Course of History

Professor NEZU Yukio (European History)

[Theme] Researching the History of the Byzantine Empire

Have you ever heard of the Byzantine Empire? Most probably only have vague recollections of studying something to that effect in world history class during high school. In fact, one reason why so many people have such an impression is that studying the history of lands so far removed in time and space does not seem to hold much purpose for us living here in Japan today.

Since the Meiji Restoration, the study of Western history in Japan has focused on those first world nations that modernized the quickest. Research prior to modernization has also dealt primarily with the leading nations of Western Europe such as England, Germany, and France in the middle Ages, and the Greek and Roman eras in the ancient times that formed the backbone of Western civilization. Thus, the world history I learned in high school went into great detail about the Migration of the Germanic people, the formation and dissolution of France, the Investiturstreit, and the Hundred Year War in the medieval history of Western Europe. Meanwhile, in comparison, the treatment of the history of the Byzantine Empire (which comprised the eastern half of the divided Roman Empire) was almost brushed aside with only a brief explanation touching upon Justinian and his retaking of the empire before suddenly resurfacing in 1453 on the occasion of its fall to the Ottoman Turks (I wonder if this has improved a bit since then). Nevertheless, just because a certain history is not dealt with much in textbooks does not mean that it is not of significance. We may not know much about it, but that history spans beyond a thousand years over consistent human living.

Simply because I chose to study the history of the Byzantine Empire upon entering college, it does not mean I had any sort of special determination. I knew I was going to major in Western history from the beginning, but my interest was largely just an unfocused desire to learn about ancient medieval history. If I had to give some reason why I ended up arriving on the Byzantine history, it was that I had always been a bit contrary; therefore, I purposely wanted to do something different than what everybody else was studying, such as the major powers of Western Europe. Hence, my interest instead turned more toward those nations on the fringe in what was perhaps a greater application of pure curiosity toward unexplored fields of study. Among other things, I also had a vague fascination with the many tribes of people who traveled and conducted trade in the Mediterranean from time immemorial, which could have played a part in my ultimate decision to study Byzantine. Once I actually commenced my research, I found myself dazzled by the many charms of the field. I was especially impressed by the empire's open social system that granted a surprising chance to succeed to anyone with luck and talent, no matter their roots. At any rate, all of this adds up to the fact that I have since then continued my research for over twenty years. But the goal is still far with plenty of road left to travel. After all, I am only trying to study an empire with over 1,000 years of history.

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