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Imagining Pre-Modern Imperialism: The Letters of Byzantine Imperial Agents outside the Metropole

AnnaLinden Weller, Rutgers University, Junior Fellow 2013–2014

During my term at Dumbarton Oaks, I completed my dissertation project, an investigation of the letter collections of Byzantine imperial agents who were based outside of Constantinople. Through three case studies, two in Greek and one in Armenian, I explored the use of epistolary communication in maintaining community ties and reinforcing Byzantine imperial ideology under the pressure of encounters in the liminal space of the frontier. By pairing a literary analysis of the letters with a social-historical analysis of the networks of communication that they represented, I demonstrated that middle Byzantine epistolary texts were an important location for the expression of normative ideology—that is, letters allowed their authors to present a vision of the Byzantine oikoumene that was in accordance with the universalist imperial project of Byzantium, whether or not they actually experienced this project as a success while serving the empire. In addition, my Armenian case study brought into this discussion of letters as a locus of Byzantine imperialism a non-Byzantine, “indigenous”/“colonized” voice, albeit one that used Byzantine aesthetics and participated in Byzantinesque cultural production as well as pro-Byzantine political activity. By including this Armenian source, I show how a literary form that is used by Byzantines to reinforce Byzantine ideology can be coopted for non-Byzantine use as well as accommodated to Byzantine cultural expansion. I submitted and defended this dissertation at Rutgers University near the end of my fellowship.