A Different History of Byzantium

One afternoon in 2002, two workmen knocked on my office door in King’s College, London. They were doing repairs to the old buildings and had often passed my door with its notice: ‘Professor of Byzantine History’. Together they decided to stop by and ask me, ‘What is Byzantine history?’ They thought that it had something to do with Turkey.

And so I found myself trying to explain briefly what Byzantine history is to two serious builders in hard hats and heavy boots. Many years of teaching had not prepared me for this. I tried to sum up a lifetime of study in a ten-minute visit. They thanked me warmly, said how curious it was, this Byzantium, and asked why didn’t I write about it for them? For someone dedicated to publishing on Byzantium I felt like objecting, but of course I knew what they meant. Endless books are written on Byzantine history – too many to count and most too long to read. Often they describe the succession of 90 emperors, and about 125 patriarchs of Constantinople, and innumerable battles, in predictable categories of political, military and religious activity, relentlessly across eleven hundred years. Few are attractive enough to engage the interest of construction workers, or indeed non-specialists of virtually any other kind. So I began to compose an answer to the question: ‘What is Byzantine history?’

Immediately I got into difficulties – I made too many assumptions, couldn’t resist the abstruse anecdote. But I had always prided myself on being able to make Byzantine history interesting to audiences unfamiliar with it. As I searched for a method, I knew very well that in its long millennium Byzantium had enough colourful, shocking and tragic aspects to attract those who were seeking the sensational. But this reduced its history to dramatic episodes without depth, flattening the whole experience. Byzantium means more than wealth, mastery of the sea and the exercise of imperial power. I wanted them, and you the reader, to sense why Byzantium is also hard to grasp, difficult to place and can be obscure. This difficulty is compounded by contemporary newspapers’ use of ‘Byzantine’ as a term of insult, for example in phrases like ‘tax regulations of positively Byzantine complexity’ (a recent description of EU negotiations).

Byzantium conjures up an image of opaque duplicity: plots, assassinations and physical mutilation, coupled with excessive wealth, glittering gold and jewels. During the Middle Ages, however, the Byzantines had no monopoly on complexity, treachery, hypocrisy, obscurity or riches. They produced a large number of intelligent leaders, brilliant military generals and innovative theologians, who are much maligned and libelled by such ‘Byzantine’ stereotypes. They never developed an Inquisition and generally avoided burning people at the stake. But there is a mystery associated with this ‘lost’ world, which is hard to define, partly because it does not have a modern heir. It remains hidden behind the glories of its medieval art: the gold, mosaics, silks and imperial palaces.

To explain my appreciation of Byzantium, in this book I aim to set out its most significant high points as clearly and compellingly as I can; to reveal the structures and mentalities which sustained it. In this way I want to keep you interested to the end, so that you feel you get to know a new civilization. Crucially, I want you to 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.

What are the key features of this important but little-known history? First, Byzantium was a thousand-year-long civilization which influenced all the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans and Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages. From the sixth to the fifteenth century, this influence waxed and waned but was a constant. Its civilization drew on pagan, Christian, Greek, Roman, ancient and specifically medieval components. Its cultural and artistic influences are now recognized as a lasting inheritance. But in addition, fundamental aspects of government such as the development of an imperial court with a diplomatic service and civilian bureaucracy, the ceremony of coronation, as well as the female exercise of political power, all developed in Byzantium.

The grandeur of Constantinople, at the centre of a vast empire, with an inherited system of imperial government, and the variety of sources that inspired it, combined to give enormous confidence to both rulers and ruled. It is necessary to emphasize this aspect of Byzantium. By the time of the Emperor Justinian (527–65), the underlying structures of empire were two hundred years old and so firmly embedded that they appeared unchangeable. They had created a deeply rooted culture that sprang from ancient Greek, pre-Christian sources, as well as Roman and Christian ideas, both ideological and practical (for instance, philosophical arguments and military fortifications). The entire system was celebrated in imperial rhetoric and displayed in imperial art intended to elevate it to an everlasting permanency. However vacuous the sentiments expressed, they nonetheless confirmed and further engrained the self-confidence of Byzantine emperors, their courtiers and more humble subjects. They provided the bedrock of Byzantium’s exceptional ability to respond to severe challenges in the seventh century, again in the eleventh and most spectacularly in 1204. Each time it was able to adapt and reform by drawing on these deep inherited structures that combined in a rich awareness of traditions.

