‘Byzantium’ (Eastern Roman Empire) made Europe possible

Here we present part of the ‘Introduction’ from the book «Byzantium – The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire», by Judith Herrin.


Byzantium conjures up an image of opaque duplicity: plots, assassinations and physical mutilation, coupled with excessive wealth, glittering gold and jewels. During the Middle Ages, however, the Byzantines had no monopoly on complexity, treachery, hypocrisy, obscurity or riches. They produced a large number of intelligent leaders, brilliant military generals and innovative theologians, who are much maligned and libelled by such ‘Byzantine’ stereotypes. They never developed an Inquisition and generally avoided burning people at the stake. But there is a mystery associated with this ‘lost’ world, which is hard to define, partly because it does not have a modern heir. It remains hidden behind the glories of its medieval art: the gold, mosaics, silks and imperial palaces.

To explain my appreciation of Byzantium, in this book I aim to set out its most significant high points as clearly and compellingly as I can; to reveal the structures and mentalities which sustained it. In this way I want to keep you interested to the end, so that you feel you get to know a new civilization. Crucially, I want you to understand how the modern western world, which developed from Europe, could not have existed had it not been shielded and inspired by what happened further to the east in Byzantium. The Muslim world is also an important element of this history, as is the love–hate relationship between Christendom and Islam.

What are the key features of this important but little-known history? First, Byzantium was a thousand-year-long civilization which influenced all the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans and Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages. From the sixth to the fifteenth century, this influence waxed and waned but was a constant. Its civilization drew on pagan, Christian, Greek, Roman, ancient and specifically medieval components. Its cultural and artistic influences are now recognized as a lasting inheritance. But in addition, fundamental aspects of government such as the development of an imperial court with a diplomatic service and civilian bureaucracy, the ceremony of coronation, as well as the female exercise of political power, all developed in Byzantium.

The grandeur of Constantinople, at the centre of a vast empire, with an inherited system of imperial government, and the variety of sources that inspired it, combined to give enormous confidence to both rulers and ruled. It is necessary to emphasize this aspect of Byzantium. By the time of the Emperor Justinian (527–65), the underlying structures of empire were two hundred years old and so firmly embedded that they appeared unchangeable. They had created a deeply rooted culture that sprang from ancient Greek, pre-Christian sources, as well as Roman and Christian ideas, both ideological and practical (for instance, philosophical arguments and military fortifications). The entire system was celebrated in imperial rhetoric and displayed in imperial art intended to elevate it to an everlasting permanency. However vacuous the sentiments expressed, they nonetheless confirmed and further engrained the selfconfidence of Byzantine emperors, their courtiers and more humble subjects. They provided the bedrock of Byzantium’s exceptional ability to respond to severe challenges in the seventh century, again in the eleventh and most spectacularly in 1204. Each time it was able to adapt and reform by drawing on these deep inherited structures that combined in a rich awareness of traditions.

In this sense, Byzantine culture embodies the French historian Fernand Braudel’s notion of the longue durée, the long term: that which survives the vicissitudes of changing governments, newfangled fashions or technological improvements, an ongoing inheritance that can both imprison and inspire. While Braudel applied this idea more to the geographical factors that determined the history of the Mediterranean, we can adapt it to distinguish Byzantine culture from those of its neighbours. For in contrast to other medieval societies both in the West and among the Muslims, Byzantium was old, many centuries old by the time of Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid in AD 800, and the structure of its culture was both a constraint and a source of strength. Indeed, as we will see, it was born old, importing into its capital city at its construction the authority of already antique architecture and statuary. Its established cultural framework, condemned as conservative, praised as traditional, provided a shared sense of belonging, commemorated in distinctive and changing fashions all dedicated to the greater glory of Byzantium. This created a flexible heritage which proved able to respond, often with great determination, to enhance, preserve and sustain the empire through many crises.

Byzantium’s imperial identity was strengthened by a linguistic continuity that linked its medieval scholars back to ancient Greek culture, and encouraged them to preserve texts by major philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, geographers, historians and doctors by copying, editing and commenting on them. Above all, Byzantium cherished the poems of Homer and produced the first critical editions of the Iliad and Odyssey. Although public performances of theatre died away, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were closely studied and often committed to memory by generations of schoolchildren. They also learnt the speeches of Demosthenes and the dialogues of Plato. A strong element of ancient pagan wisdom was thus incorporated into Byzantium.

This ancient heritage was combined with Christian belief, which gradually replaced the cults of the pagan gods. Byzantium nurtured early Christian monastic traditions on holy mountains like Sinai and Athos, where spiritual teachings still inspire monks and pilgrims. It undertook the conversion of the Bulgarians, Serbs and Russians to Christianity, which is why large parts of the Balkans are still dotted with Orthodox churches decorated with medieval frescoes and icons. And it maintained contact with those Christian centres that passed under Muslim control during the seventh century, supporting the patriarchs of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch, as well as communities even more distant like the churches of Ethiopia and Sudan, Persia, Armenia and Georgia.

Using the inheritance of Roman technology and engineering skill, Byzantium continued to build aqueducts, fortifications, roads and bridges, and huge constructions such as the church of Holy Wisdom, St. Sophia in Constantinople, which still displays its massive sixth-century form, complete with the largest dome ever built until St Peter’s in Rome a thousand years later. Its Byzantine dome has often been repaired but remains intact, and is copied in numerous smaller versions found in churches all over the Orthodox world. It also inspired the form for covered mosques, constructed when the Arabs moved out of their desert homeland where they worshipped in open courts. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is aptly named to commemorate the Muslim occupation of a holy place cherished by Jews and Christians. Not only its circular roof but also its vivid mosaics display Byzantine origins, since the seventh-century Emperor Justinian II was asked by Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik to send Byzantine craftsmen to cut the coloured stone and glass tesserae, which shimmer whenever they catch the light. They may also have set the 240-metre-long inscription from the Qur’an, running round the base of the dome, that Islam is the final revelation of Allah (God) and is superior to all others.


