Friday, January 16, 2015

A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich

The 1100-year reign of the Byzantine emperors in late-antique and medieval Constantinople is the stuff of legend, mystery, and fable. Byzantium hovers on the very edge of European history, geography, and consciousness, a place of blood and gold and splendour, a sort of historical equivalent of the famous cartographical warning sign "Here, There Be Dragons", or a real version of all those civilisations thought to have sunk beneath the sea and been lost, from Atlantis to Lyonesse to Numenor. Even to the comparatively well-educated, the empire and its city tend to remain uncharted territory; moreover, the mystic appeal of the place more or less depends on its remaining uncharted and unknown. Additionally, Western civilisation has not generally encouraged the study of Byzantium after Justinian. We'll get into why in a moment.

Norwich's Rendition

At any rate, like most people, I grew up knowing very little about the empire. This has been, in some ways, an advantage. John Julius Norwich's Short History of Byzantium, written as it is by a born raconteur, with a thorough zest for the sensational, the thrilling, and the comic, hit me more or less unprepared. I had no idea what I was in for. Consequently, I spent half the book laughing, crying, or yelling "Yikes!".

Norwich begins with the founder of Constantinople, Constantine the Great, and takes us through the whole 1100 years of the city's reign, finishing with the heartbreaking and valiant last stand against the Turks in 1453. The book is a condensation of a much larger work, Norwich's three-volume history of Byzantium, and I assure you that I only read the abridged version because of difficulty in finding the full version. I imagine that the full three-volume work might be easier in some ways to read than the Short History, which is so packed with names and family trees and actors coming and going in such a whirl that one gets that drinking-from-a-firehose sensation. This is definitely one book you want to read in hard form; otherwise there's altogether too much flipping back and forth between maps and family trees and text.

However, the book does have a special appeal. Norwich is not a professional historian, and I've heard people pooh-pooh his work for this reason, but he is superbly readable, with a dry and often cynical wit covering a real love of his subject. A Short History of Byzantium draws less on original sources than on other history texts, but it collates and organises all those resources into one cohesive, thoroughly entertaining narrative. Norwich understands, as many historians do not--Judith Herrin, for example--that it does not warm the heart to be told that Emperor What's-His-Name was murdered in his bathtub. What we really want to know is that it was done when someone beaned him on the head with a soapdish.

Finally, perhaps the biggest criticism I can make about the telling of the history, is the fact that Norwich does not so much give a history of the Empire as a history of its emperors and their reigns. This is definitely a handy approach to history, but it does leave one fairly uninformed on matters such as customs, economy, laws, and culture: Not once, for example, does Norwich include a mention of the Greek folk-hero, Digenes Akrites. For that kind of thing I went and read another book, Judith Herrin's Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, which filled in the blanks very well, but was nowhere near as entertaining.

The Anastasis (Harrowing of Hell), a fresco from the church of St Savior in Chora, Constantinople

That Ghastly Gibbon

By the way, let us dispense at once with the idea that the Byzantine Empire was ever a thing. There never was such entity as the Byzantine Empire, except in history books after about the mid-1800s. The correct terminology, if you were to ask an actual citizen of the Empire, was the Empire of the Romans. If you asked the Turks, they would have said it was the empire of Rum, which was their name for Roman, and if you asked the Holy Roman Emperor, he would have snickered a bit and insisted on calling the Eastern Emperor the Emperor of the Greeks, because he knew nothing would infuriate his fellow-Emperor more. The term "Byzantine Empire" was not coined until a hundred years or so after the fall of the Empire, and it was not popularly used for centuries after that.

So why do we call this empire "Byzantine"? The answer has partly to do with the Enlightenment, and partly to do with that historical arch-villain, Edward Gibbon, and partly to do with the medieval West's very turbulent love-hate relationship with the medieval East, which after centuries of distrust and disillusionment, finally culminated in the awful sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade. Historians, of course, have dragged this out for years as Exhibit A of Why The Crusades Were Eeeeeevil, although a closer study of history reveals that none of the parties involved actually wished or intended such a thing to happen. Nevertheless, after the fact, it was easier to blame the Empire for being double-dealing and malicious (a view not without some pretty good foundations, if you believe the Crusader historians; the Byzantine historians, of course, deny all such claims), to say nothing of heretical and therefore pretty much deserving of what they got. This historical enmity, however, did not prevent West and East from attempting reconciliation with increasing desperation right up to the fall of the city in 1453.

