Regional Survey and Byzantium

Last week, I wrote a bit about Timothy Gregory’s 1986 article in Byzantine Studies/Etudes byzantines titled “Intensive Survey and its Place in Byzantine Archaeology”. Some 7 years earlier, however, in the same journal John Rosser offered similar thoughts in an article titled “A Research Strategy for Byzantine Archaeology”. In this article, Rosser suggests that Byzantine archaeology (1) needed “an overall research strategy, and (2) had to begin to address issues the difficult relationship between text and material culture. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that neither of these issues have been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction almost 35 years after Rosser’s call to arms.

First, the current diversity of Byzantine archaeology is perhaps not a liability. Scholars from the U.S. at least, who tend to have less institutional coherence than scholars in other countries, have continued to look toward urban excavations to shed light on Byzantine culture, have worked to document traditional objects of interest in Byzantine studies – namely churches and monasteries, and have pioneered the use of intensive pedestrian survey to document shifting patterns of settlement and land use in the Byzantine era. In short, despite very recent efforts to consolidate conversations among Byzantine archaeologists under the generous auspices of Dumbarton Oaks, Byzantine archaeology in the U.S. has remained refreshingly and frustratingly diverse.

Second, Byzantine archaeology – like much archaeology in the Mediterranean world – still struggles to escape the long shadow of our textual records. Rosser makes clear his attitudes. He calls for archaeologists to devise strategies to interpret how Byzantine society organized land as the basis for an agrarian history of the Byzantine era. Questions of land tenure have particular significance for understanding whether the Byzantine period marked a significant break with the economic structures of the ancient world. Rosser regarded “the greatest contributions Byzantine archaeology can hope to make” to be “in the area of demographic, social, and economic history” (p. 157). By expanding what we know about land use and its impact on demography and the economy, Byzantine archaeologists and historians would begin to address the question of whether the so-called end of the ancient world was an economic event or more properly tied to culture, religion, or political changes. We might also attempt to understand why the eastern and western Mediterranean developed along such different trajectories.

To do this, Rosser calls for more sophisticated approaches to regional level survey and, like Gregory, cited the influential Minnesota Messenia Expedition. The MME took as the basic unit of study the region, sought to explore the relationship between its inhabitants and their natural environment through time, and drew upon an interdisciplinary team of scholars to document change through time. The latter ensured that the project recognized the structure of the landscape and to some extent settlement and land use to reflect longterm patterns of local resources exploitation on the regional level. As a result, Rosser can commend the MME for their use of both Linear B and Venetian records for understanding the structure of settlement through time.

Rosser’s grounded his call for a Byzantine archaeology in an appreciation for how diachronic survey can impose longterm structure on the countryside. By allowing texts and material culture from all periods to contribute to an understanding of how resources shaped settlement, the first wave of regional surveys created an approach where Byzantine archaeology could be freed from its dependence on contemporary texts and construct a model landscape that informs how we understand agrarian change in the Byzantine era.

This review of a 35 year old article is mostly an academic exercise (and a reminder of this article’s existence since Byzantine Studies/Etudes byzantines is not in Jstor or other major online databases). But it informs a talk that I’ll deliver at a Dumbarton Oak’s symposium in March on survey archaeology and Byzantine studies. Looking back to Tim Gregory’s and John Rosser’s articles from the late 70s and mid-1980s contextualizes a larger discussion the place of regional and intensive survey in Byzantine archaeology and raises the questions whether we have responded to Gregory’s and Rosser’s call for a new direction in Byzantine archaeology and how have our perspectives on the potential of intensive survey have changed since the time of these articles.

Intensive Survey and Byzantine Archaeology

This spring I’m contributing to a symposium put on by Dumbarton Oaks on archaeological survey and Byzantine archaeology and history. I’ve been asked to talk about how Byzantine archaeologists have looked across chronological barriers in the context of survey.

I decided to begin with Timothy Gregory’s 1986 article in Byzantine Studies/Etudes byzantines titled “Intensive Survey and its Place in Byzantine Archaeology”. The article made the case for the value of intensive survey in Byzantine archaeology with particular attention to the value of intensive survey methods in documenting the Byzantine countryside, examining the archaeology of regions, and identifying sites that usually do not attract the attention of the excavators of monumental or urban remains. As Gregory notes throughout this seminal, if idiosyncratic, article is that intensive survey has the potential to expand our knowledge of Byzantine society beyond the limits imposed by knowledge derived from the study of churches, fortifications, and urban areas. 

More importantly for my purposes, however, the methods associated with intensive survey located Byzantine archaeology within a broader diachronic landscape. Even though the earliest intensive survey projects, as Gregory noted, like the Minnesota Messenia Expedition, focused on particular problems and periods, they recovered and made efforts to analyze objects and features of any period in their survey area.  With the MME, for example, which was designed to study the Mycenaean landscape of the southwest Peloponnesus, understanding the distribution of Byzantine material was a peripheral concern, and, as a result, the authors relegated the study of the period to a section dedicated generically to “medieval” pottery.

