Byzantine Civilization


On May the twenty-ninth, 1453, a civilization was wiped out irrevocably.  It had left a glorious legacy in learning and in art; it had raised whole countries from barbarism and had given refinement to others; its strength and its intelligence for centuries had been the protection of Christendom.  For eleven centuries Constantinople had been the centre of the world of light.  The quick brilliance, the interest and the aestheticism of the Greek, the proud stability and the administrative competence of the Roman, the transcendental intensity of the Christian from the East, welded together into a fluid sensitive mass, were put now to sleep.  Constantinople was become the seat of brutal force, of ignorance, of magnificent tastelessness.  Only in the Russian palaces, over which flew the two-headed eagle, the crest of the House of Palaeologus, did vestige of Byzantium linger for a few more centuries–only there, and in dark halls by the Golden Horn, hidden amongst the houses of the Phanar, where the Patriarch kept up his shadowy Court, allowed by the statesmanship of the Conquering Sultan and the labour of George Gennadius Scholarius to rule over the subject Christian people and give them some measure of security….but the Two-headed Eagle no longer flies in Russia, and the Phanar is lost in uncertainty and fear.  The last remains are dying or are dead.

It is as the seers of Byzantium foretold, the prophets that spoke incessantly of the fate that was coming, of the final days of the City.  The weary Byzantine knew that the doom so often threatened must some day surely envelop him.  And what did it matter?  It was needless to complain.  This world was a foolish travesty, haunted with pain and with sorrowful memories and foreboding.  Peace and true happiness lay beyond.  What was the Emperor, the Peer of the Apostles, what even was Constantinople itself, the great City dear to God and to His Mother, compared to Christ Pantocrator and the glorious Courts of Heaven?

Sir Steven Runciman, Byzantine Civilization, p. 240


Incense at Hagia Sophia

A Greek journalist writes: “I met Ishmael who is Turkish in 1975, in England, where I was attending university at Oxford. We became good friends and after graduating we kept in touch. Ishmael lives in Istanbul (Constantinople), a stone’s throw from Hagia Sophia. Recently he wrote a letter to me. “In the past year, at night, when we are outside, the smell of incense that you Christians burn in church overpowers us.”

It is of note that there hasn’t been a church service at Hagia Sophia since 1453, the year Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.


