Obituary: Professor Dionysios Zakythinos

Anthony Bryer
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:23

Dionysos A. Zakythinos, historian, born Lixouri Kephallonia 1905, died Athens 16 January 1993.

BYZANTINISTS, like the empire they study, are a peculiarly international community. In Greece Byzantinists suffered untimely losses in Laskarina Bouras in 1989 and Doula Mouriki in 1991, both lively art historians. They were survived until 18 January by a much earlier generation, Constantine Trypanis (obituary by Peter Levi, 21 January) and Dionysios Zakythinos. One generation could not have come without the other.

From 1821 Greek scholars have had problems with handling their Byzantine past, just as did Turkish historians with the Ottoman Empire a century later. Both 'revolutions' or 'wars of independence' had been fought partly against the concept of empire, whether based in Constantinople or Istanbul, and both were rewarded with the newfangled notion of a nation state (complete with a National Debt) whose citizens had to wear trousers. In Paris young scholars conceived national histories and ended up ruling Albania, Romania or Vietnam. But Dionysios Zakythinos entered the beginnings of a quite different sort of historiography in Paris, later called the Annales School, with a concern for social and economic history which by extension brought Byzantium in Greece, and the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, into a different and common light.

Zakythinos's credentials were impeccable for such a task. He was born an Ionian Islander in 1905. After graduating from Athens University in 1927, his acknowledged masters in the Sorbonne in Paris were Charles Diehl (1859- 1944) and Ferdinand Lot (1866- 1952), giants in any academic genealogy; but Hubert Pernot (1870- 1942), the neo-Hellenist, and Germaine Rouillard, a pioneer of Byzantine rural economic studies, were there too. His thesis was an edition of a golden bull of the Grand Komnenos Alexios III of Trebizond in favour of Venice in 1364, and is a model. In 1932 come the first volume of his major work on the Despotate of the Morea. Held up by the war, the second volume was not published as a book until 1953, when it was still unusual in tackling demographic, fiscal and social aspects of late Byzantine Greece, as was his lest major work of 1972, a balanced study of Ottoman Greece in the Tourkokratia.

Dionysios Zakythinos held chairs in Byzantine and Modern Greek History in the University of Athens from 1939 to 1970 and at the Panteios from 1951 to 1965. He was founding director of the Byzantine Research Institute in Athens. As President of the Athens Academy, Foreign Fellow of the British Academy and Honorary President of the International Association of Byzantine Studies, academic honours fell upon him. After the fall of the Greek junta in 1974 he was elected a New Democracy member of parliament and minister until 1977. But by example this kindly and careful Cephallonian may best be remembered for ridding Greek Byzantine historiography of past problems, exemplified by the work of generations of students - one of whom became Rector of the Sorbonne.

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