The most striking characteristic of Byzantium was not its Christianity, spelled out in its historic councils and conversions, and celebrated in immense churches like Hagia Sophia or in the domestic intimacy of household icons; nor its Roman organization and administration and imperial self-belief; nor its enduring ancient Greek inheritance and system of education: it was their combination. This dated back to the fourth century with the creation of the new capital, its monuments and harbours, which rooted Byzantium in a rich ecology of traditions and resources.
Yet the modern stereotype of Byzantium is tyrannical government by effeminate, cowardly men and corrupt eunuchs, obsessed with hollow rituals and endless, complex and incomprehensible bureaucracy. Montesquieu developed these caricatures during the seventeenth century as he tried to explain the reasons for the decline of the Roman Empire, and Voltaire gave them greater prominence, adding his own passionate elevation of reason above religion. While the former dismissed ‘the Greek Empire’, as he called it, because of the excessive power of monks, attention to theological dispute and an absence of the recommended separation of ecclesiastical from secular matters, the latter could condemn it utterly as ‘a disgrace for the human mind’. Perhaps both were also provoked by Louis XIV’s use of Byzantine models as a means of celebrating despotic kingly rule.
Gibbon’s more familiar account in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which extended to 1453, built on these features and identified Byzantium as a ‘passive’ link with Graeco-Roman antiquity. In itself, he argued, it was of no interest except that it connected the classical period to the barbarian nations of Western Europe and ‘the most splendid and important revolutions which have changed the state of the world’. Perhaps the most forthright expression of Byzantium’s negative reputation belongs to the nineteenth-century Irish historian William Lecky. In a withering, misogynistic judgement, he claimed:
Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been no other enduring civilization so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet ‘mean’ may be so emphatically applied… The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude.
As I hope to have shown, 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 classical, pagan learning; orthodox theology, artistic expression and spiritual traditions enshrined in the Greek Church; and coronation and court rituals that had many imitators. In the sixth century, the merchant Cosmas Indicopleustes also noted:
There is another mark of the power of the Romans, which God has given them, I mean that every nation conducts its commerce with their nomisma, which is acceptable in every place from one end of the earth to the other… In no other nation does such a thing exist.
For centuries after the fall of the Queen City to the Turks, the term ‘bezant’ was still used, redolent of the famed reliability of Byzantine gold. Despite the eleventh-century devaluation, the name bezant provides an echo of the gold coin’s powerful contribution to trade in the early Middle Ages, when Byzantium protected the growth of Venice and other Italian city-states.
Artistically, its silks and ivories set standards for beauty and craftsmanship, while its images still continue to inspire icon painters in orthodox communities throughout the world. Theologically, its intense, century-long inner struggle with the iconoclast strictures of the Ten Commandments, precipitated by their forceful adoption by Islam, became a reference point for Puritans nearly a thousand years later. Its ability to conquer 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.
During this critical early-medieval period, when the Arabs stormed out of the desert to capture the Holy Places of the Jews and the Christians and the granaries of Egypt, only Constantinople stood in the way of their ambitions. Had the fortifications of the Queen City and the determination and skills of its inhabitants – emperor, court and people – not ensured the security of this defensive system, Islam would have supplanted Byzantium in the seventh century. Having accomplished the conquest of Damascus, Jerusalem, Alexandria and the Persian empire, the Muslims would surely have overrun the Mediterranean empire created by Rome, once they had incorporated Constantinople with its resources and revenues, its shipyards and commercial networks. In the same way that they progressed along the southern littoral of the Mediterranean into Spain, they would have advanced across the Balkans to dominate the northern shore as well.
Byzantium was thus partly defined in rivalry with successive Arab states, and relations between Christianity and Islam had a formative influence in the empire’s development. As we have seen, its initial contact with Islam in the seventh century came as a complete surprise. Byzantium’s historic defeat of Persia distracted attention from what seemed at first no more than tribal marauders, if with a chiliastic twist. Instead, the appearance of the Arabs under the banner of the Prophet turned into a long trauma. The impact of their immediate military triumphs in the decade 632/42 forced Byzantium to withdraw into Asia Minor, abandoning the most holy centres of Christianity, as well as some of the earliest monastic sites in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. Yet it was also able to beat off many Muslim sieges of its capital and to hold a border at the Taurus Mountains. The rise and frustration of Islam resulted in a formative three-way division of the ancient world into unequal parts: the Muslim east which extended from Syria and Egypt across the coast of Africa and deep into Spain; the western part which adopted the name ‘Europa’; and the eastern part which remained the core of Byzantium.
