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Rethinking Empire

Posted On August 10, 2017 | 16:30 pm | by baileyt | Permalink
The 2017 Byzantine Studies symposium

Published a little more than a century ago, C. P. Cavafy’s haunting allegorical poem Waiting for the Barbarians is a particularly malleable elegy.

Set in a nebulous, vaguely imperial state on the day it is to be turned over to an encroaching barbarian horde, the poem describes the pendulous moment of transition when the pomp of rhetoric and glamor of an empire ascendant have given way to uncertainty, hollow dread, and ceaseless, destabilizing questioning. The purpose, meaning, and identify of the particular state is no longer the important concern; rather, the notion of empire itself, once so solid and a priori, has come into question. The poem might very well serve as a shorthand description for the aims of Dumbarton Oaks’s most recent Byzantine Studies symposium.

“Rethinking Empire,” held at Dumbarton Oaks between April 21 and 22, 2017, sought to situate Byzantine studies within a broader historical discussion, taken up by scholars of other hegemonic civilizations in recent years, about the nature of empire and imperialism as they’ve existed across different periods and geographical areas. Primarily, the symposium was aimed at interrogating Byzantine culture and imperial institutions, relations between core and periphery, and questions of ethnic diversity and territoriality. Coinciding with the centenary of the First World War, it was also concerned with comparisons over time and across space, and the competitive dynamics of imperial powers.

Former Director of Byzantine Studies Elena Boeck set the course for the symposium’s proceedings, describing their focus on the manner in which imperial identity was articulated and the mechanism of authority, and, on the other hand, the substructure beneath it all—the bureaucrats, image-makers, and lecturers who supported the empire.

The day’s lectures began with two brief presentations delivered by cosymposiarchs Paul Magdalino, of the University of St Andrews, and Dimiter Angelov, of Harvard University. Magdalino’s talk sounded the necessity for rethinking empire, calling it a “necessary step in the exploration of Byzantine political identity.” Examining the political states, or empires, that existed in the years leading up to the First World War, Magdalino teased out the remnants of the Roman conception of empire as they manifested in, among other things, architectural presentation.

The monumental architecture of capital cities was, and still is, dominated by triumphal columns and arches, and imperial leaders still claimed descent from Rome in their titles, like kaiser and czar, that are vernacular derivatives of caesar. As Magdalino attested, successful definitions of empire tend to involve comparison, and in that vein, he contended that kingship and empire are inseparable. The ritual consecration and establishment of heirs central to kingship are a first step in the establishment of empire.

Dimiter Angelov’s talk followed by attempting to define empire in a much more literal sense. His lecture analyzed the conceptual vocabulary of statehood. Examining the relative prominence of terms like arche and basileia, Angelov asserted that the diversity of appellations, and the lack of consensus on which to use and when, is revealing. Among the nuances of usage discussed by Angelov were the rise in frequency of basileia in the ninth century as a response to Charlemagne’s rule in the west, the relative rarity of autokratoria, and the perennial popularity of arche—used by Thucydides to describe the Athenian Empire, the persistence of arche in Byzantium marked a desire to claim continuity with the ancient world.

The symposium’s proceedings were divided into five thematic sections, the first of which, on “The Roman and Late Antique Matrix,” was chaired by John Duffy, of Harvard University. Emma Dench, also of Harvard University, examined contemporary scholarly approaches to understanding how the “premodern empire” of Rome functioned. Limning the history of traditional thought that viewed the Roman Empire as a singular belief system—and empire itself as a conversion process—Dench described the consequences of these theories. When one considers the Roman Empire as a belief system, with individual buy-in, rather than as a top-down model of ruling, Dench explained, the distance between rulers and subjects is minimized, and the importance of power structures is downplayed.

The next lecture, delivered by Sylvain Destephen, of the University of Paris, sought to analyze the effect of the gradual sedenterization of Byzantine emperors on imperial authority. Over time, Destephen explained, the figure of the peripatetic emperor—continuously travelling across the empire for diplomatic purposes and to reinforce hegemony visually—began to disappear, as imperial sojourns after 450 were limited more and more to the areas directly surrounding Constantinople. Various developments in the administrative structure of the empire, including a complex system of grants and privileges that helped to bolster authority in the provinces, led to the obsolescence of showy manifestations of dynastic legitimacy. In effect, as Destephen concluded, the emperor went unseen because there was no longer a need to be seen.

Ruth Macrides, of the University of Birmingham, chaired the next session, on “Territoriality and Ethnicity.” John Haldon, of Princeton University, began the afternoon’s talks by asking whether the realities of the Byzantine Empire’s geographical layout corresponded with how the empire perceived its borders. Haldon argued that eastern Romans understood their empire as a territorial entity with fluctuating boundaries whose mission was to reclaim lands lost to other powers and, in so doing, extend the territorial sway of Christianity. Over time, as the empire contracted, it still made concerted efforts to fit its conception of its imperial self to the territorial circumstances it found itself in.  

