing mark of the Byzantine Empire was its bureaucracy; we should be careful not to assume that that means that Byzantium possessed a fully blown state apparatus. The history of Byzantine administration is complex. The difference in functional terms between offices and dignities is not clear. Guillou's essay cannot be said to be a lucid guide for the confused.

As one might expect, Michael McCormick seeks to illuminate the role of the emperor through ceremonial, and largely is very effective in doing so. The role of ceremonial, the "right way of doing things" is often difficult for the modern mind to comprehend, controlled as we are by the sound-bite of the mass media. The dramatic changes in a capital city that ceremonial can effect are made clear in this essay, though perhaps it should be said that I was more attune to this following the events in London after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales (in itself a lesson in the importance of the 'correct style').

Cyril Mango's article on 'Saints' brings the volume to a close by drawing near to the Byzantine aspiration. The artificial quality of the Byzantine saint, known only through his hagiographical account, often reworked and 'improved' in a variety of ways and imagined in the stereotyped image of his icon, is stressed. Nevertheless the saints were 'real' in some sense to the Byzantines and were a living part of their environment.

It is impossible to give a clear account of the lines of each of the articles in this collection of essays. There is no central theme -- save perhaps that the Byzantines are interesting and are worthy of study! However, that does not invalidate the work as a guide to the current state of Byzantine Studies in Western scholarship. The work provides access to work and ideas that are not necessarily readily available elsewhere in English -- always an important consideration for Byzantine history. Because of this, it is perhaps unfortunate that more contributors less well-known in English, French, German or Italian are not present. However the work does provide a wide sweep. It is perhaps not the book to give to the interested by-stander; but it is a book that with great profit could form the core for an introductory graduate course in Byzantine Studies, with an essay a seminar, as each chapter has enough to fire any graduate students worth the name. This is not a book I recommend whole-heartedly, but with Kekaumenos, who appears numerous times, it is a book that will repay careful rereading with insight from God.