Dorothy Abrahamse

title.none: Gregory, History of Byzantium (Dorothy Abrahamse )

identifier.other: baj9928.0610.005 06.10.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dorothy Abrahamse , California State University, Long Beach,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Gregory, Timothy E. A History of Byzantium. Series: Blackwell History of the Ancient World. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Pp. xiv, 382. $64.95 (hb) 0-631-23513-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.10.05

Gregory, Timothy E. A History of Byzantium. Series: Blackwell History of the Ancient World. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Pp. xiv, 382. $64.95 (hb) 0-631-23513-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dorothy Abrahamse
California State University, Long Beach

Designing an introductory survey of Byzantine history has always posed problems for historians. A generation ago, George Ostrogorsky's History of the Byzantine State was not only a masterpiece, but its emphasis on central imperial history defined and reflected the interpretive structure for the field very effectively, although it was never a text for beginners. Today, research in Byzantine social, economic and cultural history from a provincial perspective, as well as the use of new sources, especially in archeology and material culture, has changed all that, and many of the assumptions of the traditional imperial narrative have been challenged. Byzantine history must also take a new role in the undergraduate curriculum, as an important player in world or Mediterranean histories, or as part of renewed interest in the roots of orthodox culture and Balkan crises, as much as the traditional emphasis on Byzantium's preservation of classical institutions.

Balancing new interpretive questions, social history and global issues with a narrative context for a non-specialist audience in a single work is difficult, and recent writers have chosen to emphasize either issues and evidence or traditional narrative. The new Oxford History of Byzantium [1] and several other recent short histories take an analytic approach, with minimal narrative; the other extreme is available in Warren Treadgold's History of the Byzantine State and Society and his Concise History of Byzantium.[2] Timothy Gregory's text for the Blackwell History of the Ancient World series offers a "traditional" political narrative framework, which the author argues is an essential starting point for readers with no background in the subject. Professor Gregory's goal is to include religion, society, and the economy within the coverage of individual chapters of imperial history. Extracts from sources and coverage of wide-ranging topics of interest are included in boxes inserted within each chapter. The 357 pages of text cover the history of the empire from the third century to the post-Byzantine world and the Byzantine heritage in modern Russia and eastern Europe. As an affordable text, it includes black and white maps, photos, a useful glossary and brief bibliography.

The narrative follows the emperors, with the political history of each reign, even short-lived weak emperors, recounted. Professor Gregory's accounts generally follow recent scholarship and present balanced descriptions, and source problems and biases are identified for students. Thus the difficulties of evaluating a Justinian known through Prokopios, a Constantine V from iconophile sources, and the later Macedonian whitewash of the rise of Basil I in the ninth century are made clear. The integration of religious, institutional and cultural history works well for significant reigns. Constantine's religious policies, founding of Constantinople and building program, current scholarship on barbarian migrations and Slavic settlements, the fate of cities, and the iconoclastic controversy, for example, are clearly explained and integrated effectively into their respective chapters. In some cases, however, the coverage of each reign can produce an overwhelming "parade of emperors" that makes it hard to keep track of major themes. In the chapter entitled the "Apogee of Byzantine Power," for example, the reign of Basil II is followed by a political narrative of the eleventh century emperors that will certainly make readers wonder what the chapter title could mean. Recent emphasis on the economic development of the twelfth century and its urban development, however, is included in the section on the Komnenoi. It is unfortunate that the format of the book does not allow more bibliographical references to the recent debates Gregory refers to. This text is not intended to be a revisionist work, but a narrative reflective of recent interpretive scholarship. On this ground, it generally succeeds. The author's overall argument is that Byzantine civilization should be seen as an inclusive society able to incorporate contradiction and complexity, whose contributions to the modern world can be seen in its art and monastic spirituality as much as its preservation of classical texts and forms. He emphasizes the importance of Mt. Athos and Meteora as spiritual, economic and intellectual centers in the Ottoman period and their role in preserving Byzantine culture throughout the Orthodox world. The text concludes with a thought-provoking discussion of post-Byzantine formal and folk culture, and the conflicting views that the modern heirs of Byzantium (defined as Greeks, Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbs and other Slavic peoples) hold of their heritage.

Professor Gregory's most original contributions are in the "Boxes" chosen for emphasis. Here his explanations of photos and plans and his knowledge of Greece enliven the text. The selection of sources and incidents introduces some expected figures, such as Psellos, Liudprand of Cremona, and Anna Komnena's account of the arrival of the First Crusade, but many are unusual and will be especially interesting to students. A summary of archeological findings on Byzantine houses, Byzantine gold, legends of transvestite nuns, portraits of Anicia Juliana, the Poet Kassia, St. Anastasia the Medicine-healer (based on a fresco in the church of the Panagia Phorbiotissa of Asinou in Cyprus), and post-Byzantine popular legends of the last emperor are examples of the wide range of short accounts that bring the narrative to life. Women, material culture, and popular belief are especially well represented. Photos and floor plans are not just included, but described and interpreted for the reader.

With its intermediate length, this text would be a good choice for year-long surveys that choose a narrative format, as a reference for students, or for general readers who want a narrative history of Byzantium. It is less appropriate as a core text for one-semester surveys or thematically oriented courses, where the narrative detail will probably seem overwhelming to contemporary students.

NOTES [1] Cyril Mango, ed., The Oxford History of Byzantium, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002; see also John Haldon, Byzantium: A History. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing, 2005; Cavallo, ed., The Byzantines, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.

[2] Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society,Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997; A Concise History of Byzantium, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2001.