Communication and Empire: Byzantium in Perspective


The Roman world in the second century AD was remarkably homogeneous, and the ties that bound it together remarkably thick and apparently strong. Consider the cult of the emperor, with its recognisable ruler statues from Britain to the Levant. Consider Roman statues and monumental inscriptions that manifest a clearly imagined shared community. Consider art and architecture, where styles were held in common from Silchester to Antioch. Consider the flow of correspondence, legal appeals, and people on the move in search of education, a better career, even tourism. All this too in spite of a linguistic split between a Greek east and a Latin west. This was an empire of communication. But what happened when the western half went its own way, when imperial territories were limited to bits of Asia Minor and the Balkans, when the construction of new monumental building had slowed to a trickle or stopped entirely, when the epigraphic habit had died? How did political communication work in the Roman empire of the middle ages that we know as Byzantium?

The answer requires conjuring up a picture of people on the move; of soldiers, priests, students, pilgrims, appellants, merchants, tax collectors, administrators, painters and builders. And it requires thinking about the messages they received and passed on. In the absence of the ubiquitous epigraphy of the early Roman empire, we have to work harder to see what was happening. Having done so, what can we say? Is it going too far to say that Byzantium was the nation state of the Romans? No less an imagined community than say early modern England? And did that change over time? Did the loss of Asia Minor in the late eleventh century usher in a new era where Constantinopolitan elites talked to themselves? Is the fact that the descendants of so many of those who thought themselves Romans soon knew themselves to be Turks a sign that the fall of the empire was at heart a failure of communication?

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