John Haldon is a Professor of History and Hellenic Studies at Princeton University. He is also the director of the  Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies and is involved in the Climate Change and Research Initiative. His is the author of numerous book on Byzantine history and it is fair to say that he is one of the worlds leading experts on The Eastern Roman Empire. His latest book The Empire That Would Not Die examines the seventh century a tumultuous period in the empire that nearly saw its end. I spoke with him about The Byzantine Empire in general and his new book via Skype. 


Luke: Could you tell me a bit about yourself and what you do?

John: I’m currently Professor of Byzantine History and Hellenic Studies at Princeton University. I started in 2005. Before that I was at the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Before that, I was at the University of Munich for four years.

Luke: A major part of your work has focused on the Byzantine Empire. Why did it end up being such a major focus of your career?

John: My first degree was in ancient history and archaeology. Archaeology was what I really wanted to do. But for various reasons I got side-tracked into post-Roman British history and I originally wanted to work on post-Roman Britain.  So I started learning old Welsh and old Irish but for various reasons that would be tedious to go into now, I changed to medieval Greek. I was always looking for something obscure it would appear. That’s how I got side-tracked into Byzantine things. I did a masters in medieval Greek language, literature and art history. This was the early 70s so it wasn't too difficult to get government research grants to do masters or PhDs. Then I went to Athens for a couple of years. At the University of Athens, learned Modern Greek properly and came back to do my PhD, then went to Germany. So really once I started doing the masters in Medieval Greek, a way was set if I was going to carry on in an academic profession.

Luke: When I was an undergraduate studying Byzantium part of the attraction to the subject was this kind of mysterious status as the forgotten empire. Did you share any of the same feelings when you began studying it?

John: Not really. I hate the very concept of mysterious, forgotten Byzantium. It ghettoises Byzantine studies to some extent. It also reproduces the awful romanticism and orientalism of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century attitudes to the East Roman world. My sort of mission has been to point out that it’s just a medieval society like any other medieval society and it’s worth studying both in its own right and as part of the study of history in terms of how societies function and work and why we are where we are today.

Luke: Why do you think Byzantium isn’t in the popular knowledge? You’ll never see a documentary about Byzantium in the UK.

John: Well, primarily because it’s not part of our culture. If you go to Greece, the reverse is true, everything is about Byzantium and the classical world. If you go to Turkey, Byzantium is written out of the popular consciousness to a large extent because it’s not part of the nationalist message. There are other reasons as well, although, given where the modern Turkish state sits you’d expect it to be a key part of any syllabus or curriculum. But, for all sorts of reasons, from the late Ottoman period on, but really from Atatürk onwards, it’s been marginalised. The trouble today is that Byzantium’s profile is much higher but the political forces acting against an interest in Byzantium are also stronger. I think that's a temporary situation - if you take a couple of steps back and look at it in the medium term. But it’s not a very pleasant situation.

To get back to your main point, in Britain, Byzantium firstly grew out of classics. That was an advantage and a disadvantage; an advantage in terms of making sure people were properly familiar with the language of the sources, primarily, Greek and Latin, but also: Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian, as well as the Balkan languages. The second advantage lay in editing and producing multiple editions of texts. If you look at the trajectory and the evolution of the study of the medieval East Roman Empire, compare it with the study of western medieval history, then it’s way behind because it wasn't part of the mainstream national historical memory. The downside was that it was highly marginalised and really quite an elite pursuit. A large number of ordinary educated people could get involved in studying western medieval societies and cultures, and more particularly British history, that's hardly true of Byzantium, which was both rarefied by virtue of its languages but also very distant geographical location. While people like Averil Cameron have made a case for pulling it back into the mainstream, I think it's a lost cause. I don't think it will ever be mainstream simply because of where it is and what it doesn’t mean to British people.

Luke: Obviously I’m in Turkey at the moment. The Middle East is going through a tough time, to say the least. I’m interested in asking you to what extent is Byzantium still relevant to the situation we see in the Middle East or in Turkey today? 

John: That's quite a tricky question because there are a lot of geographical subsets. The easy bit is the Balkans, where I would say the history of Byzantium and the evolution of the Balkans are tied together very closely and the modern Balkans can be linked pretty directly to even the early period; even to the 7th and 8th centuries. The difficultly is that over the last two centuries these connections have tended to be appropriated by various national agendas, some more pernicious than others. Particularly since the Second World War, it’s difficult to disentangle nationalist sentiment from the reasonably objective study of how all these parts fitted together, where the different ethnic, linguistic and cultural identities originated and how they evolved. It’s quite complicated, even if one has the relevant language skills and stands outside the nationalistic arenas, so to speak. From that point of view Byzantium is very important and it gets written into the historiographies of the Balkans on a regular basis.  If you look at Asia Minor and Anatolia, Byzantium ought to be deeply relevant. After all if you look at the fundamental constitution of the population of modern Turkey, it is virtually the same as it was under Byzantium.

