Saturday, May 23, 2020

26 - Book Review: "History of the Byzantine State"

History of the Byzantine State

New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1957. 543 pp.

By George Ostrogorsky

Reviewed by Georges Florovsky,
Harvard Divinity School

Church History: 
Studies in Christianity and Culture
(Volume 28, Issue 1 March 1959, pp. 96-97)

This book by Professor Ostrogorsky, of Belgrade University, needs no lengthy introduction. Since its first appearance in 1940, in German, it has been commonly acknowledged as a standard manual in the field. The text has been revised several times by the author, for edition in German, French, and English, and brought up to date. In the present American edition a fine selection of illustrations is added, arranged by Professor Charanis, in cooperation with Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, and also a new set of historical maps. The book is elegantly produced.

The title of the book describes adequately its scope and purpose. It is the story of the Byzantine State. The main concern of the author was to show the internal development of the State. But it is much more than just a "political" history. It is a comprehensive history of Byzantine, as a "world," only written from a particular point of view. The book was originally written for the new edition for the famous Ivan V. Muller's Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, and, in accordance with the plan of the whole collection, the early history of Byzantium had to be treated merely as background for the Medieval period. In fact, however, the first section of the book, dealing with the period from Constantine up to Justinian, is probably the best and most stimulating in the whole book. In the rest of the book one may regret the lack of sociological synthesis. The nature of the Medieval Byzantine State is nowhere clearly described. The Church historian is especially disappointed at this point, since the Byzantine Commonwealth was at once a "state" and a "church." Indeed, this was not peculiar to Byzantium - this was the common characteristic of Medieval Society as such, both in the East and in the West. But what was the distinctive mark of the Byzantine version? The lack of "dogmatic" exposition affects the clarity of the historical narrative. The nature of the conflict between Byzantium and the West, which was one of the major themes of the history of the Middle Ages, remains rather obscure.

One may also regret that the book has no real "epilogue." On the last two pages of the book Ostrogorsky speaks very briefly about the Byzantine inheritance and succession, but he omits to mention the major survival of the Byzantine state-system, namely the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It is obviously an exaggeration to suggest, as has been done however more than once, that the Patriarch was in a sense "the Byzantine Emperor in disguise" (and indeed "in bonds"). But he actually continued to function, with the Ottoman settlement, as a national head of all Christians, of the rum milet, according to the rules and usages of the Byzantine times. Byzantium collapsed as a "state," but survived as a "church." A brief mention of this fact would have made the narrative more rounded.

Each section of the book is supplied with an excellent bibliography, which includes also publications in Russian and other Slavic languages. The book is well written, a noble specimen of good historical prose. One may hope that, together with the History of the Byzantine Empire, by the late Professor A.A. Vasiliev, recently reprinted in a paper-back edition (2 volumes, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1958), the book of Ostrogorsky will stimulate interest in Byzantine studies in this country. Both books deserve the attention of Church historians.