The eventual naming of the Empire as "Byzantine" in modern history texts is probably better attributed to Enlightenment historians like Gibbon who preferred not to think of a medieval, Christian Empire as having anything to do with their great heroes, the pagan Romans. In the City of God, St Augustine had rebuked a view current among pagans that it was Christian influence which was causing the disappearance of the old Roman order. Gibbon's Decline and Fall of Rome was his own pagan response to Augustine. In it, he blamed Christians for causing the "fall" of the Roman Empire in the West, and its degeneration into a decadent, passive, tradition-bound, deeply religious entity in the East. As Norwich observes in his Introduction, " all classically educated Englishmen of his day, saw Byzantium as the betrayal of all that was best in ancient Greece and Rome." Another historian has observed of Gibbon that he was never able to forgive Constantine I for ending the persecution of Christians. Nor were he, or his contemporaries and co-Enlighteneds, able to forgive the Eastern Roman Empire for continuing, a vibrant Christian culture which used to riot in the streets over abstruse theological definitions, for over a millenium after its conversion from paganism. They felt that a distinction must therefore be drawn between the Roman Empire proper, that good old pagan institution, and its degenerate continuation in Constantinople. It is for this reason that we call the Empire Byzantine (after Byzantion, the name of the small town where Constantine built his imperial city), and it is for this reason that the Enlightened West has generally discouraged an interest in its history.

The Emperor Justinian, mosaic in San Vitale, Ravenna. Note fancy imperial shoes. These were a Thing.

Some Thoughts on the History

I really don't want to spoil this for you. There is insanity. There are mutilations. There is a mad emperor with no nose (he wore a gold one). There is the astonishing fate that struck Bardas Phocas right at the moment he was galloping straight at the boy emperor Basil II waving his sword. There are more power-mad, scheming, ambitious Empresses than you could throw a brick at. There is a corresponding number of Emperors who rose to the purple from poverty--Basil I started out as a stable hand, and Phocas was a fairly humble centurion in the army. There are assassinations, rebellions, coups, and church councils going on wherever you look. It's all very entertaining.

When I read history, keeping it in mind as a form of general revelation, governed by Providence, I'm always trying to make sense of it in one way or another. There are plenty of challenging things to think about in this book. First of all, Providence is right there, playing a quite unmistakeable role. Stuff happens in history, quite beyond what anyone could hope for or prepare for, and one is just left staring and saying weakly, "Well, look at that." Turkish conquerors conveniently perish or are distracted by the Mongols just in time to prevent them wiping out embattled Christian enclaves. The Fourth Crusade spins out of control and half-destroys Constantinople against all reason or foresight. Or right at the moment of seemingly irreversible decline, the Comneni come along and save everyone's bacon for another three and a half centuries. In the words of my favourite historian, George Grant:
We tend to have in the modern and postmodern era a peculiar way of looking at history. We think of the rise and fall of civilizations. We think of them in their youth and vigor and then in their decrepitude and decline. Both the spatial analogy—rise and fall—and the biological analogy—youth and old age—are false when applied to history. But we’ve so internalized the idea that they rise and fall or have youth and vigor and then wear out and die that we don’t consider what the Bible says or what history proves. There isn’t a life span or a spatial relationship where we can track a civilization. ... The Bible tells us that great civilizations often do fall, collapse, disappear at the height of their glory—Babylon, Assyria, Persia, and as we will see, Byzantium itself. The model portrayed in Scripture is that a civilization is healthy when it is virtuous and is in danger when it is wicked. And the end of a civilization comes with judgement not merely malaise.
All the time I was reading Norwich's book, Grant's words here ran through my head--although oddly, I had forgotten that he spoke them of Byzantium.

Another thing that I mulled over reading this book was the extremely plentiful amount of unChristian behaviour going on in the Empire, especially early on. It seems hard to find any emperors not guilty of murder, rebellion, or fornication--and all this while their subjects are having lively (armed) theological discussions. What I think we see here is the fact that not just individuals, but also cultures, start out immature and gain a kind of cultural cache as they go on. Wisdom is not just individual; it's also corporate. The Constantinople of the Paleologi and Comeneni seems a much wiser place than that of the Theodosians. (As for the Angeli, the least said, the better).