From Rome, Byzantium also inherited a developed legal system and a military tradition. Both supported its long history. In theory, Byzantine society lived by the rule of law; judges were trained, salaried and presided over the resolution of disputes. Throughout the empire people brought their grievances to the courts and accepted their judgments. Although the celebrated Roman legions did not continue beyond the seventh century, fighting forces, both foot and cavalry, were trained according to Roman military manuals. Strategies for fighting on land and at sea, siege weapons, methods of supplying the forces, their armour and protective clothing were all adapted from older practice. The composition of ‘Greek fire’, a sulphurous substance that burns on water, remained a state secret and we still do not know the precise combination of its components. While a similar weapon was developed by the Arabs, Greek fire terrified those unfamiliar with it both in sea battles and in city sieges.

Byzantium considered itself the centre of the world, and Constantinople as the replacement of Rome. Though Greekspeaking, it saw itself as the Roman Empire and its citizens as Romans. It exercised leadership over the Greek-speaking communities in Sicily and southern Italy which were a product of ancient Greek emigration. It both sheltered and stimulated the growth of Italian coastal cities, such as medieval Amalfi and Venice, which lived off international trade. In due course these centres overtook Byzantium as economic centres in their own right and developed superior naval and mercantile capacity. But their debt to Byzantium is clear. Bronze doors commissioned in Constantinople adorn their cathedrals, which are frequently decorated with marble, mosaic and icons in Byzantine style. Their prosperity was born under the wing of the empire.

Perhaps for us today, the most significant feature of Byzantium lies in its historic role in protecting the Christian West in the early Middle Ages. Until the seventh century, Byzantium was indeed the Roman Empire. It ruled North Africa and Egypt, the granaries that fed both Rome and Constantinople, southern Italy, the Holy Land, Asia Minor as far east as Mount Ararat, all of today’s Greece and much of the Balkans. Then the tribes of Arabia inspired by the new religion of Islam conquered most of the eastern Mediterranean. They fought in the name of a revelation that presented itself as the successor to the Jewish and Christian faiths. Byzantium checked their expansion into Asia Minor and prevented them from crossing the Dardanelles and gaining access to the Balkans. Constantinople held out against numerous sieges.

The Muslims’ aim of capturing Constantinople, making it their capital and taking over the entire Roman world was more than legitimate. It was also logical. Since Islam claimed to supersede both Judaism and Christianity, its forces would naturally replace Rome and take over the political structures of the ancient world. If one follows the ambitions recorded in the Qur’an, the entire Mediterranean should have been reunited under Muslim control. The Persian world of Zoroastrian beliefs would also succumb to Islam. In extraordinarily swift and successful campaigns between 634 and 644, the Arab tribesmen came close to achieving this goal. They provoked the first major turning point in Byzantine history.

Had Byzantium not halted their expansion in 678, Muslim forces 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. It allowed western Christian forces, which were divided into small units, time to develop their own strengths. One hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, Charles Martel defeated Muslim invaders from Spain in central France near Poitiers and forced them back over the Pyrenees. The nascent idea of Europe gradually took on a particular form under Charles’s grandson and namesake, Charles the Great. Charlemagne and his successors fought their own battles and were responsible for creating their own Europe.

During the Middle Ages, most western clerics and rulers were aware, however dimly, of the Christian civilization of Byzantium in the East. Although Byzantium controlled a much smaller empire than Rome at its height, from the seventh to the fifteenth century this medieval state developed new political and cultural forms. It combined different strands from its past to forge a new medieval civilization, which attracted many non-Christian northern tribes. In turn, the Bulgars, Russians and Serbs adopted Christian faith and elements of Byzantine culture. For about seven hundred years Byzantium remained a beacon of orthodox belief and classical learning.

The period of the crusades put Byzantium at the centre of the Christian effort to win back the Holy Places from Muslim control. From the eleventh century onwards, Byzantium and the West became mutually more familiar, often with very negative results. Despite the success of the First Crusade in establishing the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Fourth Crusade turned against Constantinople and sacked the city in 1204. This was the second great turning point in Byzantine history. The empire was never able to restore its previous strength or form. Although they regained the capital, Byzantine emperors ruled over what had become in effect a city-state from 1261 to 1453, when Constantinople was finally captured by the Ottoman Turks.

But curiously, Byzantine cultural influence expanded almost in inverse proportion to its political strength. From 1204 when numerous works of art were taken back to Western Europe, Byzantium’s contribution to the revival of western art and learning is notable. In the fourteenth century, Byzantine teachers of Greek were appointed to Italian universities and they and their pupils began to translate the writings of Plato. Aristotle’s works had already reached the West via the Muslim world, but most of Plato’s philosophy remained unknown. During the negotiations in Florence which led to a reunion of the western and eastern churches in 1439, public lectures on Plato by the famous Greek scholar and philosopher George Gemistos Plethon inspired Cosimo de’ Medici to establish his Platonic Academy. The Byzantine contribution to the Italian Renaissance thus began much earlier than 1453, when the Turks made Constantinople their own capital. Following the fall of the city, refugees who fled to Italy with their manuscripts strengthened the new learning and new art. And a few decades later, when the Protestant reformers condemned religious art and argued for a more spiritual style of Christian worship, they employed all the biblical and patristic texts collected by Byzantine iconoclasts of the eighth and ninth centuries.

saint sophia

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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