16.05.15, Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic

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Spyros P. Panagopoulos

The Medieval Review 16.05.15

Kaldellis, Anthony. The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. pp. 290. ISBN: 978-0-674365-407 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Spyros P. Panagopoulos
Ionian University, Corfu, Greece
spyrpan1@gmail.com

In his fascinating new book, The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome, Anthony Kaldellis presents the issue of Byzantine polity and argues that this was a republican monarchy where the people was politically sovereign. Contrary to the traditional view of the Byzantine monarchy as an unqualified absolutism, ordained by God in a way that all citizens believed and obeyed, Kaldellis identifies the actual operating ideology as continuous with earlier Roman imperial law and government. He argues that the Byzantine Empire, from its beginning in the fourth century until its collapse in the fifteenth, was not a theocratic state but a republican monarchy. At heart Byzantium was the Roman republic, with all the implications of consent and political involvement that terminology carries.

Chapter 1, "Introducing the Roman Republic," defines terms: 'ideology' and 'politeia'. The author defines the Byzantine "politeia" as a "translation of res publica" (6). The Byzantines had no Greek equivalent for the Latin res publica, but Kaldellis argues that their words "koinon" ("common thing") and "politeia" ("polity"), expressed much the same idea. To translate politeia as 'state' is misleading. The republican political ideology of Rome continued to live and thrive through the Byzantine politeia. Kaldellis leaves no doubt that what the term implied was the community of all Byzantines, a community with a personality whose benefit amounted to the common good. Kaldellis cites historical passages from different periods (cf. Leo VI's novels, Georgios Synkellos, Ioannes Zonaras, Michael Psellos etc.), in order he shows how politeia was evolved through centuries.

Chapter 2, "The Emperor in the Republic," discusses politeia further, and explores its relationship with basileia. Politeia and basileia did not have the same meaning. As Kaldellis argues, emperors were nominally in charge of the public space of the politeia but only as its custodians, not its owners" (43). In Byzantium all human goods were either public (τὰ δημόσια πράγματα) or private. The public ones were belonging to the community and the private ones was belonging to each one separately. Hellenistic kings were different. They did not rule republics, but they owned their kingdoms as personal possessions, and could pass them to their heirs. Roman emperors on the other hand ruled only by sufferance of the Roman people. Kaldellis cites different sources showing the relation of the Byzantine emperors to the politeia and the exercise of their power over their subjects. The last section of this chapter attempts to prove that the emperors and their basileia served the politeia (the Republic). The Byzantine emperors never prided themselves that the Republic was theirs, but the general idea that existed was that they do God's work, i.e they served "the public interest," "the common good" (κοινόν), "the public good," and their exemplars derived from the Bible.

Chapter 3, "Extralegal Authority in a Lawful Polity," examines the topic if the emperor was under or above the law and emperor's relation to the law. Everyone agreed that the Roman Empire was an ennomos politeia, a republic of laws. Indeed to be secure on his throne an emperor had to be seen in this way. The role of the emperor in the republic was to be the supreme legislative authority, a function that in some senses placed him above the law and apply the laws with discretion and flexibility (cf. oikonomia). The emperor needed to abide by the laws in order for his actions to be legitimate, but simultaneously he needed to be above the laws in order to serve the common good of the republic and his subjects. Being above the law did not make the emperor an absolute monarch, but he was subject to God's law and his subjects' control. Kaldellis cites several sources from Byzantine "theoreticians" of the Byzantine law in order to give emphasize on how secular and ecclesiastical personalities saw the emperor's exercise of law. According to these sources the emperor some time should overcome the law for the "common good" (ὐπὲρ ὠφελείας τοῦ κοινοῦ). The test is the common good, of which the republic as a whole will be the judge.

Chapters 4 and 5 examine the sovereignty of the people, of the δῆμος, in the theory and the practice. The narrative sources are actually full of evidence to this effect. Kaldellis uses Rousseau's political theory in treating the sovereignty of the Roman people, namely that the people are sovereign but in day to day practice they have delegated power. Indeed seen over the eight centuries that Kaldellis is covering, what is most remarkable about the Nika riots of the sixth century is that they are the only recorded instance of an emperor who managed to defy popular judgement. Otherwise the brutal message of Byzantine politics was that emperors who had lost popular support were doomed. Kaldellis cites familiar episodes (cf. episodes during the reign of Anastasios, Justinian, Tiberios II, Maurikios, Herakleios etc.) and well-known sources (cf. Theodoros Anagnostes, John Malalas, Pseudo- Zacharias, Prokopios of Caesarea, Theophylaktus Simmocata, Niketas Choniates etc.) and it is a fair point that in our concentration on Byzantine politics as a court-centered business the power of the people has been too much overlooked. Another topic that Kaldellis discusses is the way he sees himself civil war in Byzantium. He strongly believes that civil wars were a method of election in the Byzantine Empire. "Contestation" was an every-day practice in the politics of Romanía, as the emperors had no absolute right to govern the Empire and the sufferance of the Roman subjects was not endless. On the other hand, as Kaldellis sets the question, "civil wars" was the answer of the populace to the elections of the Republic.

The final chapter, chapter 6 ("The Secular Republic and the Theocratic Imperial Idea") presents Byzantium as a theocratic state, ruled by a God-given emperor. The scholar sets the question how the Byzantines viewed their emperor and that the Roman monarchical republic cannot have been the same with the Orthodox imperial theocracy. Kaldellis presents the Byzantine "imperial idea" citing previous scholarship (cf Fr. Francis Dvornik) and Byzantine fonts who established the model of Christian emperor (cf. Eusebios of Caesarea). The author attempts to show and correct the mistakes that scholars make, when they deal with the Byzantine "imperial idea." He connects "imperial idea" with the concept of "Caesaropapism," a kind of religious authority. Kaldellis is not denying that the Orthodox imperial theocracy was an aspect of Byzantine ideology; rather he is concerned to keep it in perspective. Constant reminders that the emperor had been chosen by God were a defensive move to reinforce his fragile grip on power. The Byzantines did not believe quite sincerely that the imperial system was in some sense divinely validated.

To conclude, this fascinating study by Kaldellis sets the question of Byzantine Republic and imperial ideology on new bases. He presents his arguments clearly and forcefully, and explicitly labels it an extremely revisionist book. Some Byzantinists will find the arguments come as a surprise but perhaps not that many. Kaldellis emphatically opens anew the discussion on Byzantine political ideology. In deconstructing the dated image of theocracy, he also seeks to dismiss the political sovereignty of the emperor. As last I need to say that Kaldellis is a wonderful academic historian, full of interesting ideas who dares to review older established ideas, whose works add hugely to the entertainment values of Byzantine studies. Every scholarly library should have a copy.

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