More recent projects, however, have paid greater attention to the Byzantine pottery. The highly influential heirs to the MME project – the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project and the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project – both included specialists in the Byzantine period; the former will have a volume dedicated to the Medieval period and the latter has received significant attention at the hands of Sharon Gerstel. Joanita Vroom has studied the Byzantine and later periods for the major surveys in Boeotia by John Bintliff and Anthony Snodgrass. While none of these projects focused explicitly on the Byzantine or Medieval period, their directors became known for their wide range of serious archaeological interest. So it is hardly fair to suggest that the prehistoric specialities of the directors of PRAP and NVAP and the various Cambridge/Bradford/Leiden projects limited how much we could learn about the Byzantine period in their survey areas. At the same time, these excavated sites that provided stratigraphic and conceptual anchors for these projects tended to be prehistoric or Classical in date (e.g. Pylos or Nemea), and, as a result, Byzantine archaeology represented an epiphenomenal aspect to the brilliant “second wave” survey projects on mainland Greece. The longstanding emphasis among scholars and funding bodies on the Classical and Bronze Age periods in Greece accounts for this bias as much as anything. 

It’s somehow poetic to suppose that the chronologically peripheral status of Byzantine material in the major survey projects resulted in a loss of resolution, the same way that the edges of our vision tend to be less clearly defined. We lack nuanced chronologies for most classes of Byzantine ceramics and we know almost nothing about local utility and cooking wares. As a result we can discuss the post-classical period in only relatively imprecise ways when we encounter this material in unstratified conditions on the surface of the ground. The chronological difficulties extend in some cases to our ability to date standing monuments outside of urban centers or without epigraphical or textual evidence. Moreover, churches and fortification frequently enjoyed long periods of continued use, modification, and upkeep from the Byzantine period into later ages making it even more difficult to isolate a monument as “Byzantine” or “Ottoman” or even “Early Modern” in date. 

Chronological ambiguity in Byzantine material culture and the peripheral relationship of Byzantine archaeology to the core interest of many of the most influential survey archaeology projects have combined to associate Byzantine material with a broader category of material dated coarsely to the “post-ancient” or “Medieval-Modern” age. The result of this combination of chronological ambiguity is an equally ambiguous engagement with material from the Byzantine period. 

This creates some particularly difficulties with how intensive survey has informed Byzantine history and archaeology more broadly. As Gregory recognized some 25 years ago, many of the key issues in Byzantine history require that we understand how settlements and land use patterns change through time. As Guy Sanders and others have shown, the shifting sands of ceramic chronology have often made even the most widespread and widely accepted changes in settlement – like the transformation of Greece over the course of the so-called Byzantine Dark Ages – difficult to discern in the surface record. We have made little progress in understanding later, more subtle, or more local shifts in settlement or land use.

The problems with our understanding of Byzantine material culture especially in a rural context has led archaeologists to consider Byzantine material as part of a longer chronological period and contributing to how we understand trends associated with the longue durée rather than more particular historic events. Disentangling the Byzantine from these longstanding habits of analysis will require both refining our ability to recognize material in field and shifting how we understand the post-Classical landscape.

Over the next 6 weeks or so, I’m going to continue to work on this paper and these ideas and bring in more specific examples from survey literature. What you see here is just a preliminary sounding. Stay tuned.

Pilgrimage in Medieval Corinth

It was a pleasure to read Amelia Brown’s contribution to the inaugural volume of Herom, a journal dedicated to Greek and Roman material culture. She presents a useful overview of some evidence for pilgrimage in Corinth, Athens, and elsewhere in southern Greece. While textual evidence provides the overarching framework for her paper, she does take into account some of the archaeological evidence particularly around Corinth. 

Using sources, particularly from the West, she established that pilgrims occasionally stopped at the church of St. Andrew in Patras and, following A. Kaldellis’ lead, argued that the Parthenon rechristened the church of the Virgin attracted pilgrims drawn by its perpetual light. (In light of Kaldellis’ work, Brown’s suggestion that “Medievel Athens rebranded their ancient monuments as churches seems a bit simplistic. In fact, in some ways it might be that Modern Athens rebranded their Medieval heritage as evidence for its Classical past.)

For Corinth, Brown considers the ring of Early Christian churches around the urban center as potential pilgrimage sites marking not only martyr shrines (such as that of Kodratos), but also major routes in and out of the city. In this way, Corinth seems to be similar to arrangement of martyria around Milan or even Rome. The major pilgrimage church in the area, however, seems to have been the Lechaion basilica  at Corinth’s western port. Readers of this blog are probably sick of hearing about this building, but its massive size, double atrium, elaborate baptistery, and association with the martyrdom of Leonidas and his female companions, make this building’s association with pilgrimage almost certain. In fact, Brown makes the intriguing observation that the importance of baptism at Lechaion might echo Leonidas’ death by drowning which at least one life called his “second baptism”. Scholars have largely dismissed or overlooked the practice of second baptism in the Byzantine and Late Antique times, but there is a small, but growing body of evidence suggesting that martyr shrines might have served as the location for some form of ritual ablution. More intriguing, of course, is that the association of Lechaion with baptismal rituals persisted into the Byzantine period suggesting that parts of the monumental baptistery and church still grounded the life of the martyr in the local landscape.  Brown might have added that the  nymphaion located a few hundred meters south of the church and likely contemporary with the church may have served as a roadside stop for weary pilgrims as they made their way south across the Isthmus. Travelers passing south through the fortress at Isthmia would have encountered inscriptions that invoked the protection of God and the Virgin in conspicuously liturgical language reinforcing the sacred nature of the Isthmian landscape. In this context, all travelers became pilgrims as they encountered the sacred in even the most mundane passages.

