Holmes, Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025)
Annotation author: Guthier, Sophia Sonja
Book author: Holmes, Catherine

Catherine Holmes, Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025)(Oxford Studies in Byzantium), Oxford 2005

Dr. Catherine Holmes is a historian who specializes in the politics and culture of the Mediterranean world, including Byzantium, between the tenth and early fifteenth centuries. She is particularly interested in frontiers, in relations between different religious and ethnic groups, in comparative political culture, and in the Global Middle Ages. Together with Naomi Standen (Professor of Medieval History at Birmingham and a historian of medieval China), she has led a large network of scholars in an AHRC-funded network project ‘Defining the Global Middle Ages’ (2012-15). She is also involved in another collaborative cross-cultural project which examines political culture in the medieval West, Byzantium, and the Islamic world.

Holmes’ work Basil II and the Governance contains 8 chapters, divided in four parts: The opening chapter lays bare the bones of the modern models and the medieval evidence relating to Basil’s reign. Above all, this chapter demonstrates the extent to which a very narrow reading of Michael Psellos’ account of Basil’s reign dominates the modern historiography.  Holmes compiles and briefly discusses all the available medieval sources for his reign.

The second part (chapters 2 to 4) is a detailed discussion of the late eleventh-century Synopsis Historion by John Skylitzesand its treatment of the reign of Basil II: In chapter 2, Holmes summarizes and analyses the small, scattered body of scholarship which has been dedicated to this author and his text. In chapter 3 she presents a detailed textual analysis of Skylitzes’ use of source materials. Then (chapter 4) she explores the literary, social, and political contexts behind the Synopsis Historion.

In the third part (chapters 6 and 7), Holmes moves on to use the historiographical analysis established in chapters 1 to 5 to construct a picture of governance in Basil’s Byzantium which more accurately reflects later tenth and early eleventh century political and administrative realities. These chapters are primarily concerned with the exercise of political authority in three frontier regions of Byzantium: the east, the Balkans, and southern Italy.

In Holmes’s view these two themes are related because the ‘distorting mirror’ of medieval Greek historiography on Basil’s reign makes it necessary to construct a ‘picture of governance’ which more accurately reflects later tenth and early eleventh century political and administrative ‘realities’. This, she says, may best be done by comparing the evidence of other surviving medieval historiographies (in practice this means material in Latin, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian and Syriac) with that of other written sources (saints’ lives, letters, military handbooks) and, particularly, with sources provided by the sigillographic record.

In the fourth part (chapter 8) Holmes proposes her own ‘reconstruction’ of the period in light of the findings.

Holmes’ Basil II and the Governance of Empire is an excellent book, in which she presents a well-argued summary of where ‘problem areas’ in the study of Basil II remain. This book may be considered compulsive reading for anyone, that is interested in the field of Basil II’s Governance from 976 to 1025.