Byzantine Matters

Averil Cameron’s Byzantine Matters is not the popular introduction to Byzantium that it’s small page count (115 text) and pocket size might lead one to expect. It’s more a review of the literature on Byzantium, particularly from English-writing scholars, among whom Byzantium is still known mainly by its absence.

Cameron examines the causes and consequences of that absence, asks whether “empire” or “commonwealth” serves as an adequate description of the Byzantine political system, ponders the “Hellenism” of Byzantium under the question “Who owns Byzantium?” She considers art and economy in a chapter with the Yeats-inspired title “Realms of Gold,” and finished with a discussion of Byzantine theology, premised on the now-familiar Baueresque claim that heresy was not a deviation from “essentialist” orthodoxy, but that orthodoxy was the product of a centuries-long struggle (90).

Cameron is her usual well-informed, wide-ranging self. For budding students of Byzantium, the footnotes are a treasure.

I found a few details especially intriguing. In a brief discussion of recent literature on the iconoclast controversy, she notes the central place that accusations of Judaizing play in iconodule arguments: “The intense arguments about images were accompanied by a virulent anti-Jewish tone . . . [that] reflected an existing and much wider anti-Jewish tone in written texts. Jews also feature in several of the contemporary tales about miraculous images, and among the illustrations in the ninth-century Khludov psalter, carefully aligned with the appropriate Psalms, we find illustrations of Jews attacking the icon of Christ” (77). I imagine someone has done this, but this suggests the possibility of fitting the debate in the context of the “parting of the ways” argument.

Cameron reviews the work of N. Siniossoglou on Radical Platonism , who tries to isolate a form of Platonism within Byzantine intellectual life (especially in Gemistos Plethon) that was antagonistic to Christian orthodoxy. Cameron observes that this assumes a monolithic orthodox establishment, and assumes also that we know more about the relations between philosophy and theology than we actually do: There are ambiguities “in religious and intellectual authority and in the Byzantine educational system, with its uncertain line between philosophy and rhetoric and surprising (to us) lack of specifically theological training” (93-4).

She also highlights the structural difference between East and West. Byzantium, without a papal-like center, was more decentralized than the Latin church, and this put the Byzantines at a disadvantage in debates with their Latin colleagues.

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