OUP (2023) h/b 1044pp £34.99 (ISBN 9780197549322)
The author’s list of ‘Emperors of the Romans in the East’ begins in AD 311 with Licinius and ends with Konstantinos XI Palaiologos in 1453. It is this span of over 1,100 years of later Roman history that Anthony Kaldellis takes as his subject, with impressive success in this reviewer’s opinion.
The book is a chronological narrative of 37 chapters. These are grouped into ten parts, with titles such as ‘A new empire’ (Part One), ‘To the brink of despair’ (Part Five) and ‘Dignity in defeat’ (Part Ten). Interspersed with ‘New Rome’s political, military and Church history’ are emphases on ‘the deeper structures of east Roman life,’ and an attempt to give ‘the majority of the population’ its due, despite the focus of the evidence, at least where individuals are concerned, on the top strata. These inevitably include a seemingly endless procession of churchmen and monks in this long age of faith.
That said, K. is a careful guide to the tortuous but fundamental religious feuds between theological die-hards in and beyond Romanía determined to classify with philosophical precision the great mystery of Christianity’s own devising, namely, the relationship between a somehow human, dying Son and his divine Father. As a ‘breath of sanity,’ K. quotes the historian Procopius, who wrote with reference to controversies of the 530s: ‘I consider it a sort of insane stupidity to investigate the nature of God…’. In his excellent coverage of what the Anglosphere often calls the Late Roman Empire, the author notes too that the first signs of the schismatic tendency between Rome and Constantinople can be traced as early as the reign of Constantius (337-361), when the bishop of Rome claimed that all depositions of bishops required his consent, having somehow ‘got the idea that his see was either a higher or a fairer court of appeals in the Church’.
The author is at home with a range of sources. The reader will come across literary figures from Anna Comnena and Psellus to Eustathius and Tzetzes, placed in their historical context and, often, their quality assessed. Art-history can shed light on iconoclasm, as with the defaced images from the Constantinopolitan church donated by Anicia Juliana (mid-520s), to the imperial pretensions of which Justinian built Hagia Sophia as a riposte. The wide distribution of quality Greek pottery in the 1100s is one marker of the good times of the ‘Komnenian economy’. Survey archaeology helps to trace a decline in settlements coinciding with the Black Death (1347). At the same time the reader is constantly reminded of how much remains unknown: ‘opaque’ is a favourite word.
K. takes a strong position throughout the book on naming. He eschews the label ‘Byzantine’ as a nineteenth-century perversion of western scholars. He rightly insists on calling the state taken as his subject what its inhabitants themselves called it: ‘Romanía’ or ‘Romanland’. A theme running throughout the book is the default tendency from early on of Romanía’s western rivals and enemies, who came to include the pope of Rome and the Holy Roman emperor, to denigrate this ‘direct continuation of the ancient Roman state’ as an ‘empire of the Greeks’. In the Middle Ages this ‘Graecising’ revived old tropes of classical Latin literature such as the ‘effeminacy’ of the ‘Greeks,’ even if the thirteenth-century western slur of ‘white Muslims’ was more obviously of its time.
A complementary theme is the roller-coaster relationship of Romanía to its classical Greek past, on which the author has written an earlier book. After the downgrading of ‘Hellene’ to equate with ‘pagan’ in the first centuries of triumphant Christianity, and despite the classicizing strands in the literary flowering under the Komnenoi (1100s), the author sees the Latin sack of Constantinople (1204) as the trigger for a fuller identification (in some quarters of Romanía) with ideas of Hellenism, leading to the ‘paradox’ of a golden age of classical study under the Palaiologan emperors ‘just as the Roman state was collapsing’. As under the Komnenoi, oratory played a large role here, with ambitious men using archaising panegyric to attract patronage from grandees. Ultimately it was largely thanks to Romanía’s busy scriptoria of the later 1200s and 1300s that as many manuscripts of ancient Greek authors survive as do.
K. has various explanations for what, after all, was the remarkable resilience of the eastern Roman state, surrounded as it became on all sides by hostile players. He stresses inter alia the rule of (Roman) law; a consensual politics which understood the imperial role as one of service and with it the lingering notion of a res publica; taxation usually at a tolerable level (since tax revolts seem to have been rare) to support an effective military; the role of ordinary people from the later 400s on (those of the capital above all) in expressing the popular will in both accessions and removals of emperors; and the absence (as in Roman antiquity) of a fully-fledged principle of hereditary succession. He correctly points out that for most of its history Romanía had long ceased to be a conquest-state or ‘empire’ and that all Rome’s eastern subjects had become Roman citizens as long ago as Caracalla’s Antonine Constitution (AD 212).
He also pushes back against a scholarly tendency to impute to Romanía the rise of an equivalent of the medieval west’s feudal aristocracies, pointing instead to the use of titles and salaries to bind ‘leadership cadres’ to the imperial court, along with a long-lived willingness to recruit ‘new men’ into imperial service. Not that Romanía’s elites were immune to western influences: K. notes a new taste for surnames in the 1100s and for ‘lineage, bloodlines, and marriage politics’. In 1325 Andronikos III Palaiologos engaged in jousting competitions with guests from Savoy.
K. writes what he rightly calls an ‘exciting’ story well. There are touches of humour and colour, the latter often supplied by Romanía’s grim vocabulary of torture and execution. He alerts the reader to controversy and repeatedly offers a refreshing viewpoint. His book is a tremendous achievement of labour, scholarship and historiographical judgment. It will surely become the new standard work on its subject, not to mention a deserving candidate for book prizes. The many maps of changing political boundaries are among the best I have come across.