Byzantium: The Apogee; & A Biographical Dictionary Of The Byzantine Empire

Archie Dunn | Published in History Today
  • Byzantium: The Apogee
    John Julius Norwich - Viking - xxvi + 390 pp.- £20
  • A Biographical Dictionary Of The Byzantine Empire
    Donald M. Nicol – Seaby, 1991 - xxviii + 156 pp. - £16.95

The second volume of Norwich's trilogy brings the reader to the year 1081, when Alexios Komnenos became emperor, a date which many students of Byzantium regard as a useful chronological marker of the movement between two phases of Byzantine history. However, the choice of starting point, Charlemagne's coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD, has nothing to do with the history of Byzantium itself, and is symptomatic of the author's whole approach, one which he is aware is open to criticism. Social and economic history are excluded on grounds of lengthening the text and of good taste. This really means that there is more room for the gory and spicy details of traditional narratives. Now this is a very good narrative, interweaving military and diplomatic history with that of, essentially, the political life of the court and palace in Constantinople. So if 'the people' intrude, they are only seen through the eyes of the elite's own chroniclers, such as Michael Psellos describing an enraged mob.

Such a narrative provides enough for some, for others the framework they need for further reading – Norwich's entirely reasonable aims. But, as in Volume I, the bibliography in no way serves the stated purposes. There are no references to scholarly historical studies published after 1973 (there is one recent art-historical work). And major advances in our understanding of the period not reached by the study of narrative sources are not reflected in this work. Norwich for instance has to incorporate the notion, discredited in the 1970s and 1980s, of Byzantium's decline after the reign of Basil II into his narrative by saying, of Basil II's death, 'He died on 15th December. By the 16th (the) decline had already begun' (p.266).

Norwich's 'apogee' is that of a rampant militarism, a very unwise equation still to be making today. Again, Norwich asserts that Byzantium 'ran its economy on distinctly socialist lines'; implicit comparisons with the old Soviet bloc then follow (p.339). This recalls nineteenth-century 'liberal' historians' horror at the dirigisme which they saw in Byzantiurn, and fails to account for the empire's durability. A durability not attributable, as Norwich would have it, to this or that soldier, but to Europe's most effective state-structure of the Early and High Middle Ages. Finally, a quibble: does no one at Viking read the Greek alphabet? The magnificent image on the dust-jacket, and therefore its enamelled Greek lettering, is back-to-front!

Professor Nicol's Biographical Dictionary follows the three-volume Dictionary of Byzantium, while the Macmillan Dictionary of Art promises a volume on Byzantium. The present work, part of an ambitious series published by Seaby, offers succinct entries on major figures from 1,100 years of Byzantine history, accompanied by essential references. It profits from the distinguished author's life-long immersion in Byzantine Studies and is based on the latest research. It is undoubtedly useful. There are times when everyone needs to consuIt a biographical dictionary. And it is stimulating to think about the individual perspective on history.

This is of course no substitute for three ongoing prosopographical dictionaries of Early, Middle, and Late Byzantium, sup- ported by the British and Austrian Academies. But they are huge undertakings. It offers, rather, a kind of Byzantine 'Hall of Fame'. It inevitably therefore cannot cope with those many less famous individuals whose importance was partly hound up with that of the families or 'clans' to which they belonged. Thus for example Theodora Raoulaina (princess and nun) rates an entry but no other member of the Raoul family, 'top people' (the author's definition of his subject-matter) for 400 years; while other powerful families, the Maleinoi, Taronitai, and Gavrades for instance (there are many more), find no place in the work at all. This is the difference between biography and the more austere prosopography. There is an emphasis upon the period to whose study the author makes so many contributions, Byzantium after 1204. Many important figures of the Early Byzantine period are absent. Saints of all periods get short shrift, though arguably many were more important than a lot of Nicol's 'notable members of the ecclesiastical... hierarchy' (Patriarch Constantine II, perhaps?).

Saints were certainly of great interest to all classes of Byzantine society, and Byzantine history without them is barely comprehensible. So is our author being ironic when (p.iv) he looks to his subjects, the 'top people' of Byzantium, for approval for the scope of his dictionary and writes anachronistically 'Narrative biography was more to their taste than structures or mentalities', and 'The deeds and misdeeds of ruling families... were of far greater interest than the state of the market, the misery of the poor and peasantry...', or does he reveal a certain nostalgia for another era of scholarship, or even for the 'top people' of Byzantium themselves?

  • Archie Dunn is a research associate at the Centre of Byzantine Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham.
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