Dionysios Stathakopoulos is Lecturer in Byzantine Studies at King's College London. He has previously taught at the University of Vienna and the Central European University in Budapest.
What initially sparked your interest in Byzantine history?
As everyone who looks at Byzantium, I was hooked by the court full of intrigues, poisonings, and eunuchs and fascinated by the gold and gem-encrusted objects. Only when I started to explore this fascinating culture in more depth did I realize its many extraordinary aspects: the openness to talent rather than exclusively noble birth, its adaptability to ever-changing political circumstances and the most interesting of all, the fact that it was a state that for over a millennium managed to still have one foot in Antiquity.
Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
I am a firm believer in retrieving the voice of the voiceless in history – even though in my period this can be at best an act of ventriloquism. The poor and disenfranchised did not write texts and so if we are to trace their history, we have to do it through the accounts of others, more wealthy and literate contemporaries. So I look at the wealthy and powerful (both persons and institutions) and through their discourse I reconstruct the life and behavior of the poor and dispossessed. I am not a big fan of grand figures in history; I much prefer to chart those forces that are invisible to the naked eye and require distance and time to operate. So, panorama rather than zoom.
Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
So much has been lost from the Byzantine world in terms of texts and objects and what little we often have is fragmentary. Hence there are still important debates raging on numerous subjects. This means that with every generation there is a genuine new and fresh look and a whole set of new interpretations. There are still many important texts that need to be excavated from archives and published as well as those awaiting a new and critical fresh look. So, this is an exciting field where hard work can still make a big difference.
Which figure in history would you like to go back in time to meet and why?
I am particularly fond of Julian, the last Roman emperor who was a pagan (361-363). He overcame the massacre of his entire family by relatives and grew into a celebrated general. Once safely on the throne he launched an all out effort to bring the Empire back to the old ways. Though he failed – he was killed in battle just two years into his reign – and though most of our (Christian) sources are vitriolic against him, I find him an intriguing personality. He wrote one of the most humourous texts of the times, the Beardhater, a satire on the citizens of Antioch who genuinely despised him. You’ve got to love an emperor who writes of himself:
For though nature did not make this [his face] any too handsome or well-favoured or give it the bloom of youth, I myself out of sheer perversity and ill-temper have added to it this long beard of mine, to punish it, as it would seem, for this very crime of not being handsome by nature. For the same reason I put up with the lice that scamper about in it as though it were a thicket for wild beasts. As for eating greedily or drinking with my mouth wide open, it is not in my power; for I must take care, I suppose, or before I know it I shall eat up some of my own hairs along with my crumbs of bread. In the matter of being kissed and kissing I suffer no inconvenience whatever. (Translation: W.C. Wright, 1913)
What is your favourite book?
This would be a tie between Mission Box by the Greek author Aris Alexandrou (Athens 1975; Engl. ed. 1996) and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Oddly enough though separated by over two thousand years I think the two are connected – they both talk about war and its impact on individuals, but at the same time manage to take a local event and elevate it to something universal. If you’re thinking about something with links to Byzantium, William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain does an excellent job at linking the Byzantine past with the present. ■
Famine and Pestilence in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire: A Systematic Survey of Subsistence Crises and Epidemics (Ashgate, 2004)
The Kindness of Strangers: Charity in the Pre-modern Mediterranean (Kings College London, 2007)