Luke: Even after the population exchange?

John: I think that's had minimal impact. The population exchange swapped people of different linguistic groups and religious groups. It didn't swap people of different ethno-types because fundamentally they are all the same. I don't mean to sound dismissive. There haven’t been many DNA surveys done but one was done in the early 2000s, the results of which weren’t published in Turkey. It wasn't a very complete DNA survey but it did demonstrate that most of the population of Turkey is exactly the same as that of the southern Balkans. The number of people who can be called Turks or Turkic - as in having their origins on the steppes - is absolutely minute. The numbers of Seljuks and Türkmen who arrived from the 11th to the 13th centuries were fairly rapidly absorbed into the preexisting Anatolian culture and population.

Going back to your question, the history of Byzantium and the East Roman Empire should be as important to Turkey as the history of the Hellenistic, Mithridatic and Hittite kingdoms. But, as you may know, in the Turkish school syllabus and to a certain extent even university history courses it’s these periods that attract all the attention. This is partly due to Ataturk’s original historical agenda where he wanted to connect the Proto-Anatolian languages, which includes Hittite, with the modern Turkic languages. You can do that with a bit of a stretch, looking at the verb systems along with other things, so there is a pseudoscientific basis for claiming that the Turks are really Hittites.  That's quite a popular idea in schoolbooks. For various reasons the Rum have been screened out except as a conquered population. Therefore, The Empire has always been seen as rather inferior.

Luke: Shall we move on to talking about your book? It’s called The Empire That Would Not Die. What is it about exactly?

John: I did a book about the same topic back in the 1990s on the 7th century. I’ve always been slightly dissatisfied with that book, because it sets out to explain what happened in the 7th and early 8th centuries, which it does and I’m happy with the basic frame of that book. But after getting involved with field archeology in Turkey and the with our big climate history project here at Princeton, I realized that my account in the 7th century book didn't cover all the bases that one would need to cover these days and, much more importantly, it didn't actually explain why the empire survived the 7th century. It gives you a very good picture and that appeared to be explanation but of course, description and analysis of texts and sources don’t necessarily give you a historical explanation.

What I wanted to do was create a holistic account in which I examine the mechanisms of survival. It’s a bit like taking a car engine apart, seeing how all the bits work, putting it back together, restarting the engine, and seeing if it all still works.

My aim was to explain the survival of the East Roman State and society because looking at the odds stacked against it, it shouldn't have got beyond the year 700. It should have floundered and been overwhelmed but it didn't, it survived.

So what were the reasons and how did they come together?

Luke: So taking a step back, could you explain why this period is so significant in the history of Byzantium?

John: Firstly, it is the century where the state that we recognize as the East Roman Empire was formed. Before then it was still really a late Roman world, culturally and geographically. The whole shape and physical form of the East Roman state was transformed and the culture began to go through a transformative process that took quite a lot longer. The structure of rural, urban and state society relationship shifted in lots of interesting ways. The 7th century saw the transformation of the late Roman Empire of the east into the early medieval empire or what we popularly call Byzantium.

Luke: So the 7th century is an incredibly complicated period in history, you have religious controversies, civil wars, and you have to consider the situation inside The Caliphate. How do you begin to work out the different complexities of this period?

John: The preliminary stage is just to be very familiar with what types of sources there are: All the different literary genres, the material cultural stuff, and more recently the paleoenvironmental and paleoclimatic data. Becoming familiar with all these sources took a long time. It took me 15 years of being a byzantinist, just developing my skills, knowledge and languages, before I felt able to tackle such a big topic.

Then I had a series of questions to ask about the 7th century. The problem sort of broke itself down into a set of discreet intellectual areas about the sorts of evidence. I also had questions about the economy and exploitation. My starting point was institutional history because that's where I began, in fiscal and administrative history, back in my PhD. That was the base I had and I wanted to expand that. The book is a result of all the questions I asked. 

Luke: Part of the reason for this book is the new evidence that you've been able to tap into. Could you talk about that for a bit?

John: Firstly, we know more about the old evidence. We now have much more archeology about urbanism, rural settlements, ceramics, market exchange, trade and the financial system. We have a better understanding of fiscal management. We also have a better understanding of what was going on at the military level and the history of some of the religious controversies that you alluded to earlier.

However, nobody until very recently had really looked at looked at the evidence on the medieval environment. Neither had anyone paid much attention to issues to do with climate and climate change. Part of the reason for this is, simply, we didn't have the science. Even in the last 10-15 years science has made enormous leaps forward in our ability to exploit proxy data from pollens, speleothems, ice cores, carbonate mineralogy and analysis from lakes. We can now read a huge amount more about climate fluctuations both large and small, and a great deal more about land use, about the crops that clothed the landscape, from the pollens, for example.

With a judicious and intelligent use of these different types of proxy data, it’s possible now to build a picture of climate and environment across a very broad area. Much more importantly, now it’s becoming possible to work at a micro-regional level.

