Thursday, September 1, 2016


John Haldon, The Empire That Would Not Die: The Paradox of Eastern Roman Survival, 640-740. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. xii, 409. ISBN 9780674088771. $45.00.

Reviewed by Hugh Jeffery, Lincoln College, Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site


The author of the Armenian history attributed to Sebeos records the year 651 as the twentieth of the reign of the Persian Shah Yazkert, the eleventh of the Roman Emperor Constans and the nineteenth of the dominion of the Ismaelites. He then narrates how it was in this year that the Persian Empire was subsumed within the expanding Islamic polity, and the Sasanian dynasty came to an end after a period of 542 years.1 The figure is slightly mistaken—in fact Sasanian rule had lasted 425 years since the ascension of Artashir I in AD 226. Nevertheless it is an error that well illustrates the perceived antiquity of the old order, in which one great empire dominated the Mediterranean basin and another the Iranian plateau. The Arab conquests of the mid seventh century permanently erased this division. Until the Abbasid Revolution of AD 750/132 AH the capital of the new Caliphate would be located at Damascus, well within formerly Roman territory and in a commanding position from which to control the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. Islamic armies annually raided deep into Roman territory and made attempts to capture Constantinople in AD 653-54, 674-78, 716-18 and 782. In The Empire That Would Not Die, a project growing out of four Carl Newell Jackson lectures delivered at Harvard in 2014, John Haldon asks how it was that the Roman state survived in the face of a hostile neighbour that was larger, qualitively more prosperous and determined to expand.

Though he opens his introduction with the chronicler Theophanes' description of a decisive Roman victory over an Arab army in the year AD 740, it is clear that the neat and openly arbitrary century 640-740 deliberately avoids framing the book between two fixed turning points. The chronological range is flexible at both ends of this span, roughly beginning with the Arab conquests and concluding just before the Imperial adoption of Iconoclasm late in the reign of Leo III. The later seventh and early eighth centuries present a particularly challenging task for the historian of new Rome. Only two sparse histories of the period written in Medieval Greek survive, both dating from the ninth century and making use of much of the same source material. The challenge however lies not in a dearth of written sources—there is in fact a reasonable body of extant contemporary literary production—but in the bewildering array of languages, genres and cultural contexts in which it was produced. The material evidence is equally diverse, incorporating numismatics, sigillography, archaeology and palaeoecology. It is a situation that does not so much encourage as necessitate the omnivorous approach that that has characterized the work of Professor Haldon, who has published prolifically on the eastern Roman empire of the seventh to eleventh centuries for over thirty years.

Although the genealogies of many of the central themes of this book can be traced to Haldon's articles of the 1980s, scholarship on the subject has continued to advance rapidly over the past few decades. When Haldon first began his research archaeological study of these centuries was in its infancy, especially in Asia Minor. A great deal of work has been produced since the pioneering articles of Clive Foss in the 1970s, and since Haldon's own Byzantium in the Seventh Century, first published in 1990. Retrospective studies of material collected from the neglected later levels of classical cities, targeted and systematic excavations of medieval settlements and new palynological and environmental data have all contributed to a much deeper knowledge of the material environment.2 The same can be said of our understanding of contemporary religious debate, with new studies of the Monothelete controversy illuminating the seventh century ideological and political spheres.3 Haldon responds enthusiastically to these advances, interrogating old and new evidence with original and penetrating questions.

The book's theoretical framework is clearly set out over the course of its introduction. Haldon avoids a potentially teleological narrative of an anthropomorphised state by explicitly focusing on the relationship between individual agents and structure in historical process and causation. This opens the space for a discussion that pays proper attention to tension, dissent and open conflict between the people who constituted Roman state and society. He argues that what can be known and done by individuals is constrained by the conceptual environment shared by a particular society, and the parameters of such tensions are therefore to be situated within a historically specific but dynamic Weltanschauung. The material environment plays a similar role as both affected by human action and influencing human behaviour. These considerations enable Haldon to structure his book according to three reciprocal fields, namely those of ideas (chapters 2, 3), praxis (4, 5, 7) and spaces (5, 6).

The first chapter provides a concise political history, recognising though refusing to be significantly impeded by any controversies of chronology. Chapters 2 and 3, "Beliefs, Narratives and the Moral Universe" and "Identities, Divisions and Solidarities", focus on the imagined communities of the seventh and early eighth centuries. The author traces the increasing sacralisation of the East Roman state, as the Orthodox Christian community and Roman Empire grew ever more synonymous. The confluence of canon and secular law under a divinely appointed emperor established the political theology that would characterise the medieval empire. Haldon explores what little room was left for individuals to simultaneously assert their own subjectively Orthodox identity and express various degrees of disloyalty to Constantinople. Deviance might only be slight. In AD 713 and in the turbulent wake of successive violent coups the deacon Agathon could comment with contempt on the incompetency of the imperial office. At the other extreme of this spectrum of disloyalty the Palestinian monk Maximos the Confessor actively sought to undermine the authority of the Monothelete state in order to promote Chalcedonian Orthodoxy. Whilst Maximos' vision of a Christian community unfettered by the apparatus of the Roman state was achieved in the west, Haldon argues that the majority of the subjects of the eastern empire were successfully bound into the reproduction of a theological framework that placed Constantinople at the centre of both cosmic and worldly orders. At the end of the third chapter is a particularly interesting discussion of the state's ability to arrest dissident clergy in far-flung provinces.

