Decline and Fall

By Andrew LouthJuly 17, 2022

Decline and Fall

New Rome: The Empire in the East by Paul Stephenson

CONVENTIONALLY, HISTORY HAS been about events and institutions. In the last century, however, a shift in perspective was achieved — associated especially with the name of Fernand Braudel — that considered closely the context in which events took place and institutions established themselves. Attention was now paid to geography — the constraints and opportunities provided by mountains and valleys, rivers, the sea and coasts; to the climate and the succession of the seasons, which provided parameters within which living beings, and especially humans, could flourish or determined challenges that needed to be overcome. This led historians to study the kind of habitats humans devised for themselves, such as villages, towns, and cities, or forms of nomadic life, but also ways of communication and means of transport, and their effect on access to raw materials, including food, drink, and textiles. Instead of constructing a history of events, historians became concerned with the longue durée, in which change was much slower, but which laid constraints within which the conventionally more interesting events unfolded: the history of events sometimes came to seem no more than a kind of appendix — in Braudel’s great work on the Mediterranean, the narration of events occupies only about a quarter of the book.

The historiography of the Byzantine Empire has reflected these changes, though the pull of conventional history of events and institutions has remained strong, partly owing to the nature of the evidence, dominated as it is by formal narrative sources, such as chronicles, in which the sequence of events is paramount.

In his latest book, Paul Stephenson seeks to reach back behind this dichotomy of approaches by looking at what it is that determines the longue durée. He argues that the natural environment is much less stable than one might be tempted to suppose, finding in the kind of conditions that Braudel regarded as important both long-term stability and causes for radical, and often sudden, change. Stephenson explores evidence of climate change caused by volcanic eruption and earthquakes not so much as an engine for political change as a permanent threat to the human environment, as well as disease, both long-term and barely noticed, and recurrent plague. This is hardly new, but Stephenson has explored this by careful study of scientific research — which is perhaps something new, at any rate on this scale. The endnotes to the chapters devoted to this new approach are full of journal articles that are not regular reading for Byzantine historians.

Furthermore, he comes to the results of this research from the standpoint of one who has cut his teeth, as it were, in some of the more rigorous areas of Byzantine study. His first monograph, Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier (2000), was a careful and detailed study that set the evidence from an astonishing range of traditional sources — annals and chronicles, legal documents and law codes, lives of the saints, and letters, both official and personal — against the material evidence of archaeologists. In that book, Stephenson stretched the remit of his evidence. In his new book, he attempts something more radical, letting the material evidence determine the nature of the questions he wants to answer, or even ask.

Stephenson starts with metallurgy — “Life at the end of the ‘Lead Age’” — for lead was widely used in the Roman Empire, with the consequences of widespread poisoning, causing short and unhealthy lives, even for the wealthy, though worse, as ever, for the poor. He moves on to the family, the place of slavery, the importance of the land, from which taxes were raised, “monks and eunuchs” — the former a fundamental feature of Byzantine society, the latter a small minority, often mutilated to limit their political ambition — but both separate from the family, “that foundational unit of late Roman society.”

In these two introductory chapters, Stephenson draws with great skill and an eye for detail on the stories embedded in surviving papyri, on laws, and on saints’ lives, making much use of the lively and lengthy Life of St Theodore of Sykeon. Stephenson then turns to the cities of the Roman Empire — cities inherited from the city-states of earlier Mediterranean society that formed the basic social units of the empire, and were also nodes of a vast communication nexus, which made feasible imperial rule. The Roman city is crucial to one of the threads in Stephenson’s argument, for in his view the decline of the city is coterminous with the end of ancient civilization: coterminous, though quite what the causal relationship was precisely Stephenson leaves to be determined.

The city was marked by public spaces — a marketplace, law court, gymnasium and bath complex, and public fountain, houses for the citizens of varying grandeur, a colonnaded street or stoa, and presumably churches. More detailed accounts are given of two cities, both important Christian centers and both ultimately compromised by their opposition to imperial orthodoxy: Antioch (increasingly challenged by Constantine’s “New Rome”) and Alexandria (though a third of the account here is devoted to Hypatia). The relation of cities to the imperial court in the empire was exercised through local officials, and increasingly through officials appointed from the center — among whom the Christian bishop came to assume an important role.

There follows a whole chapter on Constantinople, designed to be, and generally known as, the “New Rome” of the book’s title. It starts with a concise discussion of the way the empire was governed from the new capital, moving on to what would be needed to feed the population, starting with the fish market, and only later mentioning archaeological evidence for animals and birds, including beasts of burden, and for the supply of water by aqueducts — I could not find any mention of the grain supply — moving on to an account of the central complex embracing the Great Church of the Holy Wisdom, other churches, the nearby imperial palace and the hippodrome, the main street, the Mese, as the discussion takes the form of a gazetteer, drawing attention to the most prominent buildings and their significance, interspersed with snatches of relevant history. All of this makes for lively and informative reading, but the significance of a stationary imperial court, as opposed to an imperial caravan of the emperor as military commander, constantly on the move, is not commented on.

