Photo by Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group
Artillery Row Books

Pardonable sensationalism

Kevin Lygo’s ‘The Emperors of Byzantium’ revives the dynastic, top-down history deemed passé by academics

The Emperors of Byzantium by Kevin Lygo

In many ways, The Emperors of Byzantium (2022) is an overdue book. Kevin Lygo, a former director at Channel 4 who’s now at ITV, provides a lucid update on a line of popular historians such as J. J. Norwich (whose Byzantine trilogy was published 1988–1995) who sought to provide a first encounter with the Byzantine world. The field, however, is no longer the uncrowded patch it once was: academics such as A. Cameron, T. Gregory, J. Harris, D. Stathakopoulos and P. Sarris have each penned superb introductory texts in the last fifteen years, forcing popular historians to up their game.

The Emperors of Byzantium, Kevin Lygo, Thames & Hudson (£29.50)

Lygo has spotted a flaw in academic attitudes, however: namely, a refusal to return to a dynastic approach deemed passé; a reluctance to revisit a top-down history that buried systemic injustices beneath a heap of privileged whims, tiresome gossip and cutthroat intrigue. To Lygo, this distaste is dated. A new Psellos (the 11th century author of the Chronographia), the author bravely returns to old-fashioned personal portraits where courts are still framed as barometers of imperial health, and talk of physiognomy hasn’t quite left the building.

Lygo’s ITV connections endow this beautiful book (full credit to Luke Bird for the design) with a well-meaning foreword by its political editor Robert Peston. This is a mixed blessing, however, considering Peston manages to gauchely refer to Orthodoxy as “flamboyant Christianity” and to Constantinople’s court as something that makes Game of Thrones seem “restrained” — two stereotypes the Church and champions of Byzantine Studies have spent most of their existence tackling. 

This is pardonable sensationalism, however, compared to Bettany Hughes’ introduction, which eccentrically claims Constantinople pioneered Christianity “as a territory-based religion”, something Armenians would contest; that the city boasted a “refugee” official, which is taking liberties with the title of a quaestor who specialised in deportations; and, in a garbled account of the marble emperor prophecy, that Constantine XI’s undiscovered body would one day “return to defend his imperial city against the Ottoman forces of Mehmed II” — i.e., precisely the sultan he died fighting. It’s a surprising salvo from a historian who produced the impressive 800-page tome Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities (2017).

The main problem afflicts historians without time or inclination to torture their sources

Lygo’s main problem is one that afflicts historians who have neither the time nor inclination to torture their sources. The esteemed Ostrogorsky, for instance, advocated the idea that, “As late as the 13th century, a [Byzantine] writer could still name Herakleios and Basileios II as the greatest emperors. These names, which are indeed the greatest in all the history of Byzantium, symbolise its heroic age.” This assertion depends (for Herakleios) mainly on an image painted by George of Pisidia’s panegyrics and (for Basileios) on Psellos’ stylised picture. In other words, there is a danger in uncritically adopting the positions of the sources. A good example of this is Psellos’ treatment of Constantine VIII: berated on the one hand for being unable to walk short distances due to his dissolute lifestyle, he was also scorned for participating in undignified gymnastics competitions. The two claims are mutually exclusive.

Lygo, for instance, upholds later sources that salaciously claim Constantius II maintained a homosexual harem with barbarian prisoners, while ignoring the fact that the same emperor is also credited with introducing the first laws against homosexuality in 342. Hypocrisy is not impossible, but both facts should be stated alongside an attempt to reconcile them rather than playing Russian roulette with narratives.

The author also ventures explanations where sources allow none. Take, for instance, the riot of Thessalonica in 390. Lygo writes that violence was directed against the city’s garrison “because they were Goths and not Romans”. Yet the most we can squeeze from the sources is that a Gothic commander named Butheric arrested a popular charioteer.

This speculation is all the more surprising, given omissions are legion. Gratian’s entry, for example, is surprisingly abrupt. It omits references to his removal of the Victory statue from the Senate (382), as well as the fact that he died at the hands of Andragathius, Magnus Maximus’ magister equitum a year later.

Meanwhile, Rufinus exits the text as an “exile”, yet the author — who is looking for “tales of political survival” — misses the fact he was murdered in the most dramatic fashion: at the hands of Gainas on the Hebdomon’s parade ground, beneath the gaze of a shocked Arcadius. The emperor’s reign is then rather harshly judged as one “of little consequence”, yet it was exactly this episode that put Arcadius off from indulging in any military activity.

