New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:

Byzantium: The surprising life of a medieval empire

Judith Herrin
Allen Lane, 392pp

ByzantiumThe term 'Byzantine', as Herrin observes, is often used as shorthand for complexity and duplicity. This is not totally underserved, but there is more to Byzantine history than that. Many Byzantine rulers, military leaders and scholars were brilliant. Herrin shows that the negative western image of Byzantium arose out of conflict over theology (e.g. the Filioque clause in the creed, regarding the Spirit), and a misunderstanding of Byzantine-Muslim diplomacy, westerners seeing the pursuit of better relations with Muslim powers as appeasement. Byzantine history still has lessons for us today.

'Byzantine', however, is a relatively recent (16th-century) term in the west for this imperial civilisation, which right up to its tragic end in 1453 continued to call itself the 'Roman Empire'. Byzantium was, in fact, a cultural combination of ancient Greek and Roman civilisations with Christianity. That such a civilisation could exist in some form up to 1453 is quite an achievement.

Western stereotypes, reinforced by writers such as Voltaire and Gibbon, helped to obscure a central contribution of Byzantium to western culture - that without Byzantium, Europe would not have existed. 'Had Byzantium not halted their expansion in 678,' Herrin says, 'Muslim force charged by the additional resources of the capital city would have spread Islam throughout the Balkans, into Italy and the West during the seventh century, at a time when political fragmentation reduced the possibility of organized defence. By preventing this potential conquest, Byzantium made Europe possible'. People often credit Charles Martel with halting the Muslim advance in 732 at the battle of Tours, but if the early Muslim attacks on Constantinople had succeeded, his prowess would have been moot. A major siege of the city began just as Muslims in Spain were advancing. Western problems with jihad are nothing new.

However, Herrin shows that the relationship between Byzantium and Islam was not totally hostile. The Caliph who ordered the construction of the Dome of the Rock approached the Byzantine Emperor for craftsmen to help its building. Constantinople allowed religious liberty to Arab traders. The victories of Muslims who eschewed representations of God led to two periods of official iconoclasm in Byzantium. Jews also usually enjoyed greater toleration than elsewhere in Christendom.

The other major cultural contribution of Byzantium was Greek Orthodoxy: 'The cooperation between Empire and Church was one of the great strengths of Christian culture in Byzantium'. Often the Emperor appointed the Patriarch, but the Patriarch might rebuke the Emperor, for example denying Leo IV entry to the cathedral for marrying a fourth time. The Byzantine structure was thus more approximate to the English Henrican settlement than to the Papacy. Byzantine authority and mission spread Orthodoxy within and beyond its borders, notably among the Slavs, especially in Russia. One reason for the success of Byzantine, rather than western missions, was that they allowed vernacular liturgy, while Rome insisted on Latin.

Ironically though, Orthodoxy was one cause of the ultimate fall of Byzantium. The Byzantine rejection of the Filioque clause and of the primacy of the Pope led to mutual anathema in 1054. And by 1071 Byzantium was in trouble: the Turks defeated them at Mantzikert, and advanced towards Egypt. The Byzantines appealed to the Pope for western military aid. Pope Urban duly called the first crusade in 1095, but the Byzantines found that their western allies did not just fight against their common enemy: they had their own agendas. Italian economic penetration of Byzantium was one consequence - just as US economic dominance over Britain after the second world war was the price of post-war aid and loans.

In fact, the western 'military aid' of the fourth crusade ultimately destroyed any hope of Constantinople's resisting Islamic advance. The Pope demanded submission to Rome. Short of funds, the crusaders made a deal with a Byzantine imperial claimant Alexios, to install him as Emperor, upon which he would bestow the necessary largesse upon them. Thus, in 1203, the westerners - who had come to aid Byzantium - successfully besieged its capital. Once installed, Alexios found it difficult to keep his end of the bargain, so to the frustrated crusaders sacked Constantinople, establishing their own Latin kingdom, and uniting the eastern Church to Rome. The 'heresy' and 'schism' of Byzantine Orthodoxy, together with the stereotype of Byzantine treachery, provided a justification for the crusaders. One is reminded of the excuses about the Iraq debacle: OK, so Saddam had neither links with al-Qaida nor a WMD arsenal, but his regime was evil, so why not overthrow it?

Constantinople never recovered from the conquest, even after the recapturing the city in 1261, and could not stand against the new Ottoman threat. The population fell drastically, and it could not afford to re-arm properly. Attempts at re-unification with Rome - the price of Western support - foundered on the hostility, theological and cultural, resulting from the 1204 treachery: 'Better the Turkish turban than the Papal tiara' was the general view. Tragically, this consigned Constantinople to Ottoman conquest in 1453.

Herrin is an enthusiast for her subject, and her zeal is infectious. The book is both thorough and lucid. A few points of dissension, however. She does not challenge the the pagan historian Zosimus's claim that Constantine converted to Christianity because he was promised absolution for killing his son, whereas as even the early church historian Sozomon noted, Zosimus gets the timeline wrong - Constantine had already converted by this time. She considers the story of his conversion a myth, although the language the pagan Senate used to describe his triumph at the Milvian Bridge in 312 ('at the inspiration of the Divinity') suggests that Constantine truly believed he had received supernatural guidance from the Christian God. Herrin refers to Mithras as 'the Persian god', although Mithraic specialists are now convinced that the Roman Mithras cult had little to do with Iranian Zoroastrianism.

There is much else in this marvellous book, but I will close with a contemporary reference. Herrin mentions Emperor Manuel II irenic disputation with a Muslim scholar in 1391. It was forthright but amicable. Yet the Pope's quote from it in 2006 produced a furious Muslim response. The legacy of Byzantium, and its interaction with the Papacy and Islam, remains with us.

Anthony McRoy