A very brief note on why I use AD and not CE

Although I have no quantitative data to support my supposition, it seems that increasing numbers of academic works are coming to use BCE/CE as a dating system. AD stands for anno Domini, Latin for “in the year of the Lord”. In the name of political correctness, I suppose, an attempt has been made to de-Christianize the calendar. The first issue is very simple. The calendar has not actually changed. CE 1 is the still the same year that the sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus designated as when Jesus was born. It’s still the western Christian calendar, merely under a different name.

The second issue is more problematic. CE stands for Common Era, which implies that this calendar belongs to everyone. This calendar does not belong to everyone and is merely one amongst a sea of others. The Chinese, the Indians, and the Muslims all have their own calendars that matter to a huge number of people. To take anno Domini and rename it in such a fashion that suggests that it is “common” to other cultures is the height of arrogance. Even in the west anno Domini is not the exclusive means of dating. Annus Mundi (the year of the world) was used in Byzantium, and the Christians of the east used similar calendars that were also based upon the Jewish one. The Romans counted time from the foundation of Rome (ab Urbe condita) and then by consulships, a system that survived well into the Christian era. This is not even to mention the means of counting time employed by the peoples of North and South America prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Grand calendars are means of power: witness, for example, how the Iranian shah in the 1970s attempted to re-orient history by dating the beginning of time to the accession of Cyrus, rather than Mohammad’s flight to Medina. In doing so he attempted to cement his own power by appealing to the distant past and invoking an Iranian folk-hero from ancient times. Limiting the role of the Islamic past had the same effect, as it was designed to minimize the danger that an extra-nationalistic religion posed to the shah. Likewise, the re-branding of one Christian calendar as a vehicle of imperialism is little different, as it supposes that other cultures and civilizations are free to adopt it, despite having their own.

Turning anno Domini into a “Common Era” that belongs to everyone may be an act to de-Christianize the public sphere, but its effects are more insidious. It implies that the western, Christian calendar, when de-Christianized, is something that the rest of the world should use. It robs other peoples and civilizations of their unique means of ordering the universe and counting time. Leave anno Domini as it is. It claims to be universal, but this quickly falls apart when measured against other Christian calendars, nonetheless similar claims made by the Muslim calendar, or the Hindu. And that is just the beginning. Alongside the world’s multiplicity of calendars, anno Domini does nothing more than explain the world in a particular Christian framework. Its success as an international calendar is due entirely to first European and then American economic and military hegemony. Do not make the world accept it as a common calendar, but rather let them recognize that it is just one means of orienting time and constructing the past alongside a host of others.

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Sarah Bassett’s ‘The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople’

[Note: This is an informal and unpublished book review that I did for a graduate course a while back. I'm re-posting it here in the hope that it will be of some use to someone.]

Bassett, Sarah, The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xix + 291. Hardcover: $79, Paperback: $59. ISBN 978-0521030847.

Sarah Bassett’s The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople posits to examine the antiquities that were placed and arranged in Constantinople from the fourth to the sixth centuries. This is done in two major parts. The first half of the book is the argumentative section. Here, Bassett outlines the major programs of collection, divided into sections on Constantine, the Theodosians, the Lausos collection, as well as Justinian. Wisely choosing not to believe Eusebius’ statement that Constantine set up pagan monuments in Constantinople to be mocked, Bassett convincingly argues for a careful program of selection and placement of antiquities which was designed to give Constantinople an imperial history by creating stronger links with the great figures of Graeco-Roman antiquity (75-8). She outlines the development of the city and provides a good history of its often confusing foundation, but clearly demonstrates that the city was not designed to be a Christian capital, but rather one expressive of Constantine’s dynasty (71-3). Furthermore, she argues that when the Theodosians enacted laws against cult statues they defined the ones in Constantinople as art, allowing them to appeal to both pagans and Christians (112). Although these laws were empire-wide, they appear to have been more effective in Constantinople than elsewhere, as the city did not suffer from any of the violence against classical cult statues such as those in Gaza or Alexandria did (119-20). Under Justinian, Bassett argues that the program of collection was effectively abandoned, and the harmony of the earlier programs were damaged when he shifted works around the city (128-31).

The second half of the book is comprised of a catalogue of the known antiquities in Constantinople, and is prefaced by a brief discussion of methodology. While it is primarily made up of literary sources, archaeological evidence (usually accompanied with a plate), and drawn images of antiquities from the Ottoman era are all used. 179 antiquities appear, and it seems likely that this section of the book will remain a standard reference for some time to come. While some further discussion of the literary material would have been much appreciated, its inclusion may have simply repeated much of what has already been written in modern translations of the texts under scrutiny. Despite its important arguments and useful catalogue, there are a few issues of concern in this book.