Chapters 4 and 5 concern the processes through which such ideas were realised and enacted. Titled "Elites and Interests" and "Regional Variation and Resistance", they explore how provincial and minor elites were persuaded through reciprocal relationships to maintain the fiscal and military structures on which the Constantinopolitan state depended. Subsequent to the decline of late antique urbanism the composition and cultural priorities of the provincial elite underwent rapid transformation. Haldon employs prosopographical analyses in order to follow the contours of these changes, as the new medieval service aristocracy emerges through administrative, military and ecclesiastical channels. Chapter 5 moves the discussion to the particular circumstances of North Africa and Italy. In the former the leading representatives of the state were dispatched from the capital, while local elite networks seem to have maintained a distinctive form of African Roman identity that compromised their Constantinopolitan allegiances—a phenomenon observed both by Procopios in the sixth century and by later Arab writers. The Italian situation is principally investigated through the often-strained triangle between Constantinople, the exarchate of Ravenna and the Papacy in Rome. Here the author argues that minor elites might present a variety of local and regional identities whilst maintaining nominal loyalties to the emperor.

Both long-term climatic variation and more immediate and anthropogenic indications of changing patterns of land use are the subject of Haldon's sixth chapter, "Some Environmental Factors". From the second or first millennium BC until the seventh century AD the agricultural economy of Asia Minor focused on the cultivation of cereals, olives and walnuts with an additional element of pastoralism involving the maintenance of herds of cattle and ovicaprids. Over the last decade it has become clear that it is possible to track the disintegration of this agricultural model through the integration of palaeoecological and archaeo-historical data. Haldon himself was at the forefront of such developments with his collaborative study of pollen samples from Nar Gölü in Cappadocia, and his discussion in this book is therefore unsurprisingly thorough. He notes not only a quantitative decline in agricultural production in those areas most affected by warfare but also a proportionate increase in the importance of cereal production and stock-raising within an impoverished economy, ingeniously associated with transformations in the supply of the Roman military in the subsequent chapter, "Organization, Cohesion and Survival". This final section is a succinct rehearsal of Haldon's substantial body of work on fiscal and military administration, with brief but persuasive arguments on familiar subjects including the role of the elusive kommerkiarioi and the soldiers, land, and payment.4

However, the book is more than the sum of its chapters, and Haldon's most perceptive analysis can be found in the interdependencies of his fields of ideas, praxis and spaces as set out in the introduction. These are gradually made manifest as particular places and historical episodes are revisited from different interpretive perspectives. The result is a sophisticated structure that gently integrates diverse strands of evidence into a complex and coherent whole. For example, in 646/7 the exarch of Africa, a certain Gregory, proclaimed himself emperor, though his attempted usurpation was cut short by his violent death at the hands of local Arab raiders in the subsequent year. Turning to the index we find that within the 294 pages of text Gregory appears on pages 37, 86, 92, 160, 193, 199-203, 241, 251 and 261. The exarch's brief claim to Imperial authority is positioned within the contexts of African ecclesiastical and elite identities, Imperial political theology, Maximos the Confessor's anti-Monothelete campaign, the fiscal demands of Constantinople and the activities of the Sicilian kommerkiarioi.

Haldon provides a holistic analysis of how and why the structures of the East Roman state were reproduced, adapted and maintained through an extended period of crisis. Undergraduate students will find a valuable synthesis of current scholarship on the subject, and those more familiar with the source material will appreciate the insightful connections teased out of its carefully composed structure. Highly recommended.


1.   §162, Sebêos, Thomson, R., Howard-Johnston, J., and Greenwood, T. (eds.), The Armenian History Attributed to Sebeos. Translated Texts for Historians 31. Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1999.
2.   Examples from each of these three categories might inlude Vionis, A. K., Poblome J., and Waelkens M., "The Hidden Material Culture of the Dark Ages. Early Medieval Ceramics at Sagalassos (Turkey): New Evidence (ca AD 650–800)." Anatolian Studies 59 (2009): 147-65; Ivison E., "Amorium and the Byzantine 'Dark Ages'" in Henning, J. (ed.), Post-Roman Towns, Trade and Settlement in Europe and Byzantium. Vol. 2. Byzantium, Pliska, and the Balkans., Berlin: de Gruyter, 2007; Izdebski, A., Rural Economy in Transition: Asia Minor from Late Antiquity into the Early Middle Ages. Journal of Juristic Papyrology. Supplement, volume XVIII. Warszawa: University of Warsaw, 2013.
3.   The current state of research on the Monothelete controversy is well represented in Allen, P., and Neil, B. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor. New York, NY: Oxford University Publication, 2015.
4.   For example, Haldon, J., "Military Service, Military Lands, and the Status of Soldiers: Current Problems and Interpretations." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 47 (1993); "The Army and the Economy: The Allocation and Redistribution of Surplus Wealth in the Byzantine State." Mediterranean Historical Review 7, no. 2 (December 1992); Byzantium in the Seventh Century: The Transformation of a Culture. Rev. ed., 1st paperback ed. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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