A conversation with Byzantine luminary Averil Cameron.

 

Averil Cameron is one of the leading English-speaking scholars of late antiquity and Byzantium. She has made Byzantium, in particular, interesting and relevant to a generation of academics, students and history enthusiasts like myself. Her honours are many and varied, which include being a former Professor of Ancient History, Late Antiquity and Byzantine Studies at Oxford and a Warden of Keble College. In a career that has spanned a lifetime, she originally started out as a classicist and gradually became interested in the later centuries, which led to her to study Byzantium. She believes that Byzantium was the centre of the Mediterranean world, the link between east and west and a crucial civilization that deserves to be recognized amongst the great civilisations of the world. She has influenced and inspired me to read beyond the general narrative of Byzantine History. Though I have to admit that at times I struggle to get my head around many issues, in particular, Orthodoxy and how the Byzantines really saw themselves. Nevertheless, the headaches and frustration is all worth it in the end.

The timing of my following conversation with Prof. Dame Cameron coincided with a general issue that has been bothering me lately around the usage of the term ‘Byzantine’ or ‘Byzantine Empire’. To some people, the Byzantine Empire never existed and they say that we shouldn’t be making a distinction between old Rome and the Roman Empire that survived into the medieval world. A trusted friend recently told me that the word ‘Byzantine’ is just a word and that it shouldn’t carry the baggage that many people believe it does. I agree, and like to use the term ‘Byzantine’ to distinguish ‘Christian’ Rome from pagan Rome and I suppose, to recognise the shift in the fifth and sixth century to a more Greek-speaking civilization.

I put forward some of these ‘issues’ up for discussion to Prof. Dame Averil Cameron and it is without further ado that I would finally like to introduce my interview guest. She has been very generous in giving up some of her time, especially since she soon begins writing a very short history of Byzantine Christianity.

Do you believe Byzantium has today found its rightful place in historiography, considering for a long time scholars didn’t know what to do with it?

“Not yet – the problem is the concentration on the history of Europe, which usually means western Europe. Byzantium also belongs to the history of Europe, but it is still left out. It’s worse in the case of Islam and the Islamic world, but this affects Byzantium too. I have written about the ‘absence’ of Byzantium, and that seems to have struck a chord. On the other hand huge numbers of people are enthusiastic about Byzantine art and buildings (usually churches) – but they need the full historical background.”

Does it still surprise you that many people outside the academic world do not know what is the Byzantine Empire?  

“Not a bit. Hardly anybody learns Greek any more, and Orthodoxy is outside most people’s tradition, so Byzantium usually doesn’t get a look in. I know from long experience that when people ask what I do, saying that I’m a Byzantinist is a conversation-stopper. Some people have read Steven Runciman or John Julius Norwich, and may have a kind of fascination for Byzantium, but not necessarily for the right reasons. And the shadow of Gibbon is still very long.”

During my youth I believed that the Roman Empire fell in 476, until as a young adult I discovered that the empire in fact survived for another thousand years, until it eventually did collapse in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople. Why do some people still insist that everything that was good about the Roman empire ended in 476?

“Byzantium still has an identity problem. It’s a big problem for Byzantium that the western part of the Roman empire fell apart in the fifth century AD – two centuries after Constantine had founded Constantinople. But the Byzantines still thought of themselves as Romans, and never as Byzantines, so when did ‘Byzantium’ begin – with Constantine, or only later? Scholars are still worrying about this. I think myself that we need to be pragmatic, and such definitions are subjective anyway, so I don’t mind using the word Byzantine. I don’t think the fifth-century western Roman empire was ‘good’ either, and some people argue that the Ostrogothic rulers of Italy in the sixth century were the real Romans. All very confusing.”

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A clash between Byzantine and Arab forces from the Madrid Skylitzes.

There are some small groups, scholars, students and history enthusiasts who say that there is no such thing as the Byzantine Empire. What would you say to them?

“I think of Anthony Kaldellis, who argues provocatively that Byzantium was Roman, and that it was a republic, not an empire. I don’t think this works. Byzantium certainly had many of the features of an empire – a centralised state, an army, a system of taxation. It also absorbed and administered other territories. Of course there were many changes over time: Byzantium lasted for many centuries. Maps of the Byzantine empire at different periods look very different, and a friend and fellow-Byzantinist once said to me that the Byzantine empire was like a concertina. But certain basic elements of the state continued throughout.”