An issue of some concern is Bassett’s treatment of the obelisks in the hippodrome in Constantinople. The “Built Obelisk” is not referred to during Constantine’s hippodrome construction program by Bassett, and it only appears in this book in the context of the Theodosian Egyptian obelisk (85-87). The problem that this creates is that Bassett shapes the history (which she admits is “obscure”, 86) to suit her thesis of the Theodosians continuing Constantine’s plans to reshape Constantinople in order to imitate Rome. As Rome was the only city in the empire with two obelisks in its circus, it seemed fitting that Constantinople should have two, which is what Bassett argues. The problem is that the evidence does not support this. The Chronicon Paschale, a good source for information on Constantinople, makes no mention of Constantine building an obelisk in the hippodrome, but instead only states that he filled it with works of bronze and constructed a box for imperial viewers to enjoy the games from (trans. Whitby and Whitby, Liverpool, p. 16). Similarly, Zosimus talks of sculpture and metalwork in the hippodrome, but no obelisk (trans. Ridley, Sydney, p. 38). Perhaps in a reflection of the sources, the catalogue that makes up the latter half of this volume says nothing whatsoever about the “Built Obelisk,” a curious omission if indeed it was part of the Constantinian or Theodosian decoration programs as Bassett asserts. While the actual history of the obelisk is very uncertain, the failure of late antique sources to make any mention of it, combined with literary material commemorating its redecoration by Constantine VII in the tenth century (“Hippodrome of Constantinople,” in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, ed. Kazhdan) does suggest that it is a later creation. The main issue that this raises is one of attribution. Albeit most of the antiquities reported to have been in Constantinople are known only from scanty literary references, the blatant misuse of one of the most notable and visible monuments from pre-Ottoman Constantinople does raise questions about how Bassett uses some of the more obscure materials in relation to her thesis.

A number of especially relevant monuments are absent. The Column of Marcian does not receive even a mention in this volume, despite the fact that it is still standing today and has visible (though badly damaged) sculptural reliefs. Considering Marcian’s shaky elevation to the throne and loose connection to the Theodosian house, his choice to erect a column in an attempt to stamp his mark on Constantinople is not surprising. What is surprising is Bassett’s choice to simply skip this phase of the development of Constantinople and move on to Justinian’s program. Similarly, the so-called Column of the Goths is also neglected. It is located in an area in which Bassett notes the textual evidence is quite poor (26), but the importance of the column should not be understated for its direct relevant to Bassett’s thesis. If the column is that of Claudius II, it’s relevant given Constantine’s invented links to that dynasty. If it’s a column of Constantine’s, then it is part of imperial program of representation in the city and cannot be ignored.

Another curious absent monument is the aqueduct. Bassett’s focus is primarily on sculpture and other structures designed around an imperial propaganda program. Nonetheless, more mundane aspects of Constantinople receive some brief discussion onto how they fit with this scheme, such as various fora or the Theodosian walls. Given that the aqueducts that fed Constantinople were the largest ever constructed by the Romans and even today several hundred meters of it fly across a major roadway in Istanbul, the complete lack of any mention is notable. Fountains appear in the work, but Bassett gives no indication on where the water for those fountains came from. The omission of three major works, two of which were imperial works of art, which all have happened to survive to the present day is a significant problem. Given that any student or scholar who has done a decent tour of the Roman remains in Istanbul will have seen these monuments, Bassett’s choice to condemn them to silence and not even argue why she is not discussing them is a matter of concern for the integrity of the entire volume. It forces the reader to wonder just how many pieces of art she may be neglecting to mention from documents such as the Patria or the Parastaseis given how many significant standing remains were not mentioned at all.

As a physical volume, the book is solidly constructed, opens flat, and has a good selection of relevant and clear plates. The writing is clear and fluid, although the two sections are occasionally detached from one another. The argumentative portion of the book is filled with technical terms that would be familiar only to classicists and art historians, while the catalogue does a better job of explaining such terms. While this is probably most effective based upon the assumption that this book’s primary use is as a catalogue of antiquities in Constantinople, it may confuse those attempting to read the book cover to cover. The publishers should be commended for cleaning up the text in the argumentative section quite well: only a single error (the book read caraceres for carceres, 58) was found. However, they do not seem to have applied such exacting precision to the catalogue, where a few minor errors remain: psuedo for pseudo (p. 175) and PRLE for PLRE (182). A small homonymic problem appears on 227 where the text reads tales but should instead have tales. Curiously, Bassett refers to the Mango-Scott translation of Theophanes throughout, but the abbreviation she uses fails to appear in source abbreviation section, where instead she has a reference to Turtledove’s translation, which is surprising given the general low esteem in which scholars hold the latter.These sorts of faults cannot be assigned to the author, but rather to Cambridge University Press. Given the average price of their academic publications, particularly upon release, such minor errors are unforgivable and the expected editorial standard has not been met.

As a whole, this volume is a very important contribution to both our knowledge of the antiquities that were placed in Constantinople, as well as how the Constantinian, Theodosian, and Justinianic dynasties used those antiquities to foster a particular message about Roman imperialism. Students and scholars of the later fate of Roman art or propaganda and representation cannot afford to pass this volume by, despite its omissions. The catalogue will certainly see a great deal of use in the future, and it is a notable and useful contribution, although those who choose to use it merely as a reference volume will be missing out on a thoughtful and well-argued book.

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Vladimir the Great’s Christianization of the Kievan Rus’

The conversion of Vladimir the Great (c. 958 – 1015) and the Rus’ to Christianity was an event orchestrated by the prince himself. While earlier in his reign Vladimir attempted to organize a pantheon of Baltic and Slavic gods, he appears to have had an interest in the monotheistic religions of some of its neighbors. On the other hand Christianity was not unknown to the Rus’: Vladimir’s grandmother, Ol’ga, was a convert and archaeological evidence of Christianity in Rus’ is known from before Vladimir’s conversion. The Rus’ maintained close trading links with Byzantium, and a Byzantine civil war provided an opportunity for a mutually beneficial alliance between Vladimir and Emperor Basil II (976-1025). In exchange for military assistance for the beleaguered emperor, Vladimir received Basil’s sister in marriage. The only condition for that was his conversion to Christianity. He subsequently imposed Christianity upon his subjects.

