Why Byzantium Matters

I’ve written a few times in this space about why historians of law and Christianity should spend more time on Byzantium. A new book from Princeton, released last month, makes the case for studying the New Rome–especially its conflicts with Catholicism and with Islam, which continue to resonate today. The book is Byzantine Matters, by Oxford historian Averil Cameron. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

For many, Byzantium remains byzantine—obscure, marginal, difficult. Despite the efforts of some recent historians, prejudices still deform understanding of the Byzantine civilization, often reducing it to a poor relation of Rome and the rest of the classical world. In this book, renowned historian Averil Cameron addresses misconceptions about Byzantium, suggests why it is so important to integrate the civilization into wider histories, and lays out why Byzantium should be central to ongoing debates about the relationships between West and East, Christianity and Islam, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and the ancient and medieval periods. The result is a compelling call to reconsider the place of Byzantium in Western history and imagination.

Byzantine Law

Law and religion scholars in the West typically ignore Byzantium. That’s so for several reasons, including the fact that so much of the relevant material does not exist in contemporary translations, and the fact, sadly, that Westerners since Gibbon are accustomed to dismissing Byzantium as irrelevant, although the empire lasted 1000 years and offers many insights into Christian jurisprudence. A (relatively) new book from Cambridge coves one of the more important emperors and his legal influence: Leo VI and the Transformation of Byzantine Christian Identity: Writings of an Unexpected Emperor, by historian Meredith Riedel (Duke University). The publisher’s description follows:

The Byzantine emperor Leo VI (886–912), was not a general or even a soldier, like his predecessors, but a scholar, and it was the religious education he gained under the tutelage of the patriarch Photios that was to distinguish him as an unusual ruler. This book analyses Leo’s literary output, focusing on his deployment of ideological principles and religious obligations to distinguish the characteristics of the Christian oikoumene from the Islamic caliphate, primarily in his military manual known as the Taktika. It also examines in depth his 113 legislative Novels, with particular attention to their theological prolegomena, showing how the emperor’s religious sensibilities find expression in his reshaping of the legal code to bring it into closer accord with Byzantine canon law. Meredith L. D. Riedel argues that the impact of his religious faith transformed Byzantine cultural identity and influenced his successors, establishing the Macedonian dynasty as a ‘golden age’ in Byzantium.

Blowers, “Maximus the Confessor”

9780199673957Here is a new paperback from Oxford about a Christian saint and theologian famous for resisting the power of the state: Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World, by church historian Paul M. Blowers (Emmanuel Christian Seminary). Maximus, who began his career as a high imperial official, was important during the Monothelite Controversy of the seventh century. The details of that abstruse theological and political debate are not important, at least to most Christians today, but Monotheletism was an imperial attempt to reconcile Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian Christians. Like all such attempts, it failed, largely because of intransigence on both sides. Maximus strongly adhered to the pro-Chalcedonian position and counseled against compromise, which landed him in trouble with the emperor, who had him tortured and exiled for heresy. Shortly after his death, though, Maximus’s position prevailed within the empire, and he was named a saint. Personally, I regard Maximus’s inflexibility, and those of his counterparts on the other side, with some regret. The theological differences between Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian Christians are narrow and should not be so difficult to resolve; that we have not been able to do so across centuries is a continuing scandal. But one has to admire Maximus’s integrity in resisting the state, even at the cost of harrowing physical pain. The authorities cut out his tongue and amputated his writing hand so that he could no longer spread his views. The description of the book from the publisher’s website follows:

This study contextualizes the achievement of a strategically crucial figure in Byzantium’s turbulent seventh century, the monk and theologian Maximus the Confessor (580-662). Building on newer biographical research and a growing international body of scholarship, as well as on fresh examination of his diverse literary corpus, Paul Blowers develops a profile integrating the two principal initiatives of Maximus’s career: first, his reinterpretation of the christocentric economy of creation and salvation as a framework for expounding the spiritual and ascetical life of monastic and non-monastic Christians; and second, his intensifying public involvement in the last phase of the ancient christological debates, the monothelete controversy, wherein Maximus helped lead an East-West coalition against Byzantine imperial attempts doctrinally to limit Jesus Christ to a single (divine) activity and will devoid of properly human volition. Blowers identifies what he terms Maximus’s “cosmo-politeian” worldview, a contemplative and ascetical vision of the participation of all created beings in the novel politeia, or reordered existence, inaugurated by Christ’s “new theandric energy”. Maximus ultimately insinuated his teaching on the christoformity and cruciformity of the human vocation with his rigorous explication of the precise constitution of Christ’s own composite person. In outlining this cosmo-politeian theory, Blowers additionally sets forth a “theo-dramatic” reading of Maximus, inspired by Hans Urs von Balthasar, which depicts the motion of creation and history according to the christocentric “plot” or interplay of divine and creaturely freedoms. Blowers also amplifies how Maximus’s cumulative achievement challenged imperial ideology in the seventh century—the repercussions of which cost him his life-and how it generated multiple recontextualizations in the later history of theology.

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