The most curious thing about this article is that Brown clearly privileges pilgrims from outside of Greece and struggles a bit with the interpretation of more local hagiographic sources. We know, for example, that local pilgrimage practices were common in the Peloponnesus. I have written on the obscure St. Theodore of Kythera whose church became a pilgrimage destination after his death. The battle between Nauplion and Argos for the body of St. Peter of Argos after his death demonstrates the significance of relics to the spiritual life of those communities and implies that the saint’s remains would become a place of pilgrimage. Other lives preserve incidents where travelers stop to visit holy hermits or the remains of abandoned churches. In fact, these lives do more than describe a landscape full of sacred spaces, but they also produced these landscapes and inscribed them with the routes that made  everyday movements small acts of pilgrimage.

In this context, the Corinthian landscape comes alive with the movement of myriad pilgrims. These include the relatively recent monastery of St. Patapios near Loutraki where modern pilgrims go to visit the healing relics of St. Patapios as well as visitors to the church of the Ayia Anagyri in Anaploga who still incubate at the church there during the annual feast to these “penniless doctors” or villagers who decorate the church of Profitis Elias on his feast or celebrate small, local panayri festivals at long neglected chapels. To be sure, the archaeological and textual evidence for this kind of pilgrimage will be faint, but it preserves the everyday and extrordinary movements of pilgrims in the Greek landscape. 

Byzantine Survey Archaeology: Looking across Chronological Boundaries

As my post yesterday mentioned, I am going to present a paper in the final panel at this spring’s Dumbarton Oaks Spring Symposium on Byzantine Survey Archaeology. The symposium is an exciting one and will hopefully initiate an important conversation about the role of survey archaeology (and perhaps even contemporary archaeological practice) in the study of Byzantium more broadly. 

I’ve been asked to speak specifically about diachronic approaches in survey archaeology. Since I’ve spent most of the last 15 years working on various diachronic survey projects which have at least hoped to include a substantial Byzantine chronological component, this seemed like a reasonable request. Over the last week or so, however, I’ve been struggling with how to think about the place of Byzantine survey archaeology in a diachronic context. As my abstract below points out, the Byzantine period is often grouped in a larger “post-ancient” category or associate with medieval and post-medieval periods particularly in Greece. This periodization strategy compels those of us interested in the Byzantium to reflect quite explicitly on the relationship between the Byzantine period and periods more close in time to the present day. Not only does this relationship encourage a reading of Byzantium that problematizes the tension between the remote and exotic and the familiar and mundane, but it also tempts us to consider the archaeological processes that create continuity or discontinuity in the archaeological landscape. In effect, it locates our archaeological sensibilities at the intersection of landscapes as historically imagined places and spaces of constant change.

NewImageSpeaking of change…

Here’s the first draft of my abstract.

Dumbarton Oaks Spring Symposium
Byzantine Survey Archaeology: Reflections and Approaches

Looking across Chronological Barriers
William R. Caraher, University of North Dakota 

In some circles, it remains common to group Byzantine archaeology in Greece in the broad category of post-antique archaeology or to place it in synthetic works alongside discussions of medieval and post-medieval material culture. This periodization scheme reflects not only long-standing privileging of the Classical and Ancient (and the grouping of other periods as either pre or post this central age), but also coincides with perceptions developed in the field. Byzantine architecture, ceramics, social institutions, and even literary forms extend well beyond chronological periods defined by the political entity known as the Byzantine Empire. This has largely coincided with the tendency of diachronic survey to avoid rigid boundaries that locate artifact, architecture, and landscapes within a single post-ancient period. As result, scholars drawn to research questions more narrowly defined by the fields of Byzantine archaeology or Byzantine Studies have consistently found themselves pushed into dialogue with landscapes that conform to different economic, political, and, perhaps, settlement frameworks. The tensions between different chronological and periodization regimes provides an opportunity to problematize Byzantine archaeology in ways that shed light on formation processes, narrative strategies embedded within the landscape, and practical issues of continuity and discontinuity in place and space. By adopting perspectives and practices that push us to look across chronological barriers, Byzantine archaeology moves to a future endowed with significant methodological and interpretive sophistication.

Archaeological “Signatures” of Byzantine Churches

This springs Dumbarton Oaks Spring Symposium is titled Byzantine Survey Archaeology: Reflections and Approaches. The symposium will feature speakers covering a range of topics central to discussions about intensive pedestrian survey archaeology in a Byzantine context. My paper is among the last of the symposium and in a session called “Reading the Data/Reading the Future”.

I need to have abstract for my talk which is tentative titled “Looking across Chronological Boundaries”. The goal of the talk will be to bring together some of my work (largely with Tim Gregory and David Pettegrew) that explores post-Byzantine archaeological sites and consider how what we’ve learned in this work can inform out study of Byzantine sites in a survey context. 

Readers of this blog are familiar with my work at the early modern site of Lakka Skoutara in the Eastern Corinthia. Here’s a link to our most recent paper.

You may be less familiar with some of my work with David Pettegrew and Tim Gregory in 2001 on the island of Kythera where we collected surface data from around a series of still standing Byzantine churches. The results told us little about the landscape around these churches during the Byzantine period, but shed some significant light on formation processes around these occasionally used monuments in the Greek countryside. Like our work around the deteriorating houses in Lakka Skoutara, our work around these churches revealed a countryside that was in constant transformation. 

