What really felled Byzantium?


I’ve just finished reading Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State. I don’t think you could find a better record of the deleterious effects of unchecked greed from both internal and external sources than the preserved history of what is commonly called the Byzantine Empire, but which was then known as what it was: the Empire of the Romans. Greed destroyed their empire. This is especially clear after having just previously read Kenneth Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Having Luttwak’s book freshly in mind, and then reading the more general overview of Ostrogorsky, the failures of the ruling class were all the more astonishing and gut-wrenching. At some point in the book, I began to think, “Okay, new emperor! What is the worst of his options? Because that’s what he’s going to do!”

Various forms of greed from external sources are partly responsible. Two of these are particularly acute: the desire for the rich agricultural lands and famous cities of the empire, which the Muslims of various sorts benefited from the most, but the Slavs also enjoyed; and control of trade in the empire, which the West (particularly Venice and Genoa) coveted, gained, and tenaciously held even as the empire crumbled around their duty-free shipments. None of this externally-sourced greed should be minimized, particularly the inexcusable Fourth Crusade and the subsequent partitioning of the Empire amongst various inbred and unwashed Frankish barbarians.

But it was the greed of the Romans themselves that was at greatest fault, particularly of the artistocracy. No one needs a reminder of the kinds of wealth that Constantinople formerly commanded, particularly prior to the Muslim irruption. But the complete depletion of that wealth and its consequences are the responsibility of a selfish, greedy, caste-conscious aristocracy that slit the throat of the empire for a short life of ease. The smallholders, many of whom were border soldiers, were deprived of their lands which had been amalgamated into large landowners’ estates, which began as government grants. So, the smallholders (whose holdings provided them earnings directly and indirectly as they permitted or required their enlistment in the army or navy) lost their income, and came utterly under the power of these estates as serfs in all but name. And yet, these estates, through the well-known and unexaggerated corruption of the Byzantine system (de facto, if not de jure) were generally exempt from taxes, which the smallholders had paid. So, the tax revenues were simply gone altogether. Foolishness! With this practice, the empire was deprived of defense: no soldiers, no money to pay mercenaries, no moeny to bribe enemies: their defense wasgone. The greater the landholders’ properties, the smaller the army, and the poorer the state. And this was a state that could not afford to be poor, as its survival required a well-trained standing army and navy, as well as the ability to bribe parties (or, for the squeamish: “make campaign contributions”) toward another course of action than violent invasion. It’s this selfish greed on the part of landowners that is ultimately to blame for the collapse of the empire. By the time that the Emperor had to turn to them for contributions toward outfitting a fleet or paying for some mercenaries, it was much too late. And they all lost in the end. It was all for nothing.

Now, really, how stupid was that?

Contra thematic and overly confident historiography

[T]he reader will doubtless ask why the writer chose to present this history chronologically rather than thematically. The answer is that I believe the first task of the historian to be the recovery of order and sequence. An interpretive essay may follow, but at the outset of a new inquiry, one needs to find out just what happened, and history is best understood when we see what came first and what came afterward. Nonetheless, I recognize that the reader may not find his task simple. He will find distressingly few final and definitive statements, and a large portion of conjecture, hypothesis, and sheer post facto interpretation. Given the nature of the sources, I do not believe I could have done otherwise. We know, as I have said above, very little. When sources are few, conjecture multiplies, as indeed it must. Furthermore, the reader may find tedious the relatively lengthy presentation of relevant Jewish sources, followed by hypothesis and historical interpretation. I could justify no other form. There are two stages in historical inquiry, as in archaeology. The first is to uncover the site; the second, to restore it. These stages must be kept separate, so that the artifacts may be studied and then brought together again, in a state closer to their original and living condition than that in which they were uncovered. In history also one needs to uncover and examine before one is able to restore and recreate. Here I have begun the first stage. I could not have written indicatively, therefore, when my evidence was doubtful and my interpretation of it conjectural, and hence the recurrent use of the subjunctive mood in its many forms. I have tried to find language appropriate to the level of historical knowledge which I believe to have been reached. There may be better ways, but this is the only one congruent to my understanding of the historian’s craft.

Jacob Neusner. A History of the Jews in Babylonia: I. The Parthian Period (Brill, 1969), from the Preface to the First Printing, pp xiv–xv

Biblical Archaeology Uprising!

Dr. Joe Cathey has provided us with a nifty little mini-bibliography on the subjects of biblically-related inscriptions, including here his “top five finds in field of archaeology of the Hebrew Bible.”