There were many religious beliefs and practices in the tenth-century Rus’, which comprised parts of modern Russia and Ukraine. The ruling class of the state was made up primarily of Scandinavians who brought northern beliefs with them. The population was subject to influences from East Slavic religions, as well as the Judaism of the neighbouring Khazar Khanate, Islam from the nearby Volga Bulgars, and Latin Christianity from the Holy Roman Empire to the west. The Rus’ travelled and traded extensively, and visitors to Constantinople and Baghdad brought varying religious ideas and objects back with them. Some material points to Christianity amongst the Rus’ elite as early as the late ninth century, although the evidence is scant. More notably, Vladimir’s grandmother Olga had journeyed to Constantinople in the middle of the tenth century where she received baptism with Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennitos (908-959) as sponsor at the baptismal font. She returned to Kiev, where she ruled as regent for two decades. However, she was not accompanied by Byzantine church officials on the way home, nor was any attempt made to convert the Rus’ population. The 944 treaty between Byzantium and the Rus’ makes provisions for Rus’ Christians, suggesting that personal conversions were not unusual. Tenth-century burial assemblages in Russia and Ukraine include such artifacts as crosses, as well as pendants in the form of the hammer of the Norse god, pointing to religious syncretism and to some degree of openness of the Rus’ elites towards Christianity. Although many influences were present in the Kievan state, contact with Byzantium meant that Christianity was not an unfamiliar religion when Vladimir converted.

The story of Vladimir’s conversion derives almost entirely from the Russian Primary Chronicle (known in Old Slavonic as Povest’ vremennykh let or The Tale of Bygone Years; hereafter Povest’). It first tells of Vladimir’s coming to power in Kiev, and how once he had established himself there he set up a pantheon of Baltic and Slavic deities whose worship was required and in which child sacrifice was practiced. This was probably instituted as part of a broader attempt to centralize the state around Kiev and to bring Vladimir the legitimacy that he lacked. As he had come to power in Kiev following a civil war with only an army of Scandinavian mercenaries to secure his throne, a common religion with a centre established in Kiev was useful for uniting the disparate parts of the polity over which he ruled.

However, this pagan pantheon was not to last. Perhaps dispirited by his failure to defeat the Volga Bulgars, Vladimir sent envoys to explore the faiths of neighbouring states. The first group visited the Muslims in Volga Bulgharia, before investigating Latin Christianity amongst the Germans, and finally Byzantine Christianity in the empire to the south. Notably, the Jewish Khazars had originally sent a mission to Vladimir encouraging him to join their faith. That Vladimir did not send an embassy there is indicative of what he wanted out of his new religion. If Vladimir was looking for a religion that would bring him victory on the battlefield, the lack of interest in the Khazars can only be explained in terms of the rapid decline of their polity in the aftermath of the expedition led against them by Sviatoslav, Vladimir’s father. Unfortunately, the Povest’ has very limited details of the embassies to the Volga Bulgars and the Germans. The treatment of the visit in Constantinople is given more attention, and the Rus’ are described as being very impressed with the liturgy celebrated presumably in the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. Vladimir then agreed to accept baptism in the Byzantine rite. The religious plurality of Kievan Rus’ and frequent contacts with the neighbors would certainly have furnished Vladimir with all the knowledge he needed about potential religious choices. More likely, these embassies were seeking what sort of political gain conversion would bring. Alternatively, some scholars have suggested that Vladimir already intended to convert to Byzantine Christianity and instead sent the embassies to show to Byzantium that he had other options available. While impossible to demonstrate, this idea does fit nicely with later eleventh century Rus’ attempts to not be drawn too far into Constantinople’s orbit.

While certain details remain unclear, at this point Byzantine sources are able to supply further information on Vladimir’s conversion. The visit of the Rus’ ambassadors to Constantinople seems to have entailed more than just participation in the liturgy, and more significant negotiations were carried out. At this time the reigning emperor in Constantinople, Basil II, was faced with a serious revolt in which an aristocratic rebel held most of Byzantine Anatolia, leaving Basil in a precarious position which was further weakened after suffering a major defeat from the Bulgars in 986. His power in serious danger, Basil reached out to Vladimir. He promised to send his sister Anna to marry Vladimir in exchange for Vladimir’s baptism, the overseeing of the nascent Rus’ church by the Byzantine bishopric of Cherson, and the provision of the constituent clergy. While this agreement may seem to have been in Basil’s favour, the long-standing Byzantine prohibition on marrying imperial princesses to foreigners was broken, thus revealing the weakness of Basil’s position.

Vladimir sent the troops as promised, which Basil used to end the civil war in his favor. Although scholars debate what happened next, Vladimir attacked the Byzantine city of Cherson in the Crimea and then demanded that Basil send him his promised bride. Since this took place after the agreements, Vladimir may have attempted to force Basil to keep his word . Indeed, at the time Basil was no longer in the weak position he was when promising the hand of his sister to Vladimir, and with Asia Minor back in under the control of Constantinople he probably felt no need to honor the original agreement. In response to Basil’s attempt to renege on their pact, Vladimir forced the issue by attacking Cherson. Apparently convinced by this demonstration of military muscle, Basil sent Anna to marry Vladimir, and she was accompanied by a large entourage, which included churchmen for the conversion of the Rus’. Cherson was returned to the Byzantines.

