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How the Byzantines Saved Europe

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 you’re 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 eighth and ninth 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 twelfth 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 eleventh 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 Handbook's 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 Byzantium’s 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 Byzantium’s 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 Herrin’s fine book, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. A senior research fellow in Byzantine Studies at King’s College London, Herrin sets out to trace the period’s “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.”

Byzantium’s 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 Herrin’s 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 twelveth 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 eleventh century. In the sixth 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.