History

Byzantine Historiography: Introduction

The Byzantine Empire is, along with the preceding Roman Empire, one of the most misunderstood, mischaracterized, and mythologized state or civilization in Western scholarship.  Ever since the publication of Edward Gibbon’s magisterial six volume work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the emergence of the word “byzantine” in the English language, “byzantine” has taken on the definition of being something complex, hidden, and otherwise cumbersome, if not negative in most cases.  In his work, he denounced everything Greek (Byzantine) as a complex, unvirtuous, intolerable structure of the once virtuous and liberty-loving Romans.  For Gibbon, the Byzantine Greeks were the antithesis of not only the Enlightenment principles he had come to cherish and value as a man of the European Enlightenment, but also saw them as the antithesis of everything that once made Rome great.[1]  For his work, not only was Gibbon credited with being among the first modern historians, per his emphasis on the use of primary sources, he also started a long tradition of Byzantine historiography that saw the empire as something decrepit, servile, revolting, and utterly unworthy of being considered part of the “Western Enlightened” tradition.

His work had an immense impact on the field of late Roman and Byzantine studies.  Nearly all historians after him and virtually all contemporaries reference his work, an enduring testimony to Gibbon’s scholarship, even if most historians would take his narrative with a grain of salt.  Yet the importance of Gibbon’s work on later and contemporary analyses of the Byzantines all have their foundation in his work.  As one American classicist put it bluntly, “[O]ne should read Gibbon, but only with appropriate inoculation—to keep from believing that either his narrative of his facts are complete and accurate.  He was a marvel of learning, but had real limits.”[2]   William Edward Hartpole Lecky wrote nearly one-hundred years later, “Of the Byzantine Empire the universal verdict of history constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed.”[3]  This statement from Lecky is firmly influenced from the work of Gibbon, even though the statement itself is somewhat harsh and altogether inaccurate.  By the time of his publication on the history of European morality, several noted English historians had already written histories of the Byzantine Empire that, while still having a heavy hand of negativity, thought to present the Byzantines in a more positive light than Gibbon had down in his own work.[4]

While the emphasis of study on the Byzantine Empire was strongest in places such as France, Bulgaria, or even in Russia,[5] there has always been a strong body of English literature on the Byzantines.  Recently however, over the last forty years with the onset of the field of study known as Late Antiquity,[6] there has been a renaissance of Byzantine scholarship in the Anglosphere and a renewed interest in the Byzantine Empire, its history, story, people, and culture.  As such, this work will predominately be focused on the field of Byzantine studies in the Anglosphere, but not be limited to just Anglo-American histories by English-speaking historians writing about a distance and mystical empire and society that straddled the borderlands of Asia, Europe, and North Africa. 

Therefore, starting with Edward Gibbon as the “first modern historian” of Rome,[7] I shall endeavor to bring forth a work of the Byzantine histories from Gibbon to the present. All of these works are influenced from the purview of historicism, and to overlook when any history of the Byzantines was written would be to fail and understand the possible environs that influenced the work itself.  Furthermore, it is important to understand why there has been a dramatic spike in the interest of the Byzantine Empire in scholarship in the last few decades.  As one history of the Byzantines stated, “We share a common cultural history with the Byzantine Empire, and can find important lessons echoing down the centuries.  Byzantium, no less than the West, created the world in which we live.”[8]  In addition, due to the large field of Byzantine studies outside of the Anglosphere, and even with a large compendium of work within the Anglosphere, one should not expect a full bibliography remotely approaching the vast expanse of Byzantine literature available to historians and lay readers alike.

It is important to first understand what these posts will be about and what they are not about.  This is not a history of the Byzantine Empire, as there are already numerous books that have recently been published detailing the history of the empire from Constantine I through Constantine XI and the 88 other emperors between them.  Neither is this work a history of Byzantine art, culture, or religion that covers the finer details of the elaboration of Christian theology, the works of 125 Patriarchs of Constantinople, or the terrible spell of iconoclasm that rocked the empire in the in the late eighth century.  Therefore, one should not expect to find contained in these pages a chronological history of the Byzantine state, society, events, or key figures during its existence.  This work is historiographical in nature, and seeks to present an overview the histories written about the Byzantine Empire.  Thus, this series of posts seek to analyze the trends and evolution of Byzantine studies and view them from the point of historicism.  Lastly, the one should expect to find enduring themes in history that have been applied to Byzantine scholarship and why historians have written and presented the material in the way they have.  As Judith Herrin states concerning her work, “I began to compose an answer to the question, ‘What is Byzantine history?’”[9] I will be asking the same question, but with the addition of analyzing why historians have written about the Byzantines the way they have in the larger scope of historiographical debate on three major themes: Byzantium as a foil to virtue, Byzantium as a Model for, and against, politics and foreign policy, and lastly, Byzantium as a Western, Christian, and cosmopolitan empire in the Middle Ages.

