The Emperors of Byzantium
Thames & Hudson, £25, 336 pages
It hardly needs saying that any English writer who tackles the history of Byzantium does so in the shadow of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon is a superlative stylist, and moreover a scholar of almost impeccable accuracy and erudition: a colossus of English-speaking historiography, and the author who without rival first posed to the English reading public an account of the long succession of rulers whom Kevin Lygo now chronicles here. For Gibbon Christianity is the solvent of Roman civic and military virtue, and so it comes as no surprise that in the later volumes of the Decline and Fall, he does not hold back from the most caustic denigration of the civilisation that obtained in the Christian empire of Constantinople from its foundation by Constantine in 324 to its long-anticipated fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. For him the Byzantines “assume and dishonour the name of Greeks and Romans, present a dead uniformity of abject vices, which are neither softened by the weakness of humanity, nor animated by the vigour of memorable crime”. Thus he dismisses a millennium of Eastern Christian civilisation as a farrago of superstition, lethargy and eunuch-ruled decadence, a characterisation that appealed as much to his high-minded and earnest Victorian readers as it did to his sceptical and “enlightened” contemporaries.
Things began to change in the 1960s, when the end of empire made people start to think about what might happen next. Two names stand out. First, Peter Brown, the biographer of Augustine and the man who might be said to have invented the academic field now known as Late Antiquity, who reinterpreted the Christian empire as rich, strange and engaging; secondly, Stephen Runciman, whose more literary empathy with high Byzantine culture revalued and sought to communicate what had so nearly been lost to the Crusaders when Constantinople fell in 1204. Since then highly readable scholarship has burgeoned in the English speaking world: Averil Cameron and Judith Herrin have written fine introductory histories of both the Byzantine world in general and Byzantine Christianity in particular; Philip Grierson spent a lifetime creating a definitive account of Byzantine numismatics; Mark Whittow wrote definitively on military matters, and the catalogues of a rich range of international exhibitions have popularised the astonishing artistic range of Byzantine iconographers, fresco-painters and architects. Gibbon never saw Hagia Sophia, nor any of the great treasures of Byzantine material culture, nor did his scholarship have access to any of the great increments of knowledge that have come from the work of archaeologists in the Byzantine field.
What, then, does Lygo bring to the party? He introduces himself on the book’s dustcover as an expert on Byzantine art, although profess-ionally his world is television, beginning as a script writer for The Two Ronnies and ending up as Head of Television at ITV, after weather-ing some tricky moments at Channel 4 when he was in charge during the Celebrity Big Brother race row and the Richard & Judy phone-in fraud. It is difficult to think of a more appropriate background in intrigue punctuated by catastrophe for an engaged and enthusiastic amateur to bring to the study of Byzantine history. The format is simple: the book offers a brief biography of each ruler of the Byz-antine dominions, beginning with Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome and the founder of Constantinople, who acced-ed to the undivided rule of the Roman World in 324, and concluding with Constantine XI Palaiologos, who died in battle having remov-ed the imperial insignia from his armour as Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. This is a millennium of history and more than 90 emperors; there is a lot of ground to cover. Lygo points out that over 1,000 years sep-arate Constantine’s proclamation as emperor at York in 313 from the next visit of a Byzan-tine emperor to England, that of Manuel II to the court of Henry IV in 1400. Inevit-ably this makes the book a bit of a whistle-stop tour. After a brief introduction by Bettany Hughes we are immediately into the biographies, one after the other, with a paragraph of explanation introducing each new dynasty.
Unsurprisingly, the emperors are a colourful lot, men and women (Irene liked to use the masculine form Basileus, we are told). The format naturally tends to emphasise anecdote, court gossip and the outlandish over and above more stolid and pious virtues, although Lygo can hardly be criticised for this when the Byzantine historians from Procopius to Psellos are so keen on this themselves. So we hear once more about the geese trained to peck the youthful “performer” Theodora in what Lygo calls rather bashfully “surprising places”, and the iconoclast emperor Constantine V’s baptismal incontinence crops up again too. Not only is the formula of the book as a catalogue of royal biographies somewhat old fashioned, but Lygo adds to many of the pen portraits moral judgements about the subjects which may strike the reader from time to time as a bit too close to 1066 and All That. We are told, for example, of the iconoclast founder of the Isaurian dynasty, Leo III: “with the benefit of hindsight it can be seen that the Byzantine empire was very fortunate indeed to have had such a capable man take control at a crucial moment in its history.” Lygo has a rather Gibbon-like sympathy with the iconoclasts. “There can be no doubt”, he tells us censoriously, “that among the more ignorant, the veneration of images and icons had reached a level akin to superstition and idolatry”, whereas the restoration of icon-veneration apparently made Byzantium “now and ever after … a Graeco-Christian empire halfway between East and West”.
How does Byzantium live for us today? Most obviously, I think, in three ways: the liturgy of the Orthodox Church, the material culture of Byzantine civilisation crowned by the astonishing monument of Hagia Sophia, once more afflicted by the occlusion of its Christian imagery, and the formidable and enduring legacy of Roman Law, codified by Theodosius II and Justinian. I’m not sure that a reader new to things Byzantine would necessarily get that impression from this book, although the illustrations are copious, well-chosen and well produced, as is to be expected from Thames & Hudson. In fact the reader needs quite a lot of prior knowledge of the historical background to benefit from many of the biographies, particularly some of the more obscure comings and goings of people like the Lascarid emperors of Nicaea, and some degree of stamina. But if you have the stamina and the knowledge, and have already thought out for yourself the attraction of this extraordinary civilisation of 1,000 years, then this is an entertaining dash through all its ups and downs, ideal to read while convalescing from some minor illness by the seaside, preferably a wine-dark sea where once the dromons of the Basileus plied their oars.
The Revd Dr Robin Ward is Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford
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