The current issue of the New York Review of Books (December 18, 2014) contains Peter Brown’s review of Averil Cameron’s recent Byzantine Matters, which illustrates some of what is wrong with academia in general today, and especially with the discipline of history. Peter Brown is a truly great historian, famous for establishing the paradigm of “late antiquity” as an alternative way of understanding what had been called “the fall of Rome. The review, however, is a puff piece for a younger historian (Cameron) whose career unfolded largely along lines lay down by Brown. Puff pieces are not new — Brown’s NYRB reviews have followed this path for a while. However, the case reveals more than simple pandering.
Cameron’s book is a plea for more engagement with Byzantine history, which she finds fraught with negative stereotypes (deviousness, unoriginality, conservatism) and which thereby perpetuate an old idealization of ancient Greece and Rome characterizing the Western ruling classes throughout their history. She urges that we stop “othering” and “Orientalizing” the Byzantine and wants us to use words like “hybridity” to understand its “multicultural,” “complex,” character, which is so much in need of deconstruction.
To me, this approach reveals the shallowness of historical thought at present, by way of contrast to the kind of work that Brown did when he began to write in the 1970s. For the truth is that greater engagement with the Byzantine opens the historian to the main lines of world history in that the Byzantine is key to three great civilizations, crucial for understanding both the medieval era and the present: Russia, the Turkic worlds and Eastern Europe. Moscow called itself the “third Rome,” after not only the Italian Rome but also Constantinople; the Ottoman Empire is the successor to the Byzantine; the conflict between the Papacy and Byzantine orthodox Christianity was a conflict over the conversion of Eastern Europe, one that the Byzantine won. The loss of contact between Western Europe and Russia, the crusades against Islam and the “second serfdom” aimed at Eastern Europe open the way for an historical understanding of how the commercial revolution of the middle ages, first opened Europe to the West, and then contributed to closing it down. Understood deeply enough, and carefully enough, we can gain a lot of insight into such present day problems as the Yugoslavian wars, the Ukraine, and ISIS. What historians need to do is return to the great patterns of world history, on which they had been embarked since Herodotus, Eusebius and Ibn Khaldun. By contrast, Cameron’s politically correct post-structuralism is present-minded in the worst sense; it is ahistorical. What we need is an historical approach to the present and this can only be rooted in understanding the large lines of the past.