Rich Warren wore a pin on his mantle: a medallion of a double-headed eagle.  When I asked him if he knew what it meant, he admitted that he did not know, and asked me what it meant.  The double-headed eagle is the symbol of the Byzantine Empire, and that symbol carried through to Russia.  The eagle has one body and two heads. The body represents the Empire and the two heads of the eagle symbolize that the Empire is led by the Church and the Emperor.  The symbol shows the synergy between Church and State.  Then, as now, there have been both benefits and drawbacks to such rule.  And still, even though our country is founded in opposition to such a principle (we have a one-headed eagle), it was the way of the Roman and Byzantine Empires for over 1000 years, until 1453.  Similarly, Church and State have long been linked in Russia.  Perhaps it is the persistence of the double-headed eagle that Americans find Russia so puzzling.
Knowing these things, as an American Orthodox priest; one who’s Christianity is the same as Russia’s—“President Putin’s Patriarchal Games,” Nancy Folbre’s December 23 column in the New York Times, caught my eye.  Her politico-religious-social commentary, thinly veiled in an article about the Olympics, was laced with accusations against Russia, her Orthodox Church, and her president, Vladimir Putin: bribery, power, coercion, environmental corruption, and abuse against women.  She found it impossible to avoid the tired references to Mr. Putin’s KGB days, and ever compared him to Joseph Stalin.  Her column made me wonder: what makes journalists, professors (she taught economics at UMASS), and the general public so concerned about Russia, the Russian Church, and Putin?  Certainly their contempt does not arise from American purity, chastity, or peace.
I wonder if Ms Folbre recalls our own former President Clinton, who had deviant sexual escapades in the Oval Office while his wife was home, and made a bold-faced lie about his actions On National Television (escaping perjury by a technicality)? Or if she considers the euphemism “reproductive rights” a reasonable and humane name for abortion, by which 300 lives will be taken today and every day, on children 13+ weeks in gestational age and older?  Or if she saw the Super bowl ads last Sunday night, where before the eyes of hundreds of millions of teenagers, one could be sold on three-way sex capades in a Butterfinger candy bar commercial, oral sex in a Dannon Yogurt spot, or nearly pornographic licentiousness for a Hardee’s cheeseburger? Talk about propaganda!
Even still, Professor Holbre wrote one sentence which really, really, really (that is how my son indicates something is VERY important captivated me: “The upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi are shining a global spotlight on Russian domestic priorities, including a long history of efforts to enforce traditional gender roles.”
Russia, like all nations, has domestic priorities.  That is, an emphasis at home and in the home.  Russia has seen the wicked face of atheism and communism at home where 70 years and 70,000,000 corpses equaled more Christians martyred in Russian in the 20th century than all the Christian Martyrs total in the previous 1900 years and more than 10 times the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust.  What didn’t kill Christianity in Russia made it stronger.  Perhaps Russia is eager simply to return to her unabashedly Orthodox Christian Culture and morality?
To appreciate that possibility, consider the professor’s words: “Long history.” It is nearly impossible for us to fathom in our indidualistic society, where the Constitution guarantees no established religion, and where we have 217 varieties of disparate Christianities, that Russia has had not just Christianity, Russian Orthodoxy predates the Magna Carta (1215 AD) by nearly 250 years, and antedates Christopher Columbus (1492 AD) by double that. The end of communism in Russia coincided with the celebration of 1000 years of Christianity there.  That, indeed, is “a long history.”  A long, rich history of prayers, piety, and morality, a foundation without which communism and atheism would most certainly have won out.  Rather than taking offence at Russia’s “traditional views” might it not be timely for us to remember that America shared a similar moral vision with Russia for the first 200 or so of our short 238 years of American history?
With that in mind, it is a mystery to me why there are people who find it difficult to believe that women are biologically endowed to be mothers, and men to be fathers—the Traditional Gender role” about which Folbre writes.  Traditional, by definition, means “handed down.”  Perhaps it is safe to say that one of Russia’s “domestic policies” may simply be handing down what has been obvious to her Christian Culture for 1000 years.”
What does all this have to do with the Olympics in Russia? Well, very little, except that Russia’s “traditional domestic policies” have led to suggestions of boycotts, and continue to elicit all sorts of ranting about the way Russians are governed.  Besides less-than-private toilets and terrorist related security, it is Russia’s firm moral stance which is written about most with respect to Sochi.
In closing, it might be helpful to note that Orthodox Christianity is not so much a formal religion that can be treated, remolded, or cast aside like an outdated custom; rather, it is the longest-standing unchanged, living Christian Tradition in the world, in which Russia has been immersed for one half of the age of Christianity.  It is the Christian tradition which continues to hand down Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be truly human.
And with respect to the Olympics, it is helpful to recall that one Christian example, St. Paul compares the living of the Christian life to that of an athlete in training and competition. He said: “an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” An ice skater cannot win the gold or even compete wearing skis.  He also said: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.  They do so to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.” The Sochi Olympian from the world over have followed strict training regimens in order to be victors.  Christians likewise—Russian Orthodox in this example—are called to exercise self-control and to follow a strict training program in order to be holy and truly human, according to the teachings of Jesus as we have received them and this not to receive a perishable medal but a crown in heaven.”
Fr. Thomas Moore, Holy Apostles Orthodox Church, Columbia, SC, USA

The Great Schism, 1054

“…[Cerularius] reflected, [that] the Pope was a Prisoner.  How was it that he had managed to send legates?  What assurance was there that they represented his intentions?  He refused to recognize their legatine authority.  His caution was justified.  On 15 April [1054], a few days after the legates’ arrival at Constantinople, Pope Leo died.  By all the precedents of Canon Law legates cannot represent a dead Pope.  When the news of Leo’s death reached him, Cerularius could congratulate himself on his prudence…

