09.10.08, Shepard, ed., Byzantine Empire

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Jean-Claude Cheynet

The Medieval Review 09.10.08

Shepard, Jonathan (ed.). The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, c. 500-1492. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. 1207. ISBN: 978-0-521-83231-1.

Reviewed by:
Jean-Claude Cheynet
Université Paris IV
jean-claude.cheynet@wanadoo.fr

The renewal of Byzantine studies leads to the publication of new textbooks, up to date with new trends in research. To cite only a few of them, let us mention the Economic History of Byzantium under the direction of A. Laiou, the Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies edited by E. Jeffreys, the Monde byzantin vols. 1 and 2 edited by Cécile Morrisson and myself, and naturally the Cambridge Medieval History. The book edited by Jonathan Shepard offers a new synthesis destined to non-specialists, and particularly to non Hellenists. In his introduction, he justifies his editorial choices. The chronological frame (c. 500-1492) can surprise. The starting point is the most difficult to defend. It offers an advantage: there is no need to deal with the Western Empire et the main characteristics of the Byzantine Empire are set into place, an unrivaled capital, the Roman political and juridical legacy, and a Christian Church, whose main doctrinal body is already defined. 500 A.D., however is not a seizure in the history of the Byzantine Empire. The closing point is also surprising: it lies beyond the fall of Constantinople. The choice of 1492 is a reminder that the Byzantine legacy endured after the fall of the capital. There is also a hint that the Mediterranean Sea was no longer the center of the world. From 1453 until 1492 the former Byzantine regions fall under Ottoman rule and the Orthodox populations adapt to the new political order.

The book is organized in chapters, some of which are simple reprints of the Cambridge Medieval History while others were written with the new chronological frame in mind. A lot of freedom was granted to authors and their specific styles are perceptible. In the chapter of the end of the Empire, one recognizes A. Bryer's fondness for paradox in his reluctance to dwell on the capture of Constantinople by Mehmet II in 1453.

The presence of chapters written for other books with a different time frame forces the editor to make choices. The approach is thematic. There is no chronological narration. The justification for the choice is the presence of a number of relatively recent publications such as M. Angold, The Byzantine Empire, 1025-1204: A Political History, New York, 1984 or D. Nicol, The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, second edition, 1993. The political fragmentation of the Empire under the Palaiologan dynasty makes it very difficult to narrate the fate of the former regions of the Empire in one chapter. Political history and international relations are nevertheless dealt with in depth.

I shall review the new chapters written for this specific book as they are also very stimulating. Three short chapters, serving as an introduction, offer a panorama of the Empire in the sixth century. In them, Justinian appears as an emperor keen to defend orthodoxy more than one obsessed with Roman grandeur. Justinian did not have in mind to invade the West, but jumped at the opportunity, when called by the African or Italian populations. Constantinople attracts Latin residents and the Roman world remains united. The fate of the Empire lies in its relations with its Eastern neighbors, Armenia, Persia, and the Arabic world. This justifies a precise description of the pre-Islamic Arabic world. L. Conrad corrects common point of views, conveyed by Islamic traditions and long accepted by scholars. The Arabic peninsula knew an economic development similar to that of close regions, but, paradoxically, Mecca was not a major center of prosperity. By contrast to this precise description, one finds only a quick survey concerning the transformations of the Empire during the seventh century, the formation of themes and the religious practices born out of desperation and fear.

More than half of the chapters dealing with the period before 1204 focus on international relations and on the Empire's neighbors. The Byzantine Empire is an "Empire of the Middle" and has to maintain its frontiers on three fronts. It defends its territory against Latins in the West, nomadic populations in the Balkans, and great empires in the East, facing the Persian Empire, then the Arabic Caliphate and finally the Turkish sultanate and emirates.

Italy, being the main area of contact with the Latin world is studied in more than one chapter. The military presence of the Byzantines was symbolic in Southern Italy, but more important in Sicily, bitterly defended because of its wealth. Italy remained an area coveted by the Byzantine Empire, the Western Empire and the papacy. With relatively little means, the Byzantines remained important actors in Italy, until the reign of Manuel Comnenos. Titles and Byzantine luxury products were still attractive. M. McCormick, J. Shepard, and G.A. Loud show that the traditional vision of a Byzantine empire simply defending its territory or, at the opposite, trying to invade all of Italy does not take into account the imperial pragmatic approach of diplomacy. They meant to protect the Balkans from invaders and they wished to be informed of the situation in the West. Thus, the conflict between Latins and Greeks and its religious dimension, has been overemphasized. Even after 1204, they could be close, especially when the Latin conquerors left Greek aristocrats in command. This cooperation strengthened their hold onto power. Henry of Hainaut, the second Latin emperor of Constantinople, led Greek troops to victory and relied on Greek aristocrats to rule. In the Peloponnesian region, the Villehardouin family also understood the interest of governing with local nobility. All these examples lead to conclude that it was possible for Latin and Greeks to live peacefully together.

