Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Why do We Forget Byzantium?

There are several areas of history I sometimes get a little annoyed that people know so little of. Partly, I guess, is that history is written by winners. The legatees of the legatees. But sadly, it often leads to a skewed perspective of history.

The main myth that really annoys me is the myth of the dark age. It's a pernicious myth . The universal era of ignorance. It never happened, not in the way it is presented. The common perception is that with the fall of Rome in 486 AD, all knowledge was lost, Europe looted by ignorant thugs and then all knowledge lost as an ignorant church taught everybody the world was flat.

It's a myth, of course, invented to suit Anglocentric perceptions. Because what actually happened with the fall of the Western Empire, was that Britain dropped out of European culture and was lost for a time. And only gradually came back. Britain went through a dark age, but it went through it alone. Scandinavia too, was in a dark age, but then, it had been in one before. It hadn't been part of the classical world.

The reality is, for most of Europe, the period between the fall of Rome in 486 and the eleventh century isn't a dark period at all, civilisation soldiered on, largely due to the unifying power of the universal church, but also due to something else.

The fact that the Roman Empire didn't end with the fall of Rome.

I suppose to us Brits, when we study the anglo saxon invaders and we look back at the murky period between the last legions leaving and the conversion of Ethelred of Kent, we kind of see it as universal. Rome collapsed, Barbarians invaded, civilisation returned slowly, the medieval culture was a new start. It wasn't.

The Barbarians who invaded the rest of the Empire didn't replace those they conquered. Roman civilisation never died. The reason why France and Spain still speak Romance languages, is because Roman culture carried on.

The real truth is to do with the Emperor Constantine. Whatever you say about him, he was a visionary. And he seems to have grasped something crucial. Firstly, that Rome was on the wane unless something drastic was done. Secondly, he realised that the civilisation the Roman Empire made possible, was the real thing to save.

His first decision seems to have been that Christianity could provide a unifying force to keep that civilisation intact. His second decision was that the capital of a Christian Imperium would be better off in the heart of the strongest Christian provinces- he decided to abandon Rome. To tactically divide the Empire. Persians on one side, Goths, Vandals, Lombards, Franks etc on the other.

From his time on, there were two Empires- a Western one, based in Rome, and an eastern one, based in the city of Byzantium- now renamed Constantinople.

The Western one lasted under a hundred and fifty years after his death. The Eastern one had a thousand years yet to live.

The collapse of the Western one wasn't so very dramatic. What happened was that the barbarians kept coming in and pillaging, so the Emperors began to make deals. They gave them provinces. But these provinces retained Roman Law. In fact, the early Visigoth Kings in Spain technically held a dual mandate. They weren't Kings of Spain. They were Kings of the Goths IN Spain and Consul for the Emperor, OF Spain.

The chieftain who finally removed the last, and by this time wholly insignificant Western emperor, was the ruler of a people called the Heruli, but his victory was short lived, the Ostrogoths kicked him out, and even their victory was a flash in the pan.

For, during a period when no one really knows anything about the island of Britain at all, a kind of Roman revival happened.

Justinian the Great was possibly one of the Greatest roman emperors of all time. Because at this time, the Eastern Empire is still, essentially, a Roman one. In fact, when you hear the words 'Roman Canon Law' referred to, this is your man. The Code of Justinian, a compilation of all Roman Law ever issued, was the work of this Emperor.

But also, he restored the empire to ALMOST the giddy heights of old. He reconquered much of Southern Italy and ALL of North Africa, bringing most of the old Empire back under a single rule. In fact, the only bits he DIDN'T reconquer, were Gaul, Spain- and Britain.

But the Frankish Kingdoms in Gaul were hardly uncivilised. They still retained Roman law and Roman officials. In Gaul, the Roman period would pass seamlessly into the medieval. The Dux Bellorum, would becomes the Duke, the Comes Civitas, the Count.

Civilisation progressed in these areas, it never declined. The learned of the Middle ages knew many things they had learned in the so-called dark ages. What caused tides, the fact that diseases were caused by contagion, for most of Europe, life still marched forward.
And if you lived in Spain, they marched forward even faster. The Muslim conquest of Spain created a society Islamophobes like to ignore, a stark contrast to the religious intolerance of it's later Christian rulers, a Muslim state where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together quite happily, and Muslim scholars invented algebra, named most of the stars, first distilled alcohol and first experimented with what became known as alchemy.