I also concur in his perception that “more data about the nature of life in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages is becoming clearer to the sound minded interpreter.” While the “minimalist assault” on the possibility of historicality of the biblical narratives has been a subject of discussion here and elsewhere, I find that minimalism’s primary value has been secondary: it has spurred a re-evaluation of both the evidence and the epistemological underpinnings of those scholars doing biblical studies. Everyone is better off for that. On this side of the controversy, finally cooling it seems, it appears that the majority, post re-evaluation, leans toward a more “maximalist” acceptance of the Hebrew Bible as containing genuine records, however attentuated, from at least the Iron Age, if not the Late Bronze. Minimalist theories on the formation of the Hebrew Bible’s texts, which theories in some cases I believe are best categorized (and probably entirely intended) as scholarly alternative histories, or “what if?” scenarios, rather than serious suggestions, are not standing up well to the re-evaluation. Indeed, many, if not most, were ripped to shreds upon their birthing! Even so, they were useful for their time. As I’ve mentioned before, here and elsewhere, the wider field of historiography already experienced this kind of challenge and re-evaluation, and has come out the better for it, though almost entirely unchanged from its earlier positions, with the differences involving simply a tightening-up of methodologies, which is a kind of coming to maturity of the field itself. The same is only to be expected for biblical historiography, which, as usual for biblical studies, generally lags years behind the trends of wider scholarship: some minor readjustments, but reaffirmation of the earlier methodologies and general conclusions. In biblical studies, the identical result is shaping up: “minimalists” will remain, though increasingly marginalized, just as the postmodernists remain in wider historiography, but as a distinct minority.

Perhaps we’ll finally be rid of all those revolting peasants at long last!

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Let us regard the biblical account itself as a conceptual model of Israel’s genesis. It is as if the Israelites themselves formulated an articulate portrayal of their distant past, much as modern scholarship does. Such a paradigm for a description of Israel’s emergence is feasible. This projection embedded within the biblical text has certain clear advantages over modern speculation: being much closer to the actual events—by thousands of years—and being a product of the locale itself, it inherently draws upon a much greater intimacy with the land, its topography, demography, military situation, ecology, and the like.

Such a working hypothesis enables us to avoid the extremes which have all too often left their imprint upon modern historiography in our field. By conceding that the biblical tradition could be a reflective, “theorizing” account—rather than strictly factual, “Wie es eigentlich gewesen” (Ranke)—we sidestep the pitfall of neofundamentalism. And by spurning the view of Israel’s proto-history as a deliberately fabricated tradition, we keep from being swept into the other, radical—and now more fashionable—extreme. This paves the way, on an operative plane, to a dialectical approach to the biblical text, one which retains the option that the tradition represents an admixture of ancient, reliable, historical components and late, untrustworthy, anachronistic elements.

This excellent pair of paragraphs is found on pages 13-14 of Malamat’s History of Biblical Israel. His terminology of reflection is earlier described on pages 9-10: “Rudimentary ancient descriptions were recontemplated in the current intellectual and theological terms, yielding new appraisals and motivations for past events.” That sounds an awful lot like modern historiography, doesn’t it?

My only quibble in the extended quote above, comes with the statement at the very end: “late, untrustworthy, anachronistic elements.” An anachronistic element isn’t necessarily untrustworthy, but simply misplaced. Typically, anachronisms are recognized precisely because of reliable testimony placing them in an age that is later than the period described in the text. This marks an anachronism as, actually, a trustworthy witness of its own age.

Hyperbole in Merneptah Stele?

Jim West says it’s not so! Well, he actually only brings into question the well-known line “the people of Israel, his seed is not.” He notes that while most accept the latter part of the line as hyperbole, the first part of the line is not accepted as hyperbole. One has to wonder how a name of a people can be considered hyperbole, but that’s another issue. He proposes taking a look at the line as perhaps not including any hyperbole at all. Just for fun, let’s look at the whole stele that way, without hyperbole or metaphor! Follow along at home, kids, with ANET 376-378!

So, in this reading, Merneptah is actually a big, strong bull, ruling Egypt under the god Horus. This bull struck nine bows (how weird is that?), and his name is repeated forever (by someone, how boring for him or her!). Furthermore, all the countries in the world knew about Merneptah, since his accomplishments were published in every land (even Antarctica!), apparently because he was such a pretty bull in battle! But he was also the sun itself! How mysterious! And he evaporated stormclouds from Egypt! What a useful bull-sun! Also, all the necks of the Egyptians were apparently stuck underneath a mountain of copper (I think someone on CNN said they found this mountain of copper, which makes this story TRUE!), which sounds quite awkward. The bull-sun Merneptah obligingly freed them from this uncomfortable predicament. One wonders, were their bodies sticking outward from the mountain or inward? (I expect there will be a monograph published by Brill on this!) Did you know the city of Memphis had a heart? Well it did, and the bull-sun Merneptah made it happy! Also, billions of people were unable to breathe before King Merneptah the bull-sun was seen by them! How utterly helpful! He also put eternal fear into the Meshwesh tribe, so that they would never attack Egypt again, like even about fifty years later in a coalition of tribes attacking lower Egypt! So there! And it goes on about the divine paternity of the bull-sun-king Merneptah, and his divine throne. Apparently there were several gods who clamored to be his father. How does one test for that? Did Egyptian gods have DNA? And there’s a little song at the end:

