Skip to comments.Review: How the Byzantines Saved Europe
Posted on 08/18/2009 6:27:29 AM PDT by Nikas777
Review: How the Byzantines Saved Europe
Posted by JOHN COURETAS
on MONDAY, AUGUST 17, 2009
The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Edited by Elizabeth Jeffreys, John Haldon, Robin Cormack. Oxford University Press (2008)
Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin. Princeton University Press (2008)
Ask the average college student to identify the 1,100 year old empire that was, at various points in its history, the political, commercial, artistic and ecclesiastical center of Europe and, indeed, was responsible for the very survival and flourishing of what we know today as Europe and youre not likely to get the correct answer: Byzantium.
The reasons for this are manifold but not least is that as Western Europe came into its own in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, Byzantium gradually succumbed piecemeal to the constant conquering pressure of Ottomans and Arabs. When Constantinople finally fell in 1453 (two years after the birth of the Genoese Christopher Columbus), Europe, now cut off from many land routes to Asian trade, was already looking West and South in anticipation of the age of exploration and colonization. Byzantium, and the Christian East, would fall under Muslim domination and dhimmitude for centuries and its history would fade away before the disinterest, or ignorance, of the West.
This condemnation to oblivion as the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies, describe it, is no longer quite so true as it once was. New exhibitions of Byzantine art in Europe and America have been hugely successful in recent years and travel to cities with Byzantine landmarks and archeological sites in Greece, Turkey and the Balkans is easier than ever. Academic centers throughout western Europe and the United States host Byzantine Studies departments, scholarly journals proliferate, and a new generation of scholars has elevated the field from what once was a narrow specialty.
The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies is a useful, one volume reference work that would well serve both the scholar and general reader with an interest in Byzantine culture. The editors have prefaced the volume with a detailed assessment of the Discipline, the state of scholarly learning on everything from art history to weights and measures. Other sections examine Landscape, Land Use, and the Environment; Institutions and Relationships (including the economy); and The World Around Byzantium. Each of the nearly two dozen subheadings include concise chapters with references and suggestions for further readings.
For those interested in the economic life of Byzantium, the Handbook offers an account in Towns and Cities that describes agricultural, commercial and industrial activity, and charts a decline in these areas during periodic invasions by various waves of Slav, Avar, Persian and Ottoman peoples, or bouts of the plague. Where political and military fortunes turned favorable, as in the 8th and 9th centuries, economic life enjoyed a parallel revival. Regional cities became economic centers, places like Thessalonike, Thebes (silk textiles) and Corinth, where glass, pottery, metals and textiles were produced. In his chapter on the Economy, Alan Harvey relates how Constantinople, in the 12th Century, was clearly a bustling city with a wide range of skilled craftsmen, merchants, artisans, petty traders. There was also a transient population of various nationalities, in addition to the more settled presence of Italian merchants.
And, because it was a Christian empire, the Handbook has a lot to say about the Byzantine Church, its relations with the Empire, and its developing rivalry with Rome, especially as the papal reform movement took hold in the 11th century. The Emperor and Court chapter in the Handbook should also go some way toward a better understanding of late ancient state formation, a subject the editors say has received remarkably little attention by historians and political theorists.
Writing in the Handbooks summary chapter, Cyril Mango catalogs the achievements of Byzantium but also adds that historians have not credited [the empire] with any advance in science, philosophy, political theory, or having produced a great literature. Maybe the Byzantines had other ambitions. James Howard-Johnston asserts that the ultimate rationale of Byzantiums existence was its Christian imperial mission.
That conviction, widely shared in a thoroughly Orthodox society, was the shaping influence on its foreign policy. It provides the basic, underlying reason for Byzantiums tenacious longetivity, for its stubborn resistance in the opening confrontation with Islam, and, even more extraordinary, for the resilience shown in the last three and half centuries of decline.
