Cyril Mango

The celebrated Byzantinist Cyril Mango died earlier this month. He has been much mourned – by old colleagues and former students of his, and by those Mango did not himself teach, but for whom learning about the Byzantine period is inseparably associated with his work.

Mango’s scholarship was wide-ranging and catholic in its scope. A colleague at Oxford, Peter Frankopan, eulogised Mango as ‘prodigiously talented and astonishingly versatile, comfortable and adept not only in many languages, but also in disciplines ranging from art and architecture to archaeology, palaeography, epigraphy, numismatics and sigillography’.

It was a little strange to read, in his Telegraph obituary, that Mango sometimes wondered whether his legion scholarly interests might make him something of a jack of all trades, possibly leaving him ‘master of none of it’. He may have wondered about this possibility, but it is nowhere in evidence.

The Telegraph again: ‘In this he was wrong; his breadth of expertise made him an exceptionally complete scholar, respected, even revered, by historians, art-historians and archaeologists’.

The breadth of Mango’s Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome takes in Byzantine literature, art, architecture, religious practices, science, all manner of culture. It is an invaluable aid to someone attempting to learn of the period, and an elegant statement in favour of history which is not narrowly specific but rather holistic, capacious, and humane.

Mango is equally interesting on practical subjects, like the strength of the imperial currency and the exigencies of the Byzantine world of commerce, and esoteric beliefs about the Byzantine conception of holy judgement and what they believed about the nature of animal consciousness. In art, he writes with equal interest about the classical styles Byzantium inherited, and the uniquely Byzantine forms which arose after the splitting of the Roman empire into two and the defeat of the West.

By his death, into his tenth decade, Mango had become the sort of scholar for whom everyone seems to reserve the word ‘doyen’. His younger colleagues relished his presence at Oxford’s Byzantine seminars, and many enjoyed recounting stories of his contributions to these meetings in memoriam.

Enthusiasts of Byzantine studies mourn Mango as a ‘titan’ of their field. That word and its synonyms seem to recur on social media at close to every mention of his name. His obituarists do not fail to mention the appropriateness of Mango’s having been born in Istanbul under Ataturk, to a cosmopolitan Levantine family, so I cannot omit the same.

Dipping my own toe into the pool of Byzantine studies at university when learning about late antiquity, Mango’s presence on every reading list was a given, as was his authority on each area of discussion.

From my notes of the first lecture establishing the setting, I transcribed: ‘Cyril Mango – greatest living Byzantinist – calls Procopius one of the Greek language’s best historians.’ We were thus encouraged to read Procopius. Mango’s endorsement was felt to boost the status of one of the essential primary sources of the period.

Less facetiously, why is Mango held in such consistently high regard? All the obituaries and memories committed to print agree. In a word, ‘brilliance’, something that was in evidence in Mango from an early age.

‘When Sir Steven Runciman [most famously a historian of the crusades] asked to be shown around the city [of Istanbul] by its best guide, he was surprised to be met by a young Cyril Mango – and even more surprised that the teenage boy was not only ferociously intelligent but already in possession of an encyclopaedic knowledge of the former imperial capital’, wrote Frankopan.

Mango attested to this himself, when speaking to the oral history project of Dumbarton Oaks (an institution where he worked): ‘I am … very largely self-taught’, he said.

Another aspect of Mango’s intellect can be caught on the edge of remarks from the same interview: he had a rarely-matched head for languages. ‘The papers were not difficult to read. They were mostly in Italian, you know, so there was no difficulty there’.

As Frankopan noted: Mango, whose background was multicultural and multifarious, ‘was brought up multi-lingual, speaking Greek to his father, Russian to his mother and French as a family – while equally comfortable in Turkish, Italian and Spanish.’ A better foundation for assessing a Mediterranean imperial culture, both Greek- and Latin-speaking, could not have been designed.

Personal brilliance and writing aside, Mango’s participation in institutions appear to have guaranteed his place in the memories of those who mourn his death. 

The Telegraph again: until recently ‘he remained an active presence at Oxford’s Byzantine seminars, a tutelary god of his discipline for all’. Judging by all that has been said since Mango’s death, that description does not appear an overstatement. A giant of the field is gone, and keenly missed.

This piece was originally published at The Critic.

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