The princes are prostrate, saying: “Mercy!”
Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows.
Desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified;
Plundered is the Canaan with every evil;
Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer;
Yanoam is made as that which does not exist;
Israel is laid waste, his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow for Egypt!
All lands together, they are pacified
Everyone who was restless has been bound
by the king of Upper and Lower Egypt

So, although one wonders how the nine bows could have heads, none of them raised them. Also, Tehenu/Libya became completely desolate then (which must be why it’s a desert today!). The Hittite empire was at peace, contrary to any and all reports to the contrary! “The Canaan”, that is, the city of Gaza, was suddenly made a place without evil! Someone also picked up and carried the city Ashkelon away (where to, one wonders), and grabbed Gezer (ouch!), with, quite obviously, absolutely enormous hands. Yanoam ceased to exist, contrary to all reports and all archaeological discoveries. The people of Israel were all made skinny, I suppose, and they lost their one and only seed. Mrs. Hurru lost her dear husband Mr. Egypt (how sad!). And there was world peace, and all the people who just couldn’t sit still were tied up somehow by the handless but marvelous bull-sun-king Merneptah!

Ahem. So, I think we all actually recognize that hyperbole and metaphor are rife in the Merneptah stele, however fun it might be to read it otherwise. It is much more likely that in a document full of such hyperbole and metaphor that the statement “his seed is not” does not refer solely metaphorically to the elimination of all offspring and the potential to create more, or literally to the loss of a single particular seed that belonged to this people, but rather hyperbolically and metaphorically to the killing of a number of, or at the very least some kind of victory over the “people of Israel” in battle. The case may also be that, as being located in a part of Hurru/Canaan, these “people of Israel” may not have even fought Merneptah, but they were included in the hymn as further victorious hyperbole: “all the peoples of Hurru were conquered by His Majesty (l.p.h.)” etc, ad nauseam.

The issue of why this is not mentioned in the preserved documents from the Israelite side is perhaps no more than the silence of a shameful ignominious defeat. I would also suggest that such a battle, set during the period depicted in the book of Judges, simply didn’t fit the pattern [Israelite disobedience > Non-Israelite local oppressor > Israelite local deliverer > Israelite local peace] which is followed throughout the book. The overlordship of Egypt throughout the entire period of Judges is in fact never mentioned, but then neither are the later overlordships of Moab and Aram Damascus over the Gilead, and the early overlordship of Assyria over Israel in the wake of Qarqar. Yes, another possibility is that the documents were not written until such a much later time that all genuine historical data was long lost. But this latter solution presents no more a priori likelihood than the others. We can’t make assumptions on what battles should or shouldn’t be included, since we don’t share the same worldview or mindset of the original authors of any of these documents. To do otherwise, to claim otherwise, is rank anachronism and eisegesis.

It is only the particular framework of the historiographic model that the reader is immersed in which determines the amount of trust we grant to a given ancient document (whether me, Ken Ristau, Jim West, Joe Cathey, or Keith Whitelam). Some of us, like myself, find more than less historical reminiscence in the biblical writings, while others find less than more. Each of us, because of our presuppositional foundations and experience (years of training? years of reading?), has our own deeply ingrained stance, which may find others’ to be either uncritical (“fundamentalist”) or poor scholarship (Rainey: “In conclusion, Davies’ book deserves to be forgotten” JAOS 115/1: p 103). Neither historiographic model is wrong, per se. They have their established foundations and support from respective philosophies of history. It’s best to keep that in mind, especially in such discussions as these, which need us all to focus on detail in the texts, the primary sources, rather than broad charicature, inuendo, or outright insult in secondary and tertiary sources, which furthers our fund of knowledge not one whit. It’s not so hard to approach these discussions in good humour, as I did above, rather than curmudgeonly dismissal or vituperation, which only raises hackles and begins the cycle all over again. So, while the bickering goes back and forth (“he said,” “well, he said,” “oh yeah, well he said”), no knowledge is advanced, the discussion remains at a standstill, and no one is even remotely charmed by wit, edified by excellent argumentation, or even slightly encouraged to pay attention any more. So, at least for the sake of attracting more and various interested parties to share in such studies, let’s recognize the validity of the discussion and save all snarkiness, if at all, then solely for meeting in person sometime, when tone of voice and kindness of eye belie the harshness of these words flung heedlessly and harmfully.