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Looking for the Nomads

Posted On October 31, 2016 | 10:28 am | by baileyt | Permalink
Florin Curta on Byzantium and the Nomads

On the outskirts of empires, history is harder to come by. As cities give way to wilderness and stonework cedes its place to weaker materials, traces become rarer, stories disappear. But then, what about the people who won’t settle down, who have no homes at all?

Though Florin Curta admits nomads have long been the bugbears of historians everywhere, he’s still determined to investigate their interactions with the Byzantine empire. On October 13, Curta, a professor of medieval history and archaeology at the University of Florida, delivered the Byzantine studies program’s annual public lecture.

At the beginning of his talk, “An Uneasy Relation: Byzantium and the Nomads,” Curta foregrounded broad epistemic concerns centering around the issues of naming and identity. What, he asked, constituted “Europe” in the age of Byzantium? How was it understood and imagined? Deceptively simple questions followed: What, after all, is a nomad? And what does it mean to be nomadic?

Curta’s lecture first sought to answer these questions on Byzantine terms. Utilizing contemporary written sources that documented imperial interactions with nomads from the steppe lands, Curta evoked the Byzantine conception of nomadic peoples while emphasizing a key difficulty in studying them.

These external accounts of nomadic culture, as Curta showed, were often content to record with the broad brush of stereotype. Descriptions of nomadic peoples produced in Byzantium often drew from a long history of depiction, cribbing from the writings of older authors. Herodotus’s descriptions of the Scythians, for instance, were frequently used as a template when writing about nomads; Procopius’s descriptions of the Huns were often similarly recycled.

Whether this distorted image of steppe nomads served a political purpose or was simply a failure of established interpretative tools, it remains a misrepresentation that in recent years has been more and more belied by archaeological evidence. In the course of his talk, Professor Curta delineated the advances in bioarchaeology and the changes in methodology that have led researchers to question the clear-cut classification of nomadic peoples into preconceived ethnic categories.

Opposing the supposition that nomadism makes people disappear from history, Curta emphasized a nuanced approach to the study of nomadic peoples, one that benefits from uneasiness. Just as simplified ethnographic classification in Byzantine times had done away with the nuances of nomadic life, an emphasis on clear boundaries between Byzantium and the nomads in modern scholarship has frustrated the study of nomadic peoples. Processes that might not typically be associated with nomads—sedentization, conversion, and assimilation—are in fact rich terrains of study, Curta contended.

At the end of his talk, Curta obliged the audience with a moment of crowd service. After deconstructing common perceptions of nomadic peoples, he displayed a stock image of a Pecheneg warrior astride a horse, his outflung arm straddled by a vicious-looking hawk, his mount’s head adorned with a leather chanfron. The image hovered on the screen, colorful, striking, and questionably real.


Video: Florin Curta, “Looking for the Nomads”