Byzantine studies

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Byzantine studies or Byzantinology is an interdisciplinary branch of the humanities that addresses the history, culture, costumes, religion, art, such as literature and music, science, economy, and politics of the Byzantine Empire. The discipline's founder in Germany is considered to be the philologist Hieronymus Wolf, a Renaissance humanist. He gave the name Byzantine to the eastern Roman Empire that continued after the western part collapsed in AD 476. About 100 years after the final conquest of Byzantium by the Ottomans, Wolf began to collect, edit, and translate the writings of Byzantine philosophers.[1] Other 16th-century humanists introduced Byzantine studies to Holland and Italy.[1]

The opening session of the IV International Congress of Byzantine Studies in the Aula of the University of Sofia, 09/09/1934



Byzantine studies is the discipline that addresses the history and culture of Byzantium (Byzantium ↔ Byzantine Empire, the Greek Middle Ages; Byzantium = Constantinople [as capital of the Byzantine Empire]).[2] Thus the unity of the object of investigation ("Byzantium") stands in contrast to the diversity of approaches (= specializations) that may be applied to it. – There were already "Byzantine" studies in the high medieval Byzantine Empire. In the later Middle Ages the interest in Byzantium (in particular the original Greek sources) was carried on by Italian humanism, and it expanded in the 17th century throughout Europe and Russia. The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought the formation of Byzantine studies as an independent discipline.


Greek / Hellenistic culture, Roman state traditions, Oriental influence and Christian faith, together with a relative unity of language and culture, constitute medieval Byzantium. The starting point of Byzantine history is usually taken to be the reign of Constantine the Great (306–337) and the foundation of Constantinople (330). The "east-Roman" or late antique era of Byzantium begins at the latest with the division of the Roman Empire into a Western Roman Empire and an Eastern Roman Empire (395). This "early Byzantine" period lasts until approximately 641. Emperor Justinian I (527–65) reconquered Italy, north Africa, and southern Spain, but after the expansion of Islam (634/98) a reorganized Byzantium, now based on administration by Themes, was limited to the Greek-speaking regions of the Balkan peninsula, Asia Minor, and southern Italy; Latin was abandoned as the language of officialdom. This may be perceived as the "end of antiquity," and the beginning of the "middle Byzantine" era.

This was also the era of Iconoclasm (717–843) and of the origin of the Holy Roman Empire (800). Under the Macedonian Dynasty (10th–11th centuries) Byzantium regained power against the Islamic and Bulgarian states, but the death of Emperor Basil II marked a turning point, with Byzantine power in Asia Minor and southern Italy suffering from the Battle of Manzikert (1071) and the rise of the Normans, respectively. A certain stability was achieved under the Comnenian Dynasty, at least until the Battle of Myriokephalon (1176). Internal conflicts facilitated the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders (the Fourth Crusade, 1204) and the establishment of Latin states in the south Balkans.

The late period of the Byzantine Empire as a small state begins with the Palaiologos dynasty, which was particularly threatened by the advances of the Ottoman Empire and the economic influence of Venice and Genoa. An empire weakened in part through civil war suffered a severe blow when Thessalonica was captured in 1430, and finally fell to the Ottomans (Fall of Constantinople in 1453, and of Mistras in 1461). The Empire of Trebizond (1204–1461), founded in the wake of the Fourth Crusade, also forms a part of Byzantine history.


It is possible to distinguish between three levels of speech: Atticism (the literary language), Koine (the common language of the Hellenistic period), and Demotic (the popular language, and the forerunner of modern Greek). Thus a certain diglossia between spoken Greek and written, classical Greek may be discerned.

Major genres of Byzantine literature include historiography (both in the classical mode and in the form of chronicles), hagiography (in the form of the biographical account or bios and the panegyric or enkomion); hagiographic collections (the menaia and synaxaria), epistolography, rhetoric, and poetry. From the Byzantine administration, broadly construed, we have works such as description of peoples and cities, accounts of court ceremonies, and lists of precedence. Technical literature is represented, for example, by texts on military strategy. Collections of civil and canon law are preserved, as well as documents and acta (see "Diplomatics" below). Some texts in the demotic are also preserved.

Auxiliary sciences

Modes of transmission

Modes of transmission entails the study of texts that are preserved primarily on papyrus, parchment or paper, in addition to inscriptions, coins, and medals. The papyrus rolls of antiquity (papyrology) are quickly replaced by the parchment codices of the Middle Ages (codicology), while paper arrives in the 9th century via the Arabs and Chinese.