For the general reader, perhaps a better place to begin to illuminate the black hole of Byzantine history is Judith Herrins fine book, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. A senior research fellow in Byzantine Studies at Kings College London, Herrin sets out to trace the periods most significant high points as clearly and compellingly as I can; to reveal the structures and mentalities which sustained it. Her aim is to help the reader understand how the modern western world, which developed from Europe, could not have existed had it not been shielded and inspired by what happened further to the east in Byzantium. The Muslim world is also an important element of this history, as is the love-hate relationship between Christendom and Islam.
Byzantiums ability to conquer, Herrin writes, and above all, to defend itself and its magnificent capital was to shield the northwestern world of the Mediterranean during the chaotic but creative period that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Without Byzantium there would have been no Europe.
Her organizational scheme begins with Foundations in Byzantium, which looks at the cultural roots in the East Roman Empire (indeed, citizens down to the end routinely referred to themselves as Romans or Orthodox Christians, never Byzantines). This section also includes discussions of Greek Orthodoxy, religious architecture and art (including Hagia Sophia and Ravenna) and Roman Law. The other main sections of Herrins book examine the transition to and establishment of a Medieval period, when the great theological battle with iconoclasts was waged and the missionary work to the Slavic peoples by Sts. Cyril and Methodius was accomplished. She ends with the tragic sacking and desecration of Constantinople and its churches by Latin crusaders in 1204, the last desperate attempts by Constantinople to enlist the aid of Rome and western nobles as the Ottomans slowly tightened the noose around the empire, and the fall of the Queen City in 1453.
Herrin has a particular gift for the personal anecdote and psychological insight, as when she is writing about court intrigues, the institution of being born in the purple, and Byzantine women, including the remarkable 12th century princess Anna Komnene. Her Alexiad, an account of the reign of her father the emperor Alexios I Komnenos composed in classical Attic Greek, was a significant work of history. No other medieval woman, East or West, had the vision, confidence and capacity to realize and equally ambitious project, Herrin writes.
Readers interested in the soundness of money a problem that has been around as long as there has been money, it seems will take note of the lasting value that the Byzantine gold coin, known as the bezant in the West, famously retained among traders for centuries. This reputation for value remained even after a devaluation in the 11th century. In the 6th century, a Byzantine merchant noted that there is another mark of power among the Romans, which God has given them, I mean that every nation conducts its commerce with their nomisma [gold coin], which is acceptable in every place from one end of the earth to the other In no other nations does such a thing exist.
As she concludes, Herrin reveals that she hoped to show that far from being passive, Byzantium was active, surprising and creative, as it reworked its prized traditions and heritage. It bequeathed to the world an imperial system of government built upon a trained, civilian administration and tax system; a legal structure based on Roman law; a unique curriculum of secular education that preserved much of the classical, pagan learning; orthodox theology, artistic expression and spiritual traditions enshrined in the Greek Church; and coronation and court rituals that had many imitators.
She succeeds and, in doing so, sheds light on an amazing European culture that for too long in the West has been cast into the shadowy recesses of history.
They didn't really need protection ~ they needed to be bathed!
Fortunately, and barely in time, Byzantine soapmakers arrived as refugees in Venice and other "hot spots" and civilization recovered ~ well, at least "chemistry" recovered. In the meantime French knights crushed the remaining Islamic outposts in Spain.
The rest is history.
The birth of the modern administrative state - so complex it is "Byzantine."
Byzantium was still a magical place in Napoleon’s time. I understand he proposed to make the City the capital of his world empire.
He invaded Russia because they would not stop trading with the British.
At this point in time Napoleon was arrogant to the Nth degree.
If he had instead allied with the Russians in a joint invasion of the Ottoman empire if the Russians cut off trade with England he would not have lost his army and empire at the gates of Moscow.
Of course neither France nor England wanted Russia to have a warm water port and because of this the French and British a generation after Napoleon allied with the Turks to fight the Russians in Crimea.
