Thursday, December 08, 2005
Below are 10 questions for Warren Treadgold, author of A History of the Byzantine State and Society (and numerous other works).
1 - We hear quite a bit about the impact of Al-Andalus on the Western intellectual tradition, in particular the renaissance of Aristotelianism spurred on by new translations of Greek thinkers available from reconquista Spain. And yet far less is said about the impact of Greek scholars fleeing the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century to Italy. Is this lack of focus simply a quirk of biases in transmission of historical consensus to the public, or, is it a reflection of the fact that Byzantium really wasn't that important in the spurring the Italian Renaissance?
The influence of Byzantium on the Italian Renaissance was certainly profound, and better recognized at the time than it is today. We Byzantinists haven't done as good a job of publicizing (and studying) it as we should have, despite a few books like Nigel Wilson's "From Byzantium to Italy" and Deno Geanakoplos' "Byzantium and the Renaissance." Contemporary Renaissance specialists have also been reluctant to give Byzantium due credit. Much of the problem is the compartmentalization of modern scholarship; few scholars know both Byzantium and the Renaissance well.
2 - Recalling your work, "A History of the Byzantine State and Society," I was struck by two things, a) the overwhelming centrality of Greek culture after the 6th century, b) the simultaneous prominence of ethnic non-Greeks as emperors (i.e., Leo III the Isaurian, the presumed Armenian origin of the Macedonian dynasty, etc.). Is thereany way we can map modern terms like "ethnicity" or "multiculturalism" to the Byzantine Empire between 700-1100?
Most Byzantines seem not to have cared much about what we would call ethnicity. Byzantium was essentially a monocultural melting pot. New arrivals learned Greek, called themselves "Romans" (we'd call them "Byzantines"), married Byzantines, and practically forgot their origins in a generation or two.
3 - Why did you choose the field of Byzantine studies as your specialty?
Being drawn to a field is a little like falling in love: there's an irrational element. The best reason I can give for choosing Byzantine history is that so many important, pioneering things remain to be done in it. That's also the reason ambitious historians mostly shun it: they know that the best-known fields are the best-recognized, so that the thousandth biography of Lincoln will get more attention than the first biography of Basil I.
4 - Though Justinian closed the The Academy in Athens, I recall that the loose collection of Neoplatonic philosophers continued to teach and write, and the Alexandrian School existed up to the Muslim conquest. Who supported these pagan philosophers during this period when the commanding heights of the state and society were thoroughly Christian?
We don't know for sure, but most scholars in Byzantium were either independently wealthy or supported by their students' fees. It's not even certain that Justinian confiscated all of the Academy's endowment.
5 - I recently read "The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople" by Jonathan Phillips and was struck by references to statues of Athena and other mythological figures in Constantinople. Were cultural relicts of the "pagan" past quite common in the form of superstition and statuary in Byzantium? In other words, how genuinely "Christian" was the typical citizen of Constantinople during the period between 700-1000?
Constantine collected and set up all sorts of pagan statues at Constantinople, but as artworks, not cult objects. Some superstitious stories circulated about some of them, but that wasn't real paganism. Nobody had been worshipping the bronze statue of Athena that a mob tore down because it looked as if it was beckoning to the Crusaders.
6 - Do you have any opinions as to the endeavours of historians like William H. McNeill who attempt to construct grand historical narratives reduced to a few primary causative parameters? (e.g., his last book, "The Human Web," focused on tightening networks of information)
The trouble with most of these grand schemes is that they're oversold and overly elaborate. Yet most of them are partly right. Plagues, technology, information, irrigation, and so on were all important factors in history.
7 - Is history a social science or humanities?
It can be either; ideally it should be both; but nowadays it tends to be more a social science.
8 - The conquest of Egypt and Syria by the Muslim armies in the 7th century is one aspect of Byzantine history that is well known to the general public. Reasons given often hinge upon religious discord derived from the Monophysite nature of Egypt, exhaustion after the wars of the early 7th century between Byzantium and Persia and the decline of the border Arab polities. Is there any elegant and succinct model that can explain this event?
I don't think Monophysitism had anything to do with it; most Monophysites preferred Byzantine rule to Muslim rule, and they did nothing to help the conquests. The Arabs benefited enormously from the ruinous war in which the Byzantines and Persians had just worn each other out. The Byzantines wisely kept many of their troops in reserve (the Persians didn't), which allowed them to stop the Arabs at the first strong natural barrier--the Taurus Mountains in southeast Anatolia. Egypt, Syria, and North Africa were protected only by deserts, which weren't barriers for the Arabs.
9 - In regards the Christological controversies, do you have any opinions as to why they occurred? They seem to be a feature of the Eastern Christian tradition more than the Western one.
The Christological controversies dealt with a difficult problem--how Christ could be both God and man--and it's not surprising that Christians took some time to work out all the subtleties of the solution. The controversies were more Eastern than Western because the East had more sophisticated theologians, who saw difficulties that didn't trouble most Western theologians.
10 - If you could visit Constantinople for one day via a time machine between the battle of Yarmuk and Manzikert, what day would that be?
Probably the day (we don't know which) in spring 1019 when Basil II returned to celebrate a triumph after his conquest of Bulgaria. It was the high point of the middle Byzantine period, though I doubt that many Byzantines, including Basil, would have thought so at the time.
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