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jonathan shea

dumbarton oaks/George Washıngton Unıversity

Jonathan Shea is a historian of the Byzantine Empire and sigillographer. His research interests include the development of towns and cities across the medieval world, the mechanisms of empire, and interaction between Europe and the Middle East. He has taught courses ranging from the history of the crusades to Byzantium in the tenth century. Jonathan also works at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection where he studies and catalogues the collection of Byzantine seals. These objects provide information on the social standing, careers, piety, and family connections of thousands of individual Byzantines, and can also be used to explore the structure and evolution of the Byzantine state, army, and church. Jonathan is currently working on a history of the Byzantine administration, and the thousands of people who worked to keep the empire running.

Politics and Government in Byzantium. The Rise and Fall of Bureaucrats

The eleventh century marked a turning point in the history of the Byzantine Empire. At its start Byzantium was the paramount power in the Mediterranean world, by turns feared, respected and admired. By the century's close the empire had lost half of its territory and had managed only a partial recovery under the leadership of the Komnenos family. How did a powerful and famously wealthy empire collapse so quickly?

The contemporary accounts of this turbulent 'long' century (taken here as c. 950–1100) attribute the empire's decline to the emperors' reckless and self-serving favouring of civilian bureaucrats and, while these sources are today widely acknowledged as biased and unreliable, modern assessments of the century have hitherto failed to suggest any tangible alternatives. To circumvent this dearth of archival material, Jonathan Shea's paper focuses on 2,200 unpublished seals from the period (more than a third of the known total extant today) to uncover exactly whom the emperors were favouring and promoting, as well as developing a nuanced and revealing picture of the makeup of the much-chastised civilian bureaucracy. The sigillographic evidence is throughout measured against the written material to give a fresh account of this key transitional century and a rare insight into Byzantine politics.