The book also analyzes the relations between the Byzantine Empire and its Oriental neighbors. It shows that nothing could be anticipated. At the battle of the Yarmuk, the army of Heraclius was not inferior to the Arabic army, and the loss of the Oriental provinces was not unavoidable. Later, at the battle of Mantzikert, it was not so much the defeat of Romanos Diogenis, which opened Asia Minor to the Turks, but rather the civil war, which followed the battle. Another preconceived idea is shattered in this book : the Chronicles often described the Armenians as hostile to Constantinople because of religious differences, but they appear to be often tempted to collaborate with the imperial power, because the Byzantine emperors offer them important charges and titles.

Compared to Asia Minor, the Balkans were a rather privileged area, during the Palaiologan period. A. Ducellier writes about the fate of Albanian principalities. P. Stephenson shows that Basil IIs conquest of Bulgaria was not a simple military victory: the Bulgarians were still able to resist after Samuels defeat and death. The Byzantine Empire did not possess a real military superiority, a fact which explains its difficulties on the battlefield during the following centuries. During the last centuries, the Balkans were to become the most dynamic and the wealthiest part of the Empire. Their prosperity helped make up for the loss of most of Asia Minor.

There is only one chapter devoted to the economy. M. Whittow covers six centuries in this chapter: one should not expect detailed information, but he provides the state of the matter. Scholars, thirty years ago, criticized the idea, once popularized by Ostrogorsky, that the disappearance of free peasantry led to the decline Byzantium in the eleventh century. Instead, they showed that thanks to a dynamic aristocracy, the empire was prosperous under the Comnenian emperors, which is confirmed by archaeology and numismatics. Their point of view is now also partially contested. Some scholars now think that the role of the aristocracy in leading towards economic growth may have been overestimated. In their opinion, the aristocracy was not so dynamic and happy to be self-sufficient, while peasants working on their own properties had to develop profitability, in order to pay taxes. These new ideas are debatable. Self-sufficiency is a moral ideal, not an economic reality. Aristocrats had powerful means of investment, far more than peasants.

The economic history of the Palaiologan period appears in different chapters. Thanks to numerous sources, mostly coming from the archives of Italian cities, it is dealt with in more detail. M. Balard and D. Jacoby describe the development of Latin trade in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Black Seas. The current narration of this development explains that the Greeks suffered from this Latin commercial expansion. The Latins did dominate the trade, but some of the Greeks also benefited from it.

Important aspects of Byzantine history are not treated in depth, because of the publishers decision to integrate chapters written for a volume devoted to European history in this book, dominated by studies on the Latin world, and where studies on Byzantium concentrated on international relations. The history of Byzantine society is present in many chapters, but not in a continuous manner, which makes it difficult to grasp its evolution and to evaluate the new trends of research in this field. For more information, the reader can turn to the book edited by J. Haldon, A social history of Byzantium, but it remains difficult for a non specialist to understand the social evolution of the Byzantine Empire. No attention is given to the Byzantine court, although its role in ruling the Empire was very important and attracted many aristocrats to the imperial palace up to 1204. Also, the role of Constantinople has not been marked out clearly enough. During the seventh and eighth centuries, the sturdy walls of the capital did not fall and allowed the imperial government to continue functioning and maintaining some control over the rest of the Empire. Constantinople played a major role in the survival of the Empire. Its hinterland was prosperous enough to allow the city to survive during the dark ages and to develop afterwards.

The religious history of the Empire, its clergy are also left in the background, with the exception of missions up to the ninth century and the union of the Churches during the Palaiologan period. The study of missions is as much a study of international relations as it is a study of the Christian faith expansion. In a good synthesis, S. Ivanov notes that the ninth century emperors did not plan to convert barbarian pagan neighbors, even if Michael IIIs diplomatic efforts helped in deciding Khan Boris to receive baptism at the hands of the Greek. Exceptional circumstances also explain why Basil II required Prince Vladimirs conversion. After the tenth century, the missionary effort came to a halt, the Slavic and Hungarian neighbors were converted, and in the East, Islam was severely punishing apostasy.

In the past, traditional history influenced by ecclesiastical sources gave too much space to religious studies, overrating the real impact of theological controversies. Opposed to that tendency, M.-F. Auzépy chose to entitle her chapter "State of emergency (700-850)", and not "the iconoclastic controversy". The role of the Church in the everyday life of the Byzantines was nevertheless very important. The Byzantines took part in religious rituals and festivals, which created a social bond and sense of solidarity.

Finally, another field of study is somewhat neglected: intellectual history. The Palace and the Church both produced an important body of literary and artistic works. Elements of this history are dispersed throughout the chapters, but no chapter is devoted to schooling, to book production or to the development of Byzantine literature.

These remarks should not tarnish the general impression. The book edited by J. Shepard, is pleasant to read, free of technical or erudite words. It has a good glossary. It will become a reference for those interested in Byzantine Studies, because it is up to date on current research in the different fields of studies it tackles. It shows that Byzantine history is a part of European history and follows the same patterns of evolution. Its study is relevant to our times.

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Jean-Claude Cheynet

Université Paris IV