Part two of the book, “Power and Politics,” outwardly takes the form of a fairly traditional history, from the death of Theodosios I to that of Justinian II, based on literary sources, though informed by wide reading in the relevant literature. This is a period seeing the reign of three great emperors — Theodosios II, in whose reign Christian orthodoxy was established and defined; Justinian I, a reign marked by legal reform, a building program, both defensive on the frontiers and in the capital itself, after the wholesale destruction of the Nika riot, and the reconquest of North Africa, Italy, and the Spanish littoral, restoring the empire to something like its conception of itself, as well as trying to achieve unity in the Church (about which little is said); and Herakleios, whose reign saw the weakness of the Eastern provinces, partly due to unresolved divisions in the Church (not mentioned), exposed by a Persian invasion, and their final loss to the armies of Islam.

Although a fairly traditional account, Stephenson’s narrative draws effectively on material resources. The final part, “The End of Antiquity,” looks at the decline of the city — “From polis to madina,” as one of his subtitles has it — a transition that took place in material reality, but not, it seems, in the Byzantine mind. Evidence for that was the Madaba Map, which Stephenson, following Bowersock, sees as the stubborn persistence of a reality that had been unevenly transformed, in some places barely, while in others so much that by the end of the seventh century little trace of the fourth-century city was left. Why? In these final chapters, Stephenson sets out the evidence of climate change, occasioned by volcanic eruption around 536, leading to a vast cloud that affected almost the whole of the Northern Hemisphere (evidenced by literary accounts of the persistent cloud and the fall in temperature from “as far afield as Ireland, Syria, and China,” supplemented by ice-core data from Greenland); plague — recurrent and frequent outbreaks of bubonic plague recorded in Constantinople and the Middle East for the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries; and then earthquake, especially in Constantinople, which sits on a major tectonic fault. These recurrent disasters doubtless hastened a process of decline already under way for a host of reasons — a decline that for much of the Eastern Empire would receive its coup de grâce from the Arab armies of Islam. Stephenson is, however, properly cautious about how decisive environmental factors — volcanic activity, plague, and earthquake — were for the extinction of ancient civilization, though they may have lent further credence to the apocalyptic mood it engendered.

Stephenson is somewhat prone to gnomic judgments, two of which might be mentioned. His final section begins by asserting a “parting of ways between eastern and western Christians” and seems to give as an example devotion to the Cross, but nothing he says shows in what way devotion to the Cross, which appealed to both East and West, suggests this “parting of ways.” His final sentence is: “This was the world we call Byzantium.” After reading and rereading, I cannot work out what “this” refers to. It is preceded by a jejune summary of what iconoclasm was about, which does not really help.

Perhaps my problem is that where Stephenson is clear that he is talking about the “end of the ancient” (very popular at the moment), I see transition to something new, a kind of recollection of three quarters of a millennium of history that constituted the formation of the Orthodox world, a world soon to make inroads beyond the geographical matrix of the Mediterranean world into the very different world of the steppes of the Eurasian plain (something discussed with elegance and illumination by Dimitri Obolensky 50 years ago). Perhaps Stephenson fails to see this because — in company with many Byzantinists — he resolutely averts his gaze from the Christian Church, even though it was in his period that the Church that now calls itself Orthodox assumed its distinctive lineaments.

As well as gnomic judgments, this book is marred, too, by some curious assertions. Right at the beginning, there is reference to Malachi, the “last book of the Christian New Testament” — wrong. Perhaps a copyeditor changed “last book of the Christian Old Testament,” which would make sense, but is only true of the Protestant Old Testament. For a Byzantine, full codices (rare in themselves) would yield Daniel, or Job, or IV Maccabees. Accounts of the Christian heresies, or indeed of orthodoxy, are slip-shod. On page 177, there is a curious bit of arithmetic. Stephenson argues that since, according to the Alexandrian calendar, the date of the creation of the world was 5,508 BC, the 6,000th year from the creation of the world would be AD 508 — hardly. 508 is correct, but that is because according to the Alexandrian calendar, the date of the creation of the world was 4,492, not 5,508 BC.

I hope we can put more trust in Stephenson’s command of modern science than of simple arithmetic applied to ancient calendars. And this raises a question: whom is this book for? On page 113, it is explained that the Easter Chronicle is also called the Paschal Chronicle or the Chronicon Paschale, which suggests a general reader new to all this. For the most part, however, my guess is that the general reader needs more help over the significance of what Stephenson is arguing than they are given. If this book is intended to bring to the general reader recent trends in Byzantine history, as historians take a new slant on traditional material and pay more attention to material sources and environmental factors, more help is needed. Stephenson handles this new material with skill and conviction (and appropriate caution), but he is far from giving a readily understandable broad-brush approach.


Andrew Louth is Professor Emeritus of Patristic and Byzantine History, Durham University, UK.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Louth is professor emeritus of patristic and Byzantine studies at the University of Durham; honorary fellow of the Saint Irenaeus Orthodox Theological Institute at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands; fellow of the British Academy; and archpriest of the Diocese of Sourozh. His publications include Denys the Areopagite (1989), Maximus the Confessor (1996), St John Damascene (2002), and, more recently, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (2013) and Modern Orthodox Thinkers (2015).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!