Vladimir was publicly baptised in 988 or 989, although whether this took place at Cherson or Kiev is still a matter of debate. The Povest’ reports that Vladimir was suffering from an ailment of the eyes, and on Anna’s arrival she informed him that converting to Christianity would cure him. Considering that this is directly contradictory to the earlier decision to convert, this story should probably be seen as part of the legend that grew up around Vladimir that attempted to portray him as a new Constantine of the Rus’. In an apocryphal legend, Constantine I was said to have been suffering from leprosy, but Pope Sylvester promised him his health in exchange for his baptism. This would not be Vladimir’s last attempt to imitate Byzantium. Vladimir’s issued coinage in imitation of the Byzantine style, and his son and successor Yaroslav the Wise (1019 – 1054) would build a church in Kiev in direct imitation of the architecture of Constantinople.

Following Vladimir’s return to Kiev, he dismantled his former pantheon, throwing the idol of the god Perun into the Dnieper. The next day, Vladimir organized a mass baptism in the Dnieper for his subjects, and he ordered a church to be built on the hill where his pantheon had previously stood.

Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity should be seen as a political event. Although Christianity was well-known in the Rus’ lands prior to the conversion it was not the only option, and Vladimir appears to have used it as a means to secure his legitimacy. A view of the broader world also provides some context, as through the 960s and 970s rulers of Poland, Hungary, and of the Danes had all converted to Christianity, perhaps inspiring Vladimir to find a religion for his state. Ultimately, this was a success, and Vladimir faced little opposition to his imposition of Christianity over the Rus’. His position was secure and his marriage to the sister of the Byzantine emperor brought him great prestige. However, aware of the sway that Constantinople might come to exercise over their state, the Rus’ were careful to remind the Byzantines of their effective independence.

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Update, books, and note taking

Wow, I really have been neglectful of the blog this term. I haven’t abandoned it, but it was the last fall term of my MA degree, which means I was busy with Ph.D. applications, grant applications, writing, and finishing up the last of my coursework. This upcoming term promises more of the same minus the applications: I hope to finish writing by the end of January, revise in February, and defend in March. My supervisor is on sabbatical this year, and he may be back in March and then not again until the summer, so I should take advantage of when he’s around. A big part of my desire to be done the thesis early is that I want to prepare it for publication, and because I want to be properly prepared to start my next degree. I’m not terribly worried about the publication aspect: it’ll be time-consuming but the research is largely done and the writing will mostly be a case of compression. Preparation for the next degree (and I’m not saying Ph.D. here because my backup plan is an MA in medieval history should the admissions/funding not line up) will entail getting some more experience reading French and German, sharpening up my Greek, and reading, reading, and some more reading. My proposed topic will entail a detailed understanding of both Greek and Arabic historiography, and a particularly acute knowledge of Byzantine literary culture in the tenth century as well as the political and military history of the Hamdanid dynasty of Aleppo, something I know next to nothing about. While I’ve read a lot on Byzantium, most of this concentrates on ca. 300-700 AD and 1000- 1150 AD. It’s not that I do not find the tenth century interesting, but merely that I have not yet had a chance to read much on it as I’ve been distracted by the other times. I hope that during this upcoming term I’ll be able to get through the main 9-10th c. regnal studies. I read Runciman’s Romanus Lecapenus and his Reign last week. In Ottawa I will have to make sure I get through Tougher’s The Reign of Leo VI and Holmes’ Basil II and the Governance of Empire since the library has them and they’re too expensive to buy at this point. I doubt I’ll manage to read Tobias and Constantelos’ Basil I, Founder of the Macedonian Dynasty due to unavailability, and I’m similarly unsure of Toynbee’s Constantine Porphyrogennetos and His World.

Still, I will not be short of things to read. In book news, a retired professor of Byzantine history sold me his academic library at the end of the summer. I acquired about 200 volumes in this acquisition, including many older and rare books. My shelves are bursting and books now live in vertical stacks on the floor, and this isn’t including the hundred or so volumes I still have back in Ottawa. While one would think such a surfeit of material would have slowed my book buying pace, it really has not. Since the beginning of the fall term (and this including the library purchase) I added the following volumes, in no particular bibliographic format since a quick internet search can turn it all up:

Agnellus, The Book of Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna. Trans. D. Deliyannis.

Barber, The Two Cities: Medieval Europe 1050-1320.

Bowersock, G. The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam.

Dagron, G. Emperor and Priest: The Imperial Office in Byzantium.

Halson, J. The State and the Tributary Mode of Production.

Halsall, G. Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900.

Humphries, R. Mu’awiya Ibn Abi Sufyan: From Arabia to Empire.

Little, L. (ed.). Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750.

Liudprand of Cremona, The Complete Works. Trans. P. Squatriti.

Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings. Trans. G. Berthold

Nicol, D. The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453.

Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium. Trans. H. Magoulias.

Noble, T. The Republic of St. Peter: The Birth of the Papal State, 680-825.

The Patria: Accounts of Medieval Constantinople. Trans. A. Berger.

Richer of St. Remi, Histories. (2 vols.) Trans.J.Lake

Robinson, C. Islamic Historiography.

Runciman, S. The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign.

Vasiliev, A. The Russian Attack on Constantinople in 860.

Wilson, N. Scholars of Byzantium.

Also added to the shelves at this time were four volumes of Dumbarton Oaks Papers, one Speculum, one Millennium: Jahrbuch zu Kultur und Geschichte der ersten Jahrtausend N. Chr., and one Journal of Late Antiquity. This is pretty much the end of book buying for the time being, however. Not only do I have a huge reading backlog, my new accommodation in Ottawa is far more expensive than the hellhole I was living in previously, and thus the funds are more limited. 2013 has been a record year for library building, but 2014 is likely to be much slower since I have nowhere else to put the books and since I have no idea where I’ll be headed in the fall for the next degree. Wherever it is, though, it’ll be much farther than a 500-volume academic library can travel (and that’s not including including my classics, methodological, or later medieval stuff.)