The evidence for the constant transformation of the landscape pushes us to see even the surface record as the product of a series of complex formation processes rather than a palimpsest awaiting our careful gaze to produce a complete but occluded text. The remains in the countryside preserve a complex record of processes.


Two Church Plans

Sometimes I don’t mind spending a morning with Adobe Illustrator (although most days it’s a special kind of torture). So I did that yesterday. 

The first image is a simplified plan of an Early Christian basilica in Greece. It is loosely based on a plan of Nikopolis Alpha, but I cut out some of the ancillary rooms joining the narthex. 

Figure1 Caraher

I also used the Illustrator to sketch a plan of the church at Kalpsi in Eurytania. This church has a spectacular group of mosaic pavements with dedicatory inscriptions. For my purposes, I was only really interested in the location of dedicatory inscriptions so I decided to create a sketch plan. I think it works for a very simplified representation of where the inscriptions appeared.

Figure2 Caraher


How’s that for a Thursday morning before a day filled with grading and grant writing?

Some Churches in Byzantine Epirus

I’ve spent the last week or so perusing M. Veikou’s very new book on Byzantine Epirus (Leiden 2012). It’s a monumental tome with over 300 pages of analysis and 300 more of figures, catalogues, and a site inventory. I’ve commented on Veikou’s work on this blog before so I was pretty excited to get my hands on her book length treatment of Byzantine Epirus to see how she developed more fully some of the themes touched upon in her article length work.

While I haven’t managed to get all the way through the book yet, she has already offered a few really interesting observations that are not so much novel as well documented and conceptualized.  As per usual my short observations this morning are based on what I have found useful or intriguing about the book rather than some kind of universal review of the book’s merits. 

1. Basilica Cemeteries and Byzantine Settlement. Veikou makes the rather obvious argument that the conversion of Early Christian or Early Byzantine churches into cemeteries in the 7th to 10th centuries – a common phenomenon across the southern Balkans – suggests continuity in settlement between the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Byzantine era (pp. 68-72). As far as I know, she is the first to make this leap and while I have some doubts about its application in specific cases (for example, I could imagine the urge to bury ad sanctos could trump the need to bury bodies in the immediate proximity of a settlement), I think she is probably right. She then takes this a step further to note that the use of earlier churches as places of burial might mark the growing willingness to bury the dead near or within settlements during Byzantine period as opposed to outside of settlements as was more common in the Early Christian period. She does, of course, note that the state of the buildings into which later visitors made burials is often unclear with evidence for churches both with standing walls and completely collapsed. 

2. Byzantine Churches on Early Christian Foundations. Veikou also compiles a useful list of later churches built on the foundations of Early Christian (or just earlier Christian) buildings (p. 57). While this is hardly a major emphasis in her work, it is an exceedingly useful list for scholars looking to understand continuity of the religious landscape in Greece. 

3. Typologies. Throughout Veikou’s section on architecture she proposes numerous typologies or adapts typologies for other authors to describe various architectural features present in both religious and non-religious architecture in Epirus. Such thorough typology building has long been standard practice in Greek (and more broadly Continental) approaches to documenting features in the landscape, but for many archaeologists the most persistent fear is that we impose typologies on material that, in turn, begin to dictate in unanticipated ways, our interpretations. The most obvious example of the typology-tail wagging the dog is when we have used typologies as the basis for either absolute chronology or the develop of features through time. In these cases, the logic of the typology (in, say, Byzantine architecture) has run the risk of trumping the evidence from stratigraphic excavation or other forms of dating.  That being said, typologies of the type that Viekou developed in her book offers the basis for a common vocabulary to describe various features in the Epiriote landscape, and she makes a particular effort to link the typologies she creates with those existing in other literature (e.g. her grave typology on p. 76-80).

As I said, I’ve only just started harvesting this book for valuable data and I’ve only scratched the surface of Viekou’s larger arguments regarding the transformation of the Byzantine landscape of Epirus. As a region of the Byzantine world that is both peripheral to the traditional centers of Byzantine control and authority and located in an important liminal zone between the East and West during the Middle Ages, the development of Epirus over these centuries has significant impact on how we understand the limits and character of the so-called Byzantine commonwealth. In other words, more on this book soon.

Byzantine Archaeology and the Archaeology of Greece

Last week I blogged a bit about working my way through J. Bintliff’s new survey of the archaeology of Greece. This week, I reflected on the sections dedicated to the archaeology of Byzantine and Crusader Greece. These three chapters are strong enough to stand on their own as a short survey of Byzantine archaeology. They feature vivid case studies that introduce readers to some unfamiliar places while at the same time providing to the traditional monuments central to long-standing discussions of Byzantine archaeology and architecture.

There are a handful of things that really stood out in these chapters:

1. Domestic Spaces. Bintliff does a great job bringing in recent research on Byzantine and “Frankish period” housing (most notably the work of E. Sigalos). Attention to Byzantine housing, of course, is an important step to developing a more sophisticated understanding of the functional character of surface assemblages for this period. While Bintliff offers little that is new, he does provide a very accessible synthesis of recent work on Byzantine domestic space which a student could easily use as a jumping off point for more in-depth research. The only period for which Bintliff’s work seems a bit lacking is for the Early Byzantine period or the “Dark Ages” where recent work stands poised to make a serious contribution to habitation practices during this important transitional time.  