Byzantium in Perspective

What is the Byzantine Empire?  The word Byzantine may conjure up stirring tales of intrigue, lust, murder, complexity, it may also stir up faint recollections of Constantinople, Justinian, Theodora, or the “Eastern Roman Empire,” and something about the Turks in the 1400s.  In a certain sense, the Byzantine Empire never existed, as it was the evolved and transformed political continuation of the Roman Empire of Augustus Caesar, the eastern half of the former Tetrarchy that survived until the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453.  In addition, the term Byzantine Empire is not used by any primary account, but is generally attributed to a German humanist historian named Hieronymus Wolf, in his 1568 publication Corpus Historiae Byzantinae (The Body of Byzantine History).[10]  I use the term Byzantine Empire because it is the accepted term in academic studies to relate to this unique political polity and society that emerged out of Late Antiquity and survived into the Middle Ages.  The empire is generally dated to have begun in 330 when the Roman emperor Constantine re-dedicated the older Greek city of Byzantium as Nova Roma—New Rome, which would later come to bear his name.[11]  Taking the year 330 C.E. for foundation, the Byzantine Empire lasted for 1,123 years.

Geographically, the Byzantine Empire expanded and contracted throughout its history.  At its peak, geographically but not necessarily politically and culturally, the empire controlled North Africa, Italy, the Balkans, including Greece, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Egypt in the immediate aftermath of the reign of Justinian.  However, for much of its history, the Byzantine Empire would only control Greece, Asia Minor, and sometimes the greater Balkans—former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.  For our concern, the Byzantine Empire primarily could be seen as an empire with two homelands: Greece and Asia Minor.  However, its immense geographical reach influenced the cultures of many of its surrounding neighbors, most important being the Slavs and Russians.[12]  The cultural connection with Russia is extremely important, for the Russians became Christianized through the Byzantines, adopting Orthodoxy instead of Catholicism, became closely attached politically and economically to the empire, and billed itself as the successor to the Byzantines (and therefore also the Romans) with the empire’s demise in 1453.[13]

Politically, the Byzantine Empire was the evolved Roman imperial polity that survived through Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, as already mentioned.  Although certain political elements of the Roman Empire had long ceased to exist in the Byzantine Empire, like the Senate,[14] it structured itself on Roman law traditions and customs.  The Codex Justinianus (Code of Justinian) was compiled in fourteen months and had brought together all the former Roman laws and traditions into a partially accessible book of legal law.[15]  The Codex is important because it is the surviving body of laws that is likely a close resemblance to Roman law during the imperial era, and in that sense, the Byzantines were distinctly Roman in being governed by law rather than by their passions, or at least they were supposedly governed by traditional laws and customs instead of their passions.[16]

Culturally and religiously, the Byzantines were a Christian people and a therefore, politically, a Christian empire.  Although the Roman Empire had become Christianized after the Edict of Thessalonica under Emperor Theodosius I, the Roman Empire was originally founded as a Pagan culture and polity.[17]  This, in of itself, is an important distinction for scholars in looking at Rome and Byzantium and seeing a possible distinction between the fundamental essences and practices of the two.  Indeed, the rise of Christianity had transformative aspects to Roman and later Byzantine society, intruding on the old Pagan cultural rituals and notions of self, community, and city.[18]  Although it had initially been a somewhat Greco-Latin culture, by the demise of the emperor Heraclius in 641, the Byzantines had become a mostly Greco-Eastern culture.[19]  So much so that many of the symbols and icons associated with the Byzantine Empire, from the double-headed eagle, crescent moon and star, as well as much of the iconography of the early Eastern Church have their roots in Mesopotamian history and traditions.