In this sense, Byzantine culture embodies the French historian Fernand Braudel’s notion of the longue durée, the long term: that which survives the vicissitudes of changing governments, newfangled fashions or technological improvements, an ongoing inheritance that can both imprison and inspire. While Braudel applied this idea more to the geographical factors that determined the history of the Mediterranean, we can adapt it to distinguish Byzantine culture from those of its neighbours. For in contrast to other medieval societies both in the West and among the Muslims, Byzantium was old, many centuries old by the time of Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid in AD 800, and the structure of its culture was both a constraint and a source of strength. Indeed, as we will see, it was born old, importing into its capital city at its construction the authority of already antique architecture and statuary. Its established cultural framework, condemned as conservative, praised as traditional, provided a shared sense of belonging, commemorated in distinctive and changing fashions all dedicated to the greater glory of Byzantium. This created a flexible heritage which proved able to respond, often with great determination, to enhance, preserve and sustain the empire through many crises.

Byzantium’s imperial identity was strengthened by a linguistic continuity that linked its medieval scholars back to ancient Greek culture, and encouraged them to preserve texts by major philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, geographers, historians and doctors by copying, editing and commenting on them. Above all, Byzantium cherished the poems of Homer and produced the first critical editions of the Iliad and Odyssey. Although public performances of theatre died away, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were closely studied and often committed to memory by generations of schoolchildren. They also learnt the speeches of Demosthenes and the dialogues of Plato. A strong element of ancient pagan wisdom was thus incorporated into Byzantium.

This ancient heritage was combined with Christian belief, which gradually replaced the cults of the pagan gods. Byzantium nurtured early Christian monastic traditions on holy mountains like Sinai and Athos, where spiritual teachings still inspire monks and pilgrims. It undertook the conversion of the Bulgarians, Serbs and Russians to Christianity, which is why large parts of the Balkans are still dotted with Orthodox churches decorated with medieval frescoes and icons. And it maintained contact with those Christian centres that passed under Muslim control during the seventh century, supporting the patriarchs of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch, as well as communities even more distant like the churches of Ethiopia and Sudan, Persia, Armenia and Georgia.

Using the inheritance of Roman technology and engineering skill, Byzantium continued to build aqueducts, fortifications, roads and bridges, and huge constructions such as the church of Holy Wisdom, St Sophia in Constantinople, which still displays its massive sixth-century form, complete with the largest dome ever built until St Peter’s in Rome a thousand years later. Its Byzantine dome has often been repaired but remains intact, and is copied in numerous smaller versions found in churches all over the Orthodox world. It also inspired the form for covered mosques, constructed when the Arabs moved out of their desert homeland where they worshipped in open courts. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is aptly named to commemorate the Muslim occupation of a holy place cherished by Jews and Christians. Not only its circular roof but also its vivid mosaics display Byzantine origins, since the seventh-century Emperor Justinian II was asked by Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik to send Byzantine craftsmen to cut the coloured stone and glass tesserae, which shimmer whenever they catch the light. They may also have set the 240-metre-long inscription from the Qur’an, running round the base of the dome, that Islam is the final revelation of Allah (God) and is superior to all others.

From Rome, Byzantium also inherited a developed legal system and a military tradition. Both supported its long history. In theory, Byzantine society lived by the rule of law; judges were trained, salaried and presided over the resolution of disputes. Throughout the empire people brought their grievances to the courts and accepted their judgments. Although the celebrated Roman legions did not continue beyond the seventh century, fighting forces, both foot and cavalry, were trained according to Roman military manuals. Strategies for fighting on land and at sea, siege weapons, methods of supplying the forces, their armour and protective clothing were all adapted from older practice. The composition of ‘Greek fire’, a sulphurous substance that burns on water, remained a state secret and we still do not know the precise combination of its components. While a similar weapon was developed by the Arabs, Greek fire terrified those unfamiliar with it both in sea battles and in city sieges.

