Is the evaluation of the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Empire as anti-innovative correct?

It is often said that Byzantium and the Byzantines were negative, if not inimical and hostile, to innovation. Albeit not thoroughly studied and contradicted, directly or not, by a number of modern studies, the notion of Byzantium as a static and changeless civilization has influenced a great number of historians, who have presented the Byzantine understanding of innovation in negative light, particularly in the fields of politics and religion, where the Byzantines are supposed to have perceived innovation as rebellion and heresy correspondingly. But, really, did the Byzantines have one and only one understanding of innovation? Were they negative or sceptical towards innovation as such? And furthermore, did they evaluate innovation in a way that was originally their own?


Innovation in Historical Writing

A classical definition of innovation presents the modern concept of the term as “any idea, practice, or material artifact perceived to be new by the relevant unit of adoption”. By focusing on the crucial role of the adoptive unit in the process (and eventually the result) of any innovation, this definition points to the main problem of the historical study of innovation, namely the oversimplification of the relation between innovation(s) and unit(s) of adoption. To make the point clear: by speaking about Byzantine innovation in general the historian creates and applies a unit of adoption (Byzantium or the Byzantine civilization) that was enormous both in space (at its largest from present Middle East to Spain and from the Danube to North Africa) and time (from the fourth to the fifteenth century). Furthermore, and this is the most important in our case, this superstructure, inhabited by a big number of peoples, completely different between them and with varying interests and sets of concerns and priorities, is supposed to have been homogeneous enough to have articulated one and only one understanding of what innovation was. Even more, it is also supposed to have had and applied the same criteria on which new ideas, practices or artefacts were to be accepted as positive innovations and which were to be rejected as negative or even dangerous.

While speaking about innovation in Byzantium, or any other civilization, a historian should consider the civilization as a mega-system encompassing countless units of various types, as –to name but a few– the state, the church, the emperor, the army, the society in general, various local societies and social groupings, local aristocracies, or monastic communities. A new idea, for example a theological doctrine, or a new practice, let us say a fiscal system, could be accepted or enforced by the central government and opposed by the church or the society. An innovative law could be accepted by the state and the largest part of the society but opposed by the big landowners or the nobility. An innovation could be rejected right after its first appearance to be accepted later, by the same or another unit of adoption, or could be introduced to just one of the cities or the provinces of the empire (that is to say: to one unit of adoption) to be adopted later by some other provinces or the whole empire.

Another problem in the historical study of innovation is that modern scholarship presents, more often than not, concepts as originality, novelty, invention and the like as synonyms to innovation, something that may easily lead to perplexity and wrong conclusions. These concepts are not identical, neither in modern times nor in a historical perspective. To make this clear by focusing only on originality: it is not of axiomatic truth that every innovation by default is an original idea, practice or artefact. There are cases, where an innovation indicates simply the creative use or realization of an old idea, or a newly imported or transplanted idea or practice, that was originally invented or set up by another unit, as for example an individual, a group, a state, a civilization etc. (it is also possible that two of more old ideas add up to an innovation). The adaptation of this(-ese) old idea(s) and its appropriation, transformation or reinvention by the new unit may be so differentiating that the new product or practice becomes an innovation, even though the idea it is based on is not original.

Another point should be added: unlike what is usual in other fields, in historical writing innovation is used as an unambiguous concept, without any reference to the various types of innovation.

Radical innovations require a high degree of new knowledge and skills and they introduce fundamental and, at least sometimes, revolutionary changes. Incremental innovations may be achieved with a low degree of new knowledge and they introduce minor improvements or simple adjustments in current ideas (it should be noted though that a series of incremental innovations might result in a radical innovation). The aphorisms on an anti-innovative Byzantium in modern scholarship refer most probably to Byzantium’s scepticism towards radical innovation, particularly in politics and religion. Even though, a study of sources of various types demonstrate that the Byzantines were not hostile to innovation as such, neither to radical not to incremental innovations.


Innovation in Byzantine Lexicography

The study of Byzantine texts and lexica shows that the Byzantines used mainly two words for innovation: kainotomia (καινοτομία) and neoterismos (νεωτερισμός). The verb to innovate occurs in Byzantine lexicographical sources as kainotomein (καινοτομεῖν), neoterizein (νεωτερίζειν) and kainourgein (καινουργεῖν).

Modern scholarship seems to accept that the Byzantines used all these words in the same meaning; and, mainly, in a negative way. But was it so?