As we continue, we will begin with an overview of Enlightenment histories of Byzantium, principally as a foil to Enlightenment values and prejudices.


[1] John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (New York: Knopf-Doubleday, 1989), 25.

[2] James J. O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire (New York: Ecco, 2008), 409.

[3] William Edward Hartpole Lecky, History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne,Volume II (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1869), 13.

[4] Charles C.W. Oman, The Byzantine Empire (Yardley: Westholme Publishing, 2008), v.  Charles C.W. Oman’s history of the Byzantine Empire was originally published by T. Fisher Unwin in 1892.  This is a modern reprint of his work.  In his preface, he also lists that the historians George Finlay, The Byzantine Empire in two volumes (1854) and J.B. Bury’s History of the Late Roman Empire from Arcadius to Irene in two volumes (1889) and his History of the Later Roman Empire from the death of Theodosius I to the death of Justinian (1923) had challenged the older paradigm of history established by Gibbon.  George Finlay’s account was published prior to Lecky’s, so at the very least, there was already opposition to the “universal verdict…without a single exception” of which Mr. Lecky spoke of.

[5] Averil Cameron, Byzantine Matters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 3.

[6] The seminal and groundbreaking work in the field of Late Antiquity is from Peter Brown, often credited with starting the academic revolution that moved away from the older characterization of the period of turmoil in the Roman Empire and the centuries after its collapse in the West as “The Dark Ages.”  His own work, The World of Late Antiquity (1971) remains the seminal work on the topic.

[7] Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Abridged Edition (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), ed. David Wormersley, xviii.  All quotes from Gibbon come from this abridged version unless noted otherwise.

[8] Lars Brownworth, Lost to the West: How the Forgotten Byzantine Empire Rescued Western Civilization (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), xviii.

[9] Judith Herrin, Byzantium: The Surprising Life a Medieval Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), xiii.

[10] Wolf’s work is not a traditional chronological history of the Byzantine Empire, but a collection of Byzantine histories from primary historians, compiled together in his work.  It served, initially, as a large reference volume of all the important primary Byzantine historians and their works.  In this sense, Wolf can be seen as the first historiographer of the Byzantine tradition.

[11] Alexander Kazhdan ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Volume I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 345.

[12] Herrin, 131-138.

[13] Colin Wells, Sailing from Byzantium (New York: Batnam Dell, 2006), 252-282.

[14] The Senate, even into the Imperial Era of Roman history, still held important political prestige and power attached to it.  As Alaric and the Vandals were about to sack Rome, it was the Senate that attempted to negotiate peaceful terms with the so-called Barbarians.  Although Constantine had established a Byzantine Senate, an equivalent to the Roman Senate, it had become less important by the end of Justinian’s reign.  It eventually dissolved sometime during the Palaiologoi Dynasty.

[15] The Codex Justinianus is arguably the greatest accomplishment in Justinian’s reign as emperor.  Lars Brownworth states that he compiled the work and published it after fourteen months of works, so I quote him in stating the same.  See Brownworth, 75.

[16] In the Roman tradition, to be governed by law (Roman law) was the hallmark of civilization.  In the Roman worldview, there were those who were Roman, or civilized, and those who were Barbarians—regardless of the impressiveness of their culture or society or body politic.  For instance, the Sassanid Persians were considered Barbarians, despite being a grandiose, educated, and highly cultured society.  It is unknown if the Romans made a distinction between levels of Barbarians.

[17] The Edict of Thessalonica was decreed in 380 C.E. and made Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Prior to this, Emperor Constantine I had become the first Christian emperor and started an unbroken of Christian emperors, with the exception of Julian the Apostate, who ruled over the Roman Empire.  Constantine is often erroneously labeled as the emperor who made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, whereas he had only ensured the toleration Christianity and ended the periodic persecution of the religion after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312 C.E.) with the announcement of the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed the Edict of Toleration of Galerius (311 C.E.). 

[18] Peter Brown, A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, Paul Veyne, ed., Arthur Goldhammer, trans. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1987), 280-285.

[19] Robert Byron, The Byzantine Achievement (New York: Routledge, 2011), 57.  Byron’s work was originally published in 1929.  He was the first of a wave of famous British travel writers who would venture to Greece before the outbreak of the World War II.

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