During the first protracted encounter with Islam, Byzantine consternation at the Muslims’ enduring military success was coupled with condemnation of their theology. It was considered a heresy, albeit rather different from other seventh-century doctrinal errors. While Byzantium later accepted that Islam was a revelation from the same one God, they were slow to develop any detailed knowledge of the Qur’an, or the claim that Islam had replaced Christianity as the true revelation. Instead, arguments long used in Christian polemics with Judaism were refashioned and turned against the new opponent; vigorous dialogues were produced to reassure the Christian side while condemning the Muslim. In the eighth and ninth centuries, these took on even more strident forms with the development of Byzantine iconoclasm – both a reaction to Islam and a means of consolidating the empire to combat the Islamic challenge.
After 750, internal strife and civil war among the Muslims led the Abbasid dynasty to move the capital from Damascus to Baghdad, on the banks of the Tigris in Persia. The rise of the Abbasids split the Islamic world into rival caliphates, leaving the Umayyads based in Spain. This eased pressure on Byzantium. Although the new centres of Muslim power in Baghdad and Cordoba were now more distant from Constantinople than Damascus, they remained a focus of constant negotiation. Byzantium tried to maintain diplomatic relations with all the rival Islamic authorities.
From the eleventh century onwards, other Muslim peoples reshaped the Islamic world. In their long journey west from Mongolia, the main activity of the Seljuk Turks was to defeat all opposing forces and capture and sack major cities for booty. In the eleventh century, as they conquered Baghdad and made it their capital, they first came into contact with Byzantium. Their Sunni beliefs made them hostile to all Shi’ite authorities in Islam, such as the Fatimid dynasty based in Cairo. When Fatimid control over Jerusalem was broken by the Seljuks, Byzantium and the Christian West were inspired to regain the Holy Places. And the triumphant recapture of the city for Christianity in 1099 was achieved in part by the crusaders’ exploitation of the divisions between many local Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. Finally, after nearly eighty years, Christian control was reversed by the Kurdish general Saladin in 1187.
For Byzantium the differences between Arabs and Turks were clear. The Seljuk Turks were a Mongol people speaking an ancient Uighur language (which is a common tongue still in use today from Turkey to the Far East, where it is spoken by the Muslim minority in northern China). The Seljuk and later Ottoman Turks were not Arabs by culture or history, and initially they demonstrated their determination to challenge established Muslim authorities rather than Christian ones. Their move into Asia Minor and towards the Queen City occurred almost as a detour, when they realized that there was no serious opposition to prevent their advance. As they gradually replaced imperial control in Asia Minor during the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, Byzantium recognized them as a new hostile force, divided into several distinct emirates, and tried to come to terms with their military victories. Eventually the Ottoman Turks united a larger force that crossed the Dardanelles in 1354 and began the conquest of the western provinces of the empire.
Soon after this dramatic event, Constantinople found itself surrounded on all sides by the Ottomans, in quite different circumstances from the Arab besiegers of the city seven hundred years before. Their long exposure to the empire had helped to transform the Ottomans from nomadic tribes to a settled people. While they built mosques for prayer and caravanserais to assist overland trade with the Far East, they had adapted Byzantine administrative traditions and imperial norms, absorbing ancient skills. At the same time, Byzantine centres surrounded by the Turks flourished for centuries in a symbiotic relationship with them, for instance in Trebizond, where the Grand Komnenoi maintained Christian rule by making alliances with their Muslim neighbours and later overlords. Considerable intermarriage among the rulers of these states engendered continuing tolerance and exchange.
