By Henry Hopwood-Phillips
A month or so ago I turned on the TV. The fast was broken in honour of Simon Sebag Montefiore, who found himself visiting a little fishing village on Bosphorus, known consecutively as Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul, in front of a drunk BBC camera crew.
The quality of the programme is less important than its position as a milestone marking a slow march to rehabilitate the Byzantine Empire.
The what empire you ask? Indeed. I remember tottering off to university with a bookcase of LOEB thinking its leaves contained nothing less than the whole of antiquity.
To have been told the Roman Empire continued for another millennium after the fall of Rome; to have been told a Roman Emperor visited the English King, Henry IV; to have been told it kept barbarian and infidel at bay whilst upholding the triumvirate of Greek thought, Christian faith and Roman law and to have been told the Emperor’s favourite guards consisted of Nordics and Englishmen, would have been to invite little but scorn and ridicule from myself and I’d imagine most of my colleagues.
Yet in the library I stumbled, quite accidentally, past such a place and learnt what a dark place it was. Byzantium (itself a sixteenth century neologism, Byzantines thought of themselves as Romaioi – Romans) soon felt like some sort of evil stepmother, locked in the West’s attic, guilty of so many crimes.
Crimes that included reminding the West that the Catholic Church was a misnomer, even in its own backyard, and even worse, due to its own innovation (a term synonymous, as today with bid’ah in Islam, with falsity). The Catholics had invented new theories on issues such as the filioque, iconography, celibacy and usage of bread.
Worse still, the Byzantine Empire’s civilised ways, made the West feel upstaged. In the words of Steven Runciman:
Ever since our rough crusading fathers first saw Constantinople and met, to their contemptuous disgust, a society where everyone read and wrote, ate food with forks and preferred diplomacy to war, it has been fashionable to pass the Byzantines by with scorn and to use their name as synonymous with decadence.
This inferiority complex might have resolved itself had not history dealt the relationship a particularly unfortunate hand. Instead, the treachery of the Fourth Crusade and the West’s paltry contribution to the Queen of Cities defence in 1453, ensured the West aggressively oscillated between positions of guilt and defensiveness.
Later, having been ignored in history for these awkward reasons, its omission ensured that when the West started to properly engage in the study of History, the empire upset the tidy historical categories of antiquity, dark, middle and modern ages. The trajectory of the empire was found to be completely at odds with each.
This reasoning led some of the greatest minds, from Burckhardt to Hegel, to dismiss the Byzantine empire variously as ‘despotic, hypocritical, obsolete, imbecilic and abominative’. Gibbon, given his post mortem of the Western Roman Empire, had little choice but to condemn the period less as a twinkly twilight than a leprous postscript; less a noble redoubt, than a lingering smell emitted from the Antonine arse.
The language used to describe the empire over the centuries has made it out to be a sort of primeval Catholic Church on steroids: heavy, sweet, ripe smells abound; it’s festooned with gold; it’s degenerate and verbose; it’s both overly bureaucratic and autocratic; it’s deficient, full of intrigue, emasculation, corruption and deception. If the Byzantine Empire had to tick a diversity and equal opportunities form, it’d be ‘white – other’, a bit like its heir, Russia, today.
A tentative reversal emerged as the rubble of subsequent empires, Ottoman and Habsburg, was cleared from Byzantine hinterland. Ostrogorski and Vasiliev in Russia; Cange and Diehl in France; de Boor and von Lingenthal in Germany; JB Bury, Runciman, Byron and and Yeats in Britain, all contributed massively to a reappraisal of the empire’s feats.
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travels turned mitteleuropa and the Byzantine Balkans into a new playground for young minds and feet in a world from which pink was fast fading (including my own trek from Athens to Constantinople), even marrying a Byzantine princess in the process.
Slowly but surely a second wave of Byzantine historians has surfaced. So alongside heavyweights such as Cyril Mango, Jonathan Harris, Michael Angold, Peter Heather, Tom Holland et al., a strong vein of lighter literature by J. J. Norwich, Judith Herrin, Roger Crowley has found its place under the Waterstones lightbulb – the non plus ultra of any historical period.
The mini renaissance climaxed recently with the Royal Academy’s Byzantium exhibition in 2008 and Dolce Gabanna’s A/W 2013 collection. But the empire’s lessons have not yet permeated political circles. Both the British and the European state, flailing about for pillars to shelter an increasingly diverse commonwealth under, can learn so much from an empire that never fell into the trap of ethnic particularism or imperial homogeneity. Its main tag ‘Romaioi’ encompassed more nationalities than a Benetton advert, yet stirred more than enough feeling to secure the realm for a thousand years. Can we do the same?