‘Byzantium’ (Roman Empire of the East) and the Slavs

Here we present selected parts of the very informative paper titled “Byzantium and the Slavs“, by IHOR ŠEVČENKO.


“By the ninth century, the following truths were held to be self- evident in the field of culture: the world was divided into Byzantines and barbarians, the latter including not only the Slavs– who occupied a low place on the list of barbaric nations- but also the Latins; as a city, the New Rome, that is, Constantinople, was superior to all others in art, culture, and size, and that included the Old Rome on the Tiber. God has chosen the Byzantine people to be a new Israel: the Gospels were written in Greek for the Greeks; in His foresight, God had even singled out the Ancient Greeks to cultivate the Arts and Sciences; and in Letters and Arts, the Byzantines were the Greeks’ successors. “All the arts come from us“, exclaimed a Byzantine diplomat during a polemical debate held at the Arab court in the fifties of the ninth century. A curious detail: this diplomat was none other than the future Apostle of the Slavs, Constantine-Cyril. Cyril’s exclamation implied that Latin learning, too, was derived from the Greeks. The Greek language, the language of the Scriptures, of the church fathers, also of Plato and Demosthenes, was rich, broad, and subtle; the other tongues, notably the Slavic, had a barbaric ring to them; even the Latin language was poor and “narrow”.

The Byzantines maintained these claims for almost as long as their state endured. Even towards the very end of the fourteenth century, when the empire was little more than the city of Constantinople in size, the Byzantine patriarch lectured the recalcitrant prince of Muscovy on the international order. The prince should remember- so the patriarch explained- that he was only a local ruler, while the Byzantine emperor was the Emperor of the Romans, that is, of all Christians. The fact that the emperor’s dominions were hard-pressed by the pagans was beside the point. The emperor enjoyed special prerogatives in the world and in the Church Universal. It therefore ill behooved the prince to have discontinued mentioning the name of the emperor during the liturgy By the end of the fourteenth century, such a claim was unrealistic, and, as is to be deduced from the Byzantine patriarch’s closing complaint, it had been challenged by the Muscovite barbarian. But throughout more than half of Byzantine history, such claims worked. Why?

The first reason why they worked was that for a long time the claims were objectively true. In terms of the sixth century, Justinian, under whose early rule the large-scale Slavic invasions occurred in the Balkans, was a world emperor, that is, a ruler holding sway over the civilized world. In the east, his dominions extended beyond the upper Tigris River; they skirted the western slopes of the Caucasus. In the north, Byzantium’s frontier ran across the Crimea, and along the Danube and the Alps. The empire had a foothold in Spain, it controlled the coast of North Africa and much of Egypt, it dominated today’s Israel, Lebanon, and a great deal of Syria. Now let us skip half a millennium. In the time of Basil II (d. 1025), under whose reign the Rus’ accepted Christianity, the situation was not much worse: it was even better in the east, where the frontier ran beyond Lake Van; for a stretch, it hugged the Euphrates. Antioch and Latakia were still in Byzantine hands; in the North, the Crimea was still crossed by the Byzantine frontier, and the Danube and the Sava were the frontier rivers- thus in this sector, too, Byzantium possessed as much as Justinian did. In the West, parts of southern Italy with the city of Bari were under Byzantine sway. In the ninth and tenth centuries, which were decisive for the Byzantinization of the Slavs, the empire’s capital at Constantinople was, with the possible exception of Baghdad and Cairo, the most brilliant cultural center of the world as not only the Slavs, but also western Europe, knew it. Its patriarchs were Greek scholars and politicians. Its prelates read and commented upon Plato, Euclid, and even the objectionable Lucian; its emperors supervised large encyclopaedic enterprises; its sophisticated reading public clamored for, and obtained, reeditions of old simple Lives of Saints, which were now couched in a more refined and complicated style. The Great Palace of Constantinople covering an area of ca. 100,000 square meters, was still largely intact and functioning. The pomp of the court ceremonial and of the services at St. Sophia, then still the largest functioning building in the known world, was calculated to dazzle barbarian visitors, including Slavic princes or their emissaries. Byzantine political concepts influenced western mediaeval political thinking down to the twelfth century; the western symbols of rule -scepter, crown, orb, golden bull- owe a debt to Byzantium. The mosaics of Rome, of St. Mark in Venice (thirteenth century) and of Torcello near Venice (twelfth century), of the Norman churches in or near Palermo (twelfth century), are reflections of Byzantine art, and some of them were executed by Byzantine craftsmen.

