02 February 2004

Byzantine Studies, Kilkenny, 2004:
2: Introducing Byzantine studies

The Court of Justinian in a mosaic in San Vitale in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Byzantium: Introduction

Patrick Comerford

Liberal Studies Group,

Maynooth University Campus

Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny,

Introduction, Monday, 2 February 2004

2: Introducing Byzantine studies

Where is Byzantium?

What is Byzantium?

What is involved in Byzantine Studies?

How can we sail to Byzantium today?

(i) Where is Byzantium?:

Handout: A map of Byzantium

Now that we have arrived in Byzantium, we may as well get to know the principal buildings and monuments of the city whose streets we are going to explore.

Byzantium is the name given to both the state and the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire in the Middle Ages. Both the state and the inhabitants always called themselves Roman, as did most of their neighbours. Western Europeans, who had their own Roman Empire called them Orientals or Greeks, and later following the example of the great French scholar DuCange, Byzantines after the former name of the Empire’s capital city, Constantinople.

These names give witness to the composite nature of Byzantium. It was, without any doubt, the continuation of the Roman state, and until the seventh century, preserved the basic structures of Late Roman Mediterranean civic culture – a large multi-ethnic Christian state, based on a network of urban centres, and defended by a mobile specialised army.

After the Arab/Muslim conquest of Egypt and Syria, the nature of the state and culture was transformed. Byzantium became much more a Greek state (perhaps best seen in the Emperor Heraklios’ adoption of the Greek title βασιλεύς, Basileos), all the cities except Constantinople faded away to small fortified centres, and the military organisation of the empire came to be based on a series of local armies.

(ii) Historical ambiguities:

There is then a persistent ambiguity about the beginning of Byzantine history – between the building of Constantinople by Constantine I and the mid-7th century collapse of late antique urban culture.

The seventh to ninth centuries are generally accounted a low point of Byzantine history. Little literature – even saints' lives – survives, and even less art. The period is studied above all for the history of the struggle over icons. This Iconoclastic Controversy bears witness to a continued intellectual vitality, and the emergence of one of history's most sophisticated analyses of the nature and function of art.

Under the Macedonian Dynasty (867-1056), Byzantium’s political power reached its apogee as former territories were incorporated in the Empire, and an element of multi-ethnicity was restored. This period is also significant as the time in which Byzantine culture was spread among the Slavs and other Balkan peoples.

Following massive Turkish attacks in the late 11th century, the Empire was able to maintain a lesser but still significant political and military power under the Komnenian Dynasty: the cost was a social transformation which exalted a powerful military aristocracy, and gradually enserfed the previously free peasantry.

In 1204, internal Byzantine politics and the resurgent West, effectively ended the imperial pretensions of the Byzantine state. The Fourth Crusade in 1204 succeeded in conquering Constantinople and making it a Latin principality for half a century. The Greek political leadership, under the Palaiologan Dynasty regained Constantinople in 1261, but the ‘empire’ was just one state among many in the area for the final 200 years of its existence.

Yet again, strangely, this period was among the most culturally productive, in art, in theology, and in literature.

(iii) The field of Byzantine studies today

1, Past abuse: It would be wrong then to present the later history of Byzantium as a ‘thousand-year history of decline,’ leading inevitably to its conquest by the Ottoman Turks on Tuesday 29 May 1453. This perception, promoted disastrously by the English historian Edward Gibbon, reflects the origins in the classical field of Byzantine studies.

The classic periods of ancient cultures – the fifth and fourth centuries BCE in Greece and the late republican/early imperial period in Rome – have long appealed to modern Western sensibilities because – as times of rapid change and innovation in art and literature – echoes and origins of the present have been seen there.

In comparison, Byzantine political culture changed slowly, and continuity was valued over change. Furthermore, classical secularism, so attractive to Renaissance and Enlightenment scholars, had no place in Byzantine thought worlds. As a result, Byzantine culture was subjected to centuries of abuse as a time of barbarism and superstition.

2, Exaltation: The counterpart to the dismissal of Byzantine culture was its exaltation by 19th century Romanticism, and by a substrata of Christian, especially Anglican, intellectuals. Even now, scholars will tell us, Anglican seminaries are good places to locate books on Byzantine studies. Byzantium was also ‘claimed’ by some Orthodox Christian intellectuals.

The result was that, after having been demeaned by the Enlightenment, Byzantium acquired defenders, but defenders who concentrated equally on the culture's religious aspects. Far from calm scholarship, Byzantine studies has ever been a locus of contestation, of defamers and champions.

