An Interview with Professor M. Whitby
I first encountered Michael Whitby through his translation of the Pascal Chronicle (1989); a text marking such a sea-change in Roman historiography that some argue the “Byzantine” empire proper began in the era it supposedly ushers in. The book (translated with his then wife, Mary) stands foremost in my mind not just because I’m continually consulting it but because its publishers (LUP) were courageous enough to present its formidable erudition in oversized footnotes rather than conventional end notes.
With the end of the florid rhetoric of Theophylact Simocatta, Roman letters i.e. classical historiography, gave way to the likes of George of Pisidia’s poetry, the Pascal Chronicle, The Chronology of Theophanes and the Short History of Nikephoros. All very different creatures to the classicizing Egyptian lawyer whom, incidentally, Whitby has also translated (1988).
Despite this (and his current project: translating the Miracles of St Demetrios of Thessalonica), Whitby would never describe himself as a Byzantinist but rather an historian of late antiquity (especially matters of warfare and of Christian organisation). Hence works such as the translation of the Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus (2000) and Rome at War: 293-696 (2002), as well as roles editing the Classical Review, The Cambridge Ancient History: 425-600 (2000) and The Cambridge History of Ancient Warfare (2007).
The fact remains, however, that the recently-retired pro-vice chancellor of the University of Birmingham’s area of expertise requires an intense knowledge of the Eastern Roman Empire. And so he is the perfect academic to interview in what I hope will become a series.
What or who was it that made you more interested in late antiquity than the events that littered antiquity’s canon?
Various factors contributed to my interest in late antiquity. Before going to university I had travelled in Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, in ways that are simply not possible today, and became interested in the connections between these areas and the classical Mediterranean world that I had learned about at school. This chimed with reading Freya Stark’s Rome on the Euphrates (1966) as a teenager and discovering a little about the eastern frontier. Then at university I had the good fortune to be tutored for Greek history by Geoffrey de Ste Croix: his conception of the Greek world stretched from Homer to Muhammed and so his exceptionally long reading lists would have references to sources such as Ammianus, Procopius and saints’ lives.
You’re known for your interest in military affairs among other things. Were Byzantines the tactical geniuses they’re often framed as, or was the society’s penchant for retrenchment detrimental to its long term success?
The Late Romans and Byzantines were good at making the most of finite resources, and that tended to privilege strong defence and containment rather than aggression. But there were times of aggression: Julian’s invasion of Persia, Justinian’s western reconquests, Maurice’s strategy of taking the war to the Slavs and Avars north of the Danube. Julian and Maurice were both killed as a result of their strategies and their failures had wider consequences. Even Justinian’s victories over Vandal Africa and Ostrogothic Italy were not without their negative sides, in terms of the devastation of Italy in two decades of war, the impact on the East of the diversion of military resources away from the Persian frontier, and the inability to find sufficient resources to campaign effectively on every frontier simultaneously.
So, they did not get everything right by any means, but they do deserve credit for survival.
What do you consider to be the highlights of your impressive academic career?
It is scarcely for me to say that I have had an impressive career. For the past two decades I have devoted increasing amounts of time to leadership at the university of Birmingham and Warwick and I can claim some credit for the fact that Warwick has a strong Classics department and that the Humanities community at Birmingham now has the confidence to publicise its incredibly diverse strengths.
In terms of academic scholarship, one highlight has nothing to do with late antiquity but is an article on a poem by the fifth-century BC writer Ion of Chios, though it does relate to my interest in west-east relations. Within late antiquity I suppose that helping to rescue Theophylact from the contempt with which his work was treated by the scholarly consensus. Now scholars are devising much more ingenious interpretations of his work than I ventured, but the process had to start somewhere.
Presses such as LUP are well known for their translations, offering primary sources to the Anglophone world. Have most of Byzantium's literary jewels been plundered or are there more spoils to be plucked from obscurity?
A generation ago Margaret Gibson at Liverpool University recognised that, if more students were going to study late antiquity seriously, a wide range of texts would have to be available in translation and she persuaded LUP to back her project with a series, Translated Texts for Historians, devoted to sources in Latin, Greek, Syriac and other eastern languages from the period 250 to about 850. From slow beginnings this has proved so successful that LUP was persuaded to create a follow-on series of Translated Texts for Byzantinists to cover the centuries after TTH.
What was the last Byzantine book you read and what did you learn from it?
David Potter’s Theodora (2011) might not be the very last book on Byzantium that I have read, but it is one of the most recent that I have reviewed and one from which I learned a lot. Through Potter’s comparative analysis the sensational aspects of Theodora’s life, or of its invention by Procopius, are placed in context, so that we are presented with a much more convincing and illuminating picture of this empress.
If another flood of Noah proportions was to engulf the earth and you could only take five texts on Byzantium to the one desert island that would be saved, which books would they be and why?
John of Ephesus’ Lives of the Eastern Fathers along with a Syriac dictionary in order to recover my long-lost and rudimentary awareness of that language and read a fascinating collection of stories in the original; the Miracles of Saint Demetrius because that is my next major project; if Homer and the Septuagint are already there as being universally available, I would also take Cosmas Indicopleustes as a substantial text about how one individual viewed his world and its neighbours and the sermons of John Chrysostom as a body of work with which I should be more familiar.
Which scholars do you look up to, if any?
A.H.M. Jones, Louis Robert, Geoffrey de Ste Croix, John Matthews, and Robin Lane Fox are Ancient Historians who have made major contributions to the study of Late Antiquity; Sebastian Brock’s knowledge of the Syriac world, worn with great modesty, constantly reveals new treasures.
If Byzantium can be said to have declined and fallen, what cause(s) do you ascribe as the most serious ones?
A problem for both Late Antique Rome and Byzantium is that too many of its neighbours became too powerful militarily, with the result that it could not confront all of them effectively – Avars, Arabs, Turks, Latins. With resources being very tight, they lacked the ability to keep up with technical developments that were essential if they were to offset their comparative lack of manpower. There is a tradition, going back to Gibbon and beyond, to blame Christianity for Roman decline, but I have argued on various occasions that the benefits of Christianity in terms of morale and commitment more than outweighed any negative consequences there may have been.
Is there a person, period or place in Byzantine history that you believe is serially/chronically under-studied?
Late Antiquity is a crowded scholarly area and reigns that had been overlooked for a long time, such as Heraclius or Anastasius, have benefited from recent work, while Church Councils that have often been shielded by the large volumes of Schwartz’s Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum are now being opened by through the translations of Richard Price, so that their diverse information which ranges far beyond doctrinal issues can be explored. I am sure that the Novels of Justinian still have much to reveal, both about the emperor and his reign.
Finally, if you had another lifetime, is there a pet project or book you'd have loved to have completed?
I hope still to have a reasonable number of productive years ahead, but who knows? I want to complete work on the Miracles of Saint Demetrius of Thessalonica. With another lifetime, I would have liked to devote the time to studying Syriac and being able to contribute to making the riches of its texts more widely available.