2. Urban and Rural. A better understanding of both urban and rural housing allows us to begin to unravel the complexities associated with Byzantine settlement. At present, as Bintliff acknowledged, the lines between various types so Byzantine settlements are exceedingly blurry. While the ends of the continuum – say isolated farms and major urban areas – are clear, the differences between monasteries, hamlets, villages, town, and small cities remains difficult at best. Even if we concede that some of these terms may reflect contemporary definitions of settlement more than Byzantine, the organization of space outside of the most monumentalized centers (Mistras, Thessaloniki, Constantinople, et c.) continues to offer a serious challenge to scholars interested in Byzantine economy and society. 

3. Texts. It was a bit striking that there was so little appeal to texts throughout these chapters. Byzantine archaeology has long been beholden to texts and the abundance of texts -from the most modest hagiography to various documentary sources like the typika edited and published by Dumbarton Oaks. These texts have long worked in conjunction with archaeological observation to offer a robust perspective on the Byzantine and Frankish material culture. Despite all the difficulties that texts from the Medieval period have created for archaeologists, their absence of this section reflects an obvious oversight to specialists in Byzantine archaeology.  

4. No Longer Periphery. Most surveys of Byzantine archaeology – as much as such things exist – regard Greece as somehow peripheral to the Byzantine heartland and part of a larger discussion of “provincial” architecture, archaeology, and traditions. Bintliff’s book offers almost no hint of this provincializing discourse and locates southern and central Greece at the center of his discussion of  archaeology. This makes some sense, of course, as his book focuses on the archaeology of a particular region defined by both the modern nationstate and earlier concentrations of distinct cultural practices. By focusing on regional practices in their own rights rather than as just pale imitations of  the center, Bintliff locates the material culture of Byzantine and Frankish Greece within local traditions and evidence. As his entire book shows, the remains of Byzantine and Frankish Greece fit within a larger and independent narrative of Greek history and archaeology. (This is something that Greek archaeologists have largely recognized, but Bintliff avoids the potential for a nationalist archaeology by treading very critically and carefully the minefield of continuity.) 

The most vexing thing about this otherwise commendable survey is that it’s attached to 300+ pages of careful scholarship on the archaeology of earlier periods. This makes this volume not particularly appealing for a course in Medieval or Byzantine history course where it would clearly fill a gap in current offerings. This left me wishing that this book (and others like it) come in a more modular form where an instructor could purchase only particular sections of a text (at I am sure a healthy mark up!). 

Popular Byzantium: An Interview with Paul Kastenellos, Part 2

There was amazingly positive feedback to Part 1 of my interview with University of North Dakota alumnus, Vincent O’Reilly, whose first novel, Count No Man Happy, appeared right before Christmas. The novel is largely set in 8th century court of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VI where it weaves together history, romance, and court intrigue to touch the popular imagination in a way that few scholars have ever managed.

Byzantinists ought to support the work of passionate lay-scholars like Vincent, who writes under the name of Paul Kastenellos, and the easiest way to do this is to buy a copy of his book. Compared to the most scholarly publications, Vincent’s book is a bargain at $13.95 (and even cheaper on the Kindle at $4.99).

Corinth First City of Greece

So go to Amazon and get a copy. If you don’t like it, give it to a student who might be just beginning to be interested in Byzantium or give it to your local library. Making “ordinary people” excited about Byzantium is important.


B.C.: As you’ve read more about Byzantium and wrote about it, did your interests changed?

P.K.: I’d say rather that they have deepened. At one time I was interested in Alexius Commenus and easily could be again. In truth though, I’m more fascinated by the culture than by battles and heroes. When I saw the Ravenna mosaics my mouth literally dropped open to realize that they were actual portraits. Before the internet, photographs of them were flat, false colored, and uninteresting. The more I see of modern internet images the more I admire Byzantine art. So much in fact that, hard as it may be for someone not immersed in it to believe, I now prefer Byzantine to western art. The problem is that compared with the west there is little left that is in great condition. I did have the pleasure of observing quite a few good pieces in Greece however: Hosias Loukas, some Thessaloniki churches, and Mistra among others, but most of this stuff was late Byzantine. It seems that neither the Turks nor the Greeks particularly treasure what remains. In their defense, who wants to live in a museum? A church should speak to people today and if that means remodeling, well, sometimes that’s OK.

B.C.: That’s interesting, but I wonder whether there is a growing interest in the pervasion of Byzantine monuments. And this might suggest that Byzantium does resonate with people today, don’t you think? Why is that?

P.K.: I don’t know that it does. It remains alien to everything about modern American culture. It was superstitious, less mechanical and technological than the west in the same period, more concerned with feuding over religious dogma than we are or can even relate to. True, individuals could be extremely charitable but they did not make the headlines and even they were intolerant. It was a totalitarian state. In fact I wonder if the spirit of Byzantium wasn’t more similar to that of India than to ours. If anything, it is the very otherness of Byzantium which fascinates. (Oops, that’s your next question.) Truth is, outside of academic circles, if you say Byzantine to someone in the USA, he may at best recognize the word.

B.C.: Byzantinist definitely need to do more to improve our “brand” recognition. But, getting back to your book, who speaks most directly to me?

P.K.: Definitely Antonina. Her character is not obscured by religious myth as is that of so many Byzantines. As for others, yes indeed there are many interesting people but somehow except for Alexius and Constantine Paleologius, Constantine VI, and Antonina, I’ve never been attracted that much to individuals. The religious figures are a turn off to a modern person with their narrow mindedness, extremism carried to the point of fetishism (not in a good way), and general lack of Christian love. The military history is a sad story of which we know the sad outcome: the rape of Constantinople by “crusaders”, and the triumph of Islam with the destruction of everything that made the spirit of the Eastern Empire what it was.

