Globalizing Byzantium from Birmingham

The last thing I promised I’d write about from the quarter-slice of 2017 through which this blog’s backlog is presently proceeding was the 50th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, from 25th to 27th March of that year. There are plenty of stories that could be told about this conference, starting with the whole story of the Spring Symposium, which has, as that title suggests, been happening for 50 years, rotating away from and back to Birmingham like a short-duration comet; or one could tell the story of its founder, Anthony Bryer, who had died the previous year and so was being extensively commemorated here; or how it had fallen in this year upon Professor Leslie Brubaker and my two erstwhile Barber Institute collaborators, Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds, to organise it (which earns one the title of ‘Symposiarch’); but for me the chief story is probably always going to be how I arrived as a guest and was converted to presenter at twenty minutes’ notice and still more or less got away with it. So if that intrigues you, or if an international conference on Byzantine Studies does indeed, read on, and for the rest of you, since this post is long, I shall simply set out the running order of what I saw, then stick a cut in and expound at greater length beyond it. So! Here we go.

By now-ancient tradition, the organisation of the Spring Symposium wherever it is held is two-level, with keynote lectures and plenary sessions to which the whole gathering can go at one level, and at the other ‘communications’, these being shorter papers which run in parallel strands. On this occasion there was also a third part, in the form of a postgraduate workshop following the main proceedings. All this together means that my academic itinerary through the conference went like this:

    25th March

  • Michael Whitby, “Welcome”
  • Leslie Brubaker, “What is Global Byzantium?”
  • Catherine Holmes, “Global Byzantium: a Whirlwind Romance or Fundamental Paradigm Shift?”
  • Coffee break

  • Rebecca Darley, “India in the Byzantine Worldview”
  • Antony Eastmond, “Constantinople: Local Centre and Global Peripheries”
  • Francesca dell’Acqua, “What about Greek(s) in Eighth- and Ninth-Century Italy?”
  • Lunch

  • Matthew Kinloch, “Historiographies of Reconquest: Constantinople, Iberia and the Danelaw”
  • Maroula Perisanidi, “Clerical Marriage in Comparative Perspective”
  • Kristian Hansen-Schmidt, “Constantine’s Μονοχυλα: Canoe or Viking Ship?”
  • Lauren Wainwright, “Import, Export: the Global Impact of Byzantine Marriage Alliances during the 10th Century”
  • Jeffrey Brubaker, “What is Byzantine about ‘Byzantine Diplomacy’?”
  • Adrián Elías Negro Cortes, “Tributes Linked to Military Actions in Both Ends of the Mediterranean: from Byzantium to Spain”
  • Tea

  • Corisande Fenwick, “Forgotten Africa and the Global Middle Ages”
  • Tim Greenwood, “Composing History at the Margins of Empire: Armenian Chronicles in Comparative Perspective”
  • John Haldon, “A ‘Global’ Empire: the Structures of East Roman Longevity”
  • Robin Milner-Gulland, “Ultimate Russia – Ultimate Byzantium”
  • Champagne Bus and Conference Dinner1

    26th March

  • Liz James, “Byzantine Art – A Global Art? Looking beyond Byzantium”
  • Hugh Kennedy, “The State as an Econmic Actor in Byzantium and the Caliphate c. 650-c. 950: A Cross-Cultural Comparison”
  • Angeliki Lymberopoulou, “‘Maniera Greca’ and Renaissance Europe: More Than Meets the Eye”
  • Henry Maguire, “Magical Signs in Byzantium and Islam: A Global Language”
  • Coffee

  • Julia Galliker, “Silk in the Byzantine World: Transmission and Technology”
  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Attracting Poles: Byzantium, al-Andalus and the Shaping of the Mediterranean in the 10th Century”
  • Lunch and Auction

  • Claudia Rapp, “Secluded Place or Global Magnet? The Monastery of Saint Catherine on the Sinai and its Manuscript Collection”
  • Robert Ousterhout, “The ‘Helladic Paradigm’ in a Global Perspective”
  • Arietta Papaconstantinou, “Spice Odysseys: Exotic ‘Stuff’ and its Imaginary”
  • Tea

