Monday, March 9, 2015


Dimiter Angelov, Michael Saxby (ed.), Power and Subversion in Byzantium: Papers from the Forty-third Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Birmingham, March 2010. Publications of the Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies, 17. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013. Pp. xvi, 299. ISBN 9781472412287. $124.95.

Reviewed by Przemysław Marciniak, University of Silesia in Katowice (

Version at BMCR home site


[The reviewer apologises for the lateness of the review. No subversion was intended.]

Searching for subversion in the texts and art objects produced by cultures distant from our own is always a hazardous enterprise. There is an imminent possibility of misreading a text or an art object and imposing our own expectations on it. One of the most classic examples, which also features in the volume under discussion, is the anonymous satire 'Timarion'. It has long been recognised that this text includes subversive elements (see for instance Margaret Alexiou's seminal and subtle analysis of the depiction of the doux in her famous article'Literary Subversion and the Aristocracy in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: A Stylistic Analysis of the Timarion (ch. 6-10)'). In a way this notion of subversion has predetermined all subsequent readings of the text—Dimitris Krallis's analysis although both erudite and interesting, seems to be based on exactly the same preconception—'Timarion' HAS to be subversive. I am not saying that Krallis is wrong (on the contrary, I think he is right), I am merely suggesting that if we are inclined to read a text as subversive there is a good chance we will succeed. To make an anachronistic comparison—during communism in Poland an open criticism of the system was fraught with possible persecutions. Therefore very often writers, playwrights and artists concealed their true intentions behind works seemingly unrelated to the contemporary situation. But on the other hand there was always a danger that a work completely subversion-free would be misunderstood and, for instance, censored. Thus, the question is whether the analyses included in the volume fell prey to an easy misinterpretation or rather they succeeded in demonstrating the subversion hidden in Byzantine literature and art. In my opinion they succeeded—certainly not all contributions are about both power and subversion and the degree of subversion studied in the texts varies, but they all are very interesting pieces, contributing to our better understanding of mechanisms of power and subversion. In what follows I have decided to look at the volume as a whole rather than to discuss in detail every contribution individually.

The volume is divided thematically into four parts: politics, art, philosophy and literature. The texts are prefaced by a very helpful introduction by Dimiter Angelov who sketches methodological frameworks within which subversion can operate (also drawing attention to the relationships between subversion and performativity, see pp. 13-14). The authors of the papers survey various manifestations of subversion. As one contributor, Margaret Mullett, neatly summarises it: 'What autocracy does not spawn release mechanisms for subversion? We have heard about many of these in this volume so far, especially as interrogated in the introduction: turning the world upside down, disrupting taxis, undermining ethical codes, direct critique, rebellion against authority, subversions as containment, deviation from a norm, plain old political smears' (p. 248). Subversion is seemingly unproblematic to identify when it comes to politics. Usurpations, rebellions, disruptions of political taxis are (mostly) easy to detect but much more difficult to interpret. This is proved by the contributors who analyse evidence from coins (Vasiliki Penna and Cécile Morrison), issues of taxation (Kostis Smyrlis), traditions of consultative decision making (Demetrios Kyritses), possible records of public opinion (Anthony Kaldellis) and politics of the late Palaiologans (Michael Angold who uses in his text two still not fully appreciated Byzantine satirical texts—'The Comedy of Katablattas' and 'The Journey of Mazaris to Hades').

The second part, which consists of only two papers by Liz James and Anthony Eastmond deals with art. The trouble with searching for subversion in (Byzantine) art is excellently presented in Eastmond's paper who argues that 'the ability of art to subvert lay elsewhere: in texts' (p. 141). It is not art that is subversive but the way in which art objects are written about. Eastmond's paper is about political art but perhaps decoding and understanding the subversive message in other types of art is equally difficult. Suffice it to say that scholars dealing with humour in the visual arts in Byzantium struggle with similar problems.

The next two papers form the third part devoted to philosophy. They both paint a fascinating and very illuminating panorama of Byzantine and post-Byzantine troubles with philosophy discussing the Byzantine attitudes towards Aristotelianism (Börje Bydén) and the reception of Pletho's philosophy in the Arabic world (Maria Mavroudi). On some level both texts remind the reader that to understand Byzantine literature and culture it is first necessary to understand Byzantine philosophical thought.

For the historian of literature the last part of the volume is especially interesting. The papers cover a very broad range of topics—from fundamental issues of methodological character such as the thought-provoking contribution by Margaret Mullet 'How to criticize the laudandus' to the analysis of subversion in certain literary genres (e.g. patriography and apocalypse in the very interesting paper by Paul Magdalino) to the case studies of the concrete texts (already mentioned 'Timarion' by Dimitris Krallis and 'Histories' of John Kantakouzenos by Athanasios Angelou). They all convincingly show how Byzantine texts can operate on many different levels and how the Byzantine authors play their subversive games with potential readers.

The volume is rounded out by the afterword by Margaret Alexiou who, in her own words, shows 'how far we have come, and where the future might take us' (p. 281). Alexiou's paper very nicely tells her personal history of decoding subversion in Byzantine literature. All in all, this is a worthwhile collection and, what is not always the case, all papers are of very high quality. The reader might of course disagree with some conclusions but each paper's argument is presented clearly and concisely. I enjoyed reading the volume and highly recommend it to anybody who is unwilling to accept Byzantine reality at its face value.

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