So, what do I do with all these books? Well, I read them, but the reason I own them is for convenient reference. I prefer to work at home, and having an available library is a great blessing. I also try to pick up as many translations of primary sources as possible: having the actual texts is nice but since a volume of the Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae (which is by no means complete) tends to run in the $200 range I just cannot afford them, nor would I want to unless it was of a text I was working closely with. One can find the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae online for free, although it is not entirely free from issue since even by the standards of nearly two centuries ago the editor was considered overly sloppy. However, I do have access to the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae digitally via my university library, and it has most of the CFHB texts I’ve needed up to now. As a digital tool it’s wonderful: a complete database of many Greek texts from antiquity to the fall of Byzantium. It seems a bit weak when it comes to hagiography, but the terminological search tools are an absolute godsend since I often have to deal with Byzantine Greek and yet have to rely on classical lexica and grammatical tools. The ability to search out terms in Byzantine texts, instantly, makes this resource so powerful. My entire MA thesis is based upon it, and would have required hundreds of extra hours without it.

Anyhow, back to the question. What do I actually do with the books? As references, the indices are helpful but rarely sufficient for anything other than a quick and dirty check. I constantly (and metaphorically) look over my shoulder when I pull something out of the index of a book I haven’t read, since the danger of twisting the author’s intentions is very present. If possible, reading the book, or at least several chapters in which the author’s intentions are made clear is desirable. Following along the lines of Curt Emanuel and Jonathan Jarrett, I will briefly describe how I go about reading these books. First, I take notes. This process can be very laborious, since I typically want the notes to be something I am able to skim in a few minutes and get a complete summary of the book, chapter by chapter. Depending on my knowledge of the subject and materials, the amount of writing that I do varies greatly: two of the books I read in December illustrate the different approaches. To Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade: The Call from the East I took rather skeletal notes on the “what” aspect. I know the materials that he is using, the main actors, and the main story. What I am interested in is his argument and how he uses the material. On the other hand, Paul Stephenson’s Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier, 900-1200 was something I had only the faintest outline of. Thus my notes for the earlier portion of the book are very full, whereas later on when it enters the Komnenian age where I’m familiar with the main sources and the story, I’m more interested in how he’s using those materials. Despite Frankopan’s book being much more basic, I actually have more notes on a per-page basis. This is almost certainly attributed to the more notes to myself raising questions I had about his uses of the material, as well as my very specific interest in the construction of the Alexiad and Frankopan’s proposals in regards to how it is misrepresenting Alexios’ early years. Conversely, in Stephenson’s book, there were some longer sections on Serbia and Croatia that did not interest me that much, and so I took only some basic notes. I know where to go if I need more, but since I doubt I’ll be making much use of the information on those groups any time soon, the notes are just there to give a very general overview and point me back to the book.

The process does not end there. When I’m done with the book, sometimes I review it. I have a lengthy list of reviews on Amazon, although it’s out of date. This is largely due to having published my first reviews in academic journals. Where I used to spend a few hours I now spend a few days preparing a detailed review. I’ve read too many awful ones by real scholars that do little more than say what the book was about and that it’s good. Considering that the one can usually glean such information from the dust jacket, contents, and index, and then just say it’s good anyway, I expect more. I find writing reviews to be immensely useful for me, and I hope they’re helpful for others. However, the last three were such large tasks that I no longer give every book that treatment.

Some 2-4 weeks after I put the book back on the shelf, I type my notes. The delay period is designed to allow me to forget. Thus not only do I get a refresher as I type, without the material fresh in my mind I have the opportunity to see if my notes make sense. If they don’t make sense two weeks later, they certainly won’t two years later, and this is the opportunity to clear up any issues. Usually when something doesn’t make sense I can then go to the book and it all starts flooding back, making the fix minor. Finally, I categorize sections of the notes. While I write my notes, I leave keywords in the margin, regardless of how relevant they are to the main theme of the book. These keywords form text file headings on my computer, so it’s quick and easy to just open up the folder that contains these files and look up “Constantinople, physical infrastructure of” if that’s what I’m looking for. It makes research and referencing a breeze because I then have complete book notes and thematic keyword categories from almost everything I have read: notes for the Google generation. However, I have not always followed this system and I have several binders of notes that have yet to be added. Hopefully I’ll get to them this spring once I am done with the MA thesis. Nor do I have notes good notes for everything I read. At one point, I apparently thought that I did not need page numbers, so I have a few books with little more than synopses. Fortunately, those are mostly general works that I read a long time ago. I also don’t tend to type up notes from articles from my current research unless they’re rather important or have information I wish to add to the thematic categories, since I’m unlikely to ever return to late antique military history. This is on a case-by-case basis: for example, in my last paper on dissent and competition as expressed between elite and imperial art in the Byzantine and Umayyad worlds, a great number of the articles were very short and they’re all in my notebook in one spot. Since they’re basically everything I know about Umayyad art, I know where to find them. Should I return to the topic one day, I may have to digitalize them.

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A Brief Update

Hello World,

Normally I am much more active with this blog thing in the summer since I do not have any official academic matters to keep my mind busy, but I’ve neglected it this summer on account of being busy with academic matters. Graduate study means doing research all summer, amongst other things. So, what do I actually most of the time in the summer?