  • Hajnalka Herold, “How Byzantine was 9th-Century Moravia? An Archaeological Perspective”
  • Nik Matheou, “New Rome & Caucasia, c. 900-1100: Empire, Elitedom and Identity in a Global Perspective”
  • Alexandra Vukovich, “A Facet of Byzantium’s Ideological Reach: the Case of Byzantine Imitation Coins”
  • Andrew Small, “‘From the Halls of Tadmakka to the Shores of Sicily’: Byzantine Italy and Sub-Saharan Africa in the 11th century”, read by Nik Matheou
  • Flavia Vanni, “Transferring Skills and Techniques across the Mediterranean: Some Preliminary Remarks on Stucco in Italy and Byzantium”
  • Wine Reception

    27th March

  • Peter Sarris, “Centre or Periphery? Constantinople and the Eurasian Trading System at the End of Antiquity”
  • Linda Safran, “Teaching Byzantine Art in China: Some Thoughts on Global Reception”
  • Daniel Reynolds, “Jerusalem and the Fabrication of a Global City”
  • Coffee, then a closing round table session as follows:

  • Fotini Kondyli, “Material Culture”
  • Margaret Mullett, “Global Literature”
  • Joanna Story, “The View from… the West”
  • Scott Redford, “Byzantium and the Islamic World: Global Perspectives?”
  • Naomi Standen, “East Asia”
  • Chris Wickham, “Final Remarks”

That’s exhausting even to have typed out, and I certainly can’t come up with something to say about every paper at three years’ remove without basically repeating my already-somewhat illegible notes, so instead I’ll try to pull some general trends out of that list and then focus particularly on the theme and people’s approaches to it. What with me not really being a Byzantinist, that may mean a slightly odd selection, but you’re used to that, I know. Everybody involved deserves a better press than this will give them, but there just isn’t sensible space.2 In any case, now you can see what the rest of the post may look like, this is a good place for the cut and then the deeply interested can continue at their leisure.

The theme of the conference had obviously put everybody under a certain amount of pressure to think of some way of taking their bit of Byzantine history ‘global’, except for those who were already coming from outside who had instead to link their expertise to everyone else’s. For those starting from within, roughly three main trends emerged. One was simply to compare an aspect of Byzantine history—especially art but also for example tribute payments, magic, silk production and social organisation—with something further away, either part of the Empire’s extended periphery or something actually beyond, though the further people got the more difficult the act of comparison became to make historically meaningful; if two societies evolve parallel structures without knowing of each others’, how far out of their particular contexts can we abstract that commonality? If they evolved different ones, is the contrast telling anyone anything beyond the sometimes-valuable caution that their own way might not have to be normal?

Maroula Perisanidi’s paper actually fitted well into this, managing to make the differences within a shared framework tell us something that played into longer-running Church disputes, but because I’ve already given Maroula a post on this theme I’ll refer you there rather than go over it again here. My second example might therefore be Hugh Kennedy, who in comparing Byzantium and the Caliphate drew out some sharp differences in practice, surprising given the two states’ essential foundation in the late Roman Empire’s inheritance. For example, Byzantium spent much less of its budget on its army, but that was not least because the Caliphate paid all its troops in full, in cash, before they went on campaign so that they could buy their supplies as they went.3 Byzantium instead equipped supply trains for its armies, for lack of which Islamic forces could move much faster.

Ruins of the East Souq at Jerash

Ruins of the East Souq at Jerash, public domain via Google

To do that the Caliphate had to rely on the market economy, and put effort into driving that by decentralising minting, taking very little tax (though in many cities quite a lot of ground-rent) and spending otherwise really only on mosques, water supplies and the pilgrimage route to Mecca, while Byzantium ran something much more like a command economy as far as tax and army supply went, spent quite a lot on public buildings and memorialisation but only in a few cities, and arguably left the rest to manage itself.4 Not being the Byzantinist, Hugh finished this by observing that he could make sense of the Islamic side in terms of that religious polity’s priorities, but he didn’t really understand Byzantium’s, and it has to be said that no-one there was willing to try and explain it.5