3, Marxist: A third important strand of Byzantine studies has been the Marxist contribution. Marxist historians are often derided, especially in the United States, for fitting facts to theory (as if they alone were guilty of this!).

In Byzantium, especially in the agricultural laws of the 10th century, the events were presented at the time as addressing a struggle of the ‘poor’ and the ‘powerful.’ Marxists saw a prime example of the beginning of ‘feudalism.’ While perhaps pushing some interpretations too hard, the Marxist tradition remains valuable in affirming a secular aspect of Byzantine culture.

4, Art concerns dominate: Currently, Byzantine studies – reflecting its classical heritage – is still much more dominated by philological and art historical concerns than Western mediaeval history. Still, there are some interesting transformations.

The French Annales School, represented by such scholars as Helene Ahrweiler and Evelyne Patlagean, has applied the specific social, cliometric and ‘long duree’ methodologies to Byzantine studies with some gusto. Purely social history, without a Marxist slant, is now well established, with Angeliki Laiou among the most productive writers.

The Russian Byzantinist Alexander Kazhdan was responsible for a whole variety of initiatives, including a willingness to study religious phenomena from a secular perspective. Finally, and much later than in other areas of historical study, the history of women is now coming to the fore.

5, A major world culture: Byzantine civilisation constitutes a major world culture. Because of its unique position as the mediaeval continuation of the Roman State, it has tended to be dismissed by classicists and ignored by Western medievalists. Its internal elite culture was dominated by tendencies towards the archaic and perhaps pessimistic. But we should not be deceived.

As the centrally located culture, and by far the most stable state, of the mediaeval period, Byzantium is of major interest both in itself, and because the development and late history of Western European, Slavic and Islamic cultures are not comprehensible without taking it into consideration.

6, Cultural strand: While few would claim elevated status for much Byzantine literature – although its historiographical tradition is matched only by China’s – in its art and architecture, Byzantine culture was genuinely, and despite itself, innovative and capable of producing works of great beauty. As an area of study, Byzantine studies is complex, full of conflict, and still open to new questions and methods.

But I hope over the next few weeks we’ll enjoy sailing on the same boat to Byzantium.

Two handouts:

Appendix 1:

The Emperors of Byzantium:

1, Brief summary of Byzantine history, summarising the emperors and the principal dates and developments, to help us through next week’s difficult, hard-working session: in the first part we’ll take a fast-track run through the history of Byzantium; in the second part, we’ll look at some of the principal characters that shaped that history, the heroes and the anti-heroes, and, of course, the women.

324-337 Constantine I

Political Development: Foundation and development of the state church.

337-361 Constantius

Economics and Law: System of combines. Heavily industrialised cities linked with provisioning regions (Rome-Sicily, Constantinople-Egypt).

361-363 Julian

363-364 Jovian

364-378 Valens

379-395 Theodosius I

395-408 Arcadius

Political Development: 395: Official separation of eastern and western halves of Empire. Construction of wall fortification of Constantinople.

Economics and Law: Codex Theodosianus.

408-450 Theodosius II

Political Development: 431: Council of Ephesus; secession of the Nestorians.

450-457 Marcian

457-474 Leo I

474 Leo II

474-475 Zeno

Political Development: 476: End of western half of Empire. Germanic principalities set up in western half of Empire.

475-476 Basiliseos

476-491 Zeno (again)

491-518 Anastasius I

Political Development: System of military settlements in the province of Libya.

Economics and Law: Lex Romana Visigothorum (506), Spain. Germans outside the imperium romanum. The customary law of the Germanic peoples.

518-527 Justin I

527-565 Justinian I

Political Development: Regions regained by Italy and Africa governed by exarchs. War with Persia, aimed at securing trade route to India.

Economics and Law: 533: Corpus juris civilis of Justianian I (Latin). Early Greek version (paraphrase of Theophilus). The so-called Anonymus’ Greek version of the Digest. Greek collection of canon law (nomocanones).

565-578 Justin II

Economics and Law: Changeover to a measure of natural economy. Wages paid in part in kind by state (officials’ and soldiers’ wages). Contraction of money economy. Firm control of domestic trade. Increase in planned economy. Little remains outside system of assignment.

578-582 Tiberius I Constantine

582-602 Maurice

602-610 Phocas

610-641 Heraclius

Political Development: Byzantine and Persian Empires attacked by Arabs spurred on by Muslim faith. Contraction of money economy. Firm control of domestic trade. Increase in planned economy. Little remains outside system of assignment.

610. Continuation of War with Persia. The downfall of Phocas should have satisfied Chosroes, but he now had bigger ambitions to augment his empire, and so increased his war effort. The Byzantine Army demoralised by the recent events gave only nominal defence.

