Revolutions, Byzantines, and the Cyclical Conception of History

By Doctoral Researcher Francisco Lopez-Santos Kornberger 

The modern concept of a revolution as a progression towards social equality or democratic political reformation is not the only way to view revolutions.

Reflecting on BRIHC’s recent Revolutions… roundtable event, Francisco Lopez-Santos Kornberger explores the Byzantine idea of revolutions as cycles through naturalised social orders. 

A review of the roundtable

I recently had the pleasure of attending BRIHC’s Roundtable, Revolutions, past & present: their legacy & future organised by Research Fellow Ilya Afanasyev. The Roundtable aimed to discuss the political roles of historians and social scientists in theorising and writing about revolutions, as well as the legacy of such revolutionary processes, and how academics can contribute significantly to ongoing revolutionary processes. The four researchers contributing to the roundtable were; Gilbert Achcar, Courtney J Campbell, Tom Cutterham, and Lucie Ryzova.

Achar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS University of London, argued that historians must teach using “historical perspective” in order to understand present events. To further his argument Achar invited historians to use the term “Revolutionary Processes” instead of viewing revolutions a single event. Achar argues that revolutions can be studied as an ongoing process, experiencing different stages. Achar also called for historians to distinguish between immediate results of a revolutionary process and its long-term contributions to emancipatory values.

Campbell, Lecturer of Latin American History at the University of Birmingham, added to the discussion using examples from Brazilian recent history. Brazil have no national history of successful revolutions, the revolutions of the 60s being considered failures. As such, Campbell argued that the recent history of Brazil inhibits the expectation of revolutionary success.

Cutterham, Lecturer of US History at the University of Birmingham, contributed as a researcher on the revolutionary war in the United States. The narrative of these events is changing from the idea of a war of liberation, to a violent civil conflict in which race played a key role. In this light, the conflict would be similar to often-vilified struggles such as the Russian Revolution. Close to Achcar’s point on the historical perspective, Cutterham encouraged historians to teach students to ‘think historically’ so they may see historical processes in perspective.

Ryzova, Lecturer of Middle East History at the University of Birmingham, commented the example of the revolution in Egypt as a moment of popular empowerment. Gradually, this and any other revolutionary process lose cohesion and the process is eventually considered as concluded. Ryzova considered that new revolutions such as the Arab spring in Egypt are remarkably different from previous examples. This new type of revolutionary processes is characterised by violence outbursts and urban battles. This prompted the debate over what defines a revolution, after the floor was opened up for questions. The debate focused on aspects such as the aforementioned division between past revolutions and recent ones. Whereas some participants focused on the new elements of episodes such as the Egyptian revolution (urban fights), others deemed these ideas to be insufficient for defining a new type of revolution, or a new historical period. The debate on periodization is a constant in the study of History. What characterises a modern revolution compared to a past revolution?

Byzantine reflections

I wondered how eleventh-century Byzantine history, my field of research, could contribute to our debate on past and present revolutions and the role of the historian on the latter. Revolutions are difficult to spot in Byzantium at a first glance. It mostly depends on our definition of “revolution”, a topic that arose towards the end of the debate. If someone looked for evidence of a “modern” revolution in eleventh-century Byzantine history, little would emerge, unless they also included usurpations of the existing ruling class or the ascension of a new ruling class due to external invasions. These examples do not resemble the kind of revolutions that were discussed by the panel. Instead the examples use a more literal meaning of revolution; a regime change.

The revolutionary changes of Byzantine history were usually considered the loss or recovery of the naturalised traditional order. Eleventh-century Byzantine historians depicted many events of their political reality as cycles of perversion and restoration of the ideal political order. Saints, heroes, and legends, as well as nostalgia for ideal “golden eras”, were used as a means to characterise the ideal society, and to contrast against the current Byzantine political affairs. Therefore, what modern historians would define as substantial mutations in past societies, were often depicted, at the time, as cycles of change. These cycles of perversion and restoration were used to delegitimise current institutions and customs, and to effectively promote changes, depicting them as a return to desirable eras. The “Gregorian Reformation”, one of the most famous examples from the eleventh century political change, was formulated as a restoration of an idealised society. The key question was, what was the ideal order?

According to a fifteenth-century account in Historia Anglicana, John Ball, a thirteen-century English priest and revolutionary, criticised the aristocratic rights arguing: “Whan Adam dalf, and Eve span, Wo was thanne a gentilman? (When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?)” (Thomas Walsingham, Historia Anglicana, II, 32-3). Ball’s revolutionary and anti-aristocratic statement was based on an idealised golden era of Adam and Eve, conceiving a world without lords, that many found not only possible to consider, but also desirable. In this vein eleventh-century Byzantine author, Kekaumenos, criticised those who mocked an emperor for his low-born condition, by contradicting the idea of rulers needing to be from the nobility:

I say that all men are the children of one man, Adam, both kings, and rulers, and those who seek their bread. I have seen men, snorting with pride, who turned to thefts, and divinations, and magic; these are the ones that I say are ignoble.
Kekaumenos, Consilia et Narrationes (SAWS edition, 2013); English translation by Charlotte Roueché.

These are historical examples of conceptualisations of a societal structure that differed from the traditional power structure of aristocracy at that time. An idea that would come to symbolise many future revolutions.

However, a modern concept of a revolution, seen as aprogression towards societalsocial equality or democratic political reformation, is not the only way to view revolutions. Just as the Byzantines sought to return to idealised societal values, so too can we see that reflected in current affairs. From Boris Johnson’s invitation to “take back control of our democracy” to the already iconic slogan “let’s make America great again” we can see that societal disconformity is often conceptualised as nostalgia for previous political paradigms. In light of this, we should not view pre-modern times as essentially different from our times. The cyclical conception of history has not disappeared from our modern world. Conceiving the past, and future, as an overlapping web of societal ideals, that rise and fall, may well be a persisting pattern in human societies, equally as much as the lineal conception of time itself.

Including what was discussed during the Roundtable, these examples can inspire thoughts on how we define and record modern revolutions, as well as call for consideration on the role of the modern historian. Historians are charged with not only observing and analysing the events of past and present revolutions, but must also examine the historical, political, and theoretical climate surrounding the revolutions. Common sense statements about the contextual politics and society can mutate, and that should be into consideration when observing the role of the historian in current revolutionary processes.

Francisco Kornberger

Francisco Lopez-Santos Kornberger is a doctoral researcher in the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. His proposed thesis title is Power in Eleventh-Century Byzantium: Re-thinking its Nature from an Interdisciplinary Approach.