The largest surviving Byzantine lexicon was composed in the fifth–sixth century and is attributed to Hesychios. This lexicon defines the verb kainotomein in a neutral way: “to innovate: to make/do something new” (Καινοτομῆσαι· καινὸν ποιῆσαι). This definition appears in a number of later Byzantine lexica, deriving from or influenced by that of Hesychios, who adds that the word also means the opening of a new mining field (Καινοτομεῖν· καινὴν λατομίαν τέμνειν). An innovator (kainourgekos) is someone who works/produces new things (Καινουργηκότα· νέα πράγματα ἐργασάμενον). The verb neoterizein is presented as having a different meaning from kainotomein; while kainotomein is defined as making new things, neoterizein has the meaning of doing new things (Νεωτερίζει· καινὰ πράττει)

A lexicon ascribed to the fifth-century patriarch of Alexandria Cyril (412–444), under the title Συναγωγή, also presents the verbs kainotomein and neoterizein as not having exactly the same meaning. Kainotomein is described as working/producing something new (Καινοτομεῖ· καινουργεῖ), while neoterizein as doing new things (νεωτερίζει· καινὰ πράττει). Somebody who deals with neoterismos, a neoteropoios, is characterized as rebel, tyrant, plotter (Νεωτεροποιός· ἀντάρτης, τύραννος, ἐπιθέτης).

The great ninth-century Byzantine statesman, scholar and patriarch of Constantinople Photios (858–867 and 877–886) composed a lexicon, where he presents kainotomia, neoterizein, and neoteropoios in exactly the same way to Cyril of Alexandria (Καινοτομεῖ· καινουργεῖ; Νεωτερίζει: καινὰ πράττει; and Νεωτεροποιός: ἀντάρτης τύραννος ἐπιθέτης).

The tenth-century Etymologicum Gudianum presents kainotomia as something changed against the rules and the laws of nature (Kαινοτομία, ἔστι πράγμα, παρὰ τοὺς τῆς φύσεως ὅρους καὶ νόμους παρηλλαγμένον).

This definition is most probably from the corollary of a theological understanding of kainotomia, that is to say the Incarnation of Christ, which took place exactly against the rules and the laws of nature.

The so-called Souda Lexicon, a compilation of lexica, etymologika and other sources, most probably produced around 1000, explains the verb kainotomein as to produce/work something new, relating it to politics (Καινοτομεῖ·αἰτιατικῇ. καινουργεῖ. ὅτι τὸ καινοτομεῖν ἐπὶ τοῦ ἄρχειν). In the entry on the lyric poet Melanippides the verb kainotomein is used in a way that reminds of the modern use of the verb to innovate, as the lexicon reads that Melanippides innovated a lot in the composition of the dithyramb. The noun kainotomia is also listed in Souda, without any explanation. Souda presents the verb neoterizei as doing something new (Νεωτερίζει: καινὰ πράττει). It also includes a passage by Thucydides under the entry neoterizein, and explains neoterismos as rebellion and neoteropoios in exactly the same way to Cyril and Photios, as rebel, tyrant, plotter (Nεωτερισμός: ἀνταρσία and Nεωτεροποιός: ἀντάρτης, τύραννος, ἐπιθέτης).

All the studied lexica present kainotomia and kainotomein in a neutral way, not reflecting any negative understanding of the term. An argumentum ex silentio may be added here, as a number of other Byzantine lexica and etymologica that have been examined, do not include an entry on our “innovation-terms”; this probably demonstrates that the lexicographers did not find the words worthy of an explanation, as they should –I am tempted to think– if kainotomia was generally understood as something negative, or even dangerous or harmful. This is, more or less, the case for the verb neoterizein as well, while neoterismos is clearly presented as a negative change, or effort to change or alter, usually of the political order or existing regime.

Thus, we may say that the study of the verbs kainotomein and neoterizein and their derivatives in Byzantine lexica does not support the theory of a sclerotic negative understanding of innovation in Byzantium. Furthermore, they demonstrate that in Byzantine lexicography the words kainotomia and neoterismos do not have the same meaning, since kainotomia is presented in a neutral way, while neoterismos includes negative meanings, as for example that of rebellion or sedition.