Wall and arcade inside the Great Mosque of Córdoba

Wall and arcade inside the Great Mosque of Córdoba, I think and hope the qibla wall of al-Hakam II, which is believed to have been the first mosaic in al-Andalus, image from Museum with No Frontiers

Working from the other end of the Islamic world, meanwhile, Eduardo Manzano Moreno argued that up till about the tenth century, contact between Byzantium and the Muslim powers of the Iberian Peninsula were extremely limited and mainly concerned with controlling piracy, but that once the states got more thoroughly involved in the slave trade in the tenth century, other contacts travelled along these lines, leading to a pronounced Byzantinisation of court ceremonial and material culture in al-Andalus, including purple cloth, brocade silks, mosaic and some interest in Greek and Roman history. Despite its impeccable Islamic pedigree, when al-Andalus’s rulers started to enlarge their dignity beyond its traditional scope by claiming the Caliphate and interfering in Africa and the island world of the Mediterranean, they needed to draw on an older and widely respected language of power, it seems, and like so many before and since found it in (the new) Rome.6

The Sovoletsky Monastery, White Sea, Russia

The Solovetsky Monastery, Russia, image by GitaOgggown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A second trend was therefore to reflect on the importance of Byzantium in subsequent understandings of world history. Here I thought that the paper which seemed least likely to work and actually did better than many was Robin Milner-Gulland, who started with what might just have stayed as old memories of travelling with Professor Bryer to the Solovetsky Island, in the middle of the White Sea. As he developed the site’s history, however, from Bronze Age through to imperial Russia, which put the monastery here in the sixteenth century, and then British bombardment, Bolshevik closure and reopening in 1934 since when it has continued to operate, we ended up faced with what looks a lot like a late Byzantine monastery, built by the arguable successors to the leadership of Christian Orthodoxy after the fall of the Empire at a location about as far north of Byzantine territory as it’s possible to live. It’s hard not to admit that this is, in fact, Byzantine survival of some kind. This for me was the classic example of the paper from outside that slightly changes everyone’s worldview, and the photos of Bryer in Russian winter garb didn’t affect that.

St Catherine's Sinai

Saint Catherine’s Sinai, by Marc Ryckaert (MJJR) – own work, licensed under CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Then the third trend was to attempt to place Byzantium in a wider global history during its own time. This almost ineluctably led people to look for connections, because of the same problem as already mentioned: if there was no connection between two places, then is there really a simultaneous history to be told of them, rather than two separate ones proceeding independently in everything except climate systems and sometimes pandemics (both absent from the programme)? This pushed a lot of people to talk about trade or to seek art-historical parallels, but I would rather focus on a different kind of connection, that shown by the long-running project Claudia Rapp has been leading to bring to light the huge manuscript collections at Saint Catherine’s Sinai. Inarguably a Byzantine monastery, being founded by Emperor Justinian I, the monastery has nonetheless spent very little of its long life within imperial control. It has still drawn would-be monks and scholars from all over the Orthodox world and beyond, however, many of whom brought texts there that, by great fortune, survive. (These days, the librarian is a Texan, for further evidence of global reach.) Long ago on the blog we heard what this survival means for what we know of the early Balkan Glagolithic script; there are also texts in Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Georgian, Aramaic and even one (so far) in Albanian. An awful lot of the material is texts for worship: the monastery has clearly known liturgy in a lot of languages in its time, and quite possibly used to hold its services in more than one at a time when certain populations were strongly represented there. It raises fascinating questions about how long we can call this one a ‘Byzantine’ monastery: it seems reasonable still to consider it one some time after the loss of its immediate surroundings to the Caliphate, because what else could it be called? But how long after? After the end of Byzantium itself? Like Solovetsky, this ultimately opens up the question of whether, as long as Orthodox Christianity survives, Byzantium is in fact completely over, and you can guess which answer to that this conference generally encouraged.

