By Peter Sarris
OUP (2015) p/b 142pp £7.99 (ISBN 9780199236114)
There’s a distinctly exotic and tempting whiff blowing out of the bazaar, to which the reviewer would suggest you surrender, because if you haven’t yet explored Late Antiquity in general, and Byzantium in particular, there are real joys awaiting you. I remember in my early teens reading Graves’ Count Belisarius and becoming hooked, not least because it is a world from which the bizarre is never far away. Imagine, for example, approaching the Emperor’s presence in a grove of automata, and arising from your kow tow to discover that dais and throne, along with the Emperor, had been lofted skywards by a system of hydraulics.
But then don’t imagine that Byzantium is all sensationalism. It is about the single-minded establishment of a monarchic and theocratic empire (the Emperor is the representative of Christ on earth) separate from, but neighbouring on to, a similar empire in the west. Strategically next to a Persian enemy to the east, and subject to incursions across the Danube to the west, it had to adapt continuously its military, political and religious policies to emerge and re-emerge, as a great global entity. Indeed, from the 7th century we see a massive reorganisation which localised the running of the eastern empire, from the central court with its own bureaucracy to military ‘themes’ with defence and administration based on stratêgiai.
A concept key to understanding the existence and function of Byzantium is that of fusion: Byzantians called themselves Romans, lived in a Greek culture and regarded their city as the new Jerusalem; theocracy and the desire for world dominion was met, from the 7th century on, by another culture with similar ideas, fusing religion and conquest in almost continuous jihad practised by both sides; and then there’s fusion of the pagan and Christian. Indeed, not only did the elite of the new world protect its access to classical literature and images, but it was responsible for nearly all its transmission. Constantine, for instance, stuffed his new city not only with pagan imagery, but even erected statues to Diocletian in the hippodrome!
Readers should be aware that this Very Short Introduction is to Byzantium, not Late Antiquity (there is another volume in the series on precisely that), so that there is little here about the development of Christian theology, or the rule of the military hard men, like Stilicho, Belisarius, and Aetius, or threats like Attila, or migrations in general. But you will find a brilliantly distilled introduction to the idea of Byzantium, its reality and its legacy.