"George Soulis and the Slavic Connection"

by George P. Majeska, University of Maryland

[Abstracts, Byzantine Studies Conference 1996, p. 9]


George Christos Soulis was a special scholar in many different ways. An ardently patriotic Greek deeply devoted to Greek culture of various periods, he chose to view the Byzantine Empire with the eyes of what others would have called "an outsider". But to Soulis, Byzantium was not a state with geographic frontiers, but rather a Weltanschauung, a shared set of values that knew no geographic or political boundaries, but could be recognized by its visible cultural fruits. That was why he was so successful in interpreting not only Serbian history, but also the history of other pieces of the medieval Balkans -- be the pieces Serres or Tziganes. Soulis conceived the Byzantine Empire as a great mosaic with indistinct (and often changing) edges. He felt that illuminating now one area of the mosaic, now another, would eventually improve our perception of the whole composition. Too often people concentrated on the center and never noticed the periphery and thereby missed basic relationships that made the mosaic work together as a unified composition. He tried to change these age-long habits, often purposely looking at the center from the edges of the composition.

Soulis chose to work in America where he would be free to view Byzantium from whatever perspective he chose, even from the perspective of the geographic outsider of the Byzantine core or from the perspective of the provincial or ethnic edges of the polity. Someone who had the special sensitivities of a cultured Greek patriot and could view the Empire "of the Romans" simultaneously from the Slavic provinces of a still recognizably Byzantine world had much to offer modern scholarship.

Mirabile dictu, George Soulis managed to convey some of this vision of the Byzantine Balkans to a few ruddy scrubbed undergraduates in the heart of Hoosier land, a very unlikely place to find a cosmopolitan Epirote. I am not sure how many of the facts or how much of the explanation that Soulis tried so hard to get across to them they will remember. What they doubtless all remember of Soulis' lessons, however, is three things: that all history is based on primary sources, even in undergraduate courses; that drawing historical conclusions is hard and painful work; and that it is impossible not to work your hardest for that demonstrably decent professor up there.

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