Romanland, Ethnicity, and Science Fiction

I’m running a little mini-seminar (not even a normal-sized mini-seminar!) on Late Antique and Byzantine history and hagiography this fall for a single student in the English department (“o tempora! o mores!” as the kids say). As I fumble around trying to get up to speed with my own reading in this area, I figured Anthony Kaldellis’s recent book Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium (Harvard 2019) was as good as place as any to start in no small part because he had only recently prepared translations of a group of 9th and 10th Byzantine saints from Greece.

Kaldellis’s book has been out for long enough now that it’s seen any number of incisive and thoughtful reviews. So, I won’t bore you with another by someone who has been at the margins of the field for over a decade. Instead, I’ll offer a few observations on points that spoke to me.

1. Ethnicity, Armenians, and a Postscript. One of the most intriguing things about the book is the personal postscript appended to the end of chapter 5. Chapter 5 was a systematic critique of the what Kaldellis has called the “Armenian Fallacy,” which he defined as the tendency to search for and ultimately find Armenians throughout Byzantine history. Kaldellis argues that many of the individuals identified as Armenians or individuals of Armenian descent had assimilated into the Roman Empire to such a degree that they no longer possessed any meaningful Armenian identity. In other instances, he argued that in the discipline’s zeal to find Armenians in the highest ranks of the Byzantine state we’ve simply misidentified individuals as being of Armenian descent who were not. 

Kaldellis makes clear in his postscript that this chapter was not meant as a specific critique of Armenian scholars, who have historically led the charge to identify ethnic Armenians in Byzantine texts, but as a broader critique of the discipline’s overzealous efforts to identify particular ethnicities without the Byzantine state while overlooking the overwhelming evidence for individuals asserting their Roman identity and ethnicity. The personal postscript is a good indication of how high the stakes are in this work. As Kaldellis argues throughout the discourse surrounding ethnicity in the Byzantine world is not at all separate from efforts of 19th and 20th century nationalists to use their ties to Byzantine history to justify their cultural and political autonomy. In other words, Kaldellis, a Greek scholar who is very aware of the ties between Byzantine history and Greek irredentist movements in the 19th and early 20th century (and their tragic outcomes), anticipated that Armenian scholars and nationalists might see his critique of the “Armenian Fallacy” as an attack on their ethnic and national identities. This seems like a justifiable anxiety on Kaldellis’s part as not a week goes by without some article appearing on the status of Armenian churches within the territories contested between Armenia and its neighbor Azerbaijan.

For Byzantinists, efforts to excavate national histories from the long-lived Roman Empire are not just pious mythologies with a certain outdated charm, but ongoing concerns that echo in contemporary geopolitics. 

2. Texts, Archaeology, and Material Culture. It would be unfair to say that Kaldellis has never been a particularly interested in or engaged with archaeology. After all, he has a book on the history of the Parthenon in the Medieval period and an early work that considers both the history and material culture of Byzantine Lesvos. That all said, he knows the limits of his expertise and doesn’t dive into the archaeology of ethnicity in this book. This is probably not a bad decision, but, if he did engage more fully with this discourse, I think there would be meaningful overlap with his work (and I suspect strongly that he knows that!). 

For example, the effort to find Slavs in the Peloponnesus on the basis of their ceramics, grave goods, and architecture has proven to be complicated. This is not because no Slavs existed in Greece, but because the Slavic “invasion” or migration was most likely gradual or episodic and involved considerable intermixing with the Roman population who had long lived in Central and Southern Greece. The presence of “Slavic” objects – whether hand-made pots or the infamous belt buckles – may well represent groups who had certain artistic and craft traditions, but  linking this neatly with ethnicity has proven pretty challenging especially as “Slavic” material often appears alongside material typically associated with long-standing Roman traditions. Whether this suggests the emergence of hybrid identities that shift constantly to leverage advantages associated with one or another group or the assimilation of the ethnically Slavic with their Roman neighbors remains a challenging question to explore and would, I suspect, complicate some of Kaldellis arguments. At the same time, he is right in observing that integration ultimately does produce a population that represents itself consistently as Roman well into the post-Byzantine period. How this transformation occurs, on the ground, is probably something best studied at the ground (or even subsurface) level!

3. Ethnicity in Science Fiction. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the first two books of Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series. The books is set against the backdrop of the massively powerful Teixcalaanli empire which rules thousands of planets linked by jump gates. One of the main characters is Mahit Dzmare an ambassador from the tiny, but independent Lsel Station which drifts along just outside the borders of Teixcalaani space. Large parts of the narrative involve the negotiations of ethnic differences between Dzmare and her Teixcalaani liaison Three Seagrass.

What makes this relevant for Kaldellis’s book is that Martine was trained as a Byzantinist and studied, in particular, diplomatic and cultural relations between Byzantium and the Armenian Kingdom of Ani (Bagratid Armenia). This got me wondering whether her novels could function as an intriguing fictional cypher for understanding cultural relation during the Byzantine period. Her books are certainly more engaging reads than the average monograph on Byzantine studies and allow for Martine to explore in the ways in which groups defined themselves in relation to one another in both more overt and more subtle ways. The ability to explore the inner life of her characters, for example, allows her to consider the way in which individuals can to realize and negotiate personal identities in relation to “the other.” Martine does a really great job demonstrating how individuals felt ethnic differences and reading this against Kaldellis’s book which is naturally more interested in groups and texts than individuals.

In any event, Kaldellis’s book is worth reading (as is Martine’s Teixcalaan series). Both make compelling arguments for how societies and individuals constructed their identity in relation to “the other” (variously defined).  

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