Diplomatics entails the study of Byzantine documents. Documents may be classified according to their producers as secular (imperial and private documents) or sacred (patriarchal and episcopal documents), or according to their means of preservation (the originals, imitations, or simple copies). Imperial documents may be divided into those that promulgate law (types: edikton, typos, pragmatikos typos, thespisma, neara, nomos, sakra; mandatum principis), present decisions regarding specific cases (Epistula type: epistule, sakra; Subscriptio type: lysis [administration, taxes], semeiosis), documents of foreign policy (treaties, letters to foreign rulers) (types: sakrai, grammata, basilikon, chrysobullos horismos, chrysobullon sigillon, prokuratorikon chrysobullon) and administrative documents (Types: prostagmata [horismoi], sigillia, codicilli).[3][4] Sacred documents are the documents and official letters of the patriarchs, including the gramma, homologia (creeds), diatheke (testaments), aphorismos (excommunication), paraitesis (abdication) as well as the ceremonial praxis (synodike) and the hypotyposis (the resolution of a synod) and the tomos (dogmatic edicts). The most splendid form of privileged communication, in the form of a letter, was chrysobullos logos so called because the Emperor's word (logos) appeared three times in red ink.[4] They were used in the appointments of Imperial ambassadors and they were stamped with the Imperial golden seal (Chrysos = gold and bulla = seal).[4]

Sigillography and palaeography

Specific subsets of diplomatics entail sigillography, the study of seals, and palaeography, the study of scripts.[5]


Byzantine epigraphy entails the study of various stone, metal, ivory, mosaic, enamel, and paint inscriptions.


Byzantine numismatics entails the study of coins. Building on the gold standard of late antiquity, the Byzantine monetary system was, until the middle of the 14th century, based on a gold standard, and included silver, bronze, and copper coins. With the economic and political decline of the late period, the gold standard was abandoned in the final century of Byzantine history, and replaced by a silver-based system.


Byzantine metrology entails the study of Byzantine weights and measures. A great number of measures of length were used, including modified forms of the Greek and Roman units of the finger, kondylos, anticheir, palaiste, dichas, spithame, pechys, pace, fathom, schoenus (field measurement),[citation needed] plethron, mile, allage, and an average day's journey.[6] Measure of volume included: litra, tagarion, pinakion, modios, and those of surface area modios, megalos modios and zeugarion.[7] Measures for water and wine were called megarikon, metron and tetartion.[7] Measures of weight were krithokokkon, sitokokkon, gramma, obolos, drachme, ungia, litra, kentenarion, gomarion and pesa.[7]


Byzantine chronology entails the study of the computation of time). According to the various Byzantine calendar systems: Year 1 AD. = Year 754 ab urbe condita = the first year of the 195th Olympiad = Year 49 of the Antiochean era = Year 5493 of the Alexandrine era = Year 312 of the Seleucid era = Year 5509 from the formation of the world. The Byzantine year began with 1 September, believed to be the day of creation, e.g., 1 January through 31 August belonged to the year 5508, 1 September through 31 December to the year 5509. Dating according to indiction remained standard.


This article is substantially based upon the equivalent entry in the German Wikipedia.

  • Hans-Georg Beck, Byzantinistik heute. Berlin, De Gruyter 1977. ISBN 3-11-007220-3
  • Herbert Hunger, Studien zur griechischen Paläographie (= Biblos-Schriften 5), Wien 1954
  • Herbert Hunger, Byzantinische Grundlagenforschung, London 1973
  • Johannes Irmscher, Einführung in die Byzantinistik, Berlin 1971
  • Alexander Kazhdan, Giles Constable, People and Power in Byzantium. An introduction to modern Byzantine studies, Washington 1982
  • Otto Mazal, Handbuch der Byzantinistik, Graz 1989
  • Gyula Moravcsik, Einführung in die Byzantologie, Darmstadt 1976

Important journals


  1. 1.0 1.1 Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557), Helen C. Evans, ed., exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004 Quote: "And, whereas Wolf initiated Byzantine studies in Germany, particularly through the editing of texts, other sixteenth-century humanists were doing the same in Holland and Italy."
  2. Byzantine Studies definition from Oxford University
  3. Realities of Byzantine Provincial Government: Hellas and Peloponnesos, 1180-1205 Judith Herrin Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 29, 1975 (1975), pp. 253–284
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Britannica on chrysobullos logos
  5. Dumbarton Oaks on Nicolas Oikonomides Quote: Dumbarton Oaks has lost a good friend. On 31 May 2000, Nicolas Oikonomides, Dumbarton Oaks’s advisor for Byzantine sigillography, died in Athens after a brief illness.
  6. Ancient Greek units of length
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 The Economic History of Byzantium:From the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century Angeliki E. Laiou, Editor-in-Chief Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection Washington,D.C. © 2002 Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University Washington, D.C.

Further reading

External links