I should also say something about a kind of sub-trend in the ‘outsider’ papers, which might be called ‘disputing the periphery’. It is almost a cliché of Byzantine studies that it can fail to look outside the walls of Constantinople; even in this conference there were five papers with ‘Constantinople’ in their title, only two of which titles explicitly mentioned anywhere else. Naturally, therefore, we also saw the counter-trend, of people fighting to remind the scholars of the metropole that their own areas could also count as Byzantium, be that the Italian Exarchate (usually expressed through the mosaics of Ravenna), Sicily, North Africa, Armenia and the Caucasus, Egypt or the Holy Land, as well as Rus’ and Russia as we’ve seen. There was also an outer circle of places not plausibly within the Empire but whose representatives felt there were connections to be stressed, such as Moravia, Nubia and Ethiopia (the latter two not listed above because I sadly had to choose against that session). All of those were interesting for how they constructed their connection to the theme. Perhaps most so for me was Nik Matheou’s paper, though, because of how determined he was to construct his area’s connection as opposition. Nik’s chosen space for this is the Caucasian frontier where I too have dabbled, you see. Nik sees this area as being like what the anthropologist James Scott has called zomia, a space in which geography makes intensive control impossible for outsiders to impose against local resistance and thus predisposes them to very small-scale and somewhat collective structures of authority.7 When powers did achieve this, it was by the kind of means I’ve signalled, persuading the local elites to share a language or currency of power that was at the disposal of the outsiders; but it was sometimes also, as Nik pointed out, by actual straightforward colonisation, the concession of spaces to either secular or ecclesiastical power figures from the Empire who then turned their patches into economic hotspots and maintained the connection to outside by wealth generation and patronage. It raises questions of what happened to such concerns in their second or third generation or when the wider political situation shifted around them: assimilation, despite their high-grid operation in a low-grid world, or dismantlement? But for that there was, in this paper, no time.

Amberd fortress in Armenia

The sort of thing that made Armenia hard to control, the tenth-century Amberd fortress, image by Yerevantsiown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond all this there was the meta-trend, explored at the beginning of the conference by Leslie Brubaker, Catherine Holmes and then Rebecca Darley, of which if any of these different notionally-‘global’ approaches answered the scholarly agenda set by the conference, and also the wider historiographical trends that had led to its choice of theme and which we’ve discussed here before. It will probably surprise no-one if I here single out my collaborator and personal strongest connection to the world of Byzantine studies by focusing on Rebecca’s paper, which was the one which made the strongest critique of the ‘global perspective’ which formed part of the title of so many papers. As she accurately pointed out, no-one has ever been able to see all the globe at once, especially if they were standing on it at the time. Instead, she argued, most of our authors used the bigger world beyond their locale as an Other which, in various ways, they used to reflect on their own spaces, as lacking in wealth or wisdom compared to the Brahmins supposedly met by Alexander, as superior to the hot and hostile India described by Palladius or as validation of Roman superiority over Persia as recognised even by distant unknown kings as in the Christian Topography, and by so arguing she implicitly challenged us to speculate as to our own motives in seeking comparisons with a wider history.10

But, the really attentive may have noticed, even after all this there still seems to be no mention of yourself, Dr Jarrett, and you promised there would be! I admit it: guilty as charged, really attentive person, but about to be answered. I hadn’t intended to go to the postgraduate workshop after the main conference, mainly because I felt like I owed the convenors my help in clearing up, but there was a presentation to be delivered in it about the ‘All That Glitters’ project of which you have here heard so much. Unfortunately, over lunch the intended speaker fell suddenly ill, and before there was really any kind of plan in place they were being carried away in a car with the session due to start in twenty minutes. And it’s my project too… So, I felt I had to step up. By great good fortune I had my laptop with me; I don’t usually take one to conferences because it’s so easy to put things down and forget them in that environment, but this day I had, and that meant I had the presentation from my Princeton talk where I could hack it. Twenty minutes proved to be just about enough to adapt it to the moment, and somehow I got away with improvising a modified version of that paper from them, salted liberally with praise for my stricken comrade’s work, that filled the gap in the programme.

Slide from my presentation at the 50th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Birmingham

One of the new slides from that very presentation, perhaps only the language of which reveals the speed at which I was working

I wouldn’t want to do this again ever, but I would be lying if I wasn’t still pretty smug about having been able to do it. I felt like the Barber Institute and the project, and indeed the speaker, who was thankfully more or less better by midway through the next day, could be proud of me, so I let myself be so too. It was an unexpected ending to the whole event, but the whole event had been pretty good, and the geographical and chronological scope of the conversations and exchanges showed, I think, that whatever definition of ‘global Byzantium’ you might yourself favour, it had been a good one for making people think about new things or about old ones in a new way. Not every conference can say as much!


