Why Focus on the Late Antique and Byzantine World?

‘Byzantium is often absent – Either, it is completely absent or half there – half not.’

Paraphrased from Averil Cameron’s ‘Byzantine Matters’ (2014).

The blog’s main purpose is to increase accessibility to the Late Antique and ‘Byzantine’ World.

The world of ‘Byzantium’ is often overshadowed by its western European counterparts. Within the media and entertainment industry, western popular individuals and events are continuously depicted. From Robin Hood, Netflix’s Templar series, Kingdom of Heaven, Vikings, to The Last Kingdom, and many more. As a result, the general audience gets a feel and enthusiasm for western medieval cultures, and yet at the same time learns very little about its eastern counterparts.

This can also be extended to local bookshops, where a large proportion of shelf space is dedicated to classical studies and western medieval history. Upon looking, it is often a struggle to find more than one book on Byzantium.

The main reason why Byzantium is absent is because of accessibility. Within the discipline of classics, there has been a monumental movement to engage those wishing to study and interact with the classical world through dedicated work of outreach staff. This process has been largely successful. Nonetheless, books on classical Rome and Greece can be found in their plentiful numbers, alongside the majority of key texts for interacting with the period having accessible English translations. Byzantium in this regard is still left absent.

The Byzantine Empire at its height of territorial expansion. under the Emperor Justinian I (Sixth Century AD)

Question: How many people know what Byzantium is or who the ‘Byzantines’ were? If we compare that to the number of people who know who the classical Greeks and Romans were, we can identify the problem. The same can be said for asking the same people to name medieval civilizations. The majority of people would identify their own native medieval equivalent (for me, the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish), and then go on to name western powers. These might include France, the Holy Roman Empire, the Papacy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden etc. it is important to note, this might not the same within the eastern European community whose own history interacted and encompassed Byzantium. But, within western culture, Byzantium at a fundamentally general level – not academic – is not present.

Within western culture, Byzantium is abstract, distant, and somewhat of an outsider. For many decades, our own history books (especially those in the UK), have focused on Europe and the Mediterranean world. During the classical period this included the Mediterranean basin and the Near East. However, as soon as Rome falls, and the ‘medieval’ period starts, our idea of medieval Europe shrinks and is relocated to encompass only western Europe. Italy is the boundary between the ‘normal’ and anything east is ‘other.’

The Medieval World in the Twelfth Century AD.
Copyright to Perry-Castañeda Library, Map Collection: From the Atlas to Freeman’s Historical Geography, edited by J.B. Bury, Longmans Green and Co. Third Edition 1903.

Since the age of five, I had been reading history books. My favourite topic was the Romans. Going into university, I had never hear of Byzantium. I learnt about Byzantium in a single lecture during a Crusades module. When I found out the Roman Empire had actually endured into the medieval period, I was shocked and in disbelief. How could I not know this! Even for a big history buff, like me, Byzantium was absent and still remains allusive to many.

Within the UK academic scene, Byzantium is still marginalized. Byzantium is either given to a single specialist (Byzantinist), or is covered by a western medieval academic, or simply ignored and not covered in the curriculum. Byzantium’s problem is not being able to identify with the classical Roman world, alongside clashing with the new periodization known as Late Antiquity, and finally, being classed as ‘other’ by western medieval scholars.

One example, of modern historiography failing Byzantium is the study of the Crusades at a rudimentary level. For the most part, if not taught by a Byzantine scholar, Byzantium is only included within the narrative at the start. Byzantium calls for help in AD 1095 and the crusaders make their way into Constantinople, and from there they go on to capture the ‘Holy Land.’ After the crusaders have passed through Constantinople, Byzantium is forgotten and not interacted with again. Which is quite the contrary!

It is only through engaging with Byzantine scholars, who are trying to re-write Byzantium into the narrative, that a fuller and more developed picture can be formed. Peter Frankopan’s Call from the East (2013) and Jonathan Harris’ Byzantium and the Crusades (2014) have started to re-orientate the Crusades to an eastern and Byzantine perspective. Thus, bringing Byzantium back into the discussion and narrative.

A final problem concerning Byzantium’s accessibility is its own name – ‘Byzantium’ or the ‘Byzantines.’

‘Part of the reason for Byzantium’s absence from the wider historical discourse is that it has been relegated to the sphere of negativity. The very name that we use today – “Byzantium”- was a derogatory coinage of the early modern period, and Byzantium has traditionally been the subject of adverse comparisons with Rome and with everything classical.’