Byzantium considered itself the centre of the world, and Constantinople as the replacement of Rome. Though Greek-speaking, it saw itself as the Roman Empire and its citizens as Romans. It exercised leadership over the Greek-speaking communities in Sicily and southern Italy which were a product of ancient Greek emigration. It both sheltered and stimulated the growth of Italian coastal cities, such as medieval Amalfi and Venice, which lived off international trade. In due course these centres overtook Byzantium as economic centres in their own right and developed superior naval and mercantile capacity. But their debt to Byzantium is clear. Bronze doors commissioned in Constantinople adorn their cathedrals, which are frequently decorated with marble, mosaic and icons in Byzantine style. Their prosperity was born under the wing of the empire.

Perhaps for us today, the most significant feature of Byzantium lies in its historic role in protecting the Christian West in the early Middle Ages. Until the seventh century, Byzantium was indeed the Roman Empire. It ruled North Africa and Egypt, the granaries that fed both Rome and Constantinople, southern Italy, the Holy Land, Asia Minor as far east as Mount Ararat, all of today’s Greece and much of the Balkans. Then the tribes of Arabia inspired by the new religion of Islam conquered most of the eastern Mediterranean. They fought in the name of a revelation that presented itself as the successor to the Jewish and Christian faiths. Byzantium checked their expansion into Asia Minor and prevented them from crossing the Dardanelles and gaining access to the Balkans. Constantinople held out against numerous sieges.

The Muslims’ aim of capturing Constantinople, making it their capital and taking over the entire Roman world was more than legitimate. It was also logical. Since Islam claimed to supersede both Judaism and Christianity, its forces would naturally replace Rome and take over the political structures of the ancient world. If one follows the ambitions recorded in the Qur’an, the entire Mediterranean should have been reunited under Muslim control. The Persian world of Zoro-astrian beliefs would also succumb to Islam. In extraordinarily swift and successful campaigns between 634 and 644, the Arab tribesmen came close to achieving this goal. They provoked the first major turning point in Byzantine history.

Had Byzantium not halted their expansion in 678, Muslim forces charged by the additional resources of the capital city would have spread Islam throughout the Balkans, into Italy and the West during the seventh century, at a time when political fragmentation reduced the possibility of organized defence. By preventing this potential conquest, Byzantium made Europe possible. It allowed western Christian forces, which were divided into small units, time to develop their own strengths. One hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, Charles Martel defeated Muslim invaders from Spain in central France near Poitiers and forced them back over the Pyrenees. The nascent idea of Europe gradually took on a particular form under Charles’s grandson and namesake, Charles the Great. Charlemagne and his successors fought their own battles and were responsible for creating their own Europe.

During the Middle Ages, most western clerics and rulers were aware, however dimly, of the Christian civilization of Byzantium in the East. Although Byzantium controlled a much smaller empire than Rome at its height, from the seventh to the fifteenth century this medieval state developed new political and cultural forms. It combined different strands from its past to forge a new medieval civilization, which attracted many non-Christian northern tribes. In turn, the Bulgars, Russians and Serbs adopted Christian faith and elements of Byzantine culture. For about seven hundred years Byzantium remained a beacon of orthodox belief and classical learning.

The period of the crusades put Byzantium at the centre of the Christian effort to win back the Holy Places from Muslim control. From the eleventh century onwards, Byzantium and the West became mutually more familiar, often with very negative results. Despite the success of the First Crusade in establishing the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Fourth Crusade turned against Constantinople and sacked the city in 1204. This was the second great turning point in Byzantine history. The empire was never able to restore its previous strength or form. Although they regained the capital, Byzantine emperors ruled over what had become in effect a city-state from 1261 to 1453, when Constantinople was finally captured by the Ottoman Turks.

