Daniel Barbu, Bizanţ contra Bizanţ. Explorări în cultura politică românească [Byzantium versus Byzantium: Explorations into the Romanian Political Culture]. (Bucharest: Nemira, 2001). 304 p. ISBN 973-569-501-4
Bearing a title transparently reminiscent of N. Iorga’s influential “Byzance après Byzance”, this book by Daniel Barbu, a historian from the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Bucharest, has proven to be one of the most seminal publications of recent years in Romanian historiography. Following in the footsteps of renowned (post-) Byzantine scholars such as Valentin Al. Georgescu and Andrei Pippidi, and the historian of mentalities, Alexandru Duţu, the author explores the dynamics of the relationship between norms and social practices in Romania (basically Walachia and Moldavia) from the 17th to the 19th century.
This pre-modern period, called by the author Vechiul Regim – ‘Ancien Regime’ to avoid inappropriate labels taken over all too often from Western politics, is examined and defended against the more detrimental clichés, such as Iorga’s image of the continuation of Byzantine life north of the Danube. Byzantium was thought by Iorga to have continued living in the complex of institutions, as a civilisation composed of a Hellenic intellectual heritage, the Roman law, the Orthodox religion and its materialization in the arts. Such a reality would constitute a set of norms that would not allow for the import of Western practices during the 19th century [added ref.: Titu Maiorescu]. In fact, Romanians, Barbu argues, were not at all ‘born as post-Byzantine’: as Valentin Al. Georgescu put it 20 years earlier, Byzantium was a strong image of reference, of definition, but often used only in order to be surpassed and fought against. In such a way, the Romanians used the image of Byzantium to create their own non-Byzantium: they used social practices taken over from a ‘Byzantium after Byzantium’ to give content to a set of norms that Barbu proves not to be Byzantine at all (pp. 16-17). All the cultural imports from this surviving Byzantium (systematically inventoried by Iorga) are likely to be, despite the material witnesses that we have, no more than the expression of a horizon of expectations maintaining a normative political ideal. On the other hand, the non-Byzantium may be pictured as the experimental space, where practices are made up.
As a consequence, Barbu favours the idea that ‘Byzantium after Byzantium’ is but one of the expressions of the lasting reality that has been the affliction imposed by the “expressions without fundamentals” on Romanian society. One can speak therefore of the existence in the pre-modern Romania of a dormant conflict between the formal ‘Byzantium after Byzantium’ and the fundamental ‘non-Byzantium’ or ‘Byzantium against Byzantium’, a fact particularly obvious when the system of justice and the application of law are analyzed.
According to the author, Romanian patriarchal society was not a society ruled essentially by divine or natural law, as the Byzantine had been. Until it became acquainted to and open for Western forms of political and juridical organization, justice in Romanian society was guaranteed and executed quite arbitrarily by the prince and did not depend on public and generally accepted laws. Justice is essentially synonymous with forgiveness on the part of a devoted prince; consequently, the law is (one with) the faith. In reality, Orthodox Christianity is to be defined not theologically, but in terms of customary law and rituals. As Barbu puts it, ‘Romanian Orthodoxy is more of a tradition without faith than a tradition of faith’ (p. 96). Thus, ‘for the Romanians, Orthodoxy has been less of a personal faith or set of beliefs, than it has been an organic law called to organize and govern a social body.’ (p. 97). It has been not about believing in the Saviour of the Gospel, but has meant chiefly the submission to a general body of opinion. Such conclusions regarding the role of Orthodox Christianity in Romanian pre-modern society, if held a bit too vehemently, would certainly help to alter the detrimental, artificially created, image of Romanian Orthodoxy as the one truly lived Christianity. This historiographic misconstruction is regrettably often employed by theologians or other spokesmen of the Romanian Orthodox Church.
This interesting book is rounded off by a large bibliography and a useful index. To sum up, it is a book for specialists, historians and theologians, but also for politicians and the general reader. It is, in effect, a book that has a great deal to teach the reader not only about the past, but also about the present and the future of the Romanians and Romania in the newly shaped Europe. It would therefore not be excessive to say that this volume is expected to be a landmark in historiography, and one surely hopes that this contribution will represent a challenge to other researchers in the field. This volume should be translated into an international language, since it certainly deserves a wider attention.
Dragos Mirsanu (Leuven)
This book review has appeared in The Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, 57, no. 3-4 (2005) 319-321.