SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Eminent Byzantinist and historian Dr. Speros Vryonis, Jr. passed away on March 11 peacefully in his sleep at the age of 90.
Vryonis wrote extensively on Byzantine, Balkan and Greek history. Secondarily, he contributed to the advancement of Armenology through his research in Byzantine history, his unwavering stand against shoddy scholarship and the distortion of history, and his personal participation in the institutional development of Armenian studies.
Incongruously, or at least unexpectedly, combining a Southern twang and courtesy with ancient Greek aphorisms, Vryonis was witty and gregarious. He had the lean physique of a man who used to enjoy boxing and playing basketball. Vryonis admired both physical and mental prowess. He was loyal to a fault to his friends and his students. I had the honor and pleasure of being one of the latter in graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he was a popular lecturer. An eloquent speaker, he had a great sense of humor, sprinkling his lectures with jokes, including Nasreddin Hoja anecdotes, and spotlighting some of the eccentric figures who pop up here and there in Byzantine history.
He was born in Memphis, Tenn. in 1928, where his Cephalonian father ran his bakery and meat plant. Though there were few Greek families there, Vryonis became interested in Greek history, and graduated Southwestern College (now Rhodes College) in 1950, majoring in ancient history and Classics. He went to Harvard University for his doctorate on Byzantine history, which he received in 1956, and later taught there. At Harvard, he was a colleague and friend of Drs. Avedis Sanjian (1921-1995), a specialist in Armenian studies, and Ottomanist Stanford Shaw (1930-2006).
When UCLA began expanding its Near Eastern program, it first recruited Vryonis, and then Sanjian and Shaw. Vryonis came in 1960. He served as the director of the G. E. von Gunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies in 1972-75 and 1979-82. Vryonis held the Chair of Medieval and Modern History at the University of Athens from 1976 to 1979. He left UCLA for New York University to become the first director of the Alexander S. Onassis Center for Hellenic Studies from 1988 to 1993.
Vryonis did post-graduate work at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington and later provided advice for it on Byzantine studies as a Senior Fellow from 1985 to 1991. He served from 1996 to 2000 as director of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism near Sacramento, which was named after Vryonis' eldest son after the latter's death in 1986. The library was transferred to Sacramento State University in 2002 after the closure of the center. Vryonis was an indefatigable collector of books and periodicals, and periodically sold or donated his collections as far afield as Australia (to the National Library of Australia) .
His countless honors include being chosen as Fulbright Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow, Fellow of the American Medieval Academy, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Fellow of the American Philosophical Society. In 2007, Vryonis was appointed American Hellenic Institute Foundation Senior Fellow for Hellenism and for Greek and Turkish Studies. Vryonis had given numerous scholarly lectures around the world, and organized many conferences. Without a doubt, he was a scholar of the first rank who attained world renown.
He published a survey titled Byzantium and Europe in 1968 which still is considered an excellent introduction to this topic. Perhaps his most famous book, his magnum opus, is The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century (1971), which is now considered a classic in the field. In it, Vryonis describes the process by which Turkic invaders Islamicized and Turkified a prosperous and populous Hellenized Asia Minor. Conversely, he shows the influence of Byzantine culture on the succeeding Turkish culture. While the book specifically focuses on the fate of the Hellenized population of Asia Minor, supporting evidence from Armenian history is frequently provided, and many of the destructive or assimilatory forces described also affected Armenians.
Aside from his own research, Vryonis gave direction to scholarship through a critical examination of the works of others. One important example of such analysis is the monograph entitled Stanford J. Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Volume I. Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire, 1280-1808,...: A Critical Analysis. In it, Vryonis marshalled considerable evidence indicating that Shaw's work is derivative of a limited number of secondary sources and is replete with factual errors, contradictions, and the apparent fabrication of historical data. Shaw's work is also marred by the anachronistic insertion of modern Turkish nationalistic viewpoints. Aside from the light this monograph sheds on Ottoman historiography, it also points out specific problems in Shaw's presentation of Armenian history. These include contradictory information on the origin of the Ottoman Armenian millet, and the unfounded claim that Armenians attempted to usurp Kurdish territories in the 16th century.
Vryonis, perhaps more outspoken than even professors of Armenian origin at UCLA concerning Shaw's biased approach – which among other things helped create a school of denial of the Armenian Genocide, paid a price for this in his relations with UCLA faculty and administration.
Toward the latter part of his career, Vryonis began to publish more on issues of modern and even contemporary history. He was worried in particular about the massive distortion of history supported by the Turkish government. In response, he published The Turkish State and History: Clio Meets the Grey Wolf (1991). His volume The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, and the Destruction of the Greek Community of Istanbul (2005) is a meticulously documented work on the Turkish pogroms which targeted Greeks as well as Armenians and Jews in Istanbul.
Aside from concern about Turkish state intervention in academia, he had a second fear, which he expressed in the September-October issue of Greek America Magazine: "I should add that many Greeks and Greek Americans have lost their sense of history, of whence they came, of who they are, and of what they are becoming."
In 1993, Vryonis' students published a two-volume festschrift in his honor: To Hellenikon: Studies in Honor of Speros Vryonis, Jr. Volume II included Armeniaca among its essay topics.
Vryonis played an active personal role in the establishment and support of Armenian studies in the United States. He spoke in favor of the establishment of a chair of Armenian studies at UCLA in the early 1960s, and was on the search committee that brought Avedis Sanjian, soon to become Grigor Narekatsi Professor of Armenian Studies, to UCLA in 1965. He was on Richard Hovannisian's doctoral committee and was the chairman of the search committee which selected him as the first holder of the Armenian Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA in 1987. He served on the doctoral committees of several other students in Armenian studies. Over a period of nearly half a century, Vryonis spoke at numerous Armenian functions throughout the United States and abroad about various issues of Armenian history, including the genocide.
Dr. Vryonis is survived by his wife Badri, sons Demetrios (Victoria) and Nikolas, grandchildren Sophia and Alexander, and other relatives, and was preceded in death by his eldest son Speros Basil. He passed peacefully in his sleep on March 11 at the age of 90. His funeral service took place at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Sacramento on March 20.