611-620. Persian Victories in Syria and Anatolia. Antioch and most of the remaining fortresses in Syria, Mesopotamia and Armenia captured in 611. Eventually Damascus and Jerusalem capitulated too (614). Chosroes then began to invade Anatolia with full force. After a long siege, Persian armies captured Chalcedon on the Bosphorus. Here the Persians were within one mile of Constantinople, and they were there for 10 years. Meanwhile, they captured Ancrya and Rhodes; remaining Armenian fortresses. This Persian occupation further attenuated Byzantine strength by depriving them of recruiting ground.

616-619. Persian Conquests in Egypt. By defeating Byzantine garrisons in the Nile Valley, Persia marched across the Libyan Desert; victories cut off the important grain supplies to Constantinople from Egypt on which Constantinople was dependant.

617-619. Renewed Avar invasions. Avars swept through the Balkans, reaching walls of Constantinople.

619-621. Heraclius and Sergius. Heraclius vainly attempted to reorganise army. In despair, he prepared to leave Constantinople and return to Africa. At this point, Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople ignited a new wave of patriotism in Constantinople. By reproaching and entreating Heraclius, he obtained an oath from him that he would never abandon the capital. In return, Sergius promised to make available all the resources of the Church. With renewed energy and confidence, Heraclius turned to reorganising his army and empire. With the reluctant sanction of Sergius, he emptied the over-crowded monasteries to recruit monks into his army and seized as much wealth as he could from the churches in the capital. He bought peace with the Avars chieftain by paying a large indemnity. Meanwhile, he negotiated and pretended to consider Persia’s terms, while preparing for an offensive.

641 Constantine III and Heraclonas

641 Heraclonas

641-668 Constans II

668-685 Constantine IV

Political Development: Reorganisation of the Empire with the introduction of themes. 674-678: Siege of Constantinople. First use of Greek fire.

Economics and Law: Between 600 and 800: private legal codes: The Farmer’s Law (Georgikos Nomos) and the Rhodian Sea Law.

685-695 Justinian II

695-698 Leontius

698-705 Tiberius II

705-711 Justinian II (again)

711-713 Philippicus

713-715 Anastasius II

715-717 Theodosius III

717-741 Leo III

Political Development: Successful defence of Constantinople against Arabs (717). 726: Beginning of the iconoclast controversy. Anti-monastic attitude of the Emperors.

Economics and Law: 726: the Ecloga.

741-775 Constantine V

775-780 Leo IV

780-797 Constantine VI

797-802 Irene

802-811 Nicephorus I

811 Stauracius

811-813 Michael I Rangabe

813-820 Leo V

820-829 Michael II

829-842 Theophilus

842-867 Michael III

Political Development: End of the iconoclast controversy. Mission to the Slavs: Constantine and Methodius. 864: Bulgaria, leading Balkan power, accepts Greek Orthodox faith.

Economics and Law: Procheiros Nomos: between 867 and 879. Epanagoge: between 879 and 886. The Tactica (military manual), ca 900. Revision of canon law.

867-886 Basil I

Economics and Law: Development of Byzantine foreign trade with the West. Treaties granting monopolies. Rise of Venice as distributor of Byzantine goods in the West.

886-912 Leo VI

912-913 Alexander

Political Development: The legitimate Emperor overshadowed by a co-Emperor from the aristocracy.

913-959 Constantine VII

920-944 Romanus I Lecapenus

Political Development: Eastern policy of Byzantine Empire is directed by the Asia Minor magnates.

Economics and Law: Result of blockade of Byzantine and Islamic goods: Beginning of shortage of luxury wares in the West. Development of a western industry in North Italy and the Rhine valley.

956-963 Romanus II

Economics and Law: Beginning of Venetian trading agreements with Muslim states.

963-969 Nicephorus II Phocus

969-976 John I Tzimisces

Political Development: Russia accepts Orthodoxy Christianity.

976-1025 Basil II

Economics and Law: Emperors from aristocratic magnate class give up planned economy. Liberalising of grain trade.

1025-1028 Constantine VIII

1028-1034 Romanus II Argyrus

1034-1041 Michael IV

1041-1042 Michael V

Political Development: Dynastic crisis arises out of a struggle for control of the government.

1042 Zoe and Theodora

1042-1055 Constantine IX Monomachus

1055-1056 Theodora (again)

1056-1057 Michael VI

1057-1059 Isaac I Comnenus

1059-1067 Constantine X Ducas

Political Development: Byzantine Empire faces double threat from Seljuk Turks attacking Asia Minor and from Normans in Europe

Economics and Law: Economic crisis. The attempt to create a state monopoly of corn overturns price control.

