By Ovidiu Olar | Institute for Habsburg and Balkan Studies, Austrian Academy of Sciences
In 1934, Nicolae Iorga published a three-volume Histoire de la vie byzantine subtitled “Empire and Civilization,” the book represented a synthesis of decades-long research in the field. The seed had already been planted in 1907, when the Romanian historian wrote The Byzantine Empire. In between, Iorga had published a plethora of studies, monographs, and reviews, and had been the driving force behind the first ever International Congress of Byzantine Studies, organized in Bucharest, in 1924. On the one hand, he wanted to vindicate “one of the greatest civilizations of the world” against the medievalists who disrespected it and the historians who ignored it. On the other hand, he believed that the history of the Eastern Roman Empire was closely linked to the history of South-eastern European nations in general and to the history of the Romanians in particular.
The first volume of Histoire de la vie byzantine covered the “Ecumenical Empire” (527–641); the second dealt with the “Middle Empire of Hellenic Civilization” (641–1081); the third part was dedicated to the “Western” invasions and their consequences (1081–1453). Iorga insisted that all volumes were based on sources and that he wanted to write an account of the “development of Byzantine life,” not an annotated chronology. In addition, he wanted to treat Byzantine history as part of world history.
Typical for Iorga, the “History of the Byzantine Life” is composed in a particular style and makes several intriguing observations, some of which triggered strong reactions. For example, Raymond Janin disagreed with the author’s ideas about the Church and its social role. Perhaps one of the most exciting of these observations the author made on the very last pages. The fall of Constantinople under the Ottomans, states briefly the author, did not mark the end of Byzantium, because Byzantium was an idea and “ideas survive all disasters.”
To this Byzantium, which could not and did not disappear with its capitals, Iorga dedicated a separate volume. Entitled “Byzantium after Byzantium,” the new monograph was “a continuation” of the “History of the Byzantine Life,” as the subtitle clearly and modestly states. It was also published in French, in Bucharest, under the aegis of the Institute for Byzantine Studies, in 1935.
Its foreword had been published one year before, under the same title, “Byzantium after Byzantium.” Iorga intended to present these “general considerations” at the Congress of Byzantine Studies held in Sofia in 1934. He finally boycotted the congress, in sign of disagreement with ideas expressed by the most important Bulgarian historian of the time, Petăr Mutafchiev, but turned the intended contribution into a book.
Iorga started by presenting his definition of Byzantium. According to him, it was a “complex of institutions,” a “political system,” a “religious formation,” a “type of civilization,” which included “the intellectual Hellenic heritage, the Roman law, the Orthodox religion,” and all the latter's artistic consequences. Then, he explains how this Byzantium, of culture and institutions, survived for centuries, mostly in the Balkans.
First, there were the émigrés, those who preferred exile to Ottoman rule. Many of them helped spread the knowledge of Greek, thus contributing to the intellectual and cultural development of Western Europe. Then there was “the permanence of Byzantine forms:” in Constantinople, the sultans acted as continuators of the emperors they had replaced, while maintaining elsewhere the local autonomies.
Iorga further assigned a major role to the ecumenical Patriarchate, which was restored shortly after the Fall of Constantinople. However, he paired this “Byzantium of the Church” with a Byzantium of the “Archons,” the representatives of Greek families with remarkable careers in the Ottoman realm. And he connected both to the Romanian Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. Two chapters are dedicated to the “Byzantine Imperial Idea through the Romanian Principalities” and to the “Romanian Princes’ Protection of the Byzantine Church and Civilization.” Another chapter deals with the “Renaissance through School,” also focusing on Wallachia and Moldavia, two tributary states of the Ottomans that conserved significant prerogatives and had Christian rulers.
The long 18th century dominated by the Phanariots – the Greek-speaking Orthodox elites located in Constantinople, among which were selected the grand dragomans of the Ottoman Empire and the princes of Wallachia and Moldavia – finally brought the Byzantine idea to an end. The rise of nationalistic ideas and especially the 1821 Greek Revolution marked the death of Byzantium. The “open structure,” which had outlived by four centuries the “Christian imperial form,” and by 1400 years the “initial Roman form,” could not resist any longer to outer and especially inner pressures.
According to Iorga, who continued his crusade for Byzantium and for Byzantine history, the feat had been impressive. As the historian himself had stated, “Byzantium performed many miracles and especially that of lasting” (“Byzance fit beaucoup de miracles, mais surtout celui de durer”).
Key Issues and Debates
Although it generated several reviews, mostly in international journals, Byzantium after Byzantium attracted rather limited attention. The first serious discussion of the ideas expressed therein dates to 1945, when Father Vitalien Laurent dedicated a splendid paper to Iorga as “historian of Byzantine life.” Furthermore, Iorga’s argument was contested. According to the Romanian medievalist Petre P. Panaitescu (in Diana Mishkova’s translation), “The Greek culture did not penetrate the Romanian lands due to the survival of the Byzantine ideas, but due to the predominance of the rich Greeks in the cities of the Ottoman Empire.” However, in spite of the initial reluctance and of the critical reactions, the book became a classic of Romanian historiography. Reedited in 1971 and 1992, it was translated into Romanian, Greek, and English.
On the one hand, the title is particularly fortunate. Few remember the subtitle and even fewer read the 1934 “History of the Byzantine Life,” but many find it difficult to forget “Byzantium after Byzantium.” On the other hand, the title has taken over the content. Few read the book and even fewer place it in its immediate historiographical and cultural context, but many use the title as if it were self-sufficient. For example, Iorga assigns to the Ottoman Empire an important role in the survival and transmission of the imperial idea. Still, “Byzantium after Byzantium” is sometimes understood in plain chronological terms, as the period from 1453 to 1821. Furthermore, this reading, as a period, not as a phenomenon, is sometimes used as a tool to avoid references to the Ottoman rule in Southeast Europe.