Is the word or term ‘Byzantine’ still derogatory? Have we truly embraced it?

“Absolutely! I am tired of collecting examples of ‘byzantine’ in the media, and it’s not meant as a compliment. This usage is everywhere.”

Should we look to change the reference or terminology of the Byzantine Empire to something like the Medieval Roman Empire or the Eastern Roman Empire? Will the academic world ever consider it?

“The term ‘Eastern Roman empire’ is already in use for the earlier period, say fourth to seventh centuries, and that is fine. But there comes a point where it doesn’t work any more. I don’t think ‘Medieval Roman Empire’ would work very well either; it seems artificial and doesn’t fit the fact that medieval westerners also had a Roman Empire in the Holy Roman Empire, and that they thought of the Byzantines as Greeks. Even the Byzantines themselves started sometimes calling themselves Hellenes. Why not stick to common usage, even if ‘Byzantine’ was not a contemporary term?”

How has the study of Byzantine history improved or evolved?

“Byzantine studies used to be dominated by the old guard of respected elder statesmen (and some women scholars), but now there are many excellent younger scholars bringing new perspectives, and trained in different ways. Byzantine art history is a huge field, and the US Byzantine Studies Conference attracts several hundred participants every year. Like late antiquity, early Byzantium has been transformed by the rising interest in neighbouring cultures and languages – Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian. Global, comparative and transnational history are having an impact on Byzantium too, and a whole new group of scholars are bringing the techniques of cultural and literary theory to Byzantine literature. At the same time there is still a great need for traditional scholarship and especially the editing of texts. Many Byzantine texts are still unedited, or even unpublished, and I greatly admire those who can do this kind of work.”

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Deathbed of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus from the Madrid Skylitzes.

Who are your five favourite Byzantine emperors (rulers)? Could you elaborate on one?

“I have to say Constantine and Justinian because I’ve written a lot about both of them. Do I like them? That’s a different question! Then I can’t leave out Heraclius, and from the later emperors, there’s a competition between Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus and Manuel I, whom I’ve written about recently in Arguing it Out. Discussion in Twelfth-Century Byzantium (2016) – but that’s only five, and there are more, like Leo VI for instance. Very hard to choose.”

What aspect of Byzantine society is most intriguing to you?  

“I find the sheer longevity of Byzantium very intriguing, and the whole question of how it was constantly reinventing itself (most of all after the Arab conquests), and how the role of emperor was somehow maintained despite continual usurpations and the lack of an established mode of succession. The Byzantines kept their own identity to the end, in the face of many different shocks and many new and powerful external influences.”

Byzantium has had many watershed moments throughout its long history. From Constantine’s alleged vision of the cross, Justinian’s reconquest to Iconoclasm. Is there another moment for you that stands out as one of the most significant?  

“I think one has to say the arrival of the crusaders in the reign of Alexius I Comnenus. Byzantium’s relations with both west and east were different from then on.”

Who are the historians which you admire most? How have they influenced the way you lecture or write about Roman history?  

“There are three figures who have made the greatest impact on me. First, Peter Brown, whom I have known since the 1960s. Not only the ‘explosion’ of late antiquity but also his eastward look and his way of writing history have had deep repercussions on early Byzantium. Then the late Evelyne Patlagean, for her deep insights into historical methodology and the immensely important perspective she brought to Byzantium from her beginnings as a student of the medieval west. Finally the much regretted Gilbert Dagron, a scholar of great originality and imagination, who was the leader of the Byzantinists in Paris from his chair at the Collège de France, and whose scholarship far transcended the conventional and traditional; he will be very greatly missed.”

Finally, what advise can you offer me in my pursuit to tell a thousand year story, here on this website?  

“My main advice is, carry on! Byzantium needs supporters and enthusiasts and this is a great way of raising consciousness and reaching new audiences.”

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A huge thank you to Prof. Dame Averil Cameron for her patience, time and contribution. You can discover the latest news from Prof. Cameron via her tweeter account @19Averil. More importantly you can read the many wonderful books on Byzantium written by her. Her publications include Byzantine Matters (2014), Changing Cultures in Early Byzantium (1996) and the outstanding The Byzantine (2006) which introduces the reader to the complicated history, ethnicity and identity of the Byzantines.

The featured image of Averil Cameron is courtesy of Lucy Dickens.