But at the heart of this world, the crucial factor in it, was that the Mediterranean remained a hub of culture. At no point did civilisation disappear from its rim.

And for much of its existence, the Byzantine Empire was the standard bearer of Christian states. The inheritor of Rome's mantle. The bulwark of Europe against the East, first Persia, then the Islamic world. It guarded the knowledge of the ages, it guarded the culture that later Europe would spring from.

It's history is so central to the history of Europe. For example, it is why there is an Eastern Orthodox church. The reason is simple. The rise of the Franks to become the main power in Western Europe, meant the Pope found he had a potential ally in his power struggles with the Emperor. So he made Charlemagne, the Frankish King an Emperor. Roman Emperor, in fact. Thus begun the Holy Roman Empire. This resulted into the separation of Europe into two spheres, a Western world in which the Pope was supreme and all rulers were subject to him, including a Western emperor, who was really a Frankish King, the language of this sphere being Latin.
And an Eastern Europe, where the Byzantine emperor is paramount, all states in this region owe him allegiance, and the Church is subject to him.

Incidentally, the cultural dividing line is still with us. Serbs and Croats speak the same language. They can understand eachother's speech.
Just not their writing.
Croats use the Latin alphabet and are Roman Catholics. Serbs write in Cyrillic and are Eastern Orthodox.
All Eastern Orthodox countries were at some time or other in the Eastern sphere and recognised, in some sense, that the Byzantine Emperor was head of the Christian faith.

In a sense, the Empire becomes less important to Western Europeans after Charlemagne's coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800AD- the next two hundred years would see the 'Western' sphere solidify into pretty much the same states that would exist up until Napoleon's time. But it still dominates the history of Eastern Europe and much of the Middle East. The curious ethnic mix that is the Balkans was largely determined by Byzantine history, the history of the Crusades makes less sense unless we understand Byzantine history, indeed the plunder of Constantinople by the army of the Fourth crusade in 1204 is one of the most fascinating and inglorious events of European history.
We cannot even really understand the history of Christianity without it.

And of course, in a very major way, it affects Europe today. Still. In one of those funny little awarenesses that no one quite gets.

The mindless plundering of the Fourth Crusade was largely motivated by greed. The fact was, the crusading leaders owed too much money to the Venetians and couldn't afford to fight the Infidel, so they thought they'd try a get rich quick plan. And since the Byzantines happened to be going through a bit of a political crisis at the time, and since they were the wrong sort of Christians, they were fair game.

The Empire never really recovered. The crusader states set up in 1204 over its territory were soon destroyed by a kind of Greek revival, but it was a swansong. The Ottoman Turks picked its provinces off piecemeal, and by 1453, the Muslim Sultans of Turkey ruled over most of what Justinian once had.

It was no more, the world of Eastern Christendom, that other Christian world, where the Emperor, not the Pope, ruled over church and state.
And yet- it was. Byzantium had an heir.
When the new Slavic states had appeared and decided to become respectable by embracing Christianity, they'd had to choose which sphere to belong to. Poland and Croatia, of course, opted for the west. Bulgaria and Serbia, decided for the East. But Bulgaria and Serbia were no more, just provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

But there remained a Slavic people, a Slavic state, just one, that had embraced the religion and culture of the Byzantine state and still survived. And whose rulers were now conscious that they were the sole heir of an entire culture not under infidel rule. And the irony was, their country was far beyond the bounds of land ever trod by Roman legions.

The Grand Dukes of Moscow.

But it was not long before their rulers decided that as the sole heirs of the Orthodox Imperium, they should honour that legacy.
And they took the title of Caesar. Tsar.

The rest of Europe always looked askance at Russia. It has always been seen as not really Europe, even though most of its main cities are in European Russia. I don't think this is because of its vast Asian outback. It's that separate legacy, the fact that until last century, the heirs of Byzantium were Muslim Turkey, and Orthodox Russia. Turkey had the land, Russia had the culture. And it's that, that Russia was the outsider to WESTERN Christendom, that alive in Russia was- and still is- a history that does not belong to Western Europe. Russia could never have been, had not Byzantium survived long enough to pass the embers of the torch it had carried since Constantine to the Russian Grand Dukes, the last defenders of its culture.

