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The upcoming BSC has turned my mind to matters Byzantine, and so it was a happy coincidence that I came across a new volume of Byzantine history before I left for Toronto. Princeton University Press describes Judith Herrin's new Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire in some fairly surprising terms:

She argues that Byzantium's crucial role as the eastern defender of Christendom against Muslim expansion during the early Middle Ages made Europe--and the modern Western world--possible.

This is all absolutely right, but still it is a little surprising (more on that in a moment). It's interesting that I came across this, by way of an Economist advance review of the book, because I had just been thinking earlier today of the far greater military and strategic significance of the Byzantine victories of 678 and 718 compared with the much better known Battle of Poitiers of 732. No offense to Charles Martel, who was a great defender of Christendom (and whose image adorns our "masthead"), but had Constantine IV and Leo III failed to hold Constantinople the ability of the Caliphate to project power across the Mediterranean and up through the Balkans would have been tremendous. Medieval Christendom as it came to exist would have never come into existence, and our civilisation as we know it would not have existed. Three cheers for Greek fire, obviously, and the Syrian Christian who invented it.

I say it is surprising that the book description frames the issue this way, because in certain Byzantinist circles it has come to be seen as old-fashioned and undesirable to emphasise Byzantium as the bulwark against Islam and protector of European civilisation. This interpretation of Byzantium-as-saviour is enshrined in the magisterial work of Ostrogorsky, and so is not going to disappear for a long time, but there has been a strange, if somewhat understandable, move in Byzantine studies to define Byzantium as its own separate civilisation--since medievalists initially were not concerned to include it as part of "the West"--and so to keep it apart from European history proper. The impulse to do this comes from two sources: the first are the Orthodox apologists who would like to keep Byzantium unsullied from both traces of heresy and later secularism of the West whose origins they locate in the medieval western world, and the other comes from the Byzantinists who are willing to admire Byzantium, but who want to admire it because it is unlike medieval Europe, or at least western Europe. Even Sir Steven Runciman, whose works were probably among the earliest and most eloquent arguments on behalf of the superior civilisation of the Byzantines, was effectively separating Byzantium from western Europe in his admiration for the former.

In my view, the drive to try to separate or distinguish sharply between Byzantium and the west is mistaken. Until at least 1204, the two undoubtedly formed two parts of the same civilisation, and just as in some important ways we today share Europe's fate as part of the same civilisation so, too, did western Europe share Byzantium's. When the Eastern Empire was gone, it was western Europe that had to bear the burden that Byzantium had carried for centuries before. Different cultures there were, as one would expect, but there was still a single Christian civilisation to which all their heirs still belong to one degree or another.

Comments (6)

Thanks for the notice of this book, Daniel. It looks most interesting indeed.

I'm kind of a historical fiction nut, and have been reading through several books dealing with the Eastern Roman empire, lately: *Basilissa* and *Conquer*, by John Masefield, onetime Poet Laureate of England, *Count Belisarius*, by Robert Graves, of *I, Claudius* fame, and, next up on the docket, Felix Dahn's *A Struggle for Rome* - which, I gather, was a big influence on Tolkien.

All fascinating stuff, but all concerning the time of Justinian & Theodora - which seems to be all that anybody who's not professionally concerned ever finds out about the Byzantines.

Maybe Herrin's book would be a good place to start if I wanted to get a little bit more serious.

We're continually being given propaganda about how certain Islamic countries 1,000 years ago were more advanced than some west European ones. But this obscures the fact that Byzantium was more civilized and more advanced in almost every way than Islamic countries at that time, when we're given the innuendo to the effect that some Islamic countries were in the lead globally. Byzantine scholars are remiss if they fail to point out that Byzantium was ahead during all the time it was claimed that Islam was leading. Islam is not compatible with the Advancement of Civilization, and never has been, even when they were located in the middle of several concurrent dark ages. The fall of Constantinople was a great loss to civilization, no Islamic defeat ever has been.

I think the apologists wish to note that something different happens when the Franks take over the West. The troubles begin long before 1054, most specifically in the 860's. Secondly Runciman wishes to set the stage for the idea that the "Byzantines" were schismatic. Byzantine was something of a slur as was "Greek" given the the (Eastern) Romans by the Franks, who wished to claim the mantle of the Roman Empire.

It should be noted also that many of the "advances" that Islamic apologists like to claim came from Byzantium or India (the zero for example). There isn't a single text of Aristotle or Plato for that matter conveyed to the west that the west didn't get from Byzantine refugees in Greek. And there were a number of important texts that the Mulsims refused to translate, notably, Aristotle's Politics, since it proffered a political structure contrary to that of Sharia or divine law.

...just as in some important ways we today share Europe's fate as part of the same civilisation so, too, did western Europe share Byzantium's.

That is a very helpful way of putting it.

Magnificent--another book to add to my collection!

I'd go further and argue, as Mr. Robinson does in part, that the influence on the West continued after 1204. In Wells' "Sailing to Byzantium," he points out that Muslims only copied Greek texts of immediate utility (geography, medicine) and a few philosophical texts. They had no interest in Greek history, drama or most philosophical texts.

That legacy was entirely the bequest of Byzantium to the West, and that began during the irreparable disintegration of the Empire during 14th Century. Without those texts, we don't have a recognizable Renaissance, if one at all.

Oh, and I (patting self on back) posted Ostrogorsky's encomium to Constantine IV last year.


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