But curiously, Byzantine cultural influence expanded almost in inverse proportion to its political strength. From 1204 when numerous works of art were taken back to Western Europe, Byzantium’s contribution to the revival of western art and learning is notable. In the fourteenth century, Byzantine teachers of Greek were appointed to Italian universities and they and their pupils began to translate the writings of Plato. Aristotle’s works had already reached the West via the Muslim world, but most of Plato’s philosophy remained unknown. During the negotiations in Florence which led to a reunion of the western and eastern churches in 1439, public lectures on Plato by the famous Greek scholar and philosopher George Gemistos Plethon inspired Cosimo de’ Medici to establish his Platonic Academy. The Byzantine contribution to the Italian Renaissance thus began much earlier than 1453, when the Turks made Constantinople their own capital. Following the fall of the city, refugees who fled to Italy with their manuscripts strengthened the new learning and new art. And a few decades later, when the Protestant reformers condemned religious art and argued for a more spiritual style of Christian worship, they employed all the biblical and patristic texts collected by Byzantine iconoclasts of the eighth and ninth centuries.

Throughout this book I seek to illuminate what Byzantium was, how it worked and what it stands for. This intensely personal view grew out of my previous research for The Formation of Christendom on the significance of religion in early medieval history. Matters of faith were vitally important for people who lived in the Middle Ages in ways which are unfamiliar to most in the modern West, and secular scholarship and popular appreciation of medieval art needs to understand how this was so. In addition to the issues that both united and divided Christians, their religious world was filled by other beliefs: unconverted polytheists, adherents of the eastern cults, followers of Zoroaster and Mani, as well as long-established Jewish communities. Islam made a profound impact throughout this world on all who lived on the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, in Syria and Spain and all regions in between. In the eighth century, the first official destruction of icons (iconoclasm) in Byzantium provoked ordinary people to die for the sake of their religious images. While Islam developed a strict ban on holy images, Rome discovered its allegiance to icons, and Charlemagne’s theologians began to doubt theirs. The eighth and ninth centuries were thus critical to the development of three separate but related regions: the Byzantine East, the Islamic South – Egypt, North Africa and Spain – and the Latin West which became Europe. In different forms, this division has lasted until our own time.

A further fascination with this period of history lies in the apparent devotion of women to religious icons in medieval Byzantium, which may be related to the exclusion of women from the official church hierarchy. It also raises questions about the motives of the two female rulers I write about in Women in Purple, who restored the veneration of icons in 787 and 843. When Empresses Irene and Theodora reversed the iconoclast policy, introduced and supported by their husbands and more distant male relatives, they seem to me to have acted with all the ruthlessness and guile of men. But in taking these initiatives, they also assumed a political prominence that is unparalleled in other medieval societies. So while chroniclers of the time assume that their love of icons is a feature of feminine weakness, there is clearly more to this link, which I would connect with a Byzantine tradition of female rule, ‘the imperial feminine’.

Digging up Byzantium was another way of discovering the Byzantines. On excavations in Greece, Cyprus and at Kalenderhane Camii, a major site in the heart of Constantinople, modern Istanbul, I worked with the material culture on which its civilization was built. Exploring the churches of Crete and Kythera, an island off the south coast of mainland Greece, and recording pottery finds at the medieval manor house of Kouklia in southwest Cyprus, brings you very close to their medieval inhabitants. In my first archaeological season at Paphos, also in Cyprus, we found the remains of a female skeleton in the ruins of the castle of Saranda Kolonnes, with the gold and pearl rings she was wearing when the earthquake of 1222 struck. In Istanbul, workmen investigating a winter leak at the mosque of the Kalendars discovered a hollow behind a wall close to the monumental aqueduct which still dominates the old city. One of these skilled restorers felt round the edge of a panel and identified the tesserae of what turned out to be an early Christian mosaic of the Virgin presenting the Christ Child to Symeon. It had possibly been covered by a wall to protect it from iconoclast destruction. Similarly, an entire chapel with fragmentary frescoes dedicated to St Francis of Assisi had been bricked up in 1261 when the friars fled from Constantinople after the Latin occupation. These two fine works of Christian art, eastern and western, were later restored by Ernest Hawkins and are now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.

