15.08.07, Cameron, Byzantine Matters

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Michael Decker

The Medieval Review 15.08.07

Cameron, Averil. Byzantine Matters. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. pp. 184. ISBN: 9780691157634 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Michael Decker
University of South Florida

Byzantine Matters consists of a series of essays in which Professor Averil Cameron reflects on several key areas of Byzantine Studies. Cameron takes us on a tour of a number of core intellectual issues within what one might call, without being too glib about it, the Byzantine intellectual commonwealth. Chapter 1, "Absence," deals with the failure of western academics to integrate Byzantium within the narrative of medieval Europe. As Cameron notes, many leading European scholars of the European Middle Ages ignore Byzantium altogether. The Annales movement, for example, while foundational in many positive ways, shut out the Byzantines and their successors have generally followed suit. Part of this, Cameron explains, is due to the negative stereotypes that many western scholars since Gibbon have conferred in their assessment of Byzantium. Cameron notes that Byzantium does not fit neatly into simple categories: it is not merely the continuation of the Roman Empire; it is not merely a Christian state; it is not merely "Western" or "Eastern." This hybridity of Byzantium has partly shaped reactions among scholars of the medieval period whose most common reaction has been to ignore Byzantium or to treat it at arm's length at best.

Chapter 2, "Empire," questions the nature of Byzantium and how one might understand this civilization as a political entity. In addition to offering brief discussions for those unfamiliar with some of the major events that helped shape the political fate of the empire, Cameron here discusses matters of historiographic interest. Some, she argues, have accepted the idea of a Byzantine Commonwealth, first argued by Dimitri Obolensky in 1971 and adapted to late antiquity by Garth Fowden in his From Empire to Commonwealth in 1994. Central to the thesis is an understanding of Byzantine influence as articulated in cultural terms rather than through some measurement of territorial prominence or military power. The notion of a Byzantine Commonwealth remains influential but problematic, Cameron argues, but she does not reject it entirely and sees it as a possible but flawed way to escape a nationalist narrative. Indeed one might add, and Cameron does, especially in her epilogue, that the burgeoning field of Late Antiquity is itself a corrosive to defining a full understanding of Byzantium, encouraging as it does further partitioning of scholarly pursuits.

In chapter 3, "Hellenism," Cameron begins by asking "Who owns Byzantium?" and "Is there a Byzantine identity" (46)? She approaches these questions through historiographic analysis in which she notes that both have been clouded by pan-Hellenic, pan-Slavic, Marxist, and nationalist agendas. In most cases, through this smoke it is impossible to see the Byzantine flame and the overall impression is one in which thoughtful scholars need to rethink the entire edifice upon which our perceptions of Byzantium have been constructed. One of the ways forward in addressing issues of identity, Cameron argues, is to apply little used methodological tools derived from post-colonial theory in order to engage with slippery notions regarding a multiplicity of Byzantine self-images which varied through time and space.

Chapter 4, "Realms of Gold," treats elements of Byzantine visual culture. In this section are examined subjects ranging from modern art historical approaches to the historiographic methods to the understanding of Iconoclasm and its bearing on matters of art. In an outline of the debate of the presumptive contingency of image and text, Cameron deftly traces where we have been and where we might go. Of all the fields of inquiry that make up the discipline, art history has, in some ways, the most untapped potential and the most burdensome past. While often dismissive of Byzantine art, western scholars have also applied dangerous stereotypes and flattened the differences in what is a nuanced and little understood artistic and visual cultures. As in the case with literature, the world of art history has much to learn, Cameron argues, from current methodological approaches inspired by literary criticism and other post-modern theoretical approaches. The exploration of art within Orthodoxy and its various discourses is the most interesting portion of the chapter and likely among the most fruitful avenues of future research. Further, the author treats the rather amorphous but large umbrella of "material culture" in this chapter but only just scratches the surface.

"The Very Model of Orthodoxy?," chapter 5, is an exploration of a key question for Byzantinists and is posed at the outset of the chapter: "Was Byzantium an 'Orthodox' society?" In this section, Cameron focuses her attention on ecclesiastical authority and the way in which contested authority is described in the surviving literature. Another major question, she argues, is the relationship of philosophy to Christian theology, something discussed in chapter 3 regarding Hellenism as well. While, it is stressed, many of our surviving texts are written from an Orthodox perspective, few shed life on Orthodoxy as experienced by the majority of the citizens of the empire on a daily basis throughout a number of eras and locales. The challenge of reconstructing something of the Orthodox life of the "average" layperson is therefore quite difficult, although here, as in many of the areas already described, Byzantinists could profit by the work done by many in late antiquity and the medieval west, where discussion of parallel questions are much more advanced.

Considerable space in chapter 5 is devoted to the affair of Leo, metropolitan of Chalcedon, and Alexius I Comenus (1081-1118) regarding a theological understanding of religious imagery, which in fact was a veiled political play. Such episodes show performance, both public displays of power and polished textual dramas in which authors have fashioned a narrative of events, of course, to suit a particular purpose, even if we possess the recorded proceedings of the synod. Cameron points out that the Aristotelian approach used by Leo's rival Eustratius of Nicaea would eventually land him in hot water. What such an episode shows is that in Byzantium, as everywhere else, things are not always what they seem. Historians of Byzantium still have a long way to go to catch up to this fact.

Neither is this volume what it appears at first glance. Though physically small, it is at once a kind of autopsy of "Byzantiums" as they existed in the now-rejected arguments of recent scholars, a call for continued support and elaboration of an entire realm of medieval studies, and a call for its integration into the broader world-narrative without giving ground on either the parallels or the differences that made Byzantium a distinct civilization apart from its western counterparts though neither wholly removed from it nor alien to. Cameron calls, in short, for a reckoning of Byzantine civilization on its own terms, afresh and with the plaster removed from our eyes. This is exciting and far more difficult than it seems.

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