(being continued from 17/05/14)
4.2. Explaining persistence and resurgence
Amid this picture of decline and decay, two significant questions arose. First,
how did Byzantium persist for as long as it did? Second, how were periods of resurgence possible? Finlay’s answers to these questions used broadly the same conceptual categories as he had deployed in his account of perceived decline,
but showed their positive side. I shall offer some brief examples.
If the fundamental cause of Byzantine decline had been her centralised despotism, nevertheless the Roman body politic, and its system of administration, was regarded as having an inherent strength. This enabled it to
withstand manifold wars and rebellions, and to persist despite its gathering weakness.77 Thus, for example, Basil I might have had few skills and less education, in Finlay’s opinion, but “the perfection of the governmental
machine” enabled him to function quite admirably.78
Likewise, if the ‘Eastern Empire’ offered a lesson in the dangers of centralization, the corollary was that it survived as long as it did, unlike the Western, because the Greeks had had local institutions.79 These enabled the
people to survive in the face of the increasing tendency towards centralization,
from Constantine, to Justinian,80 to the eleventh century, and beyond.81 The problems with local institutions were rather those that were discussed above –the lack of ‘educative’ support and their perversion by central government,
against which only civic virtue could fight.
Despite his reservations about the inter-dependence of judicial, executive and legislative power, Finlay admired Roman law when it was administered systematically. Thus the laws of Constantine and Justinian provided at least
something of a bulwark for ‘the people’ against the oppression of government,82
and as such he says that it was the judicial administration that upheld the crumbling political edifice.83 Further examples that we have already mentioned include the stress placed on Leo III’s Ecloga and the praise for the period 867-
1057 AD as an “era of legislative greatness”, offering security of life and property.
Similarly, periods of improvement were characterised by an upturn in commercial policy (involving less taxation and more commercial activity,broadly speaking). Again, commercial activity was one of the factors in his
admiration for the iconoclast period.84
He further commended the iconoclast period for “moral vigour” and the revival of public opinion.85 In other words, this was a revival in the key components of ‘civic virtue’ and ‘political morality’. Significantly, in line with the comments on ‘education’ above, and their relation to virtue, education in the later volumes was depicted as the herald of Greek liberty,86 and Korais in
particular was praised for prising education away from Byzantine pedantry87 (by which he meant an aping of classical style rather than an admiration of the republican content of classical literature88).
In the final resort, however, Finlay showed his religious frame of mind in resorting to ‘Providence’. The best example of this is the way in which he ultimately saw the Revolution of 1821 as a “clear manifestation of God’s
providence in the progress of human society”.89 The two volumes on the Revolution are marked strongly by the sense that the Greek Revolution was inevitable, part of an inexorable tide of events in what he significantly calls
“human progress”. It is not irrelevant to the consideration of Finlay as an ‘optimist’ or ‘pessimist’ that he subscribed to a notion of ‘progress’ buttressed in part, at least, by faith.
5. An assessment of Finlay’s History in context
We can now consider Finlay’s historical craft, and the varying influences that shaped his attitude to the past. This is important not only for the excavation of this text, but also for the way his outlook on the past coloured his perception
of the Greek present. This in turn is important (although not the direct concern of the present paper) because he is a valuable source for philhellenism, the Revolution and the early history of modern Greece, and in this context needs
to be understood and used with an appreciation of his intellectual make-up.
5.1. Finlay and his Byzantine sources
Although this is not the place for a full critique of Finlay’s treatment of Byzantium, we need briefly to consider his use of medieval sources in order to appreciate him as a historian. For most of the period we are discussing in this
piece, Finlay was largely in the hands of the Byzantine historians. He did not take them entirely at face value – there were many times when he criticized various historians for their biased representation of certain emperors, for instance.90
Where he was less critical, by our standards, was in reading the historians in the context of their textual tradition and allowing for the representations that these produced. Byzantine historians were highly stylised, and inherited conventional,
Eusebian-inspired topoi in the representation of the emperor, imperial policy and
the role of God in the history of the Empire. It was conventional to make certain points about the centrality of Constantinople as the imperial city of Empire, for instance. As regards the extent of centralisation in medieval times, it certainly
seems to us now that Finlay did not allow enough for this convention, giving too small a role to the local people of wealth and power in the conduct of politics.