The strangeness of Russia, isn't the strangeness of Asia, it's the strangeness of Byzantium. Far from being Asian, it's distinctly European. It's just the only remaining example of that OTHER type of Christendom that most people are unaware ever existed. Because we can no longer count the Orthodox states of the Balkans in this category. They are something different now, Christian countries that were once ruled by the Turks. Only in Russia can we see what all Eastern Europe might have been like, had the Fourth crusade never happened.

I realise this post hasn't remotely done justice to the fascinating history of this Empire- how can it, it lasted over a thousand years, over twice as long as Emperors sat in Rome. I note that I haven't even said much of any of it's more interesting rulers. I suppose I just wanted to direct people's attention to this fundamentally important story in world history that is so often neglected. If you want to read more on it, the best history ever written of it, is probably George Ostrogorsky's History of the Byzantine State, which I'm guessing you can probably still get in most bookshops. But even if you don't fancy going into it in great depth, if you're remotely interested in history, this is one Empire, that really cannot be ignored to the degree it so often is.

Everyone alive today can give thanks, that for a time, it held civilisation together.


Anonymous said...

You mean the world isn't flat? Are you sure? What happened after the Goblins invaded Middle Earth and King Ceaserium stole the sceptre of the Merpeople?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. If you haven't seen it before, you might find my post Notes from underground: St Constantine, Scapegoat of the West interesting as well.

Another thing I noticed -- in the prelude to the break-up of Yugoslavia there were numerous op-ed propaganda articles, syndicated in the Western press, stressing that the Croats were Western, Latin and civilized, while the Serbs were Oriental, Byzantine/Ottoman and barbarian. And a few months later Yugoslavia fell apart into quarrelling factions -- but the Western propaganda that preceded the break-up was part of the softening up process, aimed at preparing people in the West for what would happen, and to enlist their support for the side billed as "Western".

Anonymous said...

I do enjoy these history posts crushed. cheers!

Anonymous said...

Crushed are you a history buff then? I do like the refresher as well!

Anonymous said...

Generally an interesting post about Constantinople and the Eastern Empire. Spoiled for me by just a hint of unjustified cultural self hate. You were praising the virtues of Moslem Spain, I figure to make the point.

Yes there were positive things under more enlightened rulers, there and elsewhere. But it depends on having enlightened rulers. Also don’t forget (from memory)…

Conquest by force. Extra taxes for non Moslems. Laws preventing Christian owned building over a certain height. Laws preventing Christians physically defending themselves if attacked by Moslems, etc.

Also, sack of Constantinople not withstanding, in the end, what finally put paid to Constantinople was conquest. It was over run by the Ottoman Empire, the Hagia Sophia, the eastern equivalent of St Peters, was desecrated and turned into a mosque and those laws that made conversion to Islam almost inevitable were instituted.

I guess what your post does suggest is to wonder… without all that conquest and re conquest, mostly in the name of religion of one flavour or another. Without all that where would we all be now?

Would you, or someone like you, (taking one of your thoughts) have written your post in a city on Mars? Maybe Novo Constantinople? Or would someone still be trying to figure out how to build a brass difference engine for a powerful noble in Constantinople?

I wonder if Steve does not put too much faith in the sinister western free press. Does he really figure the Yugoslavians read it and decided to shatter into factions, etc. as a result? Talk about the pen being mightier than the sword.

Anonymous said...

Crushed I agree Byzantium needs more attention paid to it. On one point Bryan Ward Perkins's work definitely suggests that there was an economic collapse in the West after 400. Peter Heather suggests the same thing in his recent history of the empire. Its worth noting that Justinian's invasions of Italy had a disastrous economic effect there too. Another key point that I think you don't mention is the way that Byzantium's structure changed after the Persian war of the early seventh century and the Muslim invasions- there are good reasons to say that it was no longer a classical state after that in the form it had been before.

For those interested- more up to date that Ostrogovsky, Judith Herrin has just published a volume on the empire which is well worth a read.

Anonymous said...

Mutley- I'm reasonably sure, yes.

Though I think one of the models Tolkien used for Gondor was Byzantium. Though there are others. But Minas Tirith clearly holds the position in Middle earth of the late Third age that Byzantium did to early medieval Europe.

Steve- One thing I reflected on as I read your post there was how much the earlier history of schism and religious controversy within the Christian faiths is neglected in favour of focussing on the later controversies.