Averil Cameron ‘Byzantine Matters’ (2014), p. 10.

Byzantium’s identity is still a contentious issue today. The term given to the civilization was done so by a German scholar named Hieronymus Wolf in order to make, albeit discriminant, historiographical boundary between the classical Romans and their medieval continuation. From then on, the term has been used negatively – notably by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which impacted much of the scholarship on Byzantium for a remarkably long time. Only in the last couple of decades, has it started to be overturned.

However, the debate does not end there. If ‘Byzantium’ and ‘Byzantine’ were terms created in the early modern period, who actually were they?

A simple answer is to provide you the name they gave themselves – Ῥωμαῖοι – Romaioi – which translates into English as Romans. Although the ‘Byzantines’ spoke Greek and had a largely Hellenic culture, their self-identification cannot be ignored. For all intent and purposes, the ‘Byzantines’ believed themselves not the heirs, nor the successors, but the continuation of the united Roman Empire. Those wanting to know more on the identity of the ‘Byzantines’ should see the identity section on the bibliography page alongside, reading Averil Cameron’s book titled The Byzantines (2010).

Byzantium is often lost and only found when unlocked at university or by those who actively seek it out. So, after all which has been said, if Byzantium is often left out, why are they important?

There are many answers to this question and some people would prioritize various reasons over others. Nonetheless, I hope to give a selection of my personal beliefs as to why people should interact with Byzantium.

  • In the field of law, Justinian I’s reforms to the legal code served as the basis of not only Roman law, but law in many medieval European entities, and continues to have a significant impact on several aspects of law today. 
  • The Byzantine Empire influenced many cultures during its lifespan. Obolensky termed Byzantium as the mother to an eastern ‘commonwealth.’ Obolensky’s premise came as a result of her role in shaping Christian Orthodoxy. The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian church in the world, after the Catholic, and is a fundamental aspect of the cultural history, heritage, and current societies of Greece, Bulgaria, and Russia and others.
  • Whilst western Europe was finding its feet in the aftermath of the collapse of the western Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire shielded them from various threats, most notably the armies of Islam in the seventh century. Thus, giving western Europe time to develop in their respective cultural, economic, and military fields. This allowed them to gradually find their feet and ultimately fend for themselves.
  • In the period following the sacking of Constantinople in AD 1204 and the fall of Constantinople in AD 1453, people migrated out of Constantinople. Among them were Byzantine scholars and artists, including grammarians, poets, writers, musicians, astronomers, architects, artists, scribes, philosophers, scientists, politicians, and theologians. The emigration of these people contributed to the revival of Greek and Roman studies in the west, which led to the development of the Renaissance.

To conclude, I hope this blog post has been interesting and helps give some reasoning as to why I started the blog, and why its focus is on Byzantium. I look forward to making Byzantium more accessible to a wider audience and I hope to get more people interacting with such a great and interesting civilization.  

Note: The reason this blog includes Late Antiquity and Byzantium is because I wanted to engage in all of Byzantium’s history, regardless of those who believe in the periodization of Late Antiquity, and who feel Byzantinist’s do not have a claim to the early period, notably between AD 300-750. My personal view is ‘Byzantine’ history lasted from AD 330-1453. Alternatively, for my true, but problematic view, ‘Byzantine’ or, better yet, Roman history runs from BC 753 – AD 1453.

Here is a short bibliography of introductory books for you to explore at your own leisure. For a first read, I highly recommend Judith Herrin’s – Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire.

  • Cameron, A, The Byzantines (Oxford, 2010).
  • Herrin, J, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (London, 2007).
  • Mango, C, The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford, 2002).
  • Norwich, J. J. A Short History of Byzantium (London, 2013).
  • Sarris, P, Byzantium: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2015).

For an exceptional podcast on Byzantium, please see ‘The History of Byzantium.’ Link is: https://thehistoryofbyzantium.com/

Just a heads up!

From this moment onward, I will not be using the word ‘Byzantine’ or ‘Byzantium.’ I strongly feel that we (academics, students, and the general populace) need to start calling these remarkable people the name they actually identified – Romans!

Published by Sean Strong

Sean is a doctoral researcher working on the reign of Maurice (582-602). He holds a further interest in understanding the ideology behind identity and the perception of rulership in Eastern Europe and the Near East. Sean's research interests vary throughout the Late Antique and Byzantine world, and span across the fields of military, political, and social history.

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