Well, I sleep 6-8 hours a night, depending on how vigorously Door Slamming Roommate is maintaining his epithet, so that adds up quite a bit overall. I am, unfortunately, still quite mortal and required to eat, although I have no doubt I could accomplish great things if, a: ) hunger didn’t drive me from the library, or, b: ) library staff didn’t drive me from the library when it closes. Considering that books never get re-shelved and noise restrictions are never enforced, it’s not like this library even needs staff to run.  Or perhaps the employees like to have wild parties when the place closes, which explains why they don’t want us around all the time.

Anyway, I’ve digressed. My time is primarily spent on several tasks: thesis work, Ph.D. stuff, language work, miscellaneous academic stuff, and filling out forms. Thesis work theoretically makes up the bulk of what I do here, and why I need to be in the library most days. Progress is good, and I hope to have a substantial chunk of writing done to leave my supervisor with when I go home in August for a bit. I’ve gotten little bits and pieces here and there written, but I have much, much more in handwritten notes in my notebook. Putting pen to paper (or, more literally, fingers to keyboard) for the actual writing process is a bit painful. I constantly feel that there is some other article or book (inevitably, in German) lurking out there that will require substantial re-writing after I find it. I’ve spent the entire week meaning to get the first part of the first chapter written up, and yet only little bits have appeared because I keep searching for more stuff. So far, I’m not finding more stuff, so maybe I should stop worrying, write, and revise later if necessary.

By sheer time consumed, the second main task (although in some weeks, the first) is figuring out Ph.D. matters. This includes finding all the necessary application dates, legal and visa things, and perhaps most crushingly, funding. The main places I’ll be applying are Oxford, Cambridge, and St. Andrews. Ghent is a possibility, as there’s a Ph.D. position being offered that I’m considering. I am not yet sure on the American schools. Princeton has a brutal admission rate in their history department (5%), although I’ve heard very positive things from a member of the faculty there, who, if I went, would be my supervisor. St. Louis and Ohio State are possibilities as well, as both have recognized Byzantinists. Harvard has a rather impressive faculty list, but I’m a bit suspicious since at least one of their staff members is dead, and has been for a number of years. It’s possible that those MIT wizards can contact the dead, but I’m more inclined to believe that no one in the history department knows how to update a website.

nuclear fission

There are two problems with the American schools. The first is the GRE. Now, I’ve done some sample questions, and I’m confident that I can score quite highly on the verbal section. The quantitative will take more work, but it doesn’t look to be unreasonable at all. Princeton wants rather high scores on both (low-mid 160s) but I figure I can pull that off if I put the effort in. The question is whether I want to put the effort in, since Oxford is the heart of my field in the Anglophone world and that is where I want to end up. Some recent research on my part has discovered encouraging figures for D.Phil funding there while finding that Princeton’s Ph.D. funding is not as good as it once was. The other Ph.D. issue is finding a topic. Typically the schools want a developed proposal. I can certainly come up with one, but first I need to find something I want to work on and something that will be saleable. The biggest difficulty is that I want to work on middle Byzantium (roughly 7-9th c., here) but since I do not get to do that here I do not have a deep academic background in the period.

Language work would be the third most time-consuming, although probably not as much as it should be. I’m working on three languages this summer. The only one in which I receive academic credit for is Syriac, a form or Aramaic related to Hebrew and Arabic which had a literary flourishing in late antiquity. It’s frequently redundant and imprecise, but at least the grammar is generally rather simple. The vocabulary is difficult, though. On my own I’ve been working on French. One might think that residing in Québec would be a perfect opportunity for this, but my book is called “French for Reading” and that’s about all I can do. I’m really liking the book, even if it’s straight out of the 1960s and designed for American science students. Alongside French grammar, it teaches me about important things like how Jamaica has a future so long as they create a society like the brilliant, heroic white people have, and how cats do well in weightlessness, although hints suggest that deceleration on the return to earth have been the end for le chat. I’m eagerly waiting for something on the Yellow Peril or Joseph McCarthy. I’ve also been leading a Greek reading group for some of the other graduate students. We’ve been reading the goriest, most violent sections of Theophanes’ Chronicle and amuse ourselves with how we ought to write a screenplay and sell it to HBO so they can broadcast A Game of Byzantium.

The miscellaneous activies and filling out forms are the side projects. The university requires an endless supply of filled-out forms, constantly sent to the hive mind down at the graduate faculty for consumption. I suspect that whatever sort of creatures inhabit Hagen Hall live off these forms. Maybe we should try feeding them an undergraduate or two just to see if that makes them less hungry for forms. My miscellaneous activities have been book reviews as of late. I’ve reviewed Michael Decker’s The Byzantine Art of War and Brian Todd Carey’s The Road to Manzikert: Byzantine and Islamic Warfare. I’m very pleased to report that both are being published in real, professional, print journals! Look for the former in Byzantion in 2014. The latter’s status is still officially “pending” (although I am not worried) for The Mediaeval Journal out of St. Andrews. I probably will not do any more this year, simply because I want to make major headway in the thesis and because it’s a time-consuming task. Open an issue of say, Speculum and you’ll find a plethora of brief, rather useless reviews. I aim for more than that, and as a result I sifted through the references in the two books and had to do a fair bit of research myself. I am pleased with both the reviews, although the authors of those two books might not be.

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Thus passes Constans II, Emperor of the Romans

This summer I’ve been leading a medieval Greek reading group, and we’ve been going through Theophanes’ Chronicle. We began with the death of Herakleios in 641, ideally situated for the really dark times, which tend to be my favourite. It was also pedagogically useful, since the sections tend to be very short and so we had a chance to get a grip on Theophanes’ Greek. This worked out well, and I’m glad I did it that way.

