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  • The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome by Anthony Kaldellis
  • Warren Treadgold
The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome
Anthony Kaldellis
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. xvi + 290. ISBN 8978–0-674–36540–7

Even if Anthony Kaldellis is unlikely to persuade other scholars to call the Byzantine Empire a “republic,” most of what he means by that term is neither unreasonable nor unprecedented. Originally res publica (“public thing”) just meant the Roman state; after converting what remained of the old representative government into a monarchy, Augustus still called it the res publica, though it was later called an empire (Latin [End Page 447] imperium, Greek basileia) by the Byzantines and others. The Byzantines had no exact Greek equivalent for the Latin res publica, but Kaldellis argues plausibly that their words koinon (“common thing”) and politeia (“polity”) expressed pretty much the same idea. By calling Byzantium a republic, Kaldellis wants to emphasize several of its characteristics that modern historians have often underrated or denied: that what we give the modern name “Byzantium” was just the later phase of the Roman state, that it was administered according to a system of laws, that it was not just a political construct but a community with a sense of identity and common interests (elsewhere Kaldellis has called it “the nation state of the Romans,” another term unlikely to win wide acceptance), and (most controversially) that its emperor’s powers were not absolute and depended on popular consent. These points should be taken seriously even by those who think calling Byzantium a “republic” invites misleading ancient and modern comparisons.

That Byzantium was continuous with Rome is of course a fact, to which Kaldellis alludes by calling Byzantium “New Rome” in his title. His argument includes Roman history before his nominal starting date in the fifth century, though he avoids simply calling the Byzantine Empire the Roman Empire, as the Byzantines did. (He also rejects Latin forms of Byzantine names in favor of an inconsistent mixture of Greek and Anglicized forms, so that we find “Constantine I” but “Konstantinos V,” and “Justinian II” but “Tiberios III.”) His arguments for Byzantium’s legal and national characteristics are largely justified but somewhat exaggerated, since Byzantine emperors (and judges) paid little attention to written laws and most Byzantines were thoroughly apolitical. Yet Kaldellis is surely right that the Byzantines had a sort of “public opinion,” which our sources repeatedly mention, though some modern scholars have denied that such a thing existed in pre-modern times. He is also right that the emperor had a theoretical responsibility to rule in the interest of his subjects, and that a definite risk of being overthrown significantly limited his powers; but Kaldellis goes beyond this, maintaining that the “imperial idea” of the ruler’s being chosen by God was merely “a rhetorical superstructure” (172), since the emperor’s power actually depended on his popularity.

Kaldellis addresses a real problem: that the Byzantines often rebelled against and not infrequently dethroned the emperors whom they claimed to consider divinely chosen. He argues that from the time of Augustus the emperor derived his power from the consent of the Roman people (including the Roman army), who accordingly overthrew several unpopular emperors. In the third century, when the emperors ceased to reside mainly at Rome and faced frequent military revolts, they tried to defend themselves by developing the idea that they were divinely chosen, which in the fourth century came to mean chosen by the Christian God. By the fifth century, when the emperors resided in Constantinople, its citizens took over the role of the people of Rome, including their right to depose unpopular emperors. “To be blunt, civil wars and other challenges were a form of election. . . . This interpretation of Byzantine civil war explains the following striking fact: no state in history ever had more civil wars that changed nothing about the structure and ideology of the [End Page 448] polity. . . . [C]ivil wars were essentially political contests over public opinion and hinged on perceptions of popularity and unpopularity. . . . Despite the damage that they did, they also ensured that Byzantium was ruled by generally capable...


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pp. 447-450
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