B.C.: In your book, you attempt to bridge the gap between Byzantium and our era today by imagining Byzantium as a kind of fantasy world imagined by an “aging”, 30something 1950s pin-up model.  Did you do this to try to translate the Byzantine world to 21st century America? It is worth noting that Julia Kristeva in her Byzantine themed novel, Murder in Byzantium, used a similar strategy.

P.K.: You speak of Beth as aging. That is true only in so far as her days as a pinup girl were running low. She is in mid twenties. In spirit she is young and in body and face still beautiful.

If I presented Byzantium as a fantasy world, then I failed at what I was trying to do. Beth is Constantine’s fantasy but only until fully awake in the morning. The problems he faces were very real. I intended to make the characters of Nicephoros, Stauratius, Khardam and others believable, not fantasy. Their frame of reference is very different from ours but their motivation and behavior is not. I probably should have included more superstition and ignorance, as Cervantes did with Sancho Panza in “Don Quixote.” I may have depicted Irene as too single-minded about icons but hardly a character of fantasy. In fact I hoped to make them all more believable than medieval people are often depicted. (For example: the monks in “The Name Of The Rose.”) It bothers me that the middle ages are usually depicted in shades of gray and brown when to simply look at illustrations from that time – east and west – shows a world full of vibrant color. At the same time, I wanted to avoid making the characters think like moderns (like William of Baskerville, again in “The Name Of The Rose”.)

B.C.: The historian in my has to ask a few technical questions as we get to the end of our interview. What primary sources did you use to write your novel?

P.K.: There isn’t much in the way of original sources about Constantine. All in all, the sources for eighth century Byzantium are thin compared with the centuries before and after. I relied almost entirely on Theophanes Confessor filling in details from my general understanding of the period acquired over the years. I used the Mango and Scott translation only learning of Turtledove’s late in my work. As for secondary sources I would have made more use of Henry Maguire’s “Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204” had I known of the book when I was writing the basic text. As it is I only used it to confirm and correct some details. One may ask why I was so unaware of available texts? The internet was in its infancy when I wrote the basic text and I did not have ready access to an academic library… And after all, the book is a novel. I try to remain accurate to the history and the mentality of the age, at least in so far as one can when writing for a twentieth century audience. Specifically I tried not to be inaccurate. For example I’d have liked to use the imperial thrones that famously rose into the air, but on checking I discovered that they were not installed until a little after Constantine’s time. I give a bit more detail of where I have deviated from the historical record in the Afterword of the text and in the notes which follow.

My upcoming novel about Antonina, the wife of Belisarius, has an opposite problem. There is too much information and too many conflicting interpretation of events, motivation, et c. Every historian seems to have his own. Everyone admits that Procopius was probably right about most details but is untrustworthy otherwise. It would be nice to have someone else’s opinion of Bloody John, for example, or know why so many allegedly black-hearted men were restored to positions of honor by Justinian. If, for example, Bessas was as venal as Procopius pictures him, why was he later given command against the Persians. Procopius chastises Belisarius for not defending his stepson, Photius, when Theodora incarcerated him but he is careful to keep his time-line vague. As I read it, Photius was arrested while Belisarius was in disgrace and suffering from clinical depression. Anyone who has endured such depression or lived with someone who is suffering from it knows that it is just not possible for him to even rise from his bed. There is an unfocused despair that does not respond to reason and cannot be fought. Besides, had Belisarius attempted to intervene directly while under Theodora’s wrath he would have made things worse for Photius. Yet most historians just repeat Procopius’ slander. Some of Procopius’ accusations have been challenged but rarely has his opinion of Antonia been. I have tried to see the events of Belisarius and Antonina’s lives through her eyes. Historians have not helped. For your information: this next book will have none of the fantasy and depravity of ”Count No Man Happy.” It will be straight historical fiction but almost entirely historically accurate. (I say almost because I could not resist making Procopius a eunuch although there is no evidence that he was one – but then, there is no evidence that he wasn’t. Consider it long overdue payback.)

B.C.: What secondary authors help you to understand the fragmentary and confusing record of Byzantium?

P.K.: For fact checking and specifics there is nothing like Wikipedia. I could spend weeks in a library doing what I now do in a few minutes on the net. There is a popular belief that it is inaccurate – but so are books; and it is far more likely that mistakes will be corrected there than when repeated in books. (Not a mistake, but have you ever noticed how much J B Bury is quoted almost word for word by other authors without direct citation? Do they ever check him?)

As for secondary sources for “Antonina,” Lord Mahon is far more readable than Procopius even if not very critical; and nothing can compare with the delight of Thomas Hodgkin’s “Italy And Her Invaders.”

Yet one can question conventional replication of interpretation. I see the battle of Daras in Belisarius’ first Persian War as essentially a hammer of Roman archers hitting an anvil of Roman infantry with the Persian cavalry caught between them. Why else did Belisarius remain dismounted with the infantry. In my opinion cavalry did not win Daras, the disdained infantry did.

B.C.: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask one last question. What could scholars do better to engage a wider audience for the study of Byzantium?

