Recently I had been thinking about how I could use twitter to enhance this blog as well as my new blog about the life, times and friends of Patrick Leigh Fermor, when I came across Sean Munger’s amazing twitter site (I still don’t quite know what you call twitter related stuff). Sean has given himself the almost impossible task of condensing the whole of Byzantine history to a series of 140 character or less ‘tweats’. I was all admiration and thought this fitted so well with the theme of the blog – making Byzantium live for people today – that I invited Sean to explain more about his project.
The CryForByzantium Project
By: Sean Munger
“Cry For Byzantium” – http://twitter.com/CryForByzantium – is an experimental project that seeks to spread the word of ancient and medieval history through modern social networking technology. Twitter is a site where users broadcast short messages, 140 characters or less, to other uses who choose to “follow” them. While most people “tweet” about news events, current trends or what’s happening to them on a day to day basis, the CryForByzantium feed tweets events from the history of the Byzantine Empire in order. Many of these messages resemble what various Byzantine emperors might have said if they’d actually had Twitter in the medieval phase of the Roman Empire. I also run a blog which gives some background and context to the project
The tweets are a fun and entertaining way to put the reader into historical events. For example, just before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in which he defeated Maxentius for control of the Western Empire, Constantine the Great tweets: “27 October 312. The people of Rome are for me. Today at a chariot race they jeered Maxentius and said I’m invincible!” More than 200 years later Justinian tweets, “13 January 532. A huge demonstration in the Hippodrome—against ME! The crowd is shouting ‘Nika, Nika!’ STOP, YOU FOOLISH PEONS!” During a pitched battle with the Persians, the Emperor Heraclius posts: “Sorry, can’t tweet right now…*dodges arrows*…in the middle of a battle! You there, close the gap! Don’t let them get through!” I suppose it’s a stretch to envision Byzantine emperors charging into battle with iPhones and Blackberrys in hand, but I thought it would a fun way to make history live.
CryForByzantium updates four times a day: at midnight, 6:00 AM, 12:00 noon and 6:00 PM (U.S. Pacific time). I write the tweets ahead of time and then upload them to a website where Twitter users can schedule future tweets (www.twaitter.com). I have a pretty extensive library of Byzantine history books at home, having become an aficionado in 2005, but most of the source material comes from the wonderful 3-volume history of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich. I’ve also consulted the works of Warren Treadgold, probably the premier Byzantinist in the United States, with whom I had the great pleasure of having lunch several years ago.
I began the CryForByzantium project in July 2009. The narrative began with the proclamation of Constantine as Roman emperor in 306 A.D., and I intend to continue right up through the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. After 10 months and 1,186 tweets as of now (late April 2010) I’m up to the first deposition of Justinian II in 705 A.D. Having to write in the “voice” of the various emperors who’ve come and gone—some brilliant, some foolish, some wise, even some who are obviously insane—is a challenging task, and it’s even more challenging to condense the very complex concepts in Byzantine history, especially the theological ones, to make them accessible on Twitter. (Try explaining “Monothelitism” in 140 characters or less!) But judging from the feedback and “@ replies” I’ve had, many of my followers treat the story as an ongoing soap opera, with twists and turns, battles, intrigues and explosive events that always keep them on the edge of their seat. I have 331 followers now, and virtually all of the feedback has been extremely positive, demonstrating that I think there really is a demand for history in popular culture, even one as fast-paced and technologically driven as ours has become.
There is a precedent for using Twitter to spread historical knowledge. Two other very successful history-related accounts are WWIIToday (http://twitter.com/WWIIToday), which posts fascinating facts and links about World War II, and JQAdams_MHS (http://twitter.com/JQAdams_MHS), where the early 19th century journals of John Quincy Adams are tweeted in condensed form on the 200th anniversary of their entries. CryForByzantium is probably most similar in approach to the J.Q. Adams project.
Just a little about me: I refer to myself as a “recovering attorney,” having practiced commercial real estate law on the West Coast for 12 years. This fall, however, I’m returning to graduate school to get an M.A. and possibly a Ph.D. in history, which is my true life’s passion.
I am sure we wish Sean all the best with the project and let’s all subscribe (or follow) to support a fellow Byzantinist.