Anyhow, this morning we killed Constans II, the emperor from 641 – 668. This was a particularly turbulent time in Byzantine history, but one that I find so interesting perhaps because it is so dark. The Arabs were advancing, the authority of the emperor was in danger, and the church remained divided by Herakleios’ late attempts at reunification that spawned yet another heresy. Constans did not take this lying down, however. He vigourously resisted the Arabs, attempting to take advantage of the divisions spawned by the First Fitna. When Mu’awiya put his new fleet to sea, Constans set out to drive it back, despite an oracle that testifies to the heights of Byzantine pedantry. Although he was defeated in a major naval engagement off of Lycia in ca. 654, it at least spawned an amusing episode as reported by Theophanes. When the battle starts to look bad, Constans gives his clothes to some brave and foolish sucker and heads for the hills. It had never occurred to me that Theophanes says nothing about Constans putting on other clothes. Presumably he did, but it nonetheless presents a literal “the emperor has no clothes” moment!

constanscoin

Constans had some seriously impressive facial hair. Consider that this coin is about the size of your thumbnail and the level of detail speaks for itself.

The rest of Theophanes’ account of the reign of Constans has little to say about him. We know that he went west and toured Italy, although the Liber Pontificalis is more useful for this (but no less problematic.) He spent a number of years in Sicily, allegedly having fled Constantinople because the populace hated him after he executed his brother. Tension is undeniable; some named (members of the senate?) seemed to have prevented him from taking the empress and his children west. Few scholars actually believe that Constans intended to move his administration permanently to the west. The general idea is that he was in Sicily organizing the defences for Africa from the Arabs, and keeping the Lombards at bay in Italy while building a central Mediterranean battle fleet for taking the fight to the Muslims, something in line with both earlier and later Herakleian strategy. The evidence for this is slim – it’s based upon a scanty reference to a tax imposed upon Italy that has something to do with ships, a reformed naval command that began to play imperial politics after Constans’ death, and how many ships Justinian II was able to lose. Still, this idea remains more appealing than slavishly believing a hostile chronicler who wrote almost a century and a half later.

Constans’ planned move against the Arabs never came. Instead, in his 26th year on the throne he went for a bath, and after he got all soaped up his bath attendant bashed him over the head with a bucket. Despite attempts by certain modern scholars to invent explanations, we really have no idea why Constans was murdered. Following Theophanes, the reign of his son Constantine IV began bloodily. First, he sailed to Sicily and put down the emperor who had been raised there (and by “put down” think of it in the terms of what veterinarians are sometimes called to do), although some have called into question whether he personally made the trip. Upon returning home, he met with a general revolt of the leaders of one of the major remaining army groups who wanted Constantine’s brothers to be crowned alongside him. Constantine invited them to Constantinople and then impaled them within sight of the army. Then just for good measure he decided to ensure that no one would try to crown his brothers in the future, so he chopped their noses off. And we haven’t even gotten to the bloody, violent reign of Justinian II yet. So please, remind me again of how boring medieval history is?

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Let’s discuss sources and the value of studying history

Frequently throughout my undergraduate career and even during my short time thus far as a graduate student, I have often been asked what I would do with history and why I was studying. While most of these questions were innocent enough, the premise behind others is that one goes to school to train for some particular role in society in order find a job, make some money, and one day get a mortgage, a house in the suburbs, and have two and a half kids. The questions were occasionally voiced with some concern, since a B.A. in history, financially speaking, is not worth much and there is certainly no secure career path with that degree. I understand and appreciate that people were worried that after graduation I’d be living on the street debating the relative merits of Thucydides, Latin subjunctive constructions, or the origins of the First World War with all my fellow unemployed history majors. However, going back to the original premise – that we pursue higher education in order to secure a place in society where one has a steady income and is consequently able to live a sanitized existence, this was never the intention of a humanistic education. The exigencies of the modern western economy and society have come to praise those which keep the material wealth cycle moving and the expectation is that the university system will play its role in that death spiral.

I am not here to argue for the value of an arts education. I am, however; going to argue for the value of studying history. Unfortunately, largely thanks to poor curriculums and teachers, many seem to have the idea that history is knowing a variety of dates and facts that one can recite at will. There is some degree of that in history and it does come in useful, but what historians do is tease out those facts (caveat lector: imagine inverted commas around that word every time you see it, and not just here) through the careful analysis of sources. Having some basic background in dates and facts is important to have just about any educated discussion on any topic. Even in the sciences, if you’re looking at the results of past experiments, you’re interpreting and using history. Politics cannot be discussed outside of history. Precedents (ie: history) is essential in law. History is nearly everything and everyone interacts with it constantly, so wouldn’t it make sense for the proper study of history to receive some serious attention?

It may appear to many that the main role of historians is to spit facts at an audience, since the place where most people see historians is in the lecture theatre or as a talking head on a TV program. The reality is that we spend most of our time working with sources (I, for one, have never been interviewed for TV). These sources rarely come down to us in a nice format (and when they do, there’s reason to be suspicious). They need to be analyzed, categorized, often translated or at least read in their original language, and interpreted in light of other historical sources. This is the absolute basic foundation upon which the modern study of history rests upon, and one cannot deviate from it. If one wishes to posit a particular source is the best account or interpretation of some event, then they need to provide further evidence to demonstrate that the source is valuable or useful. For example, if I wanted to say that the siege of Alesia happened as Caesar described it, I would argue that Caesar is an important source because he was present and directed the siege, that de Bello Gallico is likely based upon military reports sent back to Rome, and that there were too many Roman witnesses and potential enemies of Caesar for him to have wildly fabricated his account. I would also be required to look at what other ancient accounts of the siege of Alesia say, and then examine what modern scholars have said, since I might have misinterpreted some part of the Latin text, and others who have actually visited the site would have an understanding of how this applies to the text. Likewise, if I wanted to look at the big naval battle between the Arabs and the Romans off the coast of Lycia in 654/5 AD I am compelled to examine Theophanes, and yet am faced with the difficulties that Theophanes wrote almost a century and a half later, relied upon sources that were themselves distant from the battle, and sloppily constructed his chronicle. Of course, these are extremely basic examples and all of them would need further work, but they suffice to make the point here: that the sources are no good on their own and they need further analysis, both internal and external.