The Fall of Constantinople--15th century French miniature
Yet another thing: While the Eastern Empire showcased some excellent things, and provided a valuable buffer zone between Western Europe and the seemingly inexorable advance of Islam, the fact remained that it was a vast centralised dictatorship running on a socialist economy that deliberately taxed and oppressed local authorities in order to keep them subservient to the crown. While this strategy for many years prevented the Empire from fracturing into smaller states, I believe it also contributed to the ease with while the Muslim invaders were able to consolidate and retain their grip on those provinces they conquered. Simply put, a people that looks to a strong centralised government to protect and govern them will be incapable of protecting themselves against attack.

However, in the third part of the book, we really begin to see the forging of the silver bullet that was to forever destroy the Eastern Empire: disunity. The main thing that strikes me in this history is the desperate need of the Church to be unified in brotherly love. Byzantium stood as the frontier of Christendom against the menace of Islam. It was old, wily, and technologically advanced; the baby civilisation of Western Europe grew strong behind her skirts and then, tragically, failed to work with her, protect her, or reinforce her. The tensions and distrust between East and West--theological, diplomatic, and cultural--eventually grew to such a level that a Greek proverb came into currency: "Better the sultan's turban than the cardinal's hat". Despite heroic efforts on the part of the last emperors to bring about unity of the church, so that their civilisation would not be snuffed out by the Turks, neither the West nor the East was ready to make the concessions necessary to work together. As a result, Constantinople fell, and for the next couple of centuries, the Turks worked their way through Europe, only turned back at the battle of Lepanto in 1571 and the sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683: now Europe was fighting for its own existence in earnest.

This tragic inability to love and work with each other is highlighted by what had happened nearly a thousand years before in the Roman provinces of Syria and Egypt. When the Saracens first conquered those provinces, the local Nestorian and Monophysite Christians welcomed them, preferring--as the Byzantines would a thousand years later--the rule of Saracens to that of fellow Christians.

This is why we need to know history. This is why church unity--even in the midst of differing viewpoints--is so important. Not the kind of slavish unity that prepares a people for oppression, but the kind of trinitarian unity-in-diversity that alone is able to stand firm against the enemy.


John Julius Norwich's Short History of Byzantium is a wonderful introduction to the history of that fascinating empire. I would highly recommend it as a jumping-off-point for further study, or as a basic summary for students. For a more well-rounded view, I'd recommend going on to read Judith Herrin's Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, and for a closer look at the Crusaders' rocky relationship with the Empire, read Rodney Stark's God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades or Thomas F Madden's New Concise History of the Crusades, both of which are fairly short and readable.

Find A Short History of Byzantium on Amazon or The Book Depository.


Kim Marsh said...

I have read the three volume edition of this and you are quite right, the powers of concentration needed are substantial. I broadly concur with what you say it is an enormously entertaining and extremely well written work and a perfect example of why the writing of history should not be the exclusive domain of historians. I would query the use of the term socialist to refer to Byzantium. The fact that the Roman Empire had a corn dole does not make it socialist it was merely a device to keep the plebs quiet and disengage the from urging any reform of the government. Centralisation is not always the same as Socialism.. Centralised. States are usually easy prey after the defeat of the main governmental armies e.g Alexander's conquest of Persia.
If you can find it Norwich's The Normans in the South is just as entertaining and a useful prologue to the history of the Crusades.
Kind regards Kim.

Christina Baehr said...

Perhaps Statist is a more precise term?

Kim Marsh said...

Absolutely no argument. Socialism is often conflated with Statism sometimes in order to denigrate Socialism by an (often though not always) false comparison.
Yours Kim

Suzannah said...

I don't know quite enough about Byzantium to enter the lists of this argument, but I wasn't referring to the corn dole (Judith Herrin led me to believe that after the fall of Alexandria to Islam, one had to pay for the state-provided bread). Two of the three authors I've read on Byzantium have, however, used the word "socialist" to describe the economy--

"Once again the bureaucracy was all-powerful; for the Byzantine Empire, absolute monarchy though it might be, ran its economy on socialist lines. Private enterprise was rigidly controlled: production, labour, consumption, foreign trade, public welfare, even the movement of population were aU in the hands of the State."--Norwich

"[Constantine] created a kind of socialistic state that was strengthened by both sound money and be Christianity."--Rushdoony.


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