1068-1071 Romanus IV Diogenes

1071-1078 Michael VII Ducas

1078-1081 Nicephorus III Botaneiates

Economics and Law: Debasement of the Byzantine currency. Reduction of gold content of the solidi.

1081-1118 Alexius I Comnenus

Political Development: 1082: Alliance with Venice.

1118-1143 John II Comnenus

Political Development: Struggle with the Hohenstaufen family for control of the Mediterranean.

1143-1180 Manuel I Comnenus

1180-1183 Alexias II Comnenus

Economics and Law: End of independent Byzantine economy. Privileges granted to Italian maritime cities. Individual treaties with these cities limit Byzantine sovereignty.

1183-1185 Andronicus I Comnenus

1185-1195 Isaac II Angelus

1195-1203 Alexius III Angelus

1203-1204 Isaac II Angelus (again) and Alexius IV Angelus

Political Development: 1202-1204: Fourth Crusade. Capture of Constantinople. Setting up of the Latin Empire.

1204 Alexius V Murtzuphlus

Political Development: Political consolidation in Asia Minor: Empire of Nicaea.

Economics and Law: Sound economic basis of the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor.

1204-1222 Theodore I Lascaris

1222-1254 John III Ducas Vatatzes

1254-1258 Theodore II Lascaris

Political Development: 1250: Defeat by Louis IX of France at Damietta in Egypt.

1258-1261 John IV Lascaris

Political Development: 1261: Constantinople retaken by Byzantines.

1261-1282 Michael VIII Palaeologus

Political Development: Alliance between the Byzantine Empire and the Ilkhan Hulagu of Persia against Seljuks of Asia Minor. 1272: Alliance with Tartars of South Russia. 1274: Union between Byzantine and Roman churches.

Economics and Law: 1261: Treaty of Nymphaeum. Political-economic agreements give command of the straits to the Genoese.

1282-1328 Andronicus II Palaeologus

Political Development: 1282: Sicilian Vespers and the end of the Latin Empire.

1328-1341 Andronicus III Palaeologus

1341-1391 John V Palaeologus

Political Development: Beginning of the period of decline.

1347-1354 John VI Cantacuzenus

Political Development: Byzantium between the rising Ottoman state and the national states in the Balkans (Serbia, Bulgaria) and Hungary.

Economics and Law: The Empire is the base for Genoese trade with eastern Asia.

1376-1379 Andronicus IV Palaeologus

1390 John VII Palaeologus

1391-1425 Manuel II Palaeologus

Political Development: Internal disintegration; social struggles between magnates and zealots. Failure to change old universal Byzantine Empire into national state in the Peloponnese.

1425-1448 John VIII Palaeologus

1448-1453 Constantine XI Palaeologus

Political Development: Conquest of Constantinople by the Turks (1453).

Certain Greek regions survive under Venetian rule until 18th century (areas of Byzantine culture).

Appendix 2:

Suggested Reading

2, A readings list, including books, some music resources and a few websites to visit.

If participants are to read just one book it should be:

*** William Dalrymple: From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (London: Flamingo/Harper Collins, 1998), 483 pp, pb, ISBN 0-00-654774-5 (£8.99 Sterling).

If you can tackle one or two more books, try these:

*** John Julius Norwich: A short history of Byzantium (London: Penguin, 1998), 431 pp, pb, ISBN 0-140-25960-0 (£14.99 sterling).

*** Mary Cunningham: Faith in the Byzantine World (Oxford: Lion, 2002), 199 pp, pb, ISBN: 0 7459 5100 7 (£8.99 Sterling; about €14.75 in Ireland).

A fuller reading list:

John Baggley: Doors of Perception – icons and their spiritual significance (London and Oxford, 1987), pb

CP Cavafy: Collected Poems (trans, Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard; ed George Savidis) (London: Chatto & Windus, 1994 reprint), 205 pp, pb, ISBN 0-7011-3662-6 (£9.99 Sterling).

Mary Cunningham: Faith in the Byzantine World (Oxford: Lion, 2002), 199 pp, pb, ISBN: 0 7459 5100 7 (£8.99 Sterling; about €14.75 in Ireland).

William Dalrymple: From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (London: Flamingo/Harper Collins, 1998), 483 pp, pb, ISBN 0-00-654774-5 (£8.99 Sterling).

Judith Herrin: Women in Purple: rulers of medieval Byzantium (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), 304 pp, hb, ISBN 0-297-64334-7 (£20 Sterling, also available in pb).

JM Hussey: The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire (Oxford: OUP, 1986).

