The Oaks News
Teaching Fellows’ Day Invites Undergraduates to Consider Byzantium Anew
For a Saturday morning, the Oak Room was surprisingly chockablock. Seats, set in rows that stretched the full length of the space, bore a crowd of nearly one hundred people. The attendees hailed from a variety of D.C. institutions.
On February 25, Dumbarton Oaks held its seventh annual Teaching Fellows’ Day. The event, which is organized by Dumbarton Oaks’ postdoctoral teaching fellows in Byzantine studies, invites students from D.C.-area universities to introduce them to research and resources at Dumbarton Oaks through scholarly presentations and gallery tours.
This year, the day took as its theme the nature of capital cities and their place at the center of the artistic, political, and administrative life of empires. “At the Center of Empire” examined these matters through the lens of Constantinople, while at the same time foregrounding Dumbarton Oaks’ own resources, collections, and contributions to the field of Byzantine studies.
In his opening remarks, Director Jan Ziolkowski contrasted the “huffing and puffing of empty manipulation” that frequently characterized the Byzantine bureaucracy with the abundance of “real people with real passion and talent” working at Dumbarton Oaks, and in the field at large. Elena Boeck, director of Byzantine Studies, followed suit in her remarks, adjuring “potential future Byzantinists” in the audience “to come to the good side.”
The morning was given over to a series of three talks that focused on the relationship between the capital city of Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine Empire. In “Reflections of a Capital City,” Elizabeth Dospel Williams, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Byzantine art history at Dumbarton Oaks and George Washington University, began the scholarly proceedings by attempting to provide a “vivid vision of early Constantinople—its monuments, its arts, and its culture.”
The difficulty in reconstructing the past in a convincing, even realistic manner, as Williams asserted, is that we can only access the past through its fragments. “And the thing is, very few artifacts can be linked with absolute certainty to production in Constantinople,” she explained. “Almost all our objects and evidence have been found outside” of the capital. She went on to examine commercial interactions between Byzantium and Europe through the lens of silks and their production, in the process utilizing objects from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection.
In his paper, Jonathan Shea, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Byzantine history at George Washington University and Dumbarton Oaks, analyzed the Byzantine bureaucracy and conflicts between the urban and provincial parts of the empire. Shea described the eleventh and twelfth centuries as “a little odd,” a time when “the first grumblings of the system of government being broken began to emerge.”
Shea described a reckless granting of titles that eventually snowballed out of control. As more and more titles, each with their attendant payment of gold, were granted, the government was forced to devalue its money, at which point people began to demand newer, grander titles (with grander payments of gold). Throughout his talk, though especially in his discussion of titles, Shea utilized the collection of Byzantine seals at Dumbarton Oaks, tracking the appearance of new titles and descriptions in the seals to determine large-scale shifts in administrative power.
Nathanael Aschenbrenner, a Tyler Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks and PhD candidate in the history department at Harvard, delivered the final talk of the morning, “From Imperial City to Urban Empire.” He brought the day’s theme to a very literal conclusion, examining how, in the fifteenth century, Constantinople slowly morphed from the capital of the Byzantine Empire to the empire itself. As the empire lost large swaths of territory and saw its political influence in the region shrink accordingly, it was forced to redefine what “empire” meant, not only in the political sense, but also ideologically and metaphysically.
The event itself attracted a variety of students at different stages in their academic careers, each of them seeking to get something different out of the day. Marcellino Velasquez, for instance, a freshman at George Washington University, was excited to engage with those resources and aspects of the institution that might typically be more difficult to access: “It’s a unique opportunity—I knew we’d be able to see things we wouldn’t usually be able to see.”
Though he hasn’t decided on a major yet, Velasquez is confident he’ll be choosing between history and architecture, or some combination of the two. To that end, the day offered a chance to engage with a subject that—with its emphasis on basilicas, monumental painting, and the built environment of late antiquity—often straddles the two fields.
“I think Byzantine history is really interesting,” Velasquez said, pinpointing the morning lectures as particularly piquant. “I never knew the dynamics of their politics, how these emperors each came to power and overhauled the system of government, changing it to their own tastes, to work for them, obviously.”
For others, the day was an opportunity to explore established interests. Luke Garoufalis, a sophomore at George Washington currently enrolled in two of Jonathan Shea’s classes, traces his interest in Byzantium to his Greek heritage: “I remember my family always talking a lot about it (they still do), and then I learned about it in church school—so I’ve really always had an interest in Byzantium.”
Several of the talks, seeking a relevance to current political events, drew comparisons between the Byzantine past and the current political climate in America; it was an effort that Garoufalis found intriguing. “To learn about this exclusionary system set up in Byzantium, a system that’s very focused on the capital, and then this feeling of revolt against that setup—I think there are definitely connections there, and perspectives to be gained.”
Erin Haas, a freshman at George Washington, is planning to double major in history and art history. She wants to concentrate her studies on the Middle East, pursuing an interest that she developed in high school. Though Haas had never heard of Dumbarton Oaks before, she was excited to learn about the institution and its own specialties.
The afternoon was given over to a series of gallery tours and informal lectures on various projects currently ongoing at Dumbarton Oaks. Students explored museum storage, visited the special collections, listened to curators, and learned about publication initiatives and educational programming—and, ideally, learned a little bit more about the inner workings of an institution that, though not nearly as complex as the empires it studies, combines a diverse bevy of projects and approaches in the service of scholarship.