In 1391 the newly installed emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos, had inherited from his father the status of an Ottoman vassal and was obliged to pay considerable taxes and to campaign by the side of Sultan Bayezid I. After military operations that summer, the emperor accompanied the sultan to a camp near Ankyra in Anatolia, where they went out hunting by day and feasted by night. This happened several years before Manuel’s visit to London and Paris, discussed in the previous chapter. As the winter drew in, with the first snowfall, low temperatures and long dark nights, Manuel and his companions devised a way to pass the time. They would debate with the local Muslim müderris (a technical name for a religious judge or teacher, qadi) about the relative merits of their religions. In this philosophical way, they would fill the evenings and provide some thoughtful entertainment. Manuel II was a prolific writer of letters and rhetorical exercises in the ancient Greek style, and he later set out his version of the wintry discussions held near Ankyra in a considerable volume of 300 pages.
This aspect of Byzantium’s legacy was picked up by Pope Benedict XVI in the special lecture he gave in Regensburg, his old university town, on 12 September 2006. He chose to cite a particularly harsh attack on Islam from the seventh section of Manuel II’sDialogue with a Persian, written some time after 1391. He quotes the emperor as saying:
Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.
Suddenly, the name of a hitherto obscure though scholarly ruler of late Byzantium was to be found on the front pages of serious newspapers. The emperor’s words were deployed to legitimize what seemed to be a frontal assault on the nature of Islam – and for a moment Byzantium was recruited into the ‘war on terror’. The pope himself in footnotes added later said that he only quoted the passage to emphasize his agreement with Manuel II about the ‘the essential relationship between faith and reason… without endorsing his polemic’. In this, he displayed an ignorance of Byzantium, for the full version of the Dialogue is much more complex and curious than the tiny snippet selected, with its unequivocally hostile and reductive description of Islam. Manuel’s text also demonstrates that Muslims under Ottoman rule could engage in reasoned argument and debate with their Byzantine Christian opponents.
Pope Benedict’s lecture poses the broader issue of Byzantium’s overall relationship to its Islamic opponents. The text also suggests that the pope’s most important theological adversary was less Islam than his fellow Christians of evangelical belief. For the main thrust of his argument is on the divine nature of the fusion of the teachings of Christ with the Hellenistic traditions of the Word, which, he insists, integrated reason into revelation, thus refuting any claims that Christianity can be reduced to the preaching and presence of Christ alone. But it seems disingenuous to suggest that there was not also an anti-Muslim intent behind the lecture as well. For Pope Benedict proposes that
the inner rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek philosophical enquiry was an event of decisive importance… This convergence… remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.
In contrast, he presents Muslim faith as a monolithic, implicitly anti-European, religious ideology, whose believers are, thanks to their allegiance, deprived of the capacity to combine faith with reason. Instead, they fuse violence with revelation and are thus intrinsically unable, the pope seems to imply, to accept the idea of the rule of secular law, or even the concept of the university.
In this Dialogue, quoted by Pope Benedict, the müderris is identified as the Persian. He does not respond immediately to the charge that the Prophet is evil and inhuman, but counters it by reminding the emperor that Islam is God’s final revelation to man and replaces the previous ones. In the same way, he says, that Christianity replaced Judaism, now Islam has replaced Christianity and it is the duty of all who believe in the one God to convert to Islam. Of course, the text was written in Byzantine Greek to reflect the superiority of the Christian faith as practised by Manuel II. It is unlikely that he preserved Muslim arguments in their strongest form. In most of the disputes, the emperor displayed his theological and philosophical skills, arguing that the Paraclete mentioned in the Gospel of St John (normally associated with the Holy Spirit) could not possibly be the Prophet Muhammad; disputing the novelty of Islamic law, which he said was Mosaic; and criticizing the Muslim view of Paradise as deeply immoral and a deceptive promise. In the final books he even suggested that he had convinced the müderris of the superiority of Christianity and expected him to convert.
The debate was conducted through interpreters, as Manuel did not know Turkish and the müderris did not speak Greek. So the Dialogue must have been a slow process, lacking the repartee of direct exchange, while providing employment for those who made a living from the interrelationship of the two societies. Both sides, apparently, complained of the translators getting together and whispering among themselves, a symbol, perhaps, of the interweaving of Byzantine and Turkish interests. Yet every evening, when the session came to an end, the parties reported how interesting their discussion had been and resolved to meet again the following day. And thus they passed part of the winter in Anatolia.
