Dion Smythe

title.none: Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Smythe)

identifier.other: baj9928.9905.007 99.05.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

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

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. Pp. xxiii, 1019. $79.50. ISBN: 0-804-72421-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.05.07

Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. Pp. xxiii, 1019. $79.50. ISBN: 0-804-72421-0.

Reviewed by:

Dion Smythe
King's College London

Pr ofessor Treadgold in his preface provides a clear summary of his intention: "I have tried to supply here within the limits of a single volume an updated and complete history" (p. xv). Within the compass of this substantial volume he does provide a complete political-military history of the Byzantine Empire from the preludes to its foundation by Constantine the Great in 312 to the final Fall of Mehmed II the Conqueror in 1453. The comment about an "updated . . . history", together with the book's title clearly points to Treadgold's aspiration to provide a replacement to Ostrogorsky's History of the Byzantine State, a vintage work that for English-speaking students has provided a first point of call for reference, clarification or basic chronology. Treadgold's book -- with almost a page for every year of the empire's existence -- does provide an updated version of Ostrogorsky's classic; but there in part is the rub: updated yes, but how improved and for what readership is it intended?

Ostrogorsky's title set out his debt to his own training within the traditions of German historiography: political action, wars, the state and the apparatus of government were all the proper focus of attention when writing history -- when, almost, one might say -- opening up a new frontier in historical writing. Since the appearance of the first English edition of Ostrogorsky's History of the Byzantine State, how the past and the study of the past is viewed has changed considerably, and what is deemed to be "the important stuff" of history has widened to be more inclusive. It was therefore with a certain about of pleasure that I began to read Treadgold's book. Here was a book of over one thousand pages that promised in its title to unite the history of the political state (with the sad catalogue of wars that seems still as I write to be part of political life) and the history of "society", however that might be defined. The title promises universal history but the promise is not realised in its execution.

Treadgold has chosen as his general format a division into sections, each composed of a number of chapters that present a fairly straightforward account of what happened (or given that it is Byzantine history, perhaps more accurately "who did what to whom") followed by a chapter that obviously is to deal with the "society" part of the equation. Within these "society chapters" if I may express it crudely, there are section headings dealing with the military strength, the economy, social classes (magnates, land owners, commercial groups), the church, literature, architecture and minor plastic arts. These sections are the most disappointing. Even with the large compass available to him, Treadgold fails to explain -- to this reader at least -- why Byzantine society is so interesting and the object of such dedicated study. It is clear reading this work that Treadgold is dedicated to Byzantine history and is widely and deeply knowledgeable about the subject (though I trust that as he claims for himself the right to "differ with many Byzantinists, but probably not with most" (p. xvii) it will not be taken amiss if I say that I would not agree with the author at all times and in all places), but in the actual text of the book, if not from the Preface, are his feelings of passion for the subject and for the people who made the subject, the Byzantines themselves.

Laying claim to having written "the history as I see it" (p. xvi), I am deeply saddened that Treadgold presents Byzantine history as "one damn thing after another" (Ford). Treadgold writes that he finds "modern ideologies like Marxism, Post-structuralism or nationalisms of various sorts to be unhelpful for studying Byzantium" (p. xvii), which may well be the case -- it has been said that many monographs espousing particular ideologies are most illuminating when set on fire! However, what is true is that some ideologies current in modern scholarship (Marxism, post-structuralism, feminism yes, but also conservatism, liberalism and individualism) may also be useful in providing an "explanatory understanding" (Weber) of Ranke's "wie es eigentlich gewesen". Gibbon was able to provide a single theme to unite the entire history of the thousand-year empire: the rational deist's denunciation of emotive Christianity as the ultimate cause of the empire's downfall. The fragmented post-modernist world would reject such monocausal explanations, convinced more readily by different causes for different effects. Treadgold imposes no coherence on the parade of wars, usurpations, blindings, mutiltations, incest, child-marriages, dysfunctional families and folly that makes up Byzantine history and that is the weakness of the book. With so much detail, the human mind requires themes to be pointed out, so that what is presented can acquire meaning for the reader. And this brings me back to my earlier point: who are these readers to be? The new-comer to the subject who has spent a holiday in Greece or Turkey, the undergraduate student attempting to engage with the course Byzantine History 101, the person who has seen a collection of icons in a museum and wants to know more will find it hard to gain memorable understanding from this book: there is too much detail and too little structure. The Byzantinist, I think, will want to know why the book was written: it is all very sound and though there are points of detail that I would quibble with, they are indeed at most that: quibbles. Treadgold is not a lone Byzantinist marching to the beat of a different drum -- though to this social historian, he does seem to be marching a little too much with his emphasis on the army not merely at war but also as the manifestation of the state, and I would disagree with his dismissal of holy men, court oratory or official ceremonies (p. xvii). But as I said, these are quibbles. And what of the western mediaevalist or Islamicist who came to this book, perhaps seeking to place in context the events happening in the west or in Outremer? As for the student starting a course or the interested bystander, the professional from an associated discipline would expect a little more in analysis and thematic development (as opposed to the development of the themes) to make sense of the work. The Byzantinist goes through the work at turns agreeing or disagreeing, playing the agreeable parlour game of "spot the source" for comments, asides, descriptions and assertions. Non-specialists are treated to a parade of one thing after another, but with no clear idea of why or what it all means.