The renascence of theological speculation in the High Middle Ages was stimulated by the imperial gift which arrived from Byzantium at the court of Louis the Pious in 827. The gift was a volume of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite*, in Greek, of course. This work, translated twice into Latin, the second time by Johannes Scotus Eriugena (d. 877), spurred subsequent western theological speculation**. It is difficult to imagine a western church without an organ– yet, this instrument, too, arrived from Byzantium in 757 and 812. On the latter occasion, the Byzantines refused to leave the organ with the Westerners, who attempted to copy it in secret, but only later successfully reproduced it. The silk industry was introduced to the West in the middle of the twelfth century, as a result of a Norman raid on Central Greece- the Normans abducted Byzantine skilled laborers from Thebes and settled them in their dominions. Even the fork seems to be a rediscovery of Byzantine origin- an eleventh-century Greek-born dogissa introduced forks to Venice, to the great horror of a contemporary ecclesiastic***. No wonder that the Slavs experienced the influence of Byzantium: the West, which could fall back upon refined Latin traditions, experienced it, too, long after Byzantium’s political domination over parts of Italy had ceased. So much for the first reason- Byzantine claims worked because they were objectively valid.

The second reason why the Byzantine claims of superiority worked was that they were accepted as valid by the barbarians, whether western or Slavic, even after they had ceased to be objectively valid. The usurpation of Charlemagne occurred in 800. But he, the ruler of Rome, did not call himself emperor of the Romans- he knew that this title, and all that it implied, had been preempted by the Byzantines. It was not until 982 that the titolature “Imperator Romanorum” appeared in the West. And it was only with Frederick I Barbarossa (second half of the twelfth century) that a logical consequence was drawn from this titulature by a western ruler. Since there could be only one Emperor of the Romans, the Byzantine emperor should not be called by this title- he was to be called only what in fact he had been for a long time: the rex Graecorum****. But did Frederick reflect that the very concept that there should be only one emperor was a Byzantine heritage? The Slavs were much slower to be weaned from Byzantium and never drew a conclusion similar to that of Frederick. With them, emulation of Byzantium was always but another form of Byzantium’s imitation. True, Symeon of Bulgaria in the early tenth century and Stephen Dusan of Serbia in the mid-fourteenth assumed the title of Emperor of the Bulgarians and Greeks or of the Serbians and Greeks, respectively. But they did not think of proclaiming a Slavic counterpart to the Western doctrine Rex est Imperator in regno suo and thus downgrading the Byzantine emperor. Rather, they dreamed of supplanting him by taking Constantinople and seating themselves on his throne; and the same fantasy occurs in one text produced in thirteenth-century Rus’, Slovo o pogibeli russkoj zemli.

Short of supplanting the Byzantine emperor, many a Balkan ruler aimed at securing for himself the prerogatives of that emperor, or attempted to imitate imperial pomp and usage. Ways of doing this were varied. One instance was by having a patriarch of his own: in the ninth century, the newly converted Boris of Bulgaria wanted to have one; around 900, Symeon of Bulgaria succeeded in setting one up; so did Stephen Dusan of Serbia in the mid-fourteenth century, not without resistance on the part of Byzantium. Another instance was by striking gold coins: the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Asen II (d. 1241) managed to do it, but he appeared on his coins in the garb of a Byzantine emperor with Christ on the reverse; another, by having the court hierarchy bear Byzantine aulic titles: Stephen Dusan named sebastocrators and logothetes; yet another, by assuming the epithet “second Justinian” on the occasion of the proclamation of new laws; still another, by looking to Byzantium as a reservoir for prestigious marriages– between the thirteenth century and the fall of Bulgaria in 1393, we count eight Greek women among 21 Bulgarian tsarinas; another, by patterning one’s own capital after Constantinople: Symeon of Bulgaria’s Preslav copied the Imperial City, as, by the way, did Prince Jaroslav’s Kiev in the 1030s.

In fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Muscovy, the attitude toward Byzantium and its patriarchate was less than friendly; but when the Muscovite bookmen began to formulate an indigenous state ideology, they drew heavily upon Byzantine sources, in particular upon a Mirror of Princes written in Greek for the emperor Justinian in the sixth century; and they called Moscow “the reigning city“, a formula by which the Byzantines usually referred to Constantinople. In sum, throughout their Middle Ages, the Balkan and to a considerable extent the East Slavic ruling elites were beholden to the Byzantine model in the matter of political concepts. The Byzantine cultural impact did not presuppose the existence of friendly relations between Byzantium and the Slavs. Sometimes it looked as if the more anti-Byzantine the Balkan Slavs- like the Normans of Sicily- were in their political aspirations, the more Byzantinized they became; they fought the enemy with the enemy’s own weapons. What the Byzantine cultural impact did presuppose was the acceptance- both by the producers and the receivers of cultural values- of the Byzantine world view and civilization as superior to all others.


*NovoScriptorium: This doesn’t seem to be the case; it is not Pseudo- but actually, appears to be indeed Dionysius. Read here https://novoscriptorium.com/2018/10/30/the-authenticity-of-dionysius-the-areopagites-writings-part-1/

We also need to add that very few Western scholars could read and understand Greek from the 6th up to the 15th century. We can see what the West believed for the study of ancient literature in the writings of Gregory of Tours (Historiae Francorum). Gregory’s attitude toward pagan literature was the conventional one of his age, namely fear of the demonic influences embodied in it. He expresses it thus: “We ought not to relate their lying fables lest we fall under sentence of eternal death“. And we hear of bishops who were illiterate. At the same time, in the East, both the Imperium Romanum governed from Constantinople and the Abbasid Caliphate governed from Bagdad were much more culturally advanced in every aspect of Science, Literature and generally Knowledge. Because, indeed, they kept on studying ‘pagan’ literature. This never stopped among the Graeco-Romans of the East (as long as there was a Roman State there), while the Arabs stopped -in the East- during the 12th century for reasons explained in this article https://novoscriptorium.com/2019/04/17/the-graeco-arabic-renaissance-in-medieval-times-why-did-it-fail/

**NovoScriptorium: This doesn’t seem to be the case either. The (new, mostly German) West never understood, lived (through personal experience, βίωμα) or accepted the basis of Eastern Thought, deeply influencial in authentic (and ancient) Christian Theology, too: Platonism, in its various progressive forms. The West never adopted the ‘metaphysical’, ‘supernatural’ and ‘unseen’ that is related to the Divine and ended up ‘rationalizing’ Christianity, hence unavoidably deviating from the initial form of it, which is clearly, and above anything else, a personal experience, a personal relationship with the Divine. Additionally, ‘Puritanism‘, a Western ‘fruit’, has absolutely nothing to do with the genuine spirit of Christianity, where the worst sinner may become a Saint, through Μετάνοια – true repentance. And all (everybody) can be saved, even until the very last moment of their lives.

***NovoScriptorium: Read the article on this https://novoscriptorium.com/2018/12/14/the-eastern-roman-princess-theophano-introducing-the-fork-into-europe/

****NovoScriptorium: This is one of the greatest ‘usurpations’ of all time; in the East, what existed was the remnants of the original Roman Empire. As we all know, States have continuum. That is the reason our Juridicial System still accepts formal titles even from States that no longer exist. The Roman state-entity never ceased to exist until 1453. And the populations never stopped calling themselves ‘Romans’ (or ‘Rum’ in the Islamic East, Turkish or Arabic), not even until today (Rum of Turkey, Rum of Lebanon, etc). We must always remember that the inhabitants of the Christian East refered to themselves as ‘Romans’ and never as something else, e.g. ‘Greeks’. Today that we are so concerned in our societies about the right of self-identification, it is striking that we tolerate with the change of name for a whole population and State, just because other purposes might be served. The Germans that conquered Europe were never ‘Romans’. Very few of them were, that is true, ‘Romanized’ and served well the Imperial Roman dream. But this Roman dream was, historically, torn apart in the West by the various invading Germanic tribes. Who then claimed the title of ‘Roman’ out of nowhere in an attempt to claim a share of the glory that was Imperial Rome before they destroy it.

Research-Selection-Comments: Anastasius Philoponus


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