P.K.: A tough question. I have walked the walls of Constantinople and offered a prayer where the last emperor fell in battle. One problem is that neither Greece nor Turkey emphasize their medieval history. Curiously, I have the impression that in recent years Moslem Turkey has done a bit more than Christian Greece which seems preoccupied with its ancient history. I get the impression from the Greeks I’ve met that they hardly study it in school. My wife and I were alone at Mistra because it is far from the tourist route. Of course, the same to a lesser degree was true of Ravenna in Italy. In Ravenna we saw a group of Japanese art students but few western tourists.

If more scholars were willing to mix with non-academics, they could start at home. If UND (for example) offered a guided tour of Ravenna, Cappadochia, Constantinople, and Mistras, perhaps together with a gullet boat trip down the Bosphorus to the Mediterranean; and if the cost were kept minimal, some of us who are not wealthy enough to be attracted to the usual university tours of the Greek Islands might be tempted. You could be the guide and have the group include alumni of other universities. Such a tour could be the basis of a TV documentary. Such a tour would be unique and one hell of a lot more special than Rhodes again.

We do need more quality fiction about the empire. As noted above what little I’ve seen is poor academically (excepting Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius.) Surely historians can team up with the many frustrated writers in English departments to work on this problem. A best seller might even be made into a movie.

More art exhibits. The Metropolitan made a great start which should be followed up on. But what I think is most important is to energize students at the high school level. You, as a Byzantinist, could offer to present illustrated lectures in your area. You might even use the Illustrated Guide on my website as a starting point.

Sorry that I’ve rambled a lot, not always staying on point. But then, I never was good at answering test questions.

Popular Byzantium: An Interview with Paul Kastenellos, Part 1

Right before Christmas, I was surprised and excited to receive an unsolicited copy of a novel set in Byzantium: Paul Kastenellos, Count No Man Happy. (New York 2011).  I was even more surprised to discover that Paul Kastenellos was the pen name of Vincent O’Reilly who was a history major at the University of North Dakota in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Needless to say, the intersection between Byzantium and the University of North Dakota is exceedingly rare, so I contacted the author and struck up a conversation about Byzantium, popular culture, and life at UND.

I discovered that Vincent had more than just a casual interest in Byzantium. His book is richly textured (with pleasant edge) and historically vivid making it more than suitable for a fictional companion to an undergraduate Byzantine history course. For the uninitiated, Vincent has provided some companion material on his website including a lovely Illustrated History of Byzantium.

The following is a lightly edited version of our email correspondence which focuses on that often strange intersection between the academic community and passionately interested lay reader. As most Byzantinists realize, the past two decades have seen a growing popular interest in Byzantium which, so far, most Byzantinists have not successfully captured to our field’s advantage. Perhaps this interview with a participant in this popular revival can provide some new insights for us…


Bill Caraher: Thank you so much, Vincent, for taking the time to chat about your book and giving those of us on that academic side of the aisle a perspective on how you came to learn, to love, and to write about the Byzantine centuries, and why (and whether!) we are genuinely experiencing a “Byzantium boom” in the popular culture of the first decades of the 21st century.

Paul Kastenellos:  I thought I might anticipate your questions with a little general background. I need not tell you how important that is to understanding. I entered UND in 1957. At that time TV was fairly new, most families not getting a set until about 1950. Educational TV was a bore – some college prof in a suit lecturing at a podium. What we learned in high school was mostly English history with a few asides to Charlemagne, Julius Caesar et c. My only recollection of anything Byzantine was the statement in some textbook, talking about the fall of the Roman empire, that “it maintained a shadowy existence in the east for another thousand years.” Now imagine my shock in Dr. [Felix] Vondracek’s class when he,, who saw history as a succession of battles. told us about Adrianople and stirrups, Belisarius and Antonina (Wow); and insisted that we memorize lists of popes and Byzantine emperors (Yawn!). Vondracek had his faults, no doubt about it; but his lectures were never dull.

*[Felix Vondracek was a popular and cantankerous history professor at the University of North Dakota.]

Fast forward fifty years. Students learn more. High school teachers are better prepared. Television is running out of things to tell people about. Perhaps most important, the comfortable parochialism of my youth is no longer acceptable. Black history was assumed not to exist in those days and we studied American history in a vacuum, ignoring anything south of the border after the conquistadors and never realizing that colonial history is intimately interlinked with European.

In my college years there were not more than four or five books on Byzantium in print at any time. We had Bury, Diehl, Pirenne, and Vasiliev; and Vondracek was anxiously awaiting a translation of Ostrogorsky. Once in a while Oxford University Press might kick out a new volume but they were pricey and would not long remain in print. But Praeger was creating expensive art books some of which were about Byzantine art.

To confirm what I just wrote I looked at my aging Viking Library “Portable Medieval Reader” (c 1949). In seven hundred pages the only Byzantine author is Anna Comnenaand that is her description of the western crusader knights. With such a dearth of information it should not be surprising that there was little interest even among the educated. We were still stuck in Gibbon’s negative view because no one was reexamining it at the high school level.

Today Americans have a broader outlook. Most educated people have traveled. TV has run out of fresh Hitler footage. Color images on videotape are much more vibrant than even color film, much less the black and white of 1950s television. Modern art may possibly have made people more willing to look at stuff other than the purely representational.