Irrespective of these shortfalls, many of which seem rather imputable to the readers, than to the author, the “Byzantium after Byzantium” paradigm generated profitable debates and major historiographical contributions. Two of them must be mentioned. Andrei Pippidi’s monograph on The Political Byzantine Tradition in the Romanian Lands from the 16th to the 18th Century (1983; 2001) contrasted ideals and realities and showed that the “Byzantine tradition” was not about the survival of Byzantium among the Romanians, but about Byzantine forms and aspirations in former European part of the Empire (Serbia, for example), as well as in Georgia. Daniel Barbu’s Byzance against Byzance: Explorations in Romanian Political Culture (2001) took a completely different stand. Speaking about “forms without content” (“forme fără fond”), Barbu argued that the Byzantine forms never generated a fondness in the Romanian principalities; consequently, their presence had less to do with continuity and more with Byzance against Byzance.
Recent projects are trying to move away from Iorga’s “Byzantium after Byzantium” paradigm and focus on the repeated “inventions” of Byzantine tradition, as well as on discontinuities and novelties. However, no similarly fortunate paradigm is in sight. Byzantium after Byzantium has many flaws; still, as Vitalien Laurent has justly noted, it remains “seductive.”
Iorga, Nicolae. The Byzantine Empire, translated from French by Allen H. Powles. London: 29&30 Bedford Street, 1907.
This is Iorga’s first history of Byzantium, with a focus on the development of Byzantine life “in all its length and breadth and wealth.”
Iorga, Nicolae. Byzantium after Byzantium, introduction by Virgil Cândea, translated by Laura Treptow. Iași: The Center for Romanian Studies in cooperation with the Romanian Institute of International Studies, 2000.
This is the English translation of “one of the last masterpieces” (Virgil Cândea) of Romania’s most important late-19th – early 20th-century historian. It was first published in 1935: Byzance après Byzance. Continuation de l’Histoire de la vie byzantine (Bucharest: Institut d’études byzantines, 1935). Reedited in 1971 (Bucharest: Association Internationale d’Études du Sud-Est Européen – Comité National Roumain; foreword by Mihai Berza, afterword by Virgil Cândea) and 1992 (Paris: Balland; foreword Alexandre Paléologue), it was translated into Romanian (Bizanț după Bizanț, trans. Liliana Iorga-Pippidi, afterword Virgil Cândea. Bucharest: Editura Enciclopedică Română, 1972) and Greek (Το Βυζάντιο μετά το Βυζάντιο, trans. Giannis Karas, foreword Nikos G. Svoronos. Athens: Gutenberg, 1989).
Laurent, Vitalien. “Nicola Iorga – Historien de la vie byzantine.” Revue des études byzantines 4, no. 4 (1946): 5–23.
This is the first detailed and informed analysis of Iorga’s achievements in the field of Byzantine studies, written by a distinguished Byzantinist.
Pippidi, Andrei. Tradiția politică bizantină în Țările Române în secolele XVI-XVIII [The Political Byzantine Tradition in the Romanian Lands from the 16th to the 18th Century]. Bucharest: EAR, 1983; 2nd edition Bucharest: Corint, 2001.
Barbu, Daniel. Bizanț contra Bizanț. Explorări în cultura politică românească [Byzance against Byzance. Explorations in Romanian Political Culture]. Bucharest: Nemira, 2001.
Antohi, Sorin. “Romania and the Balkans: From Geocultural Bovarism to Ethnic Ontology.” Tr@nsit online 21 (2002).
This is an overview of Romania’s “imaginary escapes from the Balkans,” both “horizontal,” that is, oriented toward Western Europe and labelled “Geocultural Bovarism,” and “vertical,” that is, ontological. It discusses at length the way Romanian “intellectuals, academics, writers, artists, and politicians” have imagined the Balkans.
Mishkova, Diana. “The Afterlife of a Commonwealth: Narratives of Byzantium in the National Historiographies of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania.” In Entangled Histories of the Balkans, vol. 3, Shared Pasts, Disputed Legacies, edited by Roumen Daskalov and Alexander Vezenkov, 118–273. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
This study offers an in-depth analysis of the appropriation of Byzantium by late-19th – early 20th century Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Romanian scholars.
Maner, Hans-Christian. “Byzance après Byzance – Nicolae Iorga’s Concept and its Aftermath.” In Imagining Byzantium: Perceptions, Patterns, Problems, edited by Alena Alshanskaya, Andreas Gietzen, and Christina Hadjiafxenti, 31–38. Heidelberg: Propylaeum, 2020.
A useful presentation of N. Iorga’s paradigm, with up-to-date bibliography.
Stamatopoulos, Dimitris. Byzantium after the Nation: The Problem of Continuity in Balkan Historiographies. Budapest – New York, Central European University Press, 2021.
An English translation (forthcoming) of Το Βυζάντιο μετά το έθνος. Το πρόβλημα της συνέχειας στις βαλκανικές ιστοριογραφίες. Athens: Alexandreia, 2009. It represents a thorough and insightful comparative analysis of the ideological uses of Byzantine history by representatives of Balkan national historiographies (Greek, Bulgarian, Albanian, Romanian, and Turkish), as well as by proponents of “Russian imperial nationalism.”
This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.