Byzantine Studies

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Byzantium is the name given to both the state and the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire in the middle ages. Both the state and the inhabitants always called themselves Roman, as did most of their neighbors. Western Europeans, who had their own Roman Empire called them Orientals or Greeks, and later following the example of the great French scholar DuCange, Byzantines after the former name of the Empire's capital city, Constantinople.

These names give witness to the composite nature of Byzantium. It was, without any doubt, the continuation of the Roman state, and until the seventh century, preserved the basic structures of Late Roman Mediterranean civic culture: - a large multi-ethnic Christian state, based on a network of urban centers, and defended by a mobile specialized army. After the Arab/Muslim conquest of Egypt and Syria, the nature of the state and culture was transformed. Byzantium became much more a Greek state [perhaps best seen in the emperor Heraklios' adoption of the Greek title Basileus], all the cities except Constantinople faded away to small fortified centers, and the military organization of the empire came to be based on a series of local armies. There is then a persistent ambiguity about the beginning of Byzantine history - between the building of Constantinople by Constantine I and the mid-7th century collapse of late antique urban culture.

The seventh to ninth centuries are generally accounted a low point of Byzantine history. Little literature - even saints' lives - survives, and even less art. The period is studied above all for the history of the struggle over icons. This Iconoclastic Controversy bears witness to a continued intellectual vitality, and the emergence of one of history's most sophisticated analyses of the nature and function of art. Under the Macedonian Dynasty [867-1056], Byzantium's political power reached its apogee as former territories were incorporated in the Empire, and an element of multi-ethnicity was restored. This period is also significant as the time in which Byzantine culture was spread among the Slavs and other Balkan peoples. Following massive Turkish attacks in the late eleventh century, the Empire was able to maintain a lesser but still significant political and military power under the Komnenian Dynasty: the cost was a social transformation which exalted a powerful military aristocracy, and gradually enserfed the previously free peasantry. In 1204, internal Byzantine politics and the resurgent West, effectively ended the imperial pretensions of the Byzantine state. The Fourth Crusade [1204] succeeded in conquering Constantinople and making it a Latin principality for half a century. The Greek political leadership, under the Palaiologan Dynasty regained Constantinople in 1261, but the "empire" was just one state among many in the area for the final 200 years of its existence. Strangely, this period was among the most culturally productive, in art, in theology, and in literature.

It would be wrong then to present the later history of Byzantium as a "thousand year history of decline", leading inevitably to its conquest by the Ottoman Turks on Tuesday 29th May 1453. This perception, promoted disastrously by the English historian Edward Gibbon, reflects the origins in the classical studies of Byzantine studies. The classic periods of ancient cultures [the fifth and fourth centuries BCE in Greece and the late republican/early imperial period in Rome] have long appealed to modern Western sensibilities because - as times of rapid change and innovation in art and literature - echoes and origins of the present have been seen there. In comparison, Byzantine political culture changed slowly, and continuity was valued over change. Furthermore, classical secularism, so attractive to Renaissance and Enlightenment scholars, had no place in Byzantine thought worlds. As a result Byzantine culture was subjected to centuries of abuse as a time of barbarism and superstition.

The counterpart to the dismissal of Byzantine culture was its exaltation by 19th-century Romanticism, and by a substrate of Christian, especially Anglican, intellectuals. [Even now Anglican seminaries are good places to locate books on Byzantine studies.] Byzantium was also "claimed" by some Orthodox Christian intellectuals. The result was that, after having been demeaned by the Enlightenment, Byzantium acquired defenders, but defenders who concentrated equally on the culture's religious aspects. Far from calm scholarship, Byzantine studies has ever been a locus of contestation, of defamers and champions.

A third important strand of Byzantine studies has been the Marxist contribution. Marxist historians are often derided, especially in the United States, for fitting facts to theory [as if they alone were guilty of this!] In Byzantium, especially in the agricultural laws of the tenth century, which were presented at the time as addressing a struggle of the "poor" and the "powerful". Marxists saw a prime example of the beginning of "feudalism". While perhaps pushing some interpretations too hard, the Marxist tradition remains valuable in affirming a secular aspect of Byzantine culture.

Currently, Byzantine studies, reflecting its classical heritage, is still much more dominated by philological and art historical concerns than Western medieval history. Still, there are interesting transformations evident. The French Annales School, represented by such scholars as Helene Ahrweiler and Evelyne Patlagean has applied the specific social, cliometric and "long duree" methodologies to Byzantine studies with some gusto. Purely social history, without a Marxist slant, is now well established, with Angeliki Laiou among the most productive writers. The Russian Byzantinist Alexander Kazhdan was responsible for a whole variety of initiatives, including a willingness to study religious phenomena in secular perspective. Finally, and much later than in other areas of historical study, the history of women is now coming to the fore.

Byzantine civilization constitutes a major world culture. Because of its unique position as the medieval continuation of the Roman State, it has tended to be dismissed by classicists and ignored by Western medievalists. Its internal elite culture was archaicizing and perhaps pessimistic. But we should not be deceived. As the centrally located culture, and by far the most stable state, of the Medieval period, Byzantium is of major interest both in itself, and because the development and late history of Western European, Slavic and Islamic cultures are not comprehensible without taking it into consideration. While few would claim elevated status for much Byzantine literature [although its historiographical tradition is matched only by China's], in its art and architecture, Byzantine culture was genuinely, and despite itself, innovative and capable of producing works of great beauty. As an area of study, as I have tried to indicate here, Byzantine studies is complex, full of conflict, and still open to new questions and methods.



      Internet Medieval Sourcebook: Byzantine Sources Page
      This a huge collection of full and excerpted texts in translation for Byzantine and Medieval studies. If you have any translations, or non-copyrighted etext versions, of Byzantine sources, please consider letting them be placed here.

      Internet Medieval Sourcebook: Saints' Lives
      A Specialized text collection of Byzantine and Western saints' Lives, along with other hagiographical resources.

      Byzantine Paleography
      A guide to Byzantine manuscript sources, with examples, images, letter form tables, abbreviation tables, scholarly aides, annotated bibliographies, and links to other paleography sites.

      Byzantine Studies Articles
      Links to secondary articles in Byzantine studies.

      Gallery: Images Available at this and Other Sites
      Gallery contains links to an array of Byzantine art, religious and historical images available on the net. The version with inline thumbnail images, which never worked, has been removed.

      Byzantine Music
      This page contains links to information about Byzantine music, as well as links to a variety of sound files.


      Links to Other Sites
      This is a useful link to follow. Now much pruned it links to major Internet sites to do with Byzantine culture as well as and links a very select set of sites useful for Ancient, Late Antique, Western Medieval, and Middle Eastern history and culture.


The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 12 July 2024 [CV]