The Turkish empire was preserved by the so called Christian nations of the West because it boxed in Russia.
So much for Christian unity....
Byzantium / Hagia Sophia ping!
Along with the coin - a merchant speaking only Greek (Greeks at this point called themselves Romans as a political identification as we call ourselves Americans) could travel from Britain to India speaking only Greek and he would have found someone who could understand him.
Give Hagia Sophia back to the Orthodox Church! Let it be what it was built to be—a house of God and a center of Orthodox Belief!
Bump for later.
” The Turkish empire was preserved by the so called Christian nations of the West because it boxed in Russia.
So much for Christian unity....”
We expected nothing better, N. We are fools if we do to this very day.
Well, the Christian nations could not get their acts together after about a Christian army was whipped at a place on the lower Danube. In part it was because there was two popes, and then later it was because we Latin wanted the Greeks to eat crow. So while the Turks were threatening Constantinople, we were squabbling over theology. Later we have the Protestant Reform and another religious split, Luther didn’t give a tinker’s dam if the Turks overran Europe. God’s judgement and all that. The Lutheran princes used the Turkish threat to get concessions out of the Emperor. The Hapsburgs managed to stop the Turkish advance, no thanks to France or England. Thank God the Turks had indolent sultans during our Confessional wars.
But, hey, I have been dashing off stuff you know, The trouble is that not even
the students of the elite schools are aware of this, and I have yet to see this narrative on the History Channel. But do they care?
Pretty good summation.
If, of course, you ignore the Carolingian Renaissance. Don’t forget, it was a Frankish army under Charles Martel that defeated the Muslims at Tours. It was a combined Roman and Frankish army under Aetius that defeated the Huns at Chalons-sur-Marne. Western Europeans defeated the Vikings by converting them to Christianity (almost a third of the First Crusade was Viking) and they drove the Muslims from Spain.
It’s just about the largest building still intact from ancient times. The maintenance costs would bankrupt Orthodoxy in Turkey.
The Moslem converts and settlers in SW France relocated to Spain. I know it's popular to give Charles Martel credit for convincing them to do so, but economic and social factors also played a part. Frankly, France in that period was entirely too primitive to support the kind of city life that'd was a hallmark of North African and Arabic lifestyles.
By the 16th Century they were rapidly becoming the greatest power in Northern Europe, and during the Thirty Years War the Swedish Army definitely kicked some tail. (We also recall that earlier the Swedish Army set up the Swedish Empire).
I'm not sure today's Viking descendants would agree with you that the Vikings had actually been defeated or that such action was really necessary!
Two out of the last three major leaders of Russia/USSR have been obvious Viking descendants ~ Gorbachov and Putin. Yeltsin was obviously of Slavic "Great Russian" descent.
The last 42 US Presidents have clearly had Viking ancestry (most of them quite provable), and ALL the kings and queens of England since the 11th century have had Viking blood.
You Greek perhaps? Western European people today have no fear of Vikings and look back proudly at their rugged and resourceful ancestors who plundered the world with tiny boats.
No, I’m not Greek. By defeating the Vikings, I mean ending the Viking raids that terrified Europe. This was not accomplished through force of arms on a battlefield (although Harold II of England did defeat a Viking invasion from Norway in 1066). Rather, it was accomplished through evangelism- the Norse people were converted to Christianity. Their conversion coincided with the end of those Viking raids. After that, the Norse became more involved in trade and commerce. The Hanseatic League is a good example.
You would probably be interested to know that the 1st Crusade was roughly one third Greek or Byzantine and one third Frankish (men from the Frankish successor states of France and the Holy Roman Empire). The rest came from areas controlled by the Norse, making nearly a third of the entire Crusade Viking.
Nope, you didn't quite Christianize all of them.
I am sure Putin’s Russia would help with the upkeep of Haja Sophia. It should be a museum yes, but also a church like St. Peters in Rome.