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  • Being Byzantine: Greek Identity before the Ottomans
  • Walter E. Kaegi
Being Byzantine: Greek Identity before the Ottomans. By Gil Page (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008) 330 pp. $90.00

This important, sophisticated, well-planned, and intelligent book contains no wild theses or claims. The author has provided a major contribution to late Byzantine (post-1204) history and historical thought, as well as to Byzantine language and the history of ideas.

Ethnicity is now a heavily investigated topic. Page explains his methodology and premises with the declaration that he is "employing a model of ethnicity as an aspect of interaction between social groups" (6). He develops his own conceptual model. Not everyone will agree with him; his is a controversial topic that other scholars are investigating with much more interest than heretofore. There is only limited epigraphic evidence, although Page attempts to probe visual evidence as well. He asserts that ethnicity is a group identity (14). He concentrates on secular "high-style" historical prose sources, making special use of well-chosen Greek historical texts/narratives—Niketas Choniates, George Akropolites, George Pachymeres, John VI Kantakouzenos, Niketas Gregoras, and the anonymous Chronicle of the Morea—with all of the related pitfalls associated with archaic vocabulary and rules of stylistic composition. He draws on perceptions from Constantinople and its vicinity, as well as from northern and southern sections of mainland Greece. He does not analyze outlooks in Anatolia, Italy, and Sicily, all of which had slipped from imperial control.

Page interprets ethnicity as arising from a nexus of (1) individual subjective belief that membership in a named group derives from ancestry (13); (2) possession, expression, or favoring of certain social and cultural traits or ethnic markers (19); and (3) awareness of a boundary and contrasts. He argues that ethnicity cannot be perceived or expressed without other contrasting groups (21).

But Being Byzantine also is a contribution to the broader investigations of Greek identity and its construction. Page devises the important concept of "Byzantine Roman," which not everyone will find acceptable (I do) (6). Medieval identities were complex. An investigation of being Byzantine in the middle Byzantine period (600–1000) would have encountered different complexities; more time and space would have to be allotted to overlaps and conflicts with identities in the Caucasus, including Armenian, Lazic, and Georgian. The author has read the relevant modern Byzantine historical scholarship as well as the broader theoretical scholarly literature on ethnicity.

Page understands the important background of ethnicity from the early Byzantine and late antique periods, for which scholarly investigation has recently intensified. He is aware of many aspects of identity in the Middle Byzantine Period. In discussing Graikos, Page omits a reference to the use of Graikoi by Procopius of Caesarea (a sixth-century Byzantine historian), in a pejorative sense (63–66). However, he could also have consulted more journal publications, for example, of Vryonis [End Page 587] on Byzantino-Armenian identity in the Middle Period.1 Most of Kaldellis' important and wide-ranging publications on Byzantine identity appeared too late for Page to consult.2

Page strongly rejects the notion of ethnic irreconciliability. He investigates boundaries. He believes relations between the Latins and Greeks were not driven exclusively by ethnic hostility. He dissects terms such as genos and ethnos (41), as well as Rhomaioi (47). He interprets the twelfth-century Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates' conception of Rhomaic identity as overwhelmingly political and fundamental with regard to self-definition (74–79, 84–85, and 92–93), and he explores political and ethnic identity within the context of Rhomaic terminology (49–51). He develops a sophisticated analysis of Choniates' pattern of usage, "to reinforce the non-political aspects of being Roman as certainly being of greater affective force, but the power of the political model is shown in the acceptance of the Latin empire which he recounts and exemplifies, as it were against his will." He concludes that there was a disjunction between the political and cultural aspects of identity, due to "political power passing out of the hands of ethnic Romans, and a consequent emphasis on the ethnic element of identity." Page speaks of "the continuing strength of the political imperial aspect of Roman...


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