By the late fourteenth century, Islam had developed a multitude of different theological schools, Sunni and Shi’ite, including an Ottoman tradition of mystical poetry. And much earlier, the Arabs of Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba had incorporated the writings of Aristotle into their educational system, which was elevated to a higher level of logical reasoning. It was this Arabic version of Greek philosophy, expounded in a highly rational style by the twelfth-century philosopher and polymath Averroes in Muslim Spain, which made such a forceful impact in the West when it was translated back into Latin. Like Byzantine intellectuals who were accused by the Church of spreading heretical opinions, Averroes was also criticized by the religious authorities of Muslim Spain. Islam was clearly in no way a monolithic religion.
This may be why the pope’s extraction of a quotation from a Christian dialogue with Islam to demonstrate that Islam is incapable of reasoned debate seems misjudged. For over seven hundred years, Byzantium was engaged in a contest with different Islamic states and societies. It also coexisted with them, distinguished between them and marked them with its own legacy, most profoundly in Turkey, but also, for example, in the mosaic decoration of Muslim shrines in Jerusalem and Cordoba. This external legacy of Byzantium reflected its internal achievement which made it so resilient.
Byzantium for its part also represented one particular strand of Christianity, the Greek Orthodox, which existed side by side with a plurality of other versions. And although the empire was profoundly shaped by Christian beliefs, it was further distinguished from the medieval West by its active incorporation of much pre-Christian culture from antiquity. Some pagan elements were relatively primitive, such as the veneration of images of the gods and burning of incense in their honour; others derived from sources external to the world of Rome, such as the court practices of Persia. At the highest levels of learning, Byzantine culture included ancient notions of philosophical debate – whether the world is eternal or created, flat or round. Mathematics, geography, medical and veterinary science, literature, ethics and morality, encompassing most human concerns, were rooted in its scholarship and transmitted with many commentaries. Literary models were adapted and developed in Byzantium so that the ancient Greek romance, various forms of metric verse, hymns and epic all flourished. Although the ancient theatre did not survive long into the Christian era, the great Greek dramatists were read, studied and committed to memory by generation after generation of Byzantine schoolchildren.
In this fundamental way, therefore, Byzantium was intrinsically classical and still partly pagan. When Constantine XI found his empire reduced to a hopeless city-state surrounded by the Ottoman Turks, who were about to breach the walls using the cannon he could neither afford to buy nor was able to manufacture, the most Christian emperor called out in Greek to his people to prove themselves to be true Romans. In so doing, he summoned a history that stretched back from 1453 to the dedication of the city in 330, one thousand, one hundred and twenty-three years earlier, and identified the Byzantines with their glorious forebears, the pagan Greeks and Romans.
This pagan inheritance is often hidden within the enveloping Christian culture. Patriarch Photios’ own account of the many books he read, most of Christian origin, includes the Pyrrhonian writings of Ainesidemos (an obscure Greek sceptic), works of Galen and Oreibasios, physician to Julian the Apostate, as well as the sixty-five genuine speeches of Demosthenes, which he sets in an account of the life and times of the great orator. Observations on the Homeric epics by the twelfth-century Archbishop Eustathios of Thessalonike present a more direct and immediate engagement with ancient verse. In general, Byzantine scholars and officials considered the compositions of ancient authors superior to their own (a modesty we might reflect upon). This did not mean that they were inhibited from criticizing their illustrious predecessors. They read, edited and commented on pre-Christian texts of all varieties and thus kept available a larger proportion of pagan writings than would otherwise have survived.
Byzantine scholarly activity was made possible by the educational system, which remained based on the ancient Greek curriculum and was sustained by a profound knowledge of the most outstanding pagan texts. While the Church added its own component of theological and spiritual writings, it could never rival the training provided by memorizing ancient material. This secular practice penetrated every part of the empire across the centuries. In favourable circumstances, it led to original and elaborate analysis, as in the verse of the nun Kassia or the monk John Geometres, the bishops John Mauropous and George Chioniades, Anna Komnene and the members of her literary circle, or the philosophers Michael Psellos and George Gemistos Plethon. As John Mauropous demonstrates in his prayer for the souls of Plato and Plutarch, there was a genuine appreciation of the moral qualities of some pre-Christian writers.