Patrick Leigh Fermor: Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (London: Penguin, 1984 ed), 320 pp, pb, ISBN 0-14-011511-0 (£6.99 Sterling).

Patrick Leigh Fermor: Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (London: Penguin, 1983 ed), 248 pp, pb, ISBN 0-14-011512-9 (£6.99 Sterling).

Cyril Mango (ed), The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 334 pp, hb, ISBN 0-19-814098 (about €45.30 in Ireland).

Kyriacos C Markides: Riding with the Lion: in search of mystical Christianity (New York: Arkana/Penguin, 1996), 369 pp, pb, ISBN 0-14-019481-9 (£7.99 Sterling).

John Julius Norwich: Byzantium: The Early Centuries (London: Penguin, 1990), 408 pp, pb, ISBN 0-14-011447-5 (£10.99 sterling, about €15.60).

John Julius Norwich: Byzantium: The Apogee (London: Penguin, 1993), 389 pp, pb, ISBN 0-14-011448-3 (£10.99 sterling, about €15.60).

John Julius Norwich: Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (London: Penguin, 1996), 488 pp, pb, ISBN 0-14-01149-1 (£10.99 sterling, about €15.60).

John Julius Norwich: A short history of Byzantium (London: Penguin, 1998), 431 pp, pb, ISBN 0-140-25960-0 (£14.99 sterling).

Steven Runciman: The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (Cambridge: CUP, Canto edition 1990, reprinted 2002), 259 pp, pb, ISBN 0-521-39832-0 (about €18.10 in Ireland).

Steven Runciman: The Great Church in Captivity: A Study of the Patriarchate of Constantinople from the Eve of the Turkish Conquest to the Greek War of Independence (Cambridge: CUP, 1968). Out of print but probably available in good libraries.

Steven Runciman: The Sicilian Vespers: A history of the Mediterranean world in the Later Thirteenth Century (Cambridge: CUP, Canto edition 1992), 368 pp, pb, ISBN 0-521-43774-1.

Constantine A Trypanis (ed), The Penguin Book of Greek Verse (London: Penguin, 1971), 630 pp, pb, ISBN 0-14-05895-8 (£11 in the UK).

(Metropolitan Kallistos) Timothy Ware: The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 2nd ed with revisions, 1997), 359 pp, paperback, ISBN: 0-14-014656-3 (£10.99 Sterling).

Rowan Williams: The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2003), 87 pp, hb, ISBN 1-85311-562-2 (£8.99 Sterling).


Good guidebooks to Istanbul often provide an easy introduction to Byzantine history, art and architecture, many of them illustrated with good photographs, drawings, maps and charts relevant to the Byzantine world.

In particular, try the Blue Guide Istanbul, edited by Dr John Freely, formerly of the University of the Bosphorus, and the Everyman Guides Istanbul.

Some music:

Authentic Russian Sacred Music, Soglasie Male Voice Choir of St Petersburg, conducted by Alexander Govorov (IMPLtd, Elstree, PCD 2030).

Gregorian & Orthodox Chant, Choir of the Mount Angel Abbey, Moscow Youth & Students Choir (RCA, 1995, BMG Music, 74321 29233 2). Tracks 19-27.

Mysteries of Byzantine Chant, Kontakion, conducted by Mihail Diaconescu (Philips, Germany, 454 057-2).

Offices de la Muse au Tombeau et des Myrophores, The Choir of the Monks of Chevetogne, Belgium (1990, Art et Musique, Angers Cedex, France, CH/CD 105/390).

Osios Simon: Service of Saint Simon of Athos (1981, Holy Monastery of Simonopetra, Mount Athos, A.A.K. 44563/2540/80.


www.fordham.edu/halsall/byzantium/ The Byzantine studies site that provides links to almost all other Byzantine sites.

www.orthodoxireland.com A venture shared by the Greek, Romanian and Russian Orthodox communities in Ireland, with news updates and postings (Note in 2018: this site is no longer available).

http://www.ouranoupoli.com/athos/athos.html Visit Mount Athos, the holy mountain of Greece.


To see Byzantium today:

Istanbul (obviously!).

There are few Byzantine remains in Athens, but try Mystras, an abandoned but intact Byzantine city perched on a hill outside Sparta in the central Peloponnese; Thessaloniki.

Apart from Greece and Turkey, other places to see and experience the legacy of Byzantium include Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and Egypt (Alexandria). William Dalrymple’s book is the best introduction to travelling in this world.

Next week:

3, A brief history of Byzantium and the Byzantine Empire

4, Heroes, anti-heroes and the women of Byzantium: some biographical sketches.

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