Broadly, sources exist as primary or secondary, although the definition is a bit loose. By the strictest definitions, Plutarch is a secondary source. He worked from texts and oral tradition to compose an account, much as modern historians do today. However, since he is an important source of material from the ancient world and wrote in ancient Greek, we tend to refer to him as a primary source. Likewise, a secondary source can also be a primary source. This post would be considered primary material by someone studying how history is discussed in the age of digital media. Generally, primary sources are those who had access to the event. A soldier’s memoir detailing his time in Vietnam would be an example of this, although when working on ancient and medieval history a primary source tends to be anything ancient or medieval: closer than us and not early modern tends to suffice to meet the definition. Secondary sources are typically works written about the events in question, and in academia are usually those which are written by scholars. These are not immune from criticism either. Just the other day I had a book review accepted by a major journal in my field. The book was good, but there were a number of errors in it and I’ve exposed those in my review. It’s possible that the author or someone else will respond to my criticisms and render some of them invalid (but I hope not!) This is how scholarship works: you make your point and you argue for it based upon the evidence. You then present that evidence to your peers who are also familiar with that material and historical methodology and they examine what you have done to see how your premise stands up.

If you’re not able to defend your position based upon evidence, your thesis will collapse. Pretty basic stuff, right? This is why the academic study of history is so important: it gives you the skills and the mindset you need to approach materials, whether they be a Mycenean jug, a medieval manuscript, or a newspaper article from this morning. History teaches you to critically analyze the sort of information that you come across in daily life. A historical education is not important just for the sake of antiquarianism or having some picture of the past, although these have some value on their own, but for justice and tolerance and humanity as a species. While this may sound excessive, the main skill history teaches is deconstruction, which extends beyond history itself and to everything around us. It’s difficult to demonize another group of human beings for trait X when you see that trait elsewhere and realize that the claims made about that group have no basis in reality. It’s difficult to claim nationalistic exclusivity when you realize that the people you’re supposedly claiming ancestry from had no conceptions of group solidarity in any way that you do.  It’s difficult to blame some religion for something when you see that the cause of the event is enmeshed in another dozen critical factors. It’s difficult to hate another culture when you’ve looked at your own from the outside and have come to understand that maybe it doesn’t have all the answers. It’s difficult to idolize another culture that glorified horrific things. The conclusion to this repetitious series of points is that properly done, history allows one to understand others and to reserve judgement until all the evidence has been critically analyzed and reviewed. Hopefully, by that point, it will be clear that history is rarely black and white and some appreciation for the complexity will be gained. I’m a Byzantinist because I find Byzantium to be a fascinating, alien society that both belongs to the west and the east (if we can talk in such broad terms; there’s my historical education speaking), not because I think that they hit upon some magical formula that made everything wonderful for them. I am continually bothered that a society which placed the Christian religion above all could so readily mutilate their enemies, and yet they claimed they did it as an act of mercy. History allows us to understand that others are complex and fascinating, and by doing justice to the past we create the mindset needed to bring justice to those who need it today. It’s difficult to hate when you come to see that atrocity breeds atrocity and hate breeds hate, and that the “enemy” may not be very different at all.

Now, since I’m an historian I am fully aware that such utopian visions are bound to fail since they always do and we cannot escape human nature. However, we are not bound to that nature, and the skills that history provides are an important part in overcoming the knee-jerk reaction to easy answers that we seek. Because everyone interacts with history regularly, having the ability to criticize it is essential. Politicians, religious leaders, demagogues, and yes, even us ivory tower folks, have been known to use history to suit their own purposes and agendas, whether for some petty squabble or to secure power by creating an ideology with historical roots. For a rather tame example, the Canadian government has spent some money on making the War of 1812 public knowledge. Ottawa is bedecked in banners hanging from lampposts illustrating characters and battles from the war. I have heard criticisms that this is an attempt by the conservative government to militarize Canada’s past in order to militarize Canada’s future. Not having looked into the issue, I do not know what the intention is, but in the very least the portrayal is rather tasteful and tries to incorporate various viewpoints (the Americans, the natives, women) and is thus a far cry from some of the shrill military propaganda produced in the 20th century. Nonetheless, a basic understanding of history and a willingness to question what the authorities have created raises some outstanding questions: why is the government trying to Canadianize an event that happened half a century before Confederation? To what degree was this war a Canadian vs. American conflict? What relevance does this have for us today and why is the government investing money in this project?  A sound historical education keeps one asking questions like this about everything and about every portrayal and use of the past. It’s not about knowing some dates or facts or the answers, but acquiring the skills to break down each and every portrayal of an event and question its sources and how they are being used. One imagines that if such an education was widespread, the dangers of easy answers from governments, educational institutions, religions, and groups of every agenda would be somewhat ameliorated. History is about questioning every narrative and the material which it is based upon, and rather than leaving us adrift with nothing to hold on to it liberates us to be more fully human and escape the often destructive stories which we use to dictate our existence.

 

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