I remember once trying to explain to someone the complex history of the dysophysite position and how it really was a tightrope position between arianism and Nestorianism, so much so that Monophysitism fell foul, and even Monotheletism didn't cut it.
And of course the whole Iconoclast- Iconodule controversy really had ramifications way beyond. I think, if I remember right, Charlemagne used it as an excuse for taking the Imperium, that Irene was not only a woman, but a heretic.

I think the Serbs have had a hard deal, yes. I remember as a tenn my history teacher said 'I used to think that the Serbs were innocent in 1914. But looking at the news now...'

And I was shocked. Here was a supposedly liberal man stating in front of teenagers he judging historical events by racial stereotyping!

Interesting Romania has been able to become a unity though. After all, Moldavia and Wallachia belong to the Eastern sphere. Transylvania, in spite of what is thought, belongs to the history of the West.

Kate- I enjoy writing them too, actually :)

It's the story of how we got where we are. The most interesting story of all.

Cat- I guess I always have been, in a way. I don't see history as a dead subject, not at all. History is a process. If you choose to treat it properly, it's understanding the foundations of how we set systems of living up, it's understanding how we came to conclusions in the first place, it's the experiments we tried in what works and what doesn't.

History is our collective memory. It's the story of the life experience of every human life that went before, in some way.

How can you have faith in the future unless you listen to the past?
And I don't mean as so many do, that we should OBEY the past. they wouldn't have wanted that. Christ, they had to live through it. I think they'd hope- if anything- we'll LEARN from them.

Moggs- I think Muslim Spain is one of the key pointers against the idea that Islam is an inherantly intolerant faith.
You point to legislation passed by these states making non-muslims second class citizens.

Edward I give all Jews and Gypsies three months to pack their bags and go.
And we NEVER allowed the gypsies back. It's why the UK doesn't havereal Romanys.

And please compare the expulsion and enforced conversion ofr the Marranos and Moriscos to how Christians were treated under Muslim rule.

No, the Caliphs of Cordoba didn't treat Christians as equals. But they were prepared to live with them, even learn from them.

The UK couldn't even allow FELLOW Christians to vote until 1829!

I guess i feel that the Byzantine empire is forgotten, because it lost, and lost to the Turks, themselves excluded from being the ultimate winners of history. Not because they lost, but were sidelined. So this is a history of a legacy that got passed on, then when we all felt clevere and smarter, we forgot the debt we owed.

We forgot that for Western Europe to have flourished, Charlemagne needed to repel the Islamic invaders.
And a Westetn christendom develop protected by the Dardanelles and able to learn to stand on its own feet again.

Byzantium was there to protect the Barbarian inheritors whilst they grew up.

Gracchi- Well, the empire changes radically during the reign of Heraclius.

I think it might have been when Maurice was overthrown that the crowds yelled 'Give the Empire a Roman Emperor, give the empire a Christian empire'.

anyway, heraclius reign changed everything. Not only did Greek replace Latin, but Islam triumphed in what had till then, been important provinces.

In my view, his reign marks a dramatic shift from being the Eastern Roman Empire, to being a Greek Imperial state, actually highly centralised- I'm not sure but I think the demes were founded soon after- a state essentially which saw itself not only as being the guardian of civilisation, but also the protector of Christendom against the infidel.

I think that's when it became the Byzanhtium that lives on in Russian culture- the archetypal Eastern Orthodox culture.

I generally incline to the view- ref my series on human systematic development- that for Western wurop, the classical period lasts up until the eight century, and then the medieval period starts. There are no dark ages.
The eighth century marks a profound geopolitical cultural shift in so many, many way.

Because it is when the Europe of the Middle Ages is formed. Up until then, it is still the culture of the Roman empire.

Even in Byzantium, the year 800 is a good cut off point. The height of the Iconoclast controversy, the end of an old dynasty, the start of a new era in which the Byzantines actually do noticably deal differently with neighbouring peoples. We see the start of the Balkan states, for example.

Ostrogorsky is a little dated, I realise. And the theories then current regarding the circus factions is now disputed. I'll have to check out Ms Herrin.

Anonymous said...

Crushed, I absolutely agree, you wouldn't have wanted to be a secret Moslem, or Jew, in Spain under the inquisition. Or be accused of being one, even if you were not.

My point is still valid.

And it was not so much tolerant as smart, recognising that passively persecuting, making things uncomfortable and expensive over time is often even more effective than actively persecuting. Also a nice little earner.

Ask anyone who smokes...