Others, who may have lacked that kind of serious education, also reflected a Byzantine curiosity about what ancient authors had written, how their cities had been constructed and who was commemorated in pre-Christian inscriptions and sculptures. These self-styled philosophers dedicated themselves to a different sort of commentary on the pagan past, such as the identification of ancient buildings, monuments and sculpted busts, which continued to decorate the cities of the Near East long into the Middle Ages. Of course, they regularly made errors and elided ancient with Christian ideas, for example when they wrote that Athena, the virgin goddess, prefigured Mary, the virgin Mother of God. But Plethon’s totally pagan devotion to Zeus, which produced his liturgy in honour of the ancient gods, could not have flourished without a long tradition of observing and studying the ancient world.
In the court and the households of ruling families, this education was bestowed on daughters as well as sons, enabling women to play an active role in Byzantium. This always depended on circumstances, of course, but could ensure their participation in the highest levels of society. Some exercised their influence indirectly but openly through their relationship to male rulers, as we saw in the case of Empresses Irene and Theodora, who reversed iconoclasm, or the sisters Zoe and Theodora, who sustained the last years of the Macedonian dynasty. For nearly 1,200 years, a succession of prominent women without parallel extends from Helena, the mother of Constantine I, who went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to build churches and distribute money to the troops in 326, to Helena Palaiologina, who was married to John II, the Lusignan ruler of Cyprus, and became regent of the island from 1442 to 1458.
Its continual fascination with the classical past distinguishes Byzantium from Western Christendom throughout the early Middle Ages. Byzantine devotion to the ancients was a constant, ongoing traditional activity of such long-term importance that it functioned both as a restriction as well as a source of inspiration. Although there were particularly creative phases, for instance in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, they were not fundamentally novel developments. By contrast, when the Italians began to explore their pre-Christian past, they were able to generate a rebirth of interest, which gave rise to what we now call the Renaissance. Their relative deprivation from ancient Greek and Roman thought and culture encouraged a different kind of curiosity and commitment, which led to an increasingly self-confident use of science and the birth of secular history. Following in this tradition, the western Enlightenment condemned most of Byzantine culture as irrational or irrelevant, even while its leaders established the modern study of history. I hope I have provided a reasoned explanation for what they could not appreciate.
The Enlightenment thus continued a western antagonism to Byzantium which had built up over many centuries. Although the continuation of the Roman Empire in the East for over a thousand years was vital for the West and provided it with many resources, a clear line of systematic hostility can be traced from the eighth century onwards. Not only was Byzantium responsible for iconoclasm – denounced as heresy – but the Byzantine use of Greek was also seen in a negative light, associated with the pagan, pre-Christian world. Nor could such intolerance directed against Greek be assuaged by the final condemnation of iconoclasm in 843. Instead, as Chris Wickham has shown, the West’s attitude to Byzantium hardened in the ninth century with Notker’s dismissive evaluation of the Greeks as cowards and fools. This became such a long-running prejudice that another historian, C. M. Woodhouse, claimed: ‘Even almost a century after 1439 [the Council of Ferrara-Florence], Erasmus was to find that… an aptitude for Greek excited suspicion in the Church.’
Hostility to Greek coincided with the growing economic vitality of Venice and Genoa, while the Byzantines struggled against the steady advance of the Seljuks. The turning point, as I have tried to show, was 1204: the degrading sack of a Christian city by crusaders supposedly on their way to confront the infidel, and the tremendous plunder shipped back to the West. The only way to justify the desecration of ancient Christian places, the murder, rape and mistreatment of fellow believers, and such ill-gained loot, was to denounce the Byzantines as schismatics, heretics and worse. The systematic calumnies against Byzantium as an empire which continue to this day originated in the crusaders’ attempt to justify their greed and pillage of Christian co-religionaries.
