Byzantine Historiography: Conclusion

What should be clear by now is that there are many mirrors that have depicted the Byzantine Empire through the ages, starting with the Enlightenment to the present.  In every circumstance, the shifting paradigms of Byzantine representations are more than likely related to the time in which the works were written.  In the case of the Enlightenment histories, in an era when tolerance, the rejection of dogma and superstition were widespread, and there was renewed interest in civic virtue and civil society, Enlightenment historians looking back on the Byzantine Empire saw an empire that was the antithesis of Enlightenment Era values and principles.  Naturally, these historians had a critical representation of the empire as a result.  Nevertheless, Enlightenment historians do comment upon very real moments in Byzantine history; notwithstanding their obvious prejudice against such moments as backward and superstitious.

            With the opening of Greek archives in the second half of the nineteenth century, a new wave of Byzantine scholarship was spearheaded in England, starting with George Finlay.  Finlay himself was a participant in the Greek War for Independence against the Ottomans, which probably influenced his love for the Greek people.  His first historical works covered the Greek Revolutions and a sweeping history of the Greek nation.  The new flood of resources, coupled with Finlay’s shift to a more positive portrayal of the Byzantines, had newfound consequences upon most subsequent Byzantinists. Charles Oman “writes in the spirit of Finlay” instead of Gibbon and the more contemporary positive historians of the Byzantines are indebted to Finlay’s shifting of the critical paradigm of the Enlightenment histories to a new paradigm which gives Byzantium credit for being a cultured and educated society during Late Antiquity and into the early medieval period.

            Following the Great Depression and the Bretton Woods Conference (which established GATT), the next wave of Byzantine scholarship was principally economic in analysis.  Katz, Charanis and Teall all write about the Byzantine economy in relationship with the ongoing economic situations of their times.  Katz, who had been living in the worst days of the Great Depression, wrote an economic history that focused on the everyday life of the Byzantine commoner in a moment of great economic change and calamity in Byzantine history.  Likewise, after the formation of GATT and the reduction of tariffs and increased international trade proliferated across North American and Western Europe, Peter Charanis’s article serves as a rebuttal to recent economic developments.  He is adamant that it was the Byzantine relaxation of state controls over the economy and joining of international trade markets with the Italians that doomed the Byzantine economy and ultimately led to their decline and fall.  Almost in reaction to this view, Teall’s account of grain supply and how the Byzantines managed to feed a large population is the result of market-oriented forces at work and Byzantine openness to greater trade.

            The social and Marxist histories emerged after World War II and were products of their time just as the previous representations of Byzantine history were.  Peter Charanis is the first to include a social historical account of Byzantine tolerance towards the Jewish people in 1947, right after the horrors of the Holocaust and the ongoing debate to create a Jewish State that resulted in a war between Israel and her Arab neighbors.  His article, which highlighted the religious tolerance of the late period empire, also stands in contrast to Gibbon’s portrayal of the empire as religiously intolerant as Gibbon focused on the persecution of the Pagans in the Roman Empire perpetrated by the emperors from Constantinople. 

The Marxist histories come next, with Kazhdan and Constable, and more recently Wickham.  All authors seek to understand Byzantine society and the state through Marxian power structures and concepts: what influenced Byzantine law, ritual, and society, etc.  Kazhdan and Constable’s account in 1982 came at a time when Marxist histories were becoming popular in the historical discipline.  Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome built on a new wealth of resources, the ongoing popularity of Marxist historiographies in history, and can be understood a rebuttal to some of the more contemporary popular histories.  Furthermore, Treadgold’s A History of Byzantine State and Society seems to be a reaction against the encroachment of Marxist histories with Treadgold writing in the analytic tradition and producing a more traditional history of the Byzantine state and society trying to capture the essence of Leopold von Ranke’s “to show what actually happened” (wie es eigentlich gewesen).

            The rise of cultural anthropology in the past few decades clearly influenced the publication of Wells’s and Herrin’s works.[1]  Both are cultural historians writing cultural histories of the Byzantines, building upon archeological discoveries and cultural similarities with neighboring peoples.  In additional, their works attempted to present the Byzantines as “Western” to garner a greater audience and make their work more accessible to an interested crowd.  Furthermore, both historians built upon Finlay’s positive representational shift of the Victorian Era, casting the empire in a generally positive light throughout their work.

            Lastly, the most recent wave of Byzantine scholarship has been popular positive histories that are easy to read, engaging to the reader, and takes the positive paradigm of Finlay to a new extreme to counter the rise of postmodernism and the geopolitical struggle between the West and Islam.  These popular histories are all written in narrative formats and include the traditional elements of political and great men historiography.  Additionally, Brownworth, Crowley, and Norwich have seemingly embraced the call for a “return to narrative” in history to make history relevant to a modern audience.  Norwich is the perfect case, for his A Short History of Byzantium is a popular and dramatically condensed version of his far larger three volume work that is much more academic in feel. He is even upfront in saying that this condensed version of his earlier work is meant to be a popular history with limited academic scholarship to provide an interested reader in Byzantine history a quick introduction that grabs his or her attention.  While all three historians include a bibliography, it is more or less a recommendation list for the reader to continue reading Byzantine history.

            In this overview of historiographical representations of the Byzantine Empire, I would argue that no one school or author is “truer” than another.  Rather, they all highlight certain aspects within Byzantine history with their influences guiding their work.  What Gibbon and the Enlightenment historians highlight are very true: The empire was constantly marred by internal division, violence, and civil war.  What Herrin and Wells highlight is equally true: The Byzantines were a cultured and educated society that had tremendous influence in the development of neighboring states.  Likewise, the empire’s rituals and laws were unequivocally influenced by the Christian religion and theological worldview.  Lastly, it is also true that the Byzantines were a barrier that defended a feudal Europe from expansionist Islamic empires that constantly threw their forces against the walls of Constantinople, only to be pushed back until the walls of the city came tumbling down in 1453. 

            In the end, Byzantine history is not lost to history but is lost in history.  The many different representations in Byzantine historiography attest to this.  Again, it would be wrong to say any one source or historian is more accurate than another, but that each work brings its own unique perspectives and highlighting of elements of Byzantine history.  In a very Hegelian sense, the emergences of new histories have provided a dialectical process for Byzantinists to discuss.  If there is one historian who changed Byzantine scholarship forever, it would be George Finlay who broke the critical representation of the Byzantines popularized by Gibbon, and now many contemporary historians have furthered the positive portrayal of the empire which will likely never be overturned.  The importance of the inclusion of all sources and histories provides one with a fuller understanding of Byzantine history and allows the reader to have access to the many representations of Byzantium.  To focus on only one, or a few, of the many representations of the Byzantine Empire would not capture the immensity of the empire’s thousand-year history, or the ongoing paradigm shifts in Byzantine studies which will continue to shift and evolve as time goes on.

[1] It goes without saying that the landmark publication in cultural history dates back to Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity (1971).


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