Constantine VIII is a “glutton” but surely he’s more like Constantinople’s first Michelin starred chef

Other omissions include the fall of Rome (410), which is barely a blip on the radar. Another would be Theodora’s famous speech at the height of the Nika riots (532). Her talk about “kingship” being “an appropriate burial shroud” is left without context, so she sounds a sandwich short of a picnic rather than a psychopath capable of classical allusion (to the funeral speech of Dionysios of Syracuse). Then Lygos has all of Maurice’s sons die in Phokas’ massacre, leaving out the fascinating possibility that a well-placed bribe ensured a single son, Theodosios, escaped to Iran where he was declared an emperor in exile. Meanwhile, Heraklios is advertised as wielding some random old acheiropoieton en route to battle rather than the Camuliana icon of Christ.

Basil I’s horse-whispering antics are recorded, but the fact his head was so large that Theophilitzes’ nickname for him was “kephalas” is not. The Baths of Leo — one of the most ambitious products of the classical revival — are ignored. The polo-playing Alexander is described as having a reign that’s mostly full of being “drunk” and “stupid”, which may or may not have been the case but should nevertheless not preclude more interesting references such as the emperor’s demand that Constantinople’s statues be clothed and incensed, or that the Calydonian boar be provided with teeth and genitals to rid the autocrat of impotence (according to the Vita of S. Euphemius).

Sometimes a bit of spin is lacking. For Lygos, Constantine VIII is a “glutton” but surely he’s more like Constantinople’s first Michelin starred chef given Psellos’ account of his skills “as a mixer of sauces, seasoning dishes with colours and flavours that rouse everybody’s appetites”. Michael VII becoming bishop of Ephesos is referenced but not (admittedly, I have a dark sense of humour) the fact he had to abandon his post after two years thanks to the Turkish colonisation his rule had facilitated.

Some of Lygo’s gear changes between sources can be abrupt and disorientating. Under Leo V’s entry the emperor is straightforwardly “killed”, when (according to the Acta Graeca SS Davidis, Symeonis et Georgii) he was murdered at Christmas in the palace chapel of St Stephen’s. Beneath Michael II’s entry, however, the author notes that Leo V had wished Michael would be “shackled to an monkey and thrown in the fire”. The monkey reference belongs to J. Genesios’ On the Reigns of the Emperors. As it currently stands, the remark makes no grammatical sense (it’s in the accusative) — it can only be seen as a reference to a bath known as the “monkey’s [bath]”, which is unknown to scholarship, or it might mean shackled like a monkey (i.e. a form of humiliation), or it could simply be a later interpolation. A. Kaldellis’ translation leaves the reference out entirely, suggesting the last course of action is wisest.

If errors were icing, this cake is half drowned. Eudoxia had a silver statue of herself placed on the North-East side of the Augustaion, not “near the church of the Holy Apostles”. Gainas was tracked down by Fravitta, not Arcadius. The column celebrating the defeat of the Goths belonged to Claudius II. It shouldn’t be conflated with Arcadius’ column, which showed the emperor and his brother Honorius celebrating a generic military triumph.

If something sounds a little too colourful, it’s probably literary embellishment

The ethnicity of the Huns may be a tricky question (their core lands matched the old territory of the Xiongnu, home to a variety of ethnic groups including the Mongolic speaking Donghu in the east, the Indo-European speaking Yuezhi in the west, with large smatterings of Turkic and Iranian speakers in between), but one thing they almost certainly weren’t is “Germanic”. Moreover, Justinian II’s nose was definitely severed, but the claim he had a golden replacement of it is the product of a 9th century Ravennate source, Andreas Agnellus. Lastly, Basil I’s “church of St Diomed”, where the future emperor’s career took off, is a lazy mistake for the monastery of the martyr Diomedes.

Sometimes Lygos covers his tracks and names a source so readers are made aware that they stand on potentially controversial territory. Too often this isn’t the case, however. Theodosios II is given a nickname “The Calligrapher” despite the fact this sobriquet was added by the 12th century historian Michael Glykas. This is especially surprising, given the fact that more celebrated epithets such as Constans II’s “ho pogonatos” (the bearded) are not included.

According to this text, Tiberios II ran a large fraction of his state budget off the gold discovered in an Italian cistern belonging to the 6th century general Narses, despite the fact this is little more than the legend of Narses’ treasure rehashed as history (probably because the late 8th century Paul the Deacon thought it fun). Worse, Leo V’s removal of the Christ icon at the Chalke is included sans quibbles even though it’s that rare event in Byzantine scholarship that has produced a consensus: namely, that the whole thing’s an iconophile backstory (though, to be fair, believed by contemporaries) for Irene’s placement of an icon over Leo V’s cross on the Chalke. In essence, it’s the inversion of an innovation into a restoration.