Tapping into a subject that would recur throughout the symposium—the status and role of the Byzantine Empire’s provincial elite—Vivien Prigent, of the French National Center for Scientific Research, outlined the ways in which Byzantium, using local elites, managed a relatively small pool of resources and ever-decreasing territorial holdings. The lynchpin of imperial control, as Prigent argued, was the locally supreme, nonaristocratic official who most likely would have held little sway in Constantinopolitan society. Using surviving seals to gauge the proliferation of titles and the number of provincial elites from the seventh to the eleventh century, Prigent described the complex relationship between local elites—who wanted their property protected and their power legitimated—and the imperial center of Byzantium, which linked an increasingly state-dependent elite to destabilization of the empire.

Questions of identity—the identity of an empire, and the identities of groups living within and constituting the empire—were central to the symposium. Accordingly, Anthony Kaldellis, of the Ohio State University, delivered the final lecture of the day, which asked a simply worded, though difficult to solve, question: Was Byzantium a multiethnic empire? Positing that one of the best methods for inserting Byzantine studies into the broader imperial turn in historical studies is to focus on the concept of ethnicity, Kaldellis began by outlining some of the difficulties in discussing ethnicity in Byzantium.

Previous studies documenting an alleged ethnic diversity, Kaldellis argued, in reality simply pointed to nonresidential communities as evidence of this diversity: prisoners of war, foreign ambassadors, itinerant merchants, and a small Muslim community, also possibly mercantile. Once this “Potemkin diversity” is brushed aside, Kaldellis claimed, it becomes clear that Byzantium, as a culture, has been denuded of its ethnic connotations—the Romans of Byzantium, as contemporary sources make clear, were once seen as an ethnic group.

Michael McCormick, of Harvard University, served as commentator for the first day of the symposium, leading a nearly hour-long discussion session on the day’s proceedings.

The second day of the symposium was given over to comparative approaches. Derek Krueger, of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, chaired the day’s first thematic section, on early medieval empires in the Roman world. Jennifer Davis, of the Catholic University of America, began with a talk entitled “Rethinking Empire: The Carolingian Perspective.” Charlemagne’s reign, Davis contended, was shaped by the process of empire itself—rather than imposing policies from a center onto a periphery, Charlemagne employed a heuristic approach to empire, starting from pragmatics and developing policy from there. In the realm of political economy, for instance, there is little to no evidence of consistent, direct taxation in the Carolingian world. Rather, Davis said, the Carolingians combined multiple sources of irregular income, including tributes and plunder, that only became significant when aggregated.

Angel Nikolov, of the University of Sofia, continued to expand the territorial reach of the symposium, examining the conversion of Bulgaria into an Orthodox empire at the turn of the tenth century. His talk centered around Symeon I, the Bulgarian emperor who oversaw an escalation of military and political conflicts with the Byzantine Empire. Nikolov traced the origins of Symeon’s policies to those of his father, Boris-Michael, who converted the Bulgarians to Christianity, and the formative years he spent as a youth in Constantinople in the 870s.

As Nikolov demonstrated, Symeon was driven by a desire to supplant Byzantium as the center of eastern Christendom, a goal that manifested in such initiatives as the construction of churches and the prolific translation of patristic texts. Ultimately, Nikolov contended, a reinterpretation of the imperial project of Symeon I is overdue. For Symeon I, empire was not simply an instrument to abet the expansionist policies of his forebears, but a method of formalizing Bulgaria’s status as a religious center and, thereby, laying claim to the reins of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The next thematic section, chaired by Ioli Kalavrezou, of Harvard University, examined the culture of empire. Neils Gaul, of the University of Edinburgh, returned to one of the well-trod legends of Byzantium: its sprawling, top-heavy, and hopelessly complex bureaucracy. Analyzing the roles civil servants played as “agents of empire,” Gaul discussed the recruitment and educational practices that helped to develop the bureaucracy from the seventh century on. Trained in the basics of rhetoric and classicizing grammar (and aided in this process by schedography, the learning of impromptu rhetoric), budding civil servants were often put to display their learning in both written and oral form. Indeed, as Gaul explained, surviving evidence suggests that students were subject to elaborate and ceremonial oral entrance exams before they were allowed to enter the ranks of officeholders. Such contests, at least by the twelfth century, were even presided over by the emperor—though it’s likely, Gaul ceded, that a senior civil servant was tasked with the actual examination.

Civil servants were relied upon to link the empire, and to some degree, as Gaul attested, their reach defined the rather porous borders of the eastern Roman politeia. In this vein, the day’s proceedings continued with a more focused rumination on the nature of borders, delivered by Annabel Wharton, of Duke University. Centering her talk on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and attempts, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to replicate it in the form of texts, diagrams, drawings, and models, Wharton interrogated the significance of imperial peripheries, positing that these liminal spaces, rather than simply offering up their resources to imperial centers, can in fact define and challenge them.

In particular, Wharton analyzed the drawings of the Franciscan father Bernardino Amico, whose elaborate and precise architectural renderings of the Holy Sepulchre amounted to a printed walking tour. Employing craftsmen in Bethlehem, Amico even produced three-dimensional models of the structure, made of polished olive wood and camel bone and inlaid with mother-of-pearl—exploring the scaled models was, in a way, a surrogate pilgrimage. Throughout her talk, Wharton sought to draw parallels between the mimetic possession of the Holy Sepulchre, as offered by Amico’s artifices, and the general Christian desire to reclaim the Holy Land—a desire manifested, from time to time in history, by the violence of the crusades.

The symposium’s final thematic section was chaired by Robert Ousterhout, of the University of Pennsylvania, and focused on comparative contexts. In his talk, “The Long and Winding Road to Empire,” Cemal Kafadar, of Harvard University, looked at evidence for the gradual transformation of the Ottoman state into an empire over the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Kafadar began his exploration by analyzing transformations in the usage, over time, of the epithet “Rumi,” which denoted an individual from Rûm—that is, Rome.

With time, as Kafadar explained, “Rumi” began to be used to refer Muslims living in the (former) lands of Rûm; by the early thirteenth century, it was being used to describe Turkish-speaking Muslim urbanites and to distinguish them from Turks who had remained, so to speak, “ethnic.” As Kafadar made clear, his analysis arose from instances of Ottoman self-representation. Around 1500, he pointed out, Ottoman authors began to write collective biographies of the poets and artists of Rûm—in their own critical discourse, they began to speak of concepts like Rumi temperament, Rumi nature, Rumi manner, and Rumi comportment. As Kafadar argued, the development of the sense of empire was tied to this emotional and affective relation to the inhabited lands themselves.

Continuing the emphasis on comparative contexts, Michael Puett, of Harvard University, delivered an analysis of a rarely considered pairing of empires: those of Chinese late antiquity and the early Byzantine Empire. While comparisons between the Roman Empire and the Han dynasty of China have long fascinated scholars, Puett argued that subsequent regional empires, though less studied comparatively, share striking similarities, not the least of which is a traditionally skewed historical perspective. Just as the narrative of the fall of the Roman Empire has resulted, in part, from a later dominant western Europe reading history backward, so the history of China’s other regions has been elided by the latterly dominant southern coastal regions.

Running through a sketch of Chinese imperial history, Puett touched upon a number of familiar strategies in the consolidation of power, including the creation of a bureaucratic class to undercut aristocratic power. Eventually, as the imperial system overtook China, a new cosmological and ritual viewpoint superseded the paradigm of the divine right of kings; the ruler, rather than being a divine figure, was demoted, and became simply a son of heaven. Consequentially, as Puett explained, in a move redolent of the Byzantine emperors’ gradual confinement to Constantinople, rulers could no longer move through the entire realm or offer sacrifices in the provinces; this practice was instead enacted by local elites.

Paul Magdalino delivered the final lecture of the symposium, a wide-ranging reflection on the religious dimension of empire entitled “Rethinking Theocracy.” As Magdalino contended, the development of theocracy required monotheism; while countless political regimes throughout history have acknowledged the sovereignty of supernatural power, it is only beneath the brace of monotheism that the political articulation of obedience to an all-powerful deity is truly exemplified—and, thus, theocratic. Centering his discussion on the conversion of Constantine and his attempts to Christianize the cult of the Roman emperor, Magdalino described the “ideological repackaging” of the Roman state within an aura of sacredness, and the rhetorical articulation of this process.

The development of Byzantine theocracy, as Magdalino evinced, amounted to a repackaging of empire as an anticipation of the kingdom of God. It was deeply eschatological, an orientation that had its strengths in maintaining order but that lost its appeal when the end of the world lost its urgency. For theocratic Byzantium, inheriting the kingdom was more important than conquering the world.

Hearkening back to his previous talk, which had opened the symposium, Magdalino closed by reflecting on the concept of the “elect nation,” its remarkable success, and its cultural and historical survival into the modern age. In doing so, he touched upon nationalism, the perpetual play of borders, and the motifs developed by the Byzantine theocratic regime that have been redeployed, time and again, to justify empires.

Following Magdalino’s lecture, Maya Jasanoff, of Harvard University, served as commentator, leading a discussion that, while focusing on the second day’s talks, ranged over the entirety of the symposium’s proceedings—that is, centuries, continents, and empires.