Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Byzantium finished

Treadgold Denise got up at 3am to watch the Obama inauguration. In this case I did not because I get up early anyway and thought that I would be just too tired during the day. A sign of age, I guess.

When I did get up, I wandered across to Thomas to see if he had covered the event, and indeed he had done so for the earlier part. Palpable excitement.

Like a good part of the world, I think of the inauguration as marking a change point. However, we also need to be realistic and cut the new president some slack. He would need to be omniscient and perhaps also omnipotent to meet all the expectations invested in him.

I have finally finished Warren Treadgold's A History of the Byzantine State and Society. I first mentioned that I was reading this book in a December post,  Byzantium, Turtledove and the power of imagination in history. By then, I was about a third of the way through.

It is a long book, 970 pages including the bibliographic essay and end notes, both of which I read. I read it mainly on trains and buses, making use of otherwise dead travel time.

This is apparently the first new history of the whole Empire published in over sixty years, and the first to cover both state and society. I can see why. This is a mammoth task.

The book begins in the Roman Empire prior to Diocletian's decision in 285 to create Eastern and Western subdivisions within the Empire. It finishes with the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, with some end commentary to bring the story through to the present time.

Writing a history of such a long and complicated period is a difficult challenge in itself, more so when the original source material is often fragmentary. Turning it into a coherent story that can be read and followed through often torturous and tumultuous events is a bigger challenge. The English word byzantine meaning complex or devious - a byzantine plot - reflects Western European responses.

Treadgold's own sympathies can be inferred from his dedication:

In memory of my father, Donald Treadgold (1922-1994) who passed on to me his respect for scholarship, the classics and the Christian East.

In a sense, Treadgold writes from a Byzantine perspective, from the viewpoint of the Empire looking out. Those that the Empire dealt with in trade or war are there because they affected the Empire. Their individual stories are relevant only in their impact on Byzantium.

There is nothing wrong with this. I do not think that the book could have been written in any other way. It gains its power in part from Treadgold's immersion in Byzantium. It is up to the reader to be aware that there may be other perspectives.

In this context, I knew but was not fully aware of the continuing influence of Byzantine history on current events.

The boundaries of the original subdivision between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires were in part linguistic -  Latin on one side, Greek on the other. With subdivision, Greek became dominant in the East.

There were other languages. Some died, some survived to today. But the core of the Empire was Greek. Even in 1910, there were still large numbers of Greek speakers across parts of what had been the old Empire. The war between Greece and the new Turkish Republic following the First World War saw the forced resettlement of around a million Greek speakers on one side, 300,000 Turkish speakers on the other. The war itself was due to Greece's desire to re-establish a bigger Greece - Byzantium.

The conflicts between Eastern and Western Europe - between the Latins and Byzantium - are reflected today in religious divisions. Croatia is Roman Catholic, Serbia is orthodox.

The conflicts between the Arabs, Ottomans and Byzantium are also reflected in modern religious divisions. Egypt was Christian, but became Muslim. Anatolia was Christian and Byzantium heartland for much of its history, but became Muslim after its conquest by new invaders following the Muslim faith.

The pattern was never exact, nor was religion of itself necessarily a driving force. The Crusaders on the east, the Arab and later Turkish invaders on the west, north and south were concerned with questions of power and territory. All the entities so created were then concerned with survival.

This, the problem of conquest and subsequent control, is beyond the scope of this post. However, I will return to it because reading Treadgold gave me new insights to questions that have always interested me.

2 comments:

ken said...

Jim: I have just read Judith Herrin's book on Byzantium and discovered much that I did not know.
Now, do I read Treadgold to go deeper or seek another subject from the long list of things I have promised myself to learn about some day.
Russian history, perhaps.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Ken

Life is too short, isn't it?

I Haven't read Judith's Book. That said, I would read Treadgold first.

When I was only part way through the book Niar, an Indonesian blogger - http://niar-guardianangel.blogspot.com/ - pointed out to me the Russian connection.

Assuming that you do not get sidetracked into other directions, always a problem with me, it will give you a solid grounding on historical developments south of Russia. These play into current developments.