book cover imageThe Byzantine Revival, 780–842,
by Warren Treadgold.
Stanford University Press, 1988,
504 pp., $49.50.

In the year 146 B.C. Scipio Aemilianus, adopted grandson of the conqueror of Hannibal and son of the conqueror of Macedonia, watched Rome’s great enemy, Carthage, sink slowly into flames. After this victory and the recent sack of the great trading city of Corinth, Rome now dominated the Mediterranean. Scipio’s face was streaked with tears. His friend, the Greek historian of Rome’s rise to power, Polybius, noticed and asked him why. The answer was prompt. Rome had reached the top. There was nowhere to go but down.

As the American Century proclaimed by Henry Luce moves to its close, we too are obsessed with visions of decline and fall. Communism, our great enemy, is sputtering to a standstill, driven into bankruptcy by Ronald Reagan, yet Japan and Germany, the Axis powers of yore, are on the verge of an economic hegemony to rival the military rule they sought so violently fifty years ago. The United States, wealthy and well-armed, is burdened with enormous debt and growing self-doubt. We ask ourselves Scipio’s question. Does a nation that has reached the top have anywhere to go but down?

The Roman Empire survived many a decline and fall. Even before Scipio’s death in 129, Tiberius Gracchus had started a spiral of domestic violence and imperial greed that lasted a century, until Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. The Emperor Caesar Augustus established a constitution that lasted two centuries. The economic and military chaos of the third century A.D. was halted by the pagan bureaucrat Diocletian and the Christian warrior Constantine. They moved the capital of the empire east from Rome to the site of ancient Byzantium, New Rome, Constantinople. Constantinople ruled a great empire for a millennium. Often, however, it seemed doomed to fall.

In the fifth century A.D., the Western part of the empire fell away. When, in the sixth century, Justinian seemed about to win it back again, a terrible plague weakened the East for two centuries. In the next century, the Persians conquered Syria and Egypt. The Emperor Heraclius won them back again, only to see them fall to the conquering might of Islam. Arabic Islam was never able to win Asia Minor and bring down the walls of Constantinople itself. By the eighth century Byzantine armies were able to protect the Greek-speaking populace of the empire which settled in the area we now call Turkey. The people were split, however, by religious differences. The political and military classes were dominated by Iconoclasm, contempt for the icons, veneration of which formed an important part of the religious life of the clergy and simple folk. Could the surviving trunk of the old RomanEmpire sprout again in the face of Muslim might to the South and the new empire of Charlemagne to the West?

In the end Byzantine Constantinople was to outlast both Abbasid Baghdad and Merovingian Aachen as a center of power and culture. Warren Treadgold set himself the task of telling the beginning of that story in this magisterial volume on The Byzantine Revival. It is an awesome task. Much important information can be known only from unpublished manuscripts or poor nineteenth-century editions. J. B. Bury told the story before the Great War and few have dared to match their narrative and critical skills against that great master of medieval history. So Treadgold’s success is all the more impressive. He has already proven himself adept at economic history and literary studies. Now he combines those skills with political insight to weave a masterful narrative of the revival of a state that seemed by-passed by history.

Treadgold frames his narrative with two chapters which depict that distant Greek world that called itself Roman. In 780, it was a state that had endured and survived, but had yet to accomplish much. By 842, we see a pluralist nation on the verge of enormous and significant creativity in art, history, scholarship, and religion.

The cast is large and varied. There is Irene, who killed both husband and son to save her life and restore the worship of icons to her nation. She dominated the eastern Mediterranean for a generation as regent and “Emperor.” It was because New Rome was ruled by a woman that Charlemagne had the gall to ask the Pope to crown him Roman Emperor in old Rome in 800.

Irene was succeeded by her finance minister, Nicephorus I. “He was a strong man, as his admirers and detractors both agreed, and he looked as strong as he was. Large and moderately tall, he had broad shoulders and a protruding stomach, a wide forehead, thick lips, luxuriant hair, and a flowing white beard,” as we see on the next page in an illustration from a fifteenth-century manuscript now lodged in the former ducal palace of the sleepy Italian city of Modena. With a philologist’s patience, Treadgold found the coins and medieval manuscript illustrations which allow us to look into the faces of the leaders who dominate the pages of the history he writes with the skill of a born storyteller.

Treadgold does not try to give us facile lessons for a nation’s revival. There are hints. By the middle of the ninth century, the political class and the rest of society shared a common religion. Taxation was perceived as fair and was efficiently collected. The state was defended by soldiers whose lot was intimately intertwined with the health of the state. Accurate scholarship, which had been so important in refuting Iconoclasm, was admired and Greek literature was read from Homer through Plato and the Greek Anthology all the way to the New Testament and the many lives of the Saintsthat continued ancient traditions in contemporary language. Many Greek authors now lost were then available and read. The script we still use to read Greek and the idea of canonical text and accompanying commentary come from this period. Byzantium was not afraid of administrative and military change, but change was based on a cultural and religious continuity that gave strength and meaning to social and political innovation. The history of New Rome shows how a nation can change and prosper, can return from poverty and defeat, if its cultural and religious roots are cultivated and defended. Warren Treadgold’s history is a model for scholars, but it is also a challenge and an inspiration for all Americans. 

E. Christian Kopff is associate professor of classics in the honors program at the University of Colorado, Boulder. At the time of writing, he was editing the ancient and Byzantine commentaries on the surviving plays of Sophocles.