Innovation in Byzantine Political Life

According to modern scholarship, in the field of politics the Byzantines understood innovation as rebellion, revolt, or revolution. One of the main arguments for that, expressed in the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, is a text by the eleventh-century Byzantine scholar, Michael Psellos. In his Chronographia (Χρονογραφία), Psellos comments on a revolt against the emperor Michael V (1041–1042), writing that «by the majority the act was understood as an irrational innovation». But is this passage representative of the hostile tendency of the Byzantines towards innovation? First of all, the argument does not pay attention to a word that is of importance, namely the word irrational, or senseless (ἄλογος). The fact that Psellos uses this adjective to define the kind of innovation means that in the Byzantine mentality of his time there were also rationally founded, or non-senseless, innovations.

Furthermore, Psellos uses kainotomia and kainotomein no less that twelve times in his Χρονογραφία, in a variety of meanings; he refers, for example, to innovations by the divine justice or by the emperor himself. In another text, his encomium on the patriarch of Constantinople Constantine Leichoudes (1059–1063), he praises the patriarch for having opened for him the path to education; the verb used by Psellos for opening the way is kainotomein.

A number of other passages from various periods demonstrates that Byzantium also had developed a positive understanding of innovation in politics. I could refer, for example, to Anna Comnena and her Alexias, where she commends her father Alexius I (1081–1118) as introducing kainotomiai, writing that

if anyone were to reckon the art of ruling as a science and a kind of high philosophy, as if it were the art of all arts and the science of all sciences, then he would certainly admire my father as a skilful scientist and artist for having invented [kainotomounta] those new titles and functions in the Empire”.

To depart from the eleventh century, let us recall Pseudo-Kodinos and his Treatise on the Dignities and Offices (De officiis, composed between 1347 and 1368), where he makes clear that “it is possible to the emperors to kainotomein unhindered, both in functions and titles”.

Let us note that in all these cases where the concept of innovation is used in a neutral or positive way the verb expressing the concept is kainotomein and not neoterizein. Thus, it could be argued that the positive understanding of innovation in politics was expressed with the use of the word kainotomein and its derivatives, while neoterizein was almost always, if not always, used for negative, not accepted radical changes in political life and state organization.

But was this negative understanding of neoterismos as rebellion, revolt or revolution an originally Byzantine understanding? Or was it something the Byzantines inherited by their predecessors?

A study of ancient sources demonstrates that a negative understanding of neoterizein and neoterismos in political thinking existed at least from the fifth century BC. One may refer, for example, to Plato, Aristotle, or Demosthenes. Almost half a millennium later, the great biographer Plutarch (c.46–120 AD) uses the word in the same negative meaning, for example in his biography of the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius (715–673 BC). To the evidence given by Greek sources we may add an argumentum related to the Roman precursors of the Byzantines: in Latin sources the concept of revolution may be expressed as novae res (=new things), that is to say radical changes, or neoterismoi.


Innovation in Byzantine Religion

When it comes to the Byzantine understanding of innovation in religion, modern scholarship demonstrates that the word kainotomia is used in Byzantine theology mainly in relation to: (a) the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ and (b) radical changes in dogma, which were not in accordance to the official doctrines and teachings of the Church.

Innovation as unacceptable changes in dogma is presented clearly in the so-called Synodikon of Orthodoxy, a liturgical document produced in the period between 843 and 920. The study of Byzantine theological and religious texts reveals a good number of passages, where kainotomia is used in this meaning.

But was this use of the word representative of the Byzantine understanding and evaluation of innovation in religion? A good number of theological texts shows clearly that innovation is anathematized when it reflects drastic changes in faith and/or the ecclesiastical traditions and practices, when these changes are not accepted by the Church; this means that the understanding of innovation is not different from that in the Byzantine lexica, the making/doing something new, the opening of new paths. The problem for the Church was that novelties in specific fields or with specific content were not acceptable, as they would threaten its foundations. The discussion, for instance, on Christology was not just a theoretical debate but directly connected to the salvation of the human being. Thus, the innovation of Arius on Jesus as created by the Father was not to be accepted. At the same time, the innovative theologies of the homoousios and the triune God were accepted by the First Ecumenical Council, becoming thus doctrines of the church.

The opinion that the Byzantine Church was not hostile to any innovation in theology as such may be strengthened by an argument the modern scholarship agrees on, namely that the Byzantine Church understood –as we have seen previously– the Incarnation of Christ as a kainotomia. And this was an innovation understood in a very positive way.