So there is nothing remarkable about the interest in Byzantium. There is also interest in Mongolia and substantially more interest in the Indian cultures of South America than when I was young. In grade school and high school my only knowledge of these peoples was which Spaniard had killed them. Our understanding of Persia was entirely through Greek eyes, and of Spain through British eyes. There was a definite prejudice against Byzantium inherited from Gibbon, just as there was against Spain which we viewed through the filter of Elizabethan English propaganda. One look at the Hearst papers leading up to the Spanish American War will show that.

We knew nothing of the Byzantines but then we knew nothing of Japan (see my essay on the Asian War on my website) and what little we knew of India was still through the eyes of Kipling. North Africa was to us Beau Geste and the French Foreign Legion, Africa was witch doctors and safaris, and Egypt was still “The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb.” Our parents had at best a high school education as did our newspaper reporters. China was seen through the eyes of “China watchers” who seem never to have left the bars of Hong Kong. Now all these states are intimately intertwined.

My point is that the interest in Byzantium can not be seen as something unique. It is not that somehow it has become interesting, but rather that my youth was a benighted pit from which internationalism and international travel and communication has raised us. We are looking for new interests.

But only so far. There is Byzantine stuff on TV but it doesn’t go much beyond pretty pictures of Hagia Sophia. The Orthodox church still remains outside the interest of most people. In fact religion generally is something modern secularists don’t want to discuss except in a negative way. I do think the Metropolitan exhibitions gave a boost to Byzantine art. I saw the first one and it definitely was broader than the expected bunch of old icons. Why not “Russia and Byzantium,” “Byzantium and the West,” The Crusades Through Byzantine Eyes,” and of course, “The Fall of Constantinople.”

I just checked Barnes and Noble and am amazed with the variety of material now available. There are many popular books on the Byzantines. I have one on their cuisine (and would readily pass on it.) There is even fiction though the two novels I’ve read were disappointing (Stock adventure stories with a cross thrown in here and there.) Alternative history is blessed with David Drake and Eric Flint’s “Belisarius series” which I enjoyed. Though it had little to do with Byzantium, I liked their take on the character of Belisarius. One might ask why these authors chose to write six books with Belisarius as the protagonist. I would answer that the motivation was not Byzantium, but alternative history which sells well. I wish it were the reverse.

BC: So, you became interested in Byzantine history through Prof. Vondracek’s classes, but surely not everyone in these classes has gone on to write novels on Byzantium. Was there any other thing that influenced your interest?

PK: Let me detail a bit of personal history… Vondracek threw a searchlight on my understanding of medieval history which up to then had been entirely western. In a way that was understandable if narrow. Our society does descend from western European. After graduation I had to earn a living. Although I pretended to be as interested in Byzantium as in my college years in truth it faded. I was going for a masters in library Science and working. When my daughter graduated from St John’s College in Annapolis she took a job with Bill Moyers and used her first paycheck to give me and my wife, Tamiko, tickets to Istanbul.

To my great surprise and delight my interest in Byzantium came flooding back as though it had never waned. Two characters in Vondrachek’s lectures had never really left me:

BC: Which two characters are those?

PK: Belisarius and Constantine VI.

BC: Why those two of all the memorable characters from Byzantium?

PK: Belisarius is obvious. How can it be that such a notable general went unmentioned in any history of great generals that I had read? Pure western ignorance and bias. That Antonina accompanied him touched the romantic in me and her infidelity to a man who loved her deeply made me curious. (These things I had learned from Vondracek who loved nothing better than to reveal the private lives of famous people.)

Vondacek also told us of poor Constantine VI and related how he was blinded by his mother and how Theodote, in his words, “followed him around like a puppy dog for the rest of his life.” He also told us that he had been infatuated with the daughter of Charlemagne whom he was betrothed to but never met. I have no idea why these things stuck in my mind when so many other things in Vondrachek’s lectures have faded out of memory, but they did. Unfortunately, while I remembered both these things about Constantine I somehow had a disconnect in my mind that they were the same person. Nonetheless they stayed in the back of my mind and came back with other things about Byzantium when I first visited Istanbul.

Now I had always wanted to write. In fact I entered the news business (United Press – Movietonews) in order to simplify and improve my writing style which I was aware had been damaged by too much reading of diverse authors in college. Why had I not gone into a field of history after college? Because my interest was in Byzantium and as the worst language student who ever lived I knew that I could never be a scholar in that subject. I had no interest in simply teaching high school.

Somewhere along the line I saw the movie Laura wherein a detective falls in love with the portrait of a (presumably) dead woman. I did not think the movie played out the idea all that well but was fascinated by the concept. So somewhere in the mid ’90s I started to write a bit of fluff that I jokingly referred to as Constantine VI meets Bettie Page. (It is amazing how many guys of all ages [and even gals] are familiar with Bettie, but one doesn’t know that until someone in the group dares to bring up the subject. I even joined the BettieScouts of America fan club.) Then I remembered that Constantine was the same guy whose mom blinded him.


One can’t write fluff about someone whose Mom blinded him. I tried writing Beth (inspired by Bettie) out of the story but had come to like the character that I was developing too much. I needed such a character to boost an otherwise depressing tale of Constantine and his mother. I thought to have him dream of someone who’d lived before him. That would not have had to be fantasy but I couldn’t find anyone that I could use without totally changing her character. So Beth stayed. Of course it means a story that will turn off people with a serious interest in serious history; but whatthehell, to quote Mehitabel the poetic cockroach.

Click here for Part 2 of the interview with Vincent O’Reilly author of Count No Man Happy.