Byzantium did not lose its denigrated status even when its own scholars, such as Manuel Chrysoloras, made notable contributions to Italian Renaissance learning. In late fourteenth-century Florence he provided lessons in ancient Greek and made available a structured knowledge of the language. His grammar helped many western intellectuals to read the texts of Plato and Aristotle in the original, and his pupils extended awareness of ancient as well as Byzantine scholarship through their translations. A few Italians such as Francesco Filelfo even sought out Greek teachers in Constantinople; in the 1420s, he studied with George Chrysokokkes, married a daughter of Chrysoloras and prepared Latin translations of Xenophon and Plutarch, among others.
Neither could the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438/9), which formally reunited the churches, turn prejudice to sympathy. While Plethon’s lectures on texts of Plato generated admiration among the Florentines he met, and his fame attracted patrons, including Cosimo de’ Medici and Sigismondo Malatesta, western representatives at the Council did not appreciate their Greek counterparts. It was only Plethon’s mastery of classical Greek texts that was appreciated, whether his admirers knew that he truly believed in the ancient gods or not. Chrysoloras’ student Guarino used Plethon’s complete text of Strabo’s Geographika for his translation into Latin, and later, Marsilio Ficino was to translate Plethon’s edition of the Chaldean Oracles (another highly suspect ancient source of obscure prophecies). Nor did the Byzantines appreciate Plethon’s great work On the Differences of Aristotle from Plato, which was systematically burned as an encouragement of paganism. So the stereotype of Byzantium was also strengthened by forces internal to the empire.
The fall of Constantinople to the Turks did encourage western appreciation of Byzantine scholarship. That is clear from the welcome given to refugees and their manuscripts. In particular, among the collection of Cardinal Bessarion bequeathed to Venice, which forms the core of the Marciana Library, there were numerous important witnesses to ancient Greek science as well as philosophy. A Latin translation was made from his Greek manuscript of the Arithmetica of Diophantos, composed in the third century AD, complete with the comments of generations of Byzantine mathematicians – from Theon, his daughter Hypatia, who taught in fifth-century Alexandria, to Psellos in the eleventh, Planoudes in late thirteenth-century Constantinople, and Chortasmenos in the early fifteenth. This translation in turn is related to the bilingual Greek/Latin version of Diophantos that Fermat read in the seventeenth century, in which he wrote his famous note: ‘I have discovered the most marvellous proof of this theorem but the margin is too small to contain it.’ These great prizes of scholarship and learning were accepted, however, with the same sense of superiority that can be traced back to the pillaging of the Queen City in 1204. The West’s gain was not a measure of Byzantium’s contribution but further evidence of its intrinsic inferiority.
After the Ottoman conquest of 1453, Byzantium was maintained in a symbolic and ecclesiastical form by the patriarch based in Constantinople. The monk Gennadios (formerly George Scholarios) was appointed to this post by Mehmed the Conqueror and was made the first leader of the Greek millet. Although Moscow was later to claim the mantle of orthodox leadership, the patriarch in Constantinople retained the tradition of the ecclesiastical government, based on the pentarchy of five great patriarchates, and insisted upon the hesychast tradition of spiritual prayer, which had little resonance in the West. This sustained the Orthodox world through centuries of Ottoman rule, and continues to generate devotion not only in the Middle East but in many diaspora communities around the world.
Mehmed the Conqueror also insisted that Christian craftsmen should remain in the city. Not all their churches were converted into mosques. As we have seen, Byzantium lived on in a new Ottoman guise with its cosmopolitan population, which spoke numerous languages and attracted merchants from far and wide. Constantinople became an even more glorious city under the early sultans, who added elegant new public buildings, a grand new palace at Topkapi and the magnificent domed mosques which emulate Hagia Sophia. The city, thus renewed, resumed its role at the heart of a great eastern Mediterranean empire, this time Ottoman. It made the Turks heirs to a history which also fused different traditions and enabled Greeks and other Christian minorities such as Armenians to become prominent traders, administrators and diplomats. When the Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they found a new home in Constantinople, which accepted their Ladino dialect and Judaic traditions.