If something sounds a little too good to be true, it probably is. Likewise in history, if something sounds a little too convenient or colourful, it’s probably the product of literary embellishment. Alarm bells ring, therefore, when Lygo announces that Nikephoros I “rounded up all the children of the conquered cities and beat them to death with millstones”. Tracking those bells down, they are being enthusiastically rung by Michael the Syrian, a historian separated from the sack of Pliska (811) by roughly three centuries.

Ancient geography and topography are not Lygo’s strong suits. He has Constans II march through Greece to Northern Italy and “south to Rome”. In reality, the emperor wintered in Athens in 662, and by the next Spring had sailed to Taranto in Apulia, before making his way through Naples to Rome. The author also describes the 7th century theme of Hellas as lying in “northern Greece”. Hellas, however, replaced the province of Achaea, which bordered Macedonia and Epirus. Given the Slavs pushed most Hellenes to the seaboard, Hellas was almost certainly not northern Greece.

It’s not obvious that Lygo has nailed the identity of the Byzantines

Back in Constantinople, the Kynegion wasn’t a “quarter” but a theatre on Byzantion’s old acropolis. Michael II’s conspirators didn’t just haul Leo V’s body into the hippodrome, they went via the Skyla, an important ceremonial gate, which — like the Chalke — doubled as a vestibule which joined the great palace to the hippodrome just south of the kathisma. It was, in other words, a place of immense authority from which they could advertise their fait accompli. Finally, there’s a map under Alexios III’s entry of Constantinople c. 1200, which gives the old names (Theodosius and Julian) of the city’s southern harbours, while omitting the northern ones (Neorion and Prosphorion) entirely, though admittedly the latter had silted up by the 10th century. One last cavil is that Sycae was abandoned in the 8th century, after which Galata slowly replaced it with colonists (who included Jews), so it doesn’t belong on a 13th century map.

More worryingly, it’s not immediately obvious that Lygo has securely nailed the identity of the Byzantines. In a strange passage under Michael I’s entry, he ponders on how Charlemagne’s coronation in Rome made the Byzantines feel, given, “They had always seen themselves as Romans; if they were not, then what were they?” This is not a sentiment the Byzantines would have shared. Admitting that Charlemagne possessed an empire was one thing; remaining in possession of the sole Roman empire quite another.

Misunderstandings continue with the Photian schism, which is, first, said to have involved a clash over “views on the nature of Christ”, as if it marked a continuation of the Christological debates of late antiquity, when it was primarily a clash over ecclesiastical jurisdiction (that deployed theological divergences in the same manner that 20th century superpowers collected nuclear warheads). Second, the schism apparently constituted an “irrevocable split”, even though it ended within two to three decades of its inception depending on one’s definition of harmony.

The author also places the western attempt to demote head of the Eastern Roman empire from “emperor” to “king” in the reign of Manuel I (1143–80), a belated time-stamp for a habit that lay latent in the Gothic Wars of the 6th century and became explicit during the 10th.

The papacy had an uncanny habit of developing good relationships with bad emperors

One of the book’s more surprising passages has Alp Arslan, the Seljuk sultan, “place his foot on the neck of Romanos IV and treat him with great scorn” when the most credible source of the period, Attaleites, paints the Turks as behaving with humanity and compassion, ascribing their victory to Allah rather than themselves and treating the Byzantines — especially the emperor — with kindness and moderation. Attaleites even goes so far as to say that though the sultan did not explicitly subject himself to the law of Matt. 5:44, the leader followed its divine command through his own benign nature.

The surprises continue with Andronikos III’s reign supposedly seeing the “first supreme court” instituted with the “Universal Judges of the Romans”. This claim is belied by the fact the Romans had historically endured many higher tribunals. The 9th century, for example, enjoyed justice at the hands of the city prefect, the quaestor and the epi ton deeseon. A century later, there were the courts of the velum and hippodrome. Even in the 13th century, a supreme court of twelve judges existed.

Towards the end of the book, titillating Genoese gossip that John VII was guilty of attempting an exchange that involved selling his title for a French castle should not be peddled as history. Neither should Manuel II wearing white robes be reported as “the colour of mourning, as an acknowledgment of the state of the empire”, when it in fact mourned his children who’d died in Monemvasia while he’d travelled to the West.

To finish, there are several missed opportunities. I’d have liked to see Lygo flag the fact that the papacy had an uncanny habit of developing good relationships with bad emperors such as Phokas and Justinian II. He misses a trick in not mentioning that Thomas the Slav’s revolt marked the last of the great thematic rebellions. Alexios II’s strangulation by a bowstring seems to set an interesting precedent for Ottoman imperial executions. And it’s remiss to reference Michael VIII marrying off an illegitimate daughter to Abaqa Khan without mentioning the fact that the very same Maria eventually returned to found St Mary of the Mongols, the only remaining Byzantine church in the city that has never been converted into a mosque.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover