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Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204

April 5, 2008

Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204

by Paul Stephenson

Cambridge University Press (2000), 352 pp., 22 maps and tables

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

This is one of the most important contemporary books for the history of the Byzantine Balkans. It creates a thoroughly new picture of the social, economic and political life of the time and, for good measure, it comes beautifully set within a colorful cover taken from a medieval Byzantine manuscript. For readers interested in this specific aspect of the Byzantine world, it is definitely “the one to own.’

Conducted during the 1990s, those frenzied years of nationalism in the Balkans, Stephenson’s research is among other things, an antidote to that nationalism. Indeed, he rejects the notion of Balkan natives as having been engaged in a chronic struggle to overthrow the “Byzantine yoke.’ In actual fact, he notes,

“the peoples of the northern Balkan lands seem to have worn their political allegiances lightly. This is not to say that they did not feel intense personal loyalty to local or regional rulers: it is clear they did. However, there is no indication that this was translated into a higher loyalty, and certainly not to a sense of belonging to any abstract entity like a “nation.’ “Sources do not support the notion [that] an ethnic awareness, still less a national consciousness, motivated rebellions” (p. 320).

In its synoptic coverage, careful attention to detail, and use of the full range of textual and tangible source materials, this book bears the signs of an influence that to most readers would remain invisible- that is, the scholarly influence of Jonathan Shepard, expert in Byzantine-Russian history, and occasionally adventurous Oxford don James Howard-Johnston, whose relatively infrequent publishing, students know well, owes entirely to that time-honored unsatisfied desire for perfection of old-school scholars. For years, fans of this eminent historian have had to rely on the “trickle-down’ method of attaining his insights vicariously, through the work of those influenced by him. This fact makes Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204 even more significant.

Method and Limiting Factors

What makes Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204 truly innovative, and a good example of modern Byzantine research methodology, is the author’s use of coin and seal finds to enhance a narrative as formerly created from the historiographical record. At the same time, Stephenson also criticizes and corrects various interpretations in the text, as well as dealing with provenance issues and the trustworthiness of the source. It is this critical eye that distinguishes Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204 from other works on the topic.

The author also refers to limiting factors that the general reader might not have considered, such as the significance of geography in the shaping of political states and alliances. For the Byzantines, “the Haemus [Stara Planina in Bulgaria] were regarded as the only secure and defensible barrier” from certain nomad incursions (p. 110). And so, as would remain the case in later Ottoman centuries, whichever group was guarding the mountain passes that separated different contiguous areas could receive special treatment; as mountain-dwellers tended to be pastoralists, Vlach shepherds often played this role. However, the guardians of the pass could just as easily betray their ostensible patron, as the Byzantines learned the hard way in Bulgaria, when the barbarian Cumans were escorted through the passes to Adrianople (p. 109).

Another example of the value Byzantine rulers placed on geography, and those who understood it, is culled from the Alexiad of Anna Comnena, daughter of Emperor Alexios I Comnenos. Recounting her father’s decision to engage in evasive action rather than pitched battle with the Normans, she writes:

“[Alexios] summoned one of the old men from Larissa and questioned him on the topography of the place. Turning his eyes in different directions and at the same time pointing with his finger, he carefully inquired where the land was broken in ravines, where dense thickets lay close to such places. The reason why he asked the Larissean such questions was of course that he wished to lay an ambush there and so defeat the Latins by guile, for he had given up any idea of an open hand-to-hand conflict; after many clashes of this kind — and as many defeats — he had acquired experience of Frankish tactics in battle.” (p. 172)

The study of sigillography (lead seals) is also a relatively modern innovation which the author exploits in Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204. Such seals, often stamped with the sender’s name and title, were affixed to important documents when sent; the double purpose of this practice was to indicate the rank and prestige of the sender and, of course, to preserve the secrecy of the contents. Where archeologists have discovered large groups of seals in one place, it is often found, that that place would have been the site of an imperial archive or bureaucratic office. The discovery of large numbers of seals in Bulgaria, for example, has provided insights that have dramatically revised the history of that country in Byzantine times (p. 55-61).

Stephenson makes full use of these finds, as well as the growing science of Byzantine numismatics, to make his case. The interpretation of coin hoards differs from seal hoards, however, owing to their inherent fiscal value: “the most likely reason for concealment is generally assumed to be the desire for security, and this desire is manifested most frequently at times of unrest. Thus a series of contemporary hoards can often be associated with a rebellion or invasion” (p. 16).An example of the author’s use of numismatics is the discussion of what the discovery of large numbers of low-level bronze coins on the Danube says about the economic life of the time in that region (p. 105).

Structure and Content

Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204 is divided into nine chapters, which cover in turn the rise of the medieval Bulgarian empire, the devastating impact of Cuman and Pecheneg nomads from the north, the rise of the Serbian state and Byzantium’s interactions with trouble-making Latins from the West, the Normans and other crusaders. Allies that became too powerful for their own good, and who exploited the perfidious politics of local rulers, are treated objectively in consideration of their own interests. Indeed, Stephenson generally succeeds in the careful balancing act of not letting his main focus get away from him while also citing the main factors influencing foreign interactions with Byzantium, from both the Catholic West and the Muslim east of the Arabs and Turks.

Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204 contains much more than can be described in a simple review. Stephenson’s work is one that should ideally be read, and then re-read. The details — for at bottom this is a narrative of events, battles and political succession — come thick and fast, and the author frequently finds himself challenging the veracity of Byzantine sources that had been traditionally taken at face value. While the vast amount of references to leaders and generals whom history has largely forgotten may occasionally bewilder the general reader, the writing is straightforward and not daunting; the book repays a careful study.

A New Picture

That no Byzantine maps still survive is just one of the many extremely interesting details to emerge from Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204 (p. 3). Indeed, any maps retrospectively placed on the region, in terms of territorial “possession’ by larger state entities are inherently deceptive; in actual fact, tracts of territory large and small, usually marked by a handful of strategic highlands or water sources, passed hands frequently between the empire, rebels, local chieftains and foreign invaders such as the Pechenegs or the Normans.

Something else vitally important to remember, which the book discusses fully, is the fact that the composition of the armies involved was never ethnically or politically “pure.’ The actors ranged from hapless locals conscripted into the fight to hardened mercenaries specifically selected from distant lands. The emperor’s guard might have been made up of Rus Vikings, his army, composed of Greeks, Turkish mercenaries and Western adventurers. The whole structure might change during the next campaign. The same went for any of the other combatants who grew sufficiently powerful to be able to pay men for their military service.

And so what we come away with is a picture of an extraordinarily fluid region, in which allegiances were bound to be transient, and in which local power relationships were based on the recognition that any alliance was likely to be temporary, and that yesterday’s enemy could be tomorrow’s best friend. There is a name for this kind of politics, which has somehow stood the test of time: Balkan.

What Stephenson’s book does is, tacitly though specifically, to show how a convergence of physical factors, especially strategic geography, transit routes and natural resources, rather than (as has sometimes been argued) a malignant and perfidious mindset allegedly endemic to the region and its inhabitants, conditioned diplomatic decision-making and political structures.

If nationalism did not account for the frequent changes in allegiance away from the Byzantines, it was just because developments, locally and in the West, afforded newer and shinier options. “The emergence of powerful polities in the West whose rulers became alternative patrons and suzerains for the rulers of various groups, regions and cities,” the author notes (p 321). The Normans of Sicily, the rising maritime power of Venice, and the kingdom of Hungary were the most powerful such options.

In conclusion, with Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204, we are treated to one of the best discussions out there of how, remarkably, a unique and common culture was molded and managed to survive during a period of great change in the Balkans, one that remains relatively unexplored. Nevertheless, under critical examination, remarkable signs of continuity emerge that ultimately help us to understand how the modern Balkans came into existence.

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