Byzantine Historiography: Social and Marxist Histories

Whereas Gibbon saw the Byzantine Empire as oppressive and intolerant, especially after the adoption of the Theodosian Code, Peter Charanis’s article, “The Jews in the Byzantine Empire under the First Palaeologi” (1947) offers a different picture of religious (in)tolerance in the Byzantine Empire than the conventionally accepted stories.  Michael Palaiologos, the first emperor to restore Byzantium to Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade, ended all persecution of the Jews by imperial decree.[1]  The Jews were free to worship and build synagogues as they pleased throughout the city of Constantinople.[2]  This toleration of the Jews later expanded to the Armenians and Turks.[3]  This information is known to historians today from the letters of the Patriarch of Constantinople writing in protest to the Emperor’s decision to allow free worship and building practices in the city of Constantinople.[4] This perspective appears to have garnered interest after World War II and the tragic holocaust that befell the Jewish people under the Nazis.  Charanis’s article highlights the seemingly high level of religious toleration in the late period empire, and can serve as a foil to the Enlightenment histories that depicted the empire as religiously intolerant, having focused primarily on the ascendency of Christianity and the “destruction of Paganism.”[5]   This new information also serves in contrast to the anti-Semitic traditions of Medieval Europe: when the western Europeans were intolerant toward Jews, the Byzantines were increasing their toleration towards Jews and peoples of other faiths.

            Following the end of the Second World War to the present there has been a new interest in Marxian perspectives on the empire, seeking to better understand the power structures and culture of the Byzantine Empire.  In People and Power in Byzantium (1982), Aleksandr Kazhdan and Giles Constable engage the Enlightenment claim that Byzantine ritual and belief was filled with the superstition.  For the Byzantines, “The universe seemed to be populated by demons, witches, and wizards, who attack people with temptation or sent them suffering.”[6]  It is without doubt that ecclesiastical forces and religious belief helped to build Byzantine society.  The influence was so deep that even forms of entertainment in the Byzantine Empire, like the chariot races at the Hippodrome, were linked to Christian theological symbolism and were therefore proper Christian forms of entertainment than the more barbaric Pagan gladiatorial games, which the Christian emperors of Rome outlawed.[7]

            Both historians also point out that while the Christian rejection of the body as being sinful did cause the Byzantines to undervalue the behavioral and bodily courage of early Antiquity, the Byzantines themselves were not as otherworldly as Gibbon portrayed them to be.[8]  In certain ways, the laws of the Byzantine Empire were not a reflection of the incapability of Byzantine Administration but a reflection of the influence of Christian theology upon Byzantine law.  The emperor of Byzantium, in some circles of the Orthodox faithful, was seen as God’s steward on the earth divinely ordained by God as his earthly representative.  This is the basis for the famous double-headed eagle symbol of the empire, as one half represents the emperor’s secular authority and the other half represents the emperor’s divine authority (as God’s steward).  Kazhdan and Constable, like Gibbon, highlight the Church’s influence in shaping society and law and ritual.[9]

            Instead of criticizing the Byzantine State and laws as Enlightenment historians did, Kazhdan and Constable seek to understand the very structure and fabric of Byzantine power and society.  Aleksandr Kazhdan was a Soviet-American Byzantinist, influenced by his upbringing of over 50 years in the Soviet Union, and had access to Soviet source material and had an interest in presenting a Marxian analysis of Byzantine power and society.  Their work was published at a time when Marxist historiography was gaining wider acceptance in the historical discipline.  As indicated by their subtitle, it is a “modern” (at the time of its publication) study in Byzantine history and scholarship that would set the stage for Marxiant histories of the Byzantine Empire.

            Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome (2009) also has Marxian elements within his work.  Wickham begins by stating that looking at nationalisms in the “Dark Ages” or early medieval period is wrong and a farce at best.[10]  Instead of elevating the Byzantines to a Western and Christian civilization to which the modern West can have an attachment to, Wickham looks at the power structures of the empire and the post-Roman politics in the West and East.[11]  Wickham’s account is the most recent of the Marxian histories that added new perspectives on Byzantine studies that had been dominated by traditional histories imbued with implicit teleology (the Enlightenment and idealistic histories) and traditionally “dry” political and great man histories.  He even states that he is trying to avoid any sense of teleology in his work.[12]  Like Kazhdan and Constable, when Wickham begins his history on the Byzantine Empire he is primarily looking at the structure of the Byzantine state and society, economic interactions, how it changed, and what it attempted to preserve from ancient traditions.[13]

            Both works reflect the ongoing paradigm change in history, a term that Wickham uses extensively in setting the stage for his readers.[14]  Wickham’s account is the most modern publication of a Marxian history as mentioned earlier and can also be seen as a reaction against the move to “Westernize” (nationalize) the Byzantines by other contemporary historians with positive representations of the Byzantine Empire.  Wickham’s account is a history of how power structures and power vacuums (left with the fall of the Western Roman Empire) influenced and shaped the development and course of European society and history from 400-1000 C.E. from the aftermath of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, to which a good portion of his work focuses on the Byzantines.

            Standing in contrast to the Marxian representations to the Byzantine state and society is Warren Treadgold’s A History of Byzantine State and Society (1997) and his more condensed and accessible version A Concise History of Byzantium (2002).  Treadgold’s work also continues to build on the positive portrayal of the Byzantine Empire that began with Finlay’s work and the shift away from the critical representations of the Enlightenment historians.  Thus, Treadgold begins his A Concise History of Byzantium by writing, “Under any name, the Eastern Roman Empire has a long-standing reputation for decadence.  This is partly the doing of Edward Gibbon,” and the first few pages of his introduction attempt to curtail the influence of Gibbon upon perceptions of the Byzantine Empire.[15]  Building on the more positive depiction of the empire started by Finlay, Treadgold’s larger account does not read as a celebration of the empire’s demise, as with Lecky who joyfully proclaims the death of the “decrepit” empire,[16] but tries to provide a conventional analytic and approach to the periods of decline and revival in Byzantine history.  In Treadgold’s analysis, it is not the lack of moral virtue that dooms Byzantium, but ultimately the loss of agrarian land, loss of taxable income, and the increasing burdens of maintaining a functioning bureaucratic state with declining revenues.[17]

            Treadgold’s work, which is heavily influenced by the inclusion of economic and other empirically based source material but can also be seen as a rebuttal to the Marxist and social critic writers and tries to return the paradigm of historical scholarship back to a more conservative and traditional approach of history akin to Leopold von Ranke.  Treadgold’s shorter work, A Concise History of Byzantium, which is still written in the analytic tradition, also seems to serve as an attempt to provide a more accessible work to reach a wider audience than his much larger magnum opus.  Treadgold’s work details Byzantine society, in just as much if not more detail than Kazhdan and Constable, and Wickham, but without the Marxian perspectives of power structures and their relationship with the common people.  Instead, Treadgold gives the reader a general “unbiased” analysis of what Byzantine society was like, without going into significant “speculation” over the possible external influences over the Byzantine State and people.

[1] Peter Charanis, “The Jews in the Byzantine Empire under the First Palaeologi,” Speculum 22, no. 1 (Jan., 1947): 75.

[2] Ibid., 76.

[3] Charanis, “The Jews in the Byzantine Empire under the First Palaeologi,” 76.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gibbon, 334-360.

[6] Aleksandr Kazhdan and Giles Constable, People and Power in Byzantium: An Introduction to Modern Byzantine Studies (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 1982), 65.

[7] Ibid., 66-68.

[8] Ibid., 68-69.

[9] Ibid., 65-69.

[10] Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000 (New York: Penguin Press, 2010), 3-5

[11] Ibid., 10-11.

[12] Ibid., 9.

[13] Ibid., 298-317.

[14] Ibid., 6-8.

[15] Warren Treadgold, A Concise History of Byzantium (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 1-4.

[16] Lecky, 14-15.

[17] Warren Treadgold, A History of Byzantine State and Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 145, 277, 412, 576, 843.


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