Later, when the Ottomans marched deep into Europe, they were to meet an invigorated Christianity. The two forces interacted for centuries, clashing repeatedly as the Turks pushed westward and were rebuffed. For centuries the Ottoman Empire was a European power. In its nineteenth-century decline, indeed, it became known as ‘the sick man of Europe’. When the last sultan looked ready to die, it was the European powers who stood by, waiting to carve out protectorates on the soil of the previously great empire. In Anatolia, their ambitions were thwarted by Mustafa Kemal, now known as Atatürk, who led the revolt that created the modern Republic of Turkey. In a reaction to the ‘sickness’ and weakness of the Ottoman Empire, he insisted on adopting a European-style national, secular constitution, which established a parliament and lawcourts, romanized the Ottoman script and banned the fez (the traditional hat). Today, Turkey still lives under this constitution, which permits Muslims to attend Friday prayers but gives everyone the weekend of Saturday and Sunday as days off work.
As the builders in King’s College London observed, Byzantium has something to do with Turkey, and Turkey certainly has something to do with Byzantium. Whether or not you believe that Turkey’s rich Byzantine past entitles it to take its place among the other states of the European Union, something of the spirit and legacy of the medieval empire continues to influence the world from its ancient emplacements on the Bosphoros and across Anatolia. Even today, in the enormous sprawling conglomeration of suburbs, with two bridges linking the European with the Asian side and a subway system under construction, Istanbul retains its Byzantine character – not only in the Christian presence, but also in the grandiose form of the city, its bustling commercial activity as an international metropolis and its polyglot population.
I hope I have convinced the reader who has accompanied me this far that Byzantium must be saved from its negative stereotype. Recently, major exhibitions held in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the Benaki Museum in Athens and the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, have revealed the ‘Glory of Byzantium’, its ‘Faith and Power’ and ‘Holy Image, Hallowed Ground’, which displayed Byzantine art treasures from around the world and icons and manuscripts from the monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai. Through these sympathetically curated, and unexpectedly popular, presentations of Byzantium the public has glimpsed part of the Byzantine world which has no modern successor state but has influenced so many. Byzantine art helps to correct the stereotype in part because of its skill and sheer beauty, but also because it has stimulated a much wider interest in the society that could produce unfamiliar objects of such high quality over such a prolonged period. Together with the International Congresses of Byzantine Studies, most recently held in London in 2006, a new phase of appreciation has begun.
So if we need a word to describe the mendacity of our present political leaders, the bizarre incompetence of our own bureaucracies, the cunning selfishness and illegal mechanisms of our great corporations, or the intricate glamour of our global corridors of fame, then we should find the appropriate, modern adjective – and it is not ‘Byzantine’. That empire was not without its corruption, cruelty and barbarities, far from it, but by projecting onto it the notions which are still insinuated by the term ‘Byzantine’, we suggest that these failings belong to some remote and doomed society, foreign to our character and quite unconnected with our own traditions.
Have I overemphasized the ingenious, educated and resourceful perseverance of Byzantine society, from its builders to its eunuchs, its monks to its empresses, its silk-weavers to its schoolteachers, rather than centring more of the story on its great emperors and generals or the repetitions of its court ceremonial? If so, it is for two reasons.
First, because we should be aware of Byzantium’s exceptionally persistent, skilled fusion of traditions and inheritance, and how it created a varied and self-confident civilization that grew as often as it lost ground and fought to the end to survive. It is astounding that Byzantium continued after 1204, when the West captured and occupied its capital for fifty-seven years, even if the mini-empires which sprang to life in its place were not truly imperial states. Something of that same combination of resources – classical, pagan, Christian, eastern and western – was in the founding DNA of Byzantium, and provided a reliably constant life force across the centuries.
Second, because I hope to have shown that the spirit of Byzantium survives not just the capture of 1453, but also the intervening centuries between then and now, and its legacy lives on beyond the world of central Europe, the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East. I have sought to convey some aspects of what it was like to be a Byzantine. In doing so, my aim is to expand, however slightly, our knowledge and experience of others, and to glimpse how people of a cosmopolitan, city-based society, with a consciously historical belief in who they were, as well as a pious belief in the hereafter, could be so different from ourselves and yet so recognizably like us.