Further conventional points related to the importance of the emperor’s role,
as God’s vicegerent on earth, in the dispensation of justice, in fair taxation, and
so on. Procopius’ treatment of Justinian and Choniates’ of the Angeli, for example, demonstrate clearly that a stock praise, or stock criticism, was that an Emperor was good at, or deficient in, justice, while Choniates’ treatment of
Manuel I’s increases in taxes exemplify another traditional complaint.91
Byzantine historians recognised the decline of their empire and sought ways to account for it. Depopulation and oppressive taxation were expressions of the way in which they had, as they saw it, fallen foul of God’s favour – they were
being punished for ill-faith by bad government.
However, one cannot criticise Finlay by the anachronistic standards of today’s scholarship. Nor should we suggest that Finlay was misguided in dwelling on these themes. Although scholars might now have developed a
nuanced understanding of Byzantine textual traditions, and the ways in which they might have distorted reality, population decline and economic mismanagement –two of Finlay’s key themes– nevertheless remain key themes
in discussions of Byzantine decline. Indeed, recent work by Byzantine scholars has shown that population figures remain a difficult problem, and that their relation to economic and political developments is complex.92
5.2. Scottish historiographical traditions
Joan Hussey has traced Finlay’s romanticism to his rural Scottish upbringing,93but the crucial intellectual influence of the Scottish Enlightenment has thus far been overlooked. The Scots pioneered ‘philosophic’ or ‘conjectural’ history, the
analysis of the origins and development of society and government. Adam Smith provided the classic statement of the theory that society had developed in four distinct stages, corresponding to the means of subsistence (hunting,
pastoral, agricultural, commercial).94 Finlay’s was a philosophic history conceived broadly in this tradition, as his reviewers recognised. This accounts largely, I suggest, for his attempt to demonstrate a ‘lesson’ or a ‘moral’ from the
vast sweep of Greek history. However, the application of the model to Greek history questions its smooth linearity: Finlay’s emphasis on periods of ‘upturn’ calls into question the notion of a straight-forwardly progressive sweep in
history, which was the underlying thrust of the most prominent historians’ works in this tradition.
Certainly, as an instantiation of this ‘progress’, David Hume and Adam Smith argued fiercely for the victory of the moderns versus the ancients. Hume derided the classical shibboleth that luxury led to corruption, and argued that
the military readiness of citizens was unnatural. Smith largely followed him.
On the other hand, Lord Kames, John Millar and Adam Ferguson were less confident about the moral beneficence of this fourth stage of development, or ‘commercial society’. Ferguson, for example, continued to champion civic
virtue and a citizen militia.95 Finlay’s commitment to political morality thus has more in common with the latter type of ‘Enlightenment’ thinking.
Further, Finlay derives a broad commitment to the importance of economic motors in historical accounts from the Scots. The Scottish Enlightenment, of course, virtually created ‘political economy’, Smith’s Wealth of Nations setting
out the supposedly natural, self-adjusting mechanism of the market. However,
Finlay was far less confident about the potential of the market to liberate people than they were. Again, he tempers the legacy of the Scots, sitting between the optimistic and pessimistic trajectories of this tradition.
(to be continued)
72 1: p. 109.
73 7: p. 102.
74 7: p. 120f.
75 S. Collini, Public Moralists. Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain 1850-
1930, Oxford 1991, esp. Chapter 3.
76 C. A. Frazee, op. cit.
77 1: pp. 184, 395.
78 2: p. 230.
79 1: p. xxif.
80 Esp. 1: p. 102ff on Constantine and 1: p. 193ff on Justinian.
81 Esp. 3: p. 2 and 4: p. 43.
82 1: p. 105 (Constantine), 1: p. 213 (Justinian).
83 1: p. 296.
84 2: p. 209ff; cf. 4: p. 55.
85 2: pp. 9, 218f.
86 6: p. 97. Also 5: p. 211 on the effects of Catholic education.
87 5: p. 284f.
88 Esp. 3: p. 55.
89 7: p. 181; cf. 6: p. 103. Also 5: p. 3 on the role of ‘Divine Providence’ in the decline
of the Ottomans.
90 E.g. his discussions of Justin II, Maurice, Nicephorus I and Michael ‘the Stammerer’.Cf. 2: p. 228 on Basil I’s historians.
91 In English translations, Procopius, The Secret History; Choniates, O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, tr. H. J. Magoulias, Detroit 1984 (esp. p. 115f on the increase of taxes).
92 See e.g. A. Harvey, Economic Expansion in the Byzantine Empire 900-1200,
Cambridge 1989 and W. Treadgold, Byzantine State Finances in the Eighth and Ninth
Centuries, New York 1982.
93 J. M. Hussey, “George Finlay in Perspective”, p. 137f.
94 A. Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776.
95 A. Ferguson, Essay on the History of Civil Society, 1767.