…Humbert went further and raised the question of the Filioque.  He doubtless supposed that Pope Leo would have wished him to do so; for just before the legates left Italy the Pope had been allowed by the Normans to go to Bari and to give before a small local synod there his views about the desirability of the word.  Even under this provocation, which irritated the Byzantine public, Cerularius kept silent and ignored the presence of the legates.  Humbert’s patience was at last exhausted.  On Saturday, 16 July 1054, just as the afternoon liturgy was about to be sung, he and his colleagues stalked into the Church of St. Sophia and laid on the altar a Bull excommunicating Michael Cerularius, Leo of Ochrida, Michael Constantine, the Patriarchal Chancellor, and all their followers.  They then strode out of the church, ceremoniously shaking its dust off their feet.  A deacon ran out after them and begged them to take back the Bull.  They refused; and he dropped it in the street.  It was picked up and eventually brought to Cerularius.  When it had been translated for him he must have smiled; for few important documents have been so full of demonstrable errors.  It is indeed extraordinary that a man of Humbert’s learning could have penned so lamentable a manifesto.  It began by refusing to Cerularius, both personally and as Bishop of Constantinople, the title of Patriarch.  It declared that there was nothing to be said against the citizens of the Empire or of Constantinople, but that all those who supported Cerularius were guilty of simony (which, as Humbert well knew, was the dominant vice at the time of his own Church), of encouraging castration (a practice that was also followed at Rome), of insisting on rebaptizing Latins (which, at that time, was untrue), of allowing priests to marry (which was incorrect; a married man could become a priest but no one who was already ordained could marry), of baptizing women in labour, even if they were dying (a good Early Christian practice), of jettisoning the Mosaic Law (which was untrue), of refusing communion to men who had shaved their beards (which again was untrue, though the Greeks disapproved of shaven priests), and, finally, of omitting a clause in the Creed (which was the exact reverse of the truth).

Sir Steven Runciman, The Eastern Schism, pp.  45-48.

Byzantine Renaissance



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?

War from the Christian Point-of-View

The Christian citizen has a fundamental problem to face: is he entitled to fight for his country? His religion is a religion of peace; and war means slaughter and destruction. The earlier Christian Fathers had no doubts. To them a war was wholesale murder. But after the triumph of the Cross, after the Empire had become Christendom, ought not its citizens to be ready to take up arms for its welfare?
The eastern Church thought not. Its great canonist, Saint Basil, while he realized that the soldier must obey orders, yet maintained that anyone guilty of killing in war should refrain for three years from taking communion as a sign of repentance. This counsel was too strict. The Byzantine soldier was not in fact treated as a murderer. But his profession brought him no glamour. Death in battle was not considered glorious, nor was death in battle against the infidel considered martyrdom; the martyr died armed only with his faith. To fight against the infidel was deplorable though it might at times be unavoidable; to fight against fellow-Christians was doubly bad. Indeed, Byzantine history was remarkably free of wars of aggression. Justinian’s campaigns had been undertaken to liberate Romans from heretic barbarian governors; Basil II’s against the Bulgars to recover imperial provinces and to remove a danger that menaced Constantinople. Peaceful methods were always preferable, even if they involved tortuous diplomacy or the payment of money. To western historians, accustomed to admire martial valour, the actions of many Byzantine statesmen appear cowardly or sly; but the motive was usually a genuine desire to avoid bloodshed. The princess Anna Comnena, one of the most typical of Byzantines, makes it clear in her history that, deep as was her interest in military questions and much as she appreciated her father’s success in battle, she considered war a shameful thing, a last resort when all else had failed, indeed in itself a confession of failure.
The western point of view was less enlightened. Saint Augustine himself had admitted that wars might be waged by the command of God; and the military society that had emerged in the West out of the barbarian invasions inevitably sought to justify its habitual pastime. The code of chivalry that was developing, supported by popular epics, gave prestige to the military hero; and the pacifist acquired a disrepute for which he has never recovered. Against this sentiment the Church could do little. It sought, rather, to direct bellicose energy into paths that would lead to its own advantage. The holy war, that is to say, war in the interests of the Church, became permissible, even desirable. Pope Leo IV, in the mid-ninth century, declared that anyone dying in battle for the defense of the Church would receive a heavenly reward. Pope John VIII, a few years later, ranked the victims of a holy war as martyrs; if they died armed in battle their sins would be remitted. But the soldier should be pure at heart. Nicholas I laid down that men under the sentence of the Church for their sins should not bear arms, except to fight against the infidel.

Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, vol I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 83-84.