The volume is well produced, though the reviewer found the use of a small capitals "I" in dates annoying as it did not seem to match the other figures particularly well. I found only one typographical error (p. 55, line 2: "conveninq" instead of "convening"), which is outstanding for a work of this magnitude. Twenty-one maps illustrate various points, though at times I wished they could have been of sightly higher quality as Crete, Cyprus and Corfu yet again were represented by blobs. There are 207 photographic illustrations, all black and white and of variable resolution; the images however seem mostly to provide some light relief from the mass of text and the level of detail is mostly sufficient to see what is being pointed out. There are eighteen tables, twelve of which are family trees showing the ramifications of family relationships. These are clear and very helpful, especially given Byzantine naming habits. The utility of the remainder is more debatable. Treadgold is upfront in the preface (p. xvii) about making more use of statistics and numerical estimates; I am less sanguine about the use of these estimates, especially when presented in the form of "estimated state budgets" (pp. 145, 277, 412, 576) or even "estimated state budgetary plan for 1321" (p. 843), which gives too solid a reality to figures that can only indicate proportions, rather than nomismata in the treasury. The transliteration of Greek is always a vexed and vexing problem: Treadgold sticks with a Latinate form all the way through, with the benefit of consistency. Some of his anglicisations are less felicitous: I find "droungary" (for droungarios) ugly and not easy to say; "postal logothete" (for "logothete of the drome" or tou dromou) made me think more of a title gained from a shady outfit off the Forum of Constantine for fifty nomismata hyperpyra, rather than the Byzantine equivalent of the head of the CIA and the FBI; the mesazon, described as "manager" (p.591) is a manager, but is more colourfully described as the "one who stands between" (I draw attention to this because of the "translation" given for Monemvasia in the caption on p.736); and the coining of a neologism "pronoiar" for one who holds a grant of pronoia serves to make more confusing what is already a confusing institution; the description of Michael II as coming "from a ranching family near Amorium" (p. 433) struck an odd note, but perhaps it is merely the start of the trend in Anatolia that will produce the "Easterns" from Anatolia, such as Digenes Akrites, with the good guys in their white Roman turbans, in the twelfth century. With such a panoramic sweep of history it is not surprising that inconsistencies creep in: on page 310 we are told that "Constans became effective ruler of the empire just before he turned fourteen", but on page 475 we meet the assertion that "at age thirteen Constantine VII was too young to rule." A minor point perhaps, but as Constantine VII's long "minority" introduced both Phokas and Tzimisces to the throne due cause perhaps for explaining the change.

A review should point out howling blunders; in Treadgold's History of the Byzantine State and Society there are no such obvious monumental errors. The reviewer then should think of the readership for the book and make recommendations. As I have said earlier, there is no obvious readership for this volume that will take pleasure in consuming a continuous narrative with so little analysis. It might serve as a core text for a survey course of Byzantine history, complemented with journal articles, shorter monographs and the views of lecturers. It is not an introduction to Byzantine history that provides an idea of "which way is up" to be read in an afternoon or a day; this is a weighty tome. It is difficult to fault it in a material way, but it is equally hard to recommend it unreservedly.