The Making of Byzantium, 600-1025

Mark Whittow

University of California Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 2013
The four centuries covered by The Making of Byzantium saw the loss of key territories, survival and readjustment, a resurgence, and the confirmation of the Eastern Roman Empire in its identity "as a Greek-speaking, orthodox empire securely focused on Constantinople". Whittow's treatment of this period has an emphasis on foreign policy, broadly construed, and on changes in political, religious and military structures and ideas. It also touches on aspects of economic and social history, and delves into some aspects of the sources. The details of imperial politics, of intrigues and civil wars and successions, are worked into these broader stories rather than being presented as the central narrative.

An opening survey of the sources for Byzantine history considers official documents, private letters, chronicles and histories, saints' lives, and archaeology. This is followed by an overview of the strategic geography of the Byzantine state, looking at the Balkans, the steppes, Anatolia and Iran, the fertile crescent and the desert. A description of "the Roman World in 600" also focuses on the empire's geopolitical position, along with its economic and social foundations.

Whittow describes the last Roman-Persian war and the loss of Egypt and the Levant to the early Islamic conquests. His focus, however, is on how the empire survived and how it adjusted to its new position. There were changes in the structure of the armed forces, and in the political and economic support for those, as well as the adoption of a defensive strategy which used a mix of static and mobile forces in a defense in depth across the Anatolian plateau. There were also important cultural and ideological responses, most notably in the rise and fall of iconoclasm.

The longest chapter, some hundred and fifteen pages, is devoted to a survey of the empire's non-Muslim neighbours. This offers almost independent mini-histories of the Transcaucasus (mostly of Armenia), the Khazars and other steppe empires, the Rus, the Balkans (mostly of the Bulgarian empire), and the Western Provinces (mostly Italy).

The century or so from 863 (when a raiding army under Umar, emir of Melitene, was destroyed) saw Byzantine advances, securing the Anatolian plateau to the anti-Taurus range and pushing into Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Lebanon. This resulted in changes in the political balance of the empire, most notably in the increasing prominence of eastern military families, but the victory of Basil II in repeated civil wars saw the empire "turn its back on the Near East".

Throughout this Whittow keeps the reader in mind of the limitations of the available sources and, without venturing into textual analysis, occasionally delves more deeply into them. He also enters into some debates, over the extent of late Roman economic decline, the size of the Byzantine army, the interpretation of the early Russian chronicle Povest' vermennych let, and so forth. This is a broad introductory history, but one with historiographical sophistication: it is used as a text for undergraduate courses on Byzantine history.

Note: The Making of Byzantium was originally published as The Making of Orthodox Byzantium — and the running headers on the pages still carry that title — but for some reason the "Orthodox" was removed for publication in the United States.

January 2013

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%T The Making of Byzantium, 600-1025
%A Whittow, Mark
%I University of California Press
%D 1996
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780520204973
%P 477pp