My understanding of Byzantium was also coloured by far-flung witnesses to its medieval dominance. As a teenager I was taken to Ravenna in northern Italy and was astounded by the mosaic portraits of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife, Empress Theodora, the stars in the heavenly firmament of Galla Placidia’s tomb, and the processions of saints and flocks of sheep that decorate the city’s churches. In 2005, over forty years later, I was privileged to climb into the roof of the church of St Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai peninsula, which was built by the same imperial couple, despite the 2,000 miles between the north Adriatic and the Red Sea. There, on what was thought to be the site of the Burning Bush, where Moses was instructed to take off his sandals because the ground was holy, I read the inscriptions that record the patronage of Justinian and Theodora, carved on the original sixth-century beams which survive perfectly in the dry, termite-free conditions of the Egyptian desert. Such physical experiences give immediacy to what Byzantine historians wrote about the emperor and his wife.

In Rome, Sicily, Moscow, and of course most clearly in Constantinople, all over Turkey, Greece and the Balkans, you can see Byzantium preserved. But there is nothing like the amazement of finding Byzantine mosaics in the mihrab of the Mezquita, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, in Spain, which were commissioned by the tenth-century Caliph al-Hakam II; or the surprise of arriving late in the afternoon at Trebizond on the Black Sea after the long journey through the Pontic Alps, and looking up at the palace above the city.

Byzantium also lives on in the experience of witnessing the descent of the Easter fire at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, when in darkness the metropolitan emerges from the tomb with a lit candle marking the Resurrection of Christ, from which all the faithful light their own. Even in modern Athens today, the crowds descending Mount Lykabettos with their candles after midnight on Easter Sunday are a forceful reminder of the power of ceremonies which have commemorated the event for nearly two millennia.

For reasons that will become apparent in this book, Byzantine objects have been scattered throughout Europe and are preserved in unexpected museums. Coming across the Byzantine silk called the Cloak of Alexander in Bavaria, or finding the tenth-century marriage contract of Theophano and Otto II in Wolfenbüttel, or tenth-century ivories now used as book covers, makes you aware of the craftsmen who produced them and the culture in which such luxuries were made. In the West these have been treasured for centuries, although western medieval scholars and churchmen were also responsible for encouraging many of the misleading stereotypes of what ‘Byzantine’ means.

Byzantium became more familiar to me every time I prepared courses on its history. I specially want to thank all those students who challenged my views. While it is customary to acknowledge this influence, in my case my appointment to Princeton in 1990 brought an unexpected bonus in the exposure to a particularly brilliant group of graduates attracted by an unrivalled history faculty. Among such stimulating colleagues and intellectually curious students, I was encouraged to try out new ways of communicating my passion for Byzantium. Christine Stansell, one of those colleagues, later visited me in London and asked with sympathy and expectation whether it was not ‘time to bring in the harvest’. This book is partly due to her, as well as to my unexpected visitors.

This brings me back to the question of form. In Shakespeare’s London, the bezant and caviar were equally familiar: a gold coin named after Byzantium and the fish roe consumed in such quantities by its inhabitants. In such indirect ways, the heritage of Byzantium can be found in unexpected places. This book attempts to show why. Rather than follow the pattern of numerous earlier introductions and studies, I decided to select particular events, monuments and individuals characteristic of Byzantium and to explore them within a framework that observes the basic divisions of Byzantine history. The first seven chapters are devoted to essential subjects such as the city of Constantinople, law or orthodoxy, and range right across the Byzantine millennium. Other chapters overlap if they approach the same events from different perspectives. My chief problem has been one of exclusion, for it is hard to leave out so many rich examples and intriguing details. I can only provide a selection of meze, a dish of starters. The recommended further reading at the end of the book may encourage many additional, fuller courses. Here I try to answer the question posed by the builders at King’s, and to explain why we should all know more about Byzantine history.

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