The Synodikon of Orthodoxy demonstrates this clearly by anathematizing those who do not believe in this kainotomia. It should be noted here that in the passages studied, the Incarnation is presented as kainotomia, not neoterismos, which may indicate that Byzantine theology was acutely aware of the specific differences between kainotomia, which could be either positively of negatively evaluated, and neoterismos, which was always a negative change in doctrine or practice –this should be studied on the basis of a sufficient amount of sources.

Apart from that, Christianity seems to have understood itself, from the very beginning, as a religion that should express the innovative change from the antique world.

The Christian dogma of the one and only God being at the same time one nature and three persons is as innovative as one can get in Antiquity, not only in theology but also in philosophy.

Thus, we may say that Byzantine theology seems not to have been hostile to the concept of innovation as such. Otherwise, we would never get neither the theology nor the practices originated during two very important theological controversies in Byzantium, namely Iconoclasm and Hesychasm.

The iconoclastic part of the church (and, of course, the state) represents a conservative understanding of the ritual and the ecclesiastical practice; during the iconoclastic debate they upheld “the unbroken and continuous tradition which existed between the views they expressed and the teachings of Christ, the Apostles, and the Fathers of the Church, in contrast to the false and innovative doctrine of their opponents”. The iconophiles, on the other hand, supported the veneration of icons, which was indeed an innovation (by any means, including the painting’s technique and style).

After some 150 years of turbulence and persecutions of the iconophiles by the iconoclasts, the innovative veneration of the icons evolved into the official dogma of the Church as a result of the Council of Nicaea (843). Thus, the way was open to new innovations within painting and the production of icons, as for example with the production of the so-called narrative icons, from the twelfth century onwards.

Hesychasm (14th c.) is the last great theological controversy in the Byzantine world, related to a specific practice of monastic praying, which –according to the theologian Gregory Palamas (1296–1359) and his followers– led to the physical experience of the divine energy, through the so-called silent prayer (the word Hesychasm derives from the Greek ἡσυχία, silence). It is through this debate that new doctrines, as for example the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies, were canonized as dogma, in the Council of Constantinople in 1351, even if they have been previously refuted by parts of the church (the patriarchate of Antioch for example) as innovations. Once more, an innovative new understanding and argumentation won the battle.

Let us now try again to compare the Byzantine understanding of innovation in theology to the understanding of the ancient Greeks. Was innovation in theology and philosophy always acceptable before Byzantium?

Religion in ancient Greece was not as systematic and doctrinal as in Byzantium. Its ethical system was not so dominating as the Christian one and the priesthood had neither the authority nor the power to intervene in the political and social life as the Byzantine church did. Furthermore, polytheism facilitated, one should think, the introduction of new gods, new ideas and new doctrines, in contradiction to the religious Byzantine state and society, where the powerful and conservative church could prevent innovations in theology and religious practices. But was it so? The famous trial, indictment and death of Socrates probably shows otherwise. Let us not forget that the Athenian philosopher was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth, not believing in the established gods of the city and introducing new gods in Athens. One could hardly avoid thinking that the last accusation in reality means innovating in religion, a negative evaluation of which is thus shown as much older than Byzantium, at least in specific cases (as was also the case in Byzantium).



Taking into consideration everything presented above we may deduce that the Byzantine understanding of innovation was not as monolithic as argued in prior scholarship.

There were of course fields in which most Byzantines understood innovation as something negative. In other fields, though, innovation was not only accepted, but also appreciated and encouraged. Furthermore, skepticism towards innovation, or at least certain kinds (probably: types?) of innovation, or innovation is specific fields, seems to have existed long before Byzantium, as the study of ancient Greek sources may demonstrate.

The widespread modern evaluation of Byzantium as anti-innovative could be proven wrong by the study of various innovations in Byzantine architecture (one should need no more than studying the pendentives of Hagia Sophia), military techniques and practices (the Greek fire being a very good example, even if not the only), technology (see for example the fifth century mechanical sundial treasured today at the British Museum of Science, or the famous tenth-century hydraulic systems of the imperial palace described by Liutprand of Cremona), painting (the narrative icon), theology (see above, on Iconoclasm and Hesychasm), or music.

Thus, we may conclude that the modern thesis on innovation having been more or less unwanted in Byzantium is contradicted by a great number of sources of various types.

So, one is tempted to think that since innovation seems not to have been unwanted in Byzantium, it is most probably the study of Byzantine innovation that has not been so far very wanted by modern scholarship.

(Source: “Was Innovation unwanted in Byzantium?”, by Apostolos Spanos)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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