1. When Bryer ran the symposia, there was by tradition a bus hired to take people to the dinner, aboard which champagne was served, and this was revived for this occasion. I should make clear that there are probably perfect good reasons why Bryer is so fondly remembered.

2. There is also the fact that the proceedings of the conference are even now in their final editing stages, or so I am assured, and so will at some point soon be available in the kind of full detail I can’t give here.

3. This kind of thing, of course, Hugh is expert on: see Hugh Kennedy, The Armies of the Caliphs: military and society in the early Islamic state (London 2001).

4. It should be admitted that not everyone has such a functionalist view of the Byzantine economy: one could find it in Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), for example, but find it denied in Angeliki E. Laiou and Cécile Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy (Cambridge 2007).

5. I can only assume that this means that John Haldon, Hugh’s long-time collaborator, was somewhere else at this point, since as author of John Haldon, Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World, 565–1204 (London 1999), in the same series as Hugh’s book, he’d have had an answer.

6. Of course, on al-Andalus’s intervention in the Mediterranean world you could see Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la Garde-Freinet” in al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101, though I will admit that for this exact issue you might do better with Pierre Guichard, “Les débuts de la piraterie andalouse en Méditerranée occidentale (798-813)” in Revue de l’Occident musulman et de la Méditerranée Vol. 35 (Toulouse 1983), pp. 55–76, online here.

7. Scott’s key work here is James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven CT 2009), online here.

8. Rebecca also has a book in the process of production that will give chapter and verse on a lot of this, and of course her paper will be in the volume of proceedings mentioned above, but see also now Rebecca Darley, “The Tale of the Theban Scholastikos, or Journeys in a Disconnected Sea” in Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 12 (Baltimore ML 2019), pp. 488–518, apparently online here.

This post was largely written with the background of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire, which wasn’t deliberate but I suppose is in some sense fitting as a testimony to globalisation, even if not Byzantine contact, but an honourable mention must also be made of T2’s It’ll All Work Out in Boomland and Blossom Toes’ If Only for a Moment which helped finish it all off. I swear that some of my music collection was recorded after 1970.

7 responses to “Globalizing Byzantium from Birmingham

  1. “the question of whether, as long as Orthodox Christianity survives, Byzantium is in fact completely over”

    Who was it who dated the final end of the Western Roman Empire to Edward I’s conquest of Wales?

  2. Many thanks. I can’t remember where I first saw it but I do remember thinking it a crackerjack remark.

    As for books on the Roman Britain and the Dark Ages, thanks for the tip. I hesitate to buy new ones because of a suspicion that the rate of archaeological finds might make them obsolete pretty quickly. LIDAR, eh?

    • In Duncan’s mouth I imagine it was deliberately provocative, a test of definitions like ‘Roman’. I’ve not read Dark’s book but I understand that it takes a maximalist interpretation of the various coups to take over the Empire mounted from Britain over the third and fourth centuries to argue that the British kingdoms that arose as the island broke up into Celtic- and Anglo-Saxon-branded zones grew out of a Roman legitimist self-conception that meant that they can be conceived and indeed conceived themselves as Roman governates as well as kingdoms, in the way that Clovis’s father in Francia seems to have (King of the Franks and Prefect of Belgica Secunda). I don’t think there’s enough evidence of any kind to convince me of that (though the sometimes-desperate scrabble among such kingdoms to retain vestiges of Romanitas is something we have covered here before) but it’s not an inherently mad proposition. Such work on the Continent has tended to see Romanitas as something one tried to mobilise and activate rather than conserve, though, and I suppose the difference is whether the kings and ruling classes themselves believed that they were still Roman, which I just don’t think is provable.

  3. Pingback: Chronicle VIII: April to June 2017 | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. Pingback: Reporting on the International Medieval Congress of 2017 | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. Pingback: A frontier comparison no-one’s made | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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