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Byzantine Matters by Averil Cameron

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For many of us, Byzantium remains “byzantine”—obscure, marginal, difficult. Despite the efforts of some recent historians, prejudices still deform popular and scholarly understanding of the Byzantine civilization, often reducing it to a poor relation of Rome and the rest of the classical world. In this book, renowned historian Averil Cameron presents an original and personal view of the challenges and questions facing historians of Byzantium today.

The book explores five major themes, all subjects of controversy. “Absence” asks why Byzantium is routinely passed over, ignored, or relegated to a sphere of its own. “Empire” reinserts Byzantium into modern debates about empire, and discusses the nature of its system and its remarkable longevity. “Hellenism” confronts the question of the “Greekness” of Byzantium, and of the place of Byzantium in modern Greek consciousness. “The Realms of Gold” asks what lessons can be drawn from Byzantine visual art, and “The Very Model of Orthodoxy” challenges existing views of Byzantine Christianity.

Throughout, the book addresses misconceptions about Byzantium, suggests why it is so important to integrate the civilization into wider histories, and lays out why Byzantium should be central to ongoing debates about the relationships between West and East, Christianity and Islam, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and the ancient and medieval periods. The result is a forthright and compelling call to reconsider the place of Byzantium in Western history and imagination.
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Averil Cameron, Professor Emeritus of Late Antique and Byzantine studies at Oxford, is probably the foremost authority on the late antique period in the scholarly world (possible exception: Prof. Peter Brown). In Byzantine Matters, she has worked a series of lectures into chapters illuminating some of the controversies in Byzantine studies and areas of neglect.

This isn’t a history of the Byzantine period, and indeed, historically, it is rather slight; Cameron tends to brush over the history to talk more about the historiography, and while her use of history shows a deep understanding of and engagement with it, Byzantine Matters won’t pass much of that on to the reader. Instead, she addresses in turn and in connected fashion a series of what she sees as the biggest issues facing Byzantine studies, including the neglect of Byzantium, the role of Byzantium as an empire, the originality or Greekness of Byzantine culture, the art of Byzantium, and the religion; this review will discuss each chapter in turn.

The first is, perhaps, the most fascinating. Byzantine Matters posits that in scholarly and general literature of the ancient and mediaeval worlds, Byzantium is passed over, excluded, and neglected. A glance at the bookshelves of any bookshop will back up this assertion; Byzantium is represented minimally at best, and normally with histories of specifically Constantinople. Cameron discusses both the reasons for this historically, and the problems it causes; in so doing she draws on multiple historiographical traditions and demonstrates why Byzantium fits with none of them well enough for full inclusion. Her discussion is heavily focused on Western scholarship, but one suspects it holds true for non-Western scholarship just as strongly and for many parallel reasons.

The next chapter draws much more heavily on theory, including from luminaries such as Edward Said. In discussing Byzantium as empire, Cameron also has to tackle the questions of what makes an empire, and how Byzantium related to its neighbours and vassals. Inevitably, Byzantine Matters collapses an awful lot of material into a very short discussion, but what Cameron very fruitfully achieves in this chapter is a demonstration of the way scholarship on the Byzantine empire has not advanced through the twentieth century, and must take proper account of post-colonial historiography and of new theoretical frameworks for understanding empire that historians have as tools; while not doing so herself, she points the way for others.

A similar pattern is on display in the chapter on Byzantine art and, indeed, on Orthodoxy; in each case Cameron draws out the scholarly orthodoxy, demonstrates its shortcomings, puts it to the test, and shows how modern scholarship in other disciplines (art history especially) must co-ordinate with late antique/Byzantine studies lest each fails to recognise the importance of the other. Byzantine Matters remains inevitably light on these fronts but does deal very well with the Orthodox church, discussing the shortcomings of the standard model of it as monolithic and heirarchical; and Cameron’s fruitful comparisons with the Western tradition of Christianity are fascinating.

The weakest chapter is that on Greekness. Hellenism is a key part of Byzantine cultural identity, and Byzantine Matters accepts this; however, Cameron wishes to challenge the scholarly consensus of a period of imitation, derivation, and lack of innovation. However, her approach to this is flawed; looking at Byzantine self-definition she contradicts herself, especially in the context of her later discussion of empire, and her model of discussion here is much more limited and less elucidating than in other works. Indeed, she seems drawn very much into the question of modern Greek inheritance from Byzantium, a wholly separate discussion from Byzantium as inheritor from Greece.

The whole work is both very engaged with scholarship, but also very accessibly written; Byzantine Matters requires very little knowledge of Byzantine matters, instead starting from a position of familiarity with the general outline of the post-Roman/mediaeval world and with Classical history. Cameron’s style is both engaging and fresh, startling in its clarity and simplicity; for a work grappling with some very complex issues, Byzantine Matters is stunningly readable and clear, with enough explanatory material around its meat for the casual reader to understand what is being driven at, and enough discussion of other scholarship to point where one might wish to go next.

All in all, at less than 120 pages (with another 26 pages of notes), Byzantine Matters is inevitably not a book with all the answers, but Cameron does pose the questions in a most fascinating, accessible, and, for students of late antiquity, disquieting manner.


1 Comment

  1. I liked your review and its challenging style. Yet I think the review tries too hard to assess the value rather than interrogate the purposes of Cameron’s short book, a mere squib in relation to her life’s work. The review’s tendency to ‘evaluate’ – terrible word! – led you into mistaking, I think, what Cameron was trying to do in her chapter on Hellenism. She is inviting scholars to re-think the centrality of the Hellenic tradition in Byzantium’s own history. Hence her opening gambits about ‘identity’ – who owns Byzantium? The Hellenic tradition, as ‘high’ culture supported an important, but secondary (to the Christian) component of the the church’s role and tradition, and of importance to a tiny elite in Constantinople itself.

    These observations are made in tacit support of her encouragement to reassess Byzantine literature, also deeply imbued with an Hellenic legacy, but written for a vastly different world and audience. This is what she seeks to emphasise – interpretation based on interaction with relevant historical processes, urging that scholars leave behind their predecessors’ preoccupation with a static, timeless or imaginary perfection (Yeats’ ‘artifice of eternity’). I don’t think she mentions this, but it has always struck me that Byzantine Art is spectacularly un-hellenic, Greek mainly in its power to evoke the intricacies and splendours of Byzantine religious beliefs and practices. So, in these chapters Cameron is at pains above all to encourage and suggest directions from which the task of intellectual renewal in relation to Byzantium should move ahead. I think she has done a very thoughtful and stimulating job, likely to engage many unfamiliar with the field, yet one that belies the weight and muscularity of the life-work underpinning her comparatively fragmented observations in this short work.

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