The Medieval Review 16.03.04


Harris, Jonathan. The Lost World of Byzantium. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. pp. xi, 264. $38.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-300-17857-9 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Anthony Kaldellis
The Ohio State University
kaldellis.1@osu.edu

This book is the latest in a number of histories of Byzantium that have been published recently with a general audience in mind, and it is one of the most readable of its kind. It offers a grand narrative from the foundation to the fall of Constantinople (330-1453 AD) that focuses on emperors, politics, and war, and is liberally sprinkled will well-chosen anecdotes. The Lost World will be less useful to scholars as it has no footnotes. Also, its goal is to present a brisk narrative undisturbed by the speed-bumps of academic criticism and skepticism, so it avoids debates, theories, and controversies. Harris makes his choices offstage and reports the facts. Novice readers will not be aware that a lot of what he reports can be--and usually has been--doubted, both the narrative facts and the interpretive framework into which he embeds them. There is almost no criticism of the sources, with one exception: Zosimos' account of Constantine takes yet another beating in chapter one. [1] At the end of the book there are suggestions for further reading which consist of a brief paragraph of citations for each chapter, mostly of books (and a handful of articles), all in English.

The Lost World is well written with regard to pacing, prose, and style. These are not lecture notes stitched together and electroshocked by publication into ambulating as a textbook. It was written with care in order to be read. The anecdotes are also well placed, though the unsuspecting reader will not know that many of them are fictions. And there are good turns of phrase that enliven the narrative, e.g., Byzantium "found itself at the end of a kind of ethnic bowling alley" (5). I would not assign the book to undergraduate students, because it does not teach them to be critical of our sources and models, but I would recommend it (among others) to a nonacademic reader who knew nothing about Byzantium and wanted to learn. The book presents Byzantium as dynamic and exciting.

Harris does not explain for whom he wrote the book: "I wanted to investigate why Byzantium lasted for so long" (x, 4). If this was the goal of the book, however, only chapter 1 and the epilogue (240-242) address the question directly and explicitly. In the other chapters, the reader has to infer from the narrative what enabled Byzantium to last for so long. Chapter 1, however, is more analytical and complex. After contrasting Zosimos and Eusebios on Constantine and the foundation of Constantinople, Harris proposes a number of factors that we are meant to take as possible causes of Byzantium's longevity (though their causal mechanisms are not always spelled out). These include the impregnable city of Constantinople; "dominant Christianity"; a political theory that both exalted and restrained the emperor; ascetic spirituality; the visual expression of the spiritual; and an approach to foreign threats that was not purely military. I won't argue with Constantinople and the flexible and adaptive stance toward threatened borders. But I doubt it has been proven here (or anywhere else) that ascetic spirituality and dominant Christianity played a role in imperial survival, though the latter claim especially is often repeated as a truism. How can it be tested? Dominant Christianity compared to what? Most historical societies have religions that perform analogous roles (such as fostering solidarity and a common purpose), while Harris' own narrative shows how Christian obsessions could at times hinder good governance. And factors that I would put at the top of my list are surprising absent from Harris' analysis, specifically the efficiency of the imperial bureaucracy, above all tax-collection, and the centralized administration of the armed forces and law, as well as the national unity provided by a common Roman identity.

Like many Byzantinists before him, and many surely to come, Harris does not believe the Byzantines when they said that they were Romans. In fact, he implies they were lying about it: "they pulled off one of the greatest deceptions in history, presenting their society in terms of absolute continuity with the past: to the very end they insisted on describing themselves as 'Romans' as if nothing had changed since ancient times" (5). Yet no theoretical standpoint of which I am aware authorizes us to dismiss the identity-claim of a culture simply because stuff changes. No: what we have here is a longstanding western prejudice about who does and who does not have "rights" to the Roman legacy, and the straw man of "change" has been reverse-engineered to deny the Byzantines' Roman identity. If one were so inclined, the same argument from deception could also be made against the Romans of the time of Cicero, or Ovid, or Hadrian, etc. Besides, the Byzantines knew perfectly well that much had changed since ancient times, for example Christianity and a reduction in the size of empire, but they (correctly) believed that these changes did not strip them of their right to be Romans. Among the main reasons their society survived for so long were in fact the modes, assets, assimilative capacity, and cultural specificity of their Roman identity. Conversely, some of the "changes" that Harris proposes can be doubted, for example that "Christianity brought...a conception of rulership that combined political and religious leadership under one head of state" (20, cf. 22). The implied Caesaropapism aside, political and religious leadership had not been so split in the pagan Roman empire that they needed to be united by Christianity.

The epilogue closes with perceptive words that deserve to be quoted at length because they are timely for readers anywhere in Europe and the United States. They also speak to Byzantium's ability to remain relevant in contemporary debates, and challenge historians to insist on that relevance, as Harris does admirably in his closing words:

"The empire survived and retained its culture and identity while all around it the world was in a state of flux. It did so not by becoming a narrow, militaristic state that battened down the hatches and adopted a siege mentality. On the contrary, it strove to turn the constant tide of humanity that washed up against its borders to its advantage, playing one off against the other, bringing some inside its borders to boost its own manpower and integrating them into its own religious system and culture. Thus if Byzantium has one outstanding legacy it is not perhaps Orthodox Christianity or its preservation of classical Greek literature. Rather it is the lesson that the strength of a society lies in its ability to adapt and incorporate outsiders in even the most adverse circumstances" (242).

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Notes:

1. On the basis of their scholia in the surviving manuscript of Zosimos, I suspect that Byzantine scholars preserved his history precisely because his anti-Christian account of Constantine was so easy to refute. It made pagan views of history look ridiculous.



Copyright (c) 2016 Anthony Kaldellis



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