Anatolia is very interesting. Firstly, it sits at the center of three major climate systems: The north Atlantic, the Siberian and the sub-continental monsoon, and secondly, it has a highly fractured geography: The mountain, the plateau, and the coastal plain. Those zones are often very different from one another in their seasonal climate experiences. Even within those zones there are regional variations, which you can plot today. We begin with the modern situation because we have a huge amount of data. We can use that to track backwards and use it as a template to make comparison with older data. One of the questions I wanted to ask was to do with land use and landscape and how they change both as a result of natural pressures, but also as a result of anthropogenic activity, agriculture, pastoralism, and building cities, towns and roads. How did all of this affect the environment? We’ve got the archeology to tell us about the latter and the proxy-data to tell us about the former. So, put them together and put them into the historical context, you get a fairly dynamic picture, which can help explain some of the historical changes that we can see happening across the period. It becomes a picture that is not just politics or the decline of the senatorial aristocracy, it’s a much more holistic picture where human activity, human social organization and the dynamics underlying a particular culture interact with and are dialectically involved with the environment. You have a much more complex picture.

The question then is how do you disaggregate all of this? How do you put all the elements into the right causal order?

Luke: That's kind of the point of the whole book isn’t it? To integrate this data into the picture?

John: Yes. So what I’ve done in the book is to begin with a brief historical overview of the political situation including what was happening in the Umayyad Caliphate. 

First of all, one of my key interests as a materialist historian was to build beliefs and ideas back into social history. Because one of the problems with a lot of history is that beliefs and religion are sort of optional add-ons. They describe a society and plonk religion on top. That's not the way belief systems work. Beliefs are our social practices in a way, so I wanted to build belief back in as a material cultural impact and make human social activity part of social thinking. Chapters two and three are very much about attitudes, beliefs, and structures, which are part of that system. Then the book covers different elements including the role of elites, climate, environment, the role of state organizational flexibility and so forth. All these factors come together in the final chapter, I sort of pull the rabbit out of the hat and say, ‘Ok, if you put all of these things together in the order I’ve suggested that's why the empire survived.’ I’ve persuaded myself, if nobody else!

Luke: I’ve got a few general questions for you. If somebody was interested in learning about the empire, what books would you recommend as a starting point?

John: There are several. Historians have tended to approach the Byzantines from two different perspectives. Historians like Timothy Greggory, who wrote a book on Byzantium, which is very good. It’s a sort of blow-by-blow historical political account with the various themes: finance, religion etcetera mentioned along the way. There are other historians. Warren Treadgold’s huge book is basically that, although, it's a bit old fashioned.

There are also historians like myself, who prefer to look at things from the thematic perspective. Take my book, Byzantium: A History, for example. There are a couple of chapters that form an overview from Constantine to 1453, it is obviously very superficial and gives you a basic picture, then I deal with a bunch of themes: finance, the economy, urbanism, society, visual culture, material culture, the law and others. Lots of people have done it that way. I’ve done it, Averil Cameron’s done it, Judith Herrin and so forth. There are books on Byzantium in every language. Also, I’m quite proud of the fact that I’ve done the only historical atlas of Byzantium so far. There are flaws in it for sure but it seems to be quite widely used.

Luke: My main focus with regards to literature is fiction. I’ve never found any historical fiction about the Byzantines that satisfies me. Have you?

John: No, I’m not very interested in some respects because I know too much. I think I’d find them very annoying. I read a lot of historical fiction particularly Bernard Cornwell but I don't read the Byzantine ones that are said to be quite good. I can’t remember the name but there is supposed to be a good one about the Komnenian period. There are a lot published in Greek. But they are written in a style that I really don't like, in this romantic, mythologizing style.

Luke: I’m based here in Istanbul and it’s not often I get a chance to talk to a specialist in Byzantine history so I would like to ask you what I should see here. I know about the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cisterna the Theodosian Walls; I’d like to know what other sites are worth seeing here.

John: The first thing is to take a walk around what’s left of the sea walls when you drive down from the airport along the coast. There hasn't been much done to them by the Ottomans or by modern restoration. Then there is what’s left of the Bucoleon palace; you have to walk through people’s back yards to get to it, if you ask them.

If you get a chance to go to the Golden Gate. It’s not open to the public.. I only got in because I was cuddling the watchman’s dog and he asked me if I wanted to see the gate. It’s not properly preserved at all. It could be a wonderful place. You can get to the Yedikule that way. You can get to the golden gate from there but it’s all locked up and closed to the public.

The Cistern of Aspar is worth looking at. It was an open-air Cistern, it’s now a football pitch but you can still see the original brickwork.

There are a couple of churches, which are now mosques that are worth looking at. The Pammakaristos Church for example. There is also more than one cistern. There is a cistern near the hippodrome, if you walk from the Hagia Sophia, if you look to the right and walk up the side streets there. There is a big cistern there that is really interesting.

Luke: Thank you I’ll check some of those out. Thank you for talking to me.