Reshaping the World: Utopias, Ideals and Aspirations in Late Antiquity and Byzantium- 24th International Graduate Conference of the Oxford University Byzantine Society
"There is nothing better than imagining other worlds – he said – to forget the painful one we live in. At least so I thought then. I hadn’t yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one."
– Umberto Eco, Baudolino
It is the creative power of imagination that Baudolino described to a fictionalised Niketas Choniates in this dialogue from Eco’s homonymous novel (2000). The creation of idealised imaginary worlds has the power to change the past, the present and the future. When imagination is directed towards more worldly goals, it becomes aspiration and such aspiration can influence policies of reform. When imagination is unrestrained, utopias are born. The Oxford University Byzantine Society’s twenty-fourth International Graduate Conference seeks to explore the impact utopias, ideals and aspirations had in changing the course of history and, therefore, how imagined or alternative realities shaped the Late Antique and Byzantine world(s), broadly understood.
‘Utopia’ is relatively understudied in the field of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies. Major existing works tend to focus on either Late Byzantine philosophy – for example Siniossoglou (2011) on Gemistos Plethon – or on certain aspects of utopia in Late Antiquity; most recently Neil and Simic (2020) on utopia and memory and Papadopoulos (2021) on the ‘idea of Rome’. Our conference, however, seeks to encompass not only the more well-studied philosophical and theological avenues of the subject, but also to reach out to, and integrate, research from the disciplines of history, philology, art history, archaeology and material culture studies.
Literature is the natural habitat of idealisation. Fictional realities and utopian societies are common in works of Byzantine literature; however, a broad understanding of utopia also includes allegory as a versatile tool for rearranging a written reality and allowing alternative readings to spring from long-established ‘classics’ like the Iliad or the Song of Songs.
Similarly, recent approaches to historiography have emphasised the influence of authorial conceptions of the ideal in the creation of a historical narrative. Shawcross (2009), for example, has discussed the construction of a ‘feudal utopia’ in the Chronicle of the Morea. The writing of history in Late Antiquity and Byzantium often entailed judging historical figures and contemporaries alike against ideal ‘models’ — be they Biblical, classical or from living memory. This is even more true for encomia, where, under the cover of praising the current ruler, rhetors could urge the pursuit of particular virtues and advocate for their personal vision of ideal rulership.
Naturally, aspirations go beyond the textual dimension; they are often manifested as
reforms – whether legal, administrative, martial, economic or religious – but they can also be realised architecturally and visually. Examples include the renovation of Byzantine cities to mirror their heavenly counterparts, and numismatic imagery which visually depicted victory and concord. Similarly, as Canepa (2009) and Hilsdale (2014) have demonstrated, the giving of luxury gifts as part of diplomatic exchange can be interpreted as evidence for efforts to propagate and maintain an ideal of ecumenical rule through displays of cultural supremacy. Art, architecture and material culture strove to reproduce – sometimes even just symbolically – those same imaginaries. Every church represented an imagined or desired world: as Marinis (2014) has observed, their architecture mirrored a theological structure
which represented both our world and the next. These are the utopias we see – or could formerly see – and their very existence altered the world.
Our conference seeks to join the ongoing dialogue on utopias, ideals and aspirations in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies by providing a forum for postgraduate and early-career scholars to reflect on this theme through a variety of cultural media and (inter)disciplinary approaches. In doing so, we hope to facilitate the interaction and engagement of historians, philologists, archaeologists, art historians, theologians and specialists in material culture. To that end, we encourage submissions encompassing, but not limited to, the following themes:
· Theological and/or philosophical usage of utopias in the depictions of the ideal
society, of the afterlife, or to serve a particular worldview;
· Political, administrative, martial, economic and religious reforms as embodiments of
aspirations or ideals;
· Allegory as both a literary and philosophical tool that endowed texts with new and
· The ‘Byzantine novel’ and utopias: sceneries, characters and endings;
· ‘Chivalry’ in Byzantium as a form of utopia, for example in works such as Digenis
· Language purism as a form of utopia;
· Encomia, hagiography and historiography used to cater to and curate idealised
· Numismatics, for example the depiction of harmonious imperial families on coinage
in defiance of ‘reality’;
· Gift-giving and exchange of luxury goods to communicate ideals or aspirations;
· The performance of ceremony and ritual to suggest the continuity, legitimacy and
permanence of imperial power;
· The ideal city in various artistic media, for example frescos and manuscript
· Utopian ideas conveyed through material objects like seals or epigraphs;
· Utopia and manuscript culture, for example the ‘perfect book’, illuminations of
utopia/dystopia, and ‘idealised’ writing styles; and,
· Byzantium as a utopia in the post-1453 imagination.
Please send an abstract of no more than 250 words, along with a short academic biography in the third person, to the Oxford University Byzantine Society by Friday 19th November 2021 at email@example.com. Papers should be twenty minutes in length and may be delivered in English or French. As with previous conferences, selected papers will be published in an edited volume, chosen and reviewed by specialists from the University of Oxford. Speakers wishing to have their papers considered for publication should aim to be as close to the theme as possible in their abstract and paper. Nevertheless, all submissions are warmly invited.
The conference will have a hybrid format, taking place both in Oxford and online. Accepted speakers are strongly encouraged to participate in person, but livestreamed papers are also warmly welcomed.
The OUBS committee,