Byzantine Mysteries Unraveled
When President Reagan delivers a speech, Thor Sevcenko notes, nobody assumes he wrote it himself.
Conversely, says the professor of Byzantine History and Literature, "When an emperor writes a text in the 10th century, everyone thinks he is the author."
As a matter of fact, for more than 300 years, Sevcenko says, scholars have generally thought that a 10th-century manuscript chronicling the life of Basil, a ninth-century Byzantine emperor, was written by the ruler's grandson, the emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus.
However, as Sevcenko begins putting on the finishing touches to 10 years worth of on-and-off editing and translating of that particular text, he adds that the conventional wisdom is apparently wrong.
The book--the only secular biography coming out of the Byzantine period--"purports to be the life of the grandfather by the grandson," says the 61-year-old scholar. "I purport it to be the life of the grandfather by a ghost-writer."
Byzantine Sherlock Holmes
One of the world's foremost authorities on the culture of the Byzantine Empire, which lasted from the fall of Rome (476) to the fall of Constantinople in 1452. Sevcenko has spent most of his adult life conducting such types of scholarly detective work.
In fact, for almost all of his adult life, Sevcenko has been digging through the labyrinthine texts and manuscripts of the age, starting with his coming of age in wartime Eastern Europe 40 years ago.
The only son of Ukrainian emigres, Sevcenko was born just outside Warsaw in 1922. After his graduation from a lyceum in 1939, the 17-year-old Sevcenko seized on a chance to leave that beleagured city and his job of selling books on the street.
He journeyed to Prague, where he lived out the war years in relative safety, earning his first doctorate in classical philology--the study of Greek and Latin linguistics and literary texts--in 1945.
"I was much better off than most of the people of my generation," remembers Sevcenko, speaking from his book-lined Widener study. "You have to have had a certain amount of luck and instinct for survival to survive through those years--even in a relatively sheltered existence."
A true survivor, Sevcenko started a long trek west as Germany began to collapse, stop-pint first in Belgium, where in 1949 he earned a second doctorate, again in classical philology at the Catholic University of Louvain.
In Belgium, the budding university professor also became acquainted with the field of Byzantinology--introduced by a famous University of Brussels scholar, Henri Gregoire.
And ever since then, Sevcenko has added his long and varied academic career to this sparsely populated field, most recently as a tenured professor in the Classics Department completing his first decade at Harvard.
In the United States, Sevcenko has also taught and researched at the University of California, Columbia, and the University of Michigan, as well as spending eight years at Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard's prestigious research center in Byzantine and Medieval Humanities located in Washington, D.C.
Besides his current research at Harvard, Sevcenko also advises four graduate students on their Byzantium-related theses, as well as teaches seminars on Byzantine texts and a popular freshman seminar on the fall of Constaninople.
"As I saw it," Sevcenko says, recalling the reasoning for his career choice, "classical philology was an activity in which you were more like a curator in a wonderful museum, rather than a person who can count on the excitement of discoveries with any chance for success."
"If you are after discoveries, you are better off as a Byzantinist," he continues. "All you have to do is read unpublished manuscripts."
Sevcenko, as it turns out, has done much more, and in doing so he has won a reputation as an unusually broad-based scholar not only with skills in analyzing the Byzantine Greek and Latin texts, but also in linguistics, understanding the nature of manuscripts, and historical analysis.
"One of his great strengths is that he's recognized as an all-arounder more than any other Byzantinist," says Giles Constable, director of Dumbarton Oaks.
Sevcenko would probably be pleased with this description, as he explains, "I dabble in various aspects of the Byzantine history and literature," adding, "The easiest way of combining them is through intellectual history--first, in the sense of what went into the heads of the Byzantine elite." Having spent many years analyzing the first tier and its complexities. Sevcenko says that he is now studying the thinking of the so-called "second tier" of citizens below the elite--the sort "that determines the character of an epoch."
In attacking these sorts of problems, the scholar has almost never taken a "survey" approach like many scholars in the field, as attested by Sevcenko himself and his colleagues. "What's odd is that he covers a vast range of material, and he almost always comes at it from a particular source," says Constable.
This often means studying a certain text and trying to draw broad conclusions--as Sevcenko has done with the chronicle of Basil's life, which has dominated much of his research for the last decade.
He says the manuscript was "botched" in the first go at this 300 years ago--particularly in the identification of the emperor, and not a ghost-writer, as its author.
But as he gets ready to finish his translation and editing of the manuscript, Sevcenko describes textual evidence that disproves 300 years of commentary.
"I still may be wrong," says Sevcenko, summing up his approach not only to the problem, but to academics in general. "But I am at least talking common sense.