David's confrontation with Eliab, one of six silver plates depicting early scenes of the life of David.
Constantinople, c. 629-30; in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Mark Whittow begins his The Making of Byzantium, 600 - 1025, (1996) (*) by making clear the challenge faced when trying to understand early Medieval Byzantium. Of the certainly tens of thousands, and very probably millions of documents produced to carry out the business of state, religion and commerce during the time in question, almost none of them have survived the burning and looting Constantinople was subjected to over the years, not to mention the centuries of Ottoman rule, where they, too, needed to store their bureaucrats' records somewhere. I'm sure that clearing out stacks of moldering Byzantine documents onto the fires didn't cause the Ottomans any second thoughts. Whittow asserts that even Anglo-Saxon England has left us more of its documents than has early medieval Byzantium; in light of the incomparably greater import Byzantium had, that is a remarkable fact. Even the surviving Byzantine chronicles are few and patchy; many more chronicles have survived from the early medieval Franks than from Byzantium. However, there does seem still to exist a huge number of texts from the period dedicated to the lives of saints...
As if that were not enough, Whittow goes on to explain at length how unreliable or irrelevant the surviving written documents are. Unlike some of the other reviewers of this book, I find his analysis of the motives of the respective authors and the interrelatedness of their (now lost) sources very interesting. He very compellingly dismantles the historical authority of the Arabic sources concerning the 7th century Islamic conquest, among others. So he relies as much as possible in this book on sources of physical, as opposed to written information, even though, as he writes, "Medieval Byzantine archaeology hardly exists." If that is the case, then with what does he fill 400 pages of actual text, you ask? (**)
Well, he carefully sets Byzantium into its geographic context in a very Braudellian manner and spends a large portion of the book (100 pages!) describing what is known about the Byzantines' non-Muslim neighbors, from the Avars, Rus and the Bulgars through the Khazars, Kurds and Armenians. I appreciate understanding things in a larger context, and these matters are more interesting to me personally than any retailing of dynastic conflicts can be.
Byzantine silver chalice, early 7th century CE
Probably made in Antioch; Found at Stuma, northern Syria; in the collection of the British Museum
Whittow also sets the stage of the Roman world in the year 600. Due to the efforts of Justinian and his finest general, Belisarius, the Vandals, respectively Goths, had been thrown out of North Africa, respectively Italy, in the mid 6th century, and Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, even a small strip of Spanish coast around Cartagena were Roman again. Towards the rising sun, the Roman Empire was extended far to the east of the Black Sea and included all of present day Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. But the Lombards were pressing in Italy, the Slavs and Turks were pushing from the north and the Persians were, as always, threatening from the east. And the 7th century opened up with a mutiny of the Roman army resulting in the deposing and massacre of Emperor Maurice and his family and a lengthy civil war with Maurice's remaining son aided by the Persians...(***) Sensing weakness, Byzantium's neighbors piled on. By 621 Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Turkey, the Balkans, etc. were lost to the Persians and Avars, and the Byzantines had dragged yet another Emperor's naked corpse through the streets. The Avars were kept from Constantinople's walls by handing over all the silver in the city. In 626 the Avars and Persians besieged the city simultaneously. By 628 the Avars were on the run and the Persians were split and fighting among themselves - they executed their own Shah, Khusro, who had led them to the amazing string of victories I mentioned above. I guess "What have you done for me lately?" has a long history itself.
And so went Byzantium's history - up and down and up and down. These ups and downs, as important as they were to the participants, are not what I consider the most significant aspect of history. I find myself close to Jacob Burckhardt's view that history is not the story of "great men" and unique, one-off events - they make good stories; it's just that after a while the stories seem to be rather similar - but is rather the study of that which changes only slowly - culture understood in the broadest sense.
In the 7th century the Arabic tribes - many former clients of the Roman Empire and previously Christian - swept away both Byzantine and Persian armies, setting up a new status quo that really did change cultures. By the early 10th century the Byzantines were left with a rump state consisting of the southern tip of Italy, the southernmost Balkans, Greece and Turkey - and this after an extended period of reconquest. Already by the end of the 7th century the Muslims held the richest provinces of the Empire and, as Whittow repeatedly emphasizes, without their economic basis Byzantium was doomed to, at best, slow decay. Whittow cites archaeological evidence that at least the economic prosperity of the former Roman provinces continued and in some places was even enhanced under the Muslim rule, whereas the provinces still under "Roman" rule, now cut off from the major trade routes, suffered a severe recession. In Constantinople itself great public buildings were allowed to fall into ruin - even Hadrian's aqueduct, the city's main water supply, was left unrepaired for more than a century - and agriculture was carried out within the city walls.
Nonetheless, as already indicated, partial recoveries were made and further setbacks were experienced. By the end of Whittow's synthesizing survey, one of Byzantium's greatest emperors, Basil II, who reigned from the age of 18 in 976 till 1025 (!), began another period of recovery. This time, however, he chose to make the expansion to the north and west, largely leaving the Near East to the Muslim Caliphate. With Bulgaria and most of the Balkans in his hands and with firm allies in the Rus, Basil assured that Byzantium would remain a Greek-speaking, orthodox Christian state. Before it stood the betrayal by the Roman Catholic crusaders and the ultimately doomed struggle for survival against the Ottoman Turks.
Though few archaeological digs aimed expressly at medieval Byzantine sites have been carried out, still, at important sites like Ephesos one has uncovered one of the Patriarchal Sees of early medieval Byzantium on the way down to the classical and archaic levels, and Whittow has been able to capitalize upon such information. But also coins,(4*) silver plate, pottery and ruins can, in the right hands, reveal much of interest, which Whittow relays to the reader.
I very much appreciate Whittow's skepticism, as well as his sober and intensely informative style of writing. Regrettably, this appears to be the only book he has written to this point; according to his own publication list, his other contributions are articles for specialist journals and chapters for collective books. But his Oxford website announces no fewer than three projected books. I hope they come to completion.
(*) Originally published under the title The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600 - 1025.
(**) The notes, bibiography and index comprise the last 100 pages of the book.
(***) This is the same Maurice who during the last two decades of the 6th century had gained the Roman Empire great advantages militarily and diplomatically.
(4*) Coins and few ruins are nearly the only tools available to understand post Alexandrian Bactria: The Greek Kingdom of Bactria: From Alexander to Eucratides the Great . It is surprising how much information one can milk from them.