Based in Constantinople (modern Istanbul), it lasted until 1453. At times, it was the richest and most powerful state in the known world. Today, it is almost forgotten. Its main presence in the English language is as a word meaning complex bureaucracy. What is it so forgotten? Why should it be remembered?
Let’s take the first question. Looking at our own family history, we tend to pay more attention to our grandparents than our cousins. Whatever they did, we have a duty to think well of our grandparents. We often forget our cousins. So far as they are rivals, we may come to despise or hate them. So it has been with Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. The Barbarians who crossed the Rhine and North Sea in the fifth century are our parents. They founded a new civilisation from which ours is, in terms of blood and culture, the development. Their history is our history. The Greeks and Romans are our grandparents. In the strict sense, our parents were interlopers who dispossessed them. But the classical and Christian influence has been so pervasive that we even look at our early history through their eyes. The Jews also we shoehorn into the family tree. For all they still may find it embarrassing, they gave us the Christian Faith. We have no choice but to know about them down to the burning of the Temple in 70AD. The Egyptians have little to do with us. But we study them because their arts impose on our senses, and because they have been safely irrelevant for a very long time.
Byzantium is different. Though part of the family tree, it is outside the direct line of succession. In our civilisation, the average educated person studies the Greeks till they were conquered by the Romans, and the Romans till the last Western Emperor was deposed in 476AD. After that, we switch to the Germanic kingdoms, with increasing emphasis on the particular kingdom that evolved into our own nation. The continuing Empire, ruled from Constantinople, has no place in this scheme. Educated people know it existed. It must be taken into account in histories of the Crusades. But the record of so many dynasties is passed over in a blur. Its cultural and theological concerns have no place in our thought. We may thank it for preserving and handing on virtually the whole body of Classical Greek literature that survives. But its history is not our history. It seems, in itself, to tell us nothing about ourselves.
Indeed, where not overlooked, the Byzantines have been actively disliked. Our ancestors feared the Eastern Empire. They resented its contempt for their barbarism and poverty, and its ruthless meddling in their affairs. They hated it for its heretical and semi-heretical views about the Liturgy or the Nature of Christ. They were pleased enough to rip the Empire apart in 1204, and lifted barely a finger to save it from the Turks in 1453. After a spasm of interest in the seventeenth century, the balance of scholarly opinion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to despise it for its conservatism and superstition, and for its alleged falling away from the Classical ideals – and for its ultimate failure to survive. If scholarly opinion since then has become less negative, this has not had any wider cultural effect.
Now to the second question: Why should we remember Byzantium? Well, everyone admires the Greeks and the Roman Empires. But, once your eyes adjust, and you look below the glittering surface, you see that it wasn’t a time any reasonable person would choose to be alive. The Greeks were a collection of ethnocentric tribes who fought and killed each other till they nearly died out. The Roman Empire was held together by a vampire bureaucracy directed more often than in any European state since then by idiots or lunatics. Life was jolly enough for the privileged two or three per cent. But everything they had was got from the enslavement or fiscal exploitation of everyone else.
Yet, while the Roman State grew steadily worse until the collapse of its Western half, the Eastern half that remained went into reverse. The more Byzantine the Eastern Roman Empire became, the less awful it was for ordinary people. This is why it lasted another thousand years. The consensus of educated opinion used to be that it survived by accident. Even without looking at the evidence, this doesn’t seem likely. In fact, during the seventh century, the Empire faced three challenges. First, there was the combined assault of the Persians from the east and the Avars and Slavs from the north. Though the Balkans and much of the East were temporarily lost, the Persians were annihilated. Then a few years after the victory celebrations in Jerusalem, Islam burst into the world. Syria and Egypt were overrun at once. North Africa followed. But the Home Provinces – these being roughly the territory of modern Turkey – held firm. The Arabs could sometimes invade, and occasionally devastate. They couldn’t conquer.
One of the few certain lessons that History teaches is that, when it goes on the warpath, you don’t face down Islam by accident. More often than not, you don’t face it down at all. In the 630s, the Arabs took what remained of the Persian Empire in a single campaign. Despite immensely long chains of supply and command, they took Spain within a dozen years. Yet, repeatedly and with their entire force, they beat against the Home Provinces of the Byzantine Empire. Each time, they were thrown back with catastrophic losses. The Byzantines never lost overall control of the sea. Eventually, they hit back, retaking large parts of Syria. More than once, the Caliphs were forced to pay tribute. You don’t manage this by accident.
The Byzantine historians themselves are disappointingly vague about the seventh and eight centuries. Our only evidence for what happened comes from the description of established facts in the tenth century. As early as the seventh century, though, the Byzantine State pulled off the miracle of reforming itself internally while fighting a war of survival on every frontier. Large parts of the bureaucracy were scrapped. Taxes were cut. The silver coinage was stabilised. Above all, the great senatorial estates of the Later Roman Empire were broken up. Land was given to the peasants in return for military service. In the West, the Goths and Franks and Lombards had moved among populations of disarmed tax-slaves. Not surprisingly, no one raised a hand against them. Time and again, the Arabs smashed against a wall of armed freeholders. A few generations after losing Syria and Egypt, the Byzantine Empire was the richest and most powerful state in the known world.
This is an inspiring story – as inspiring as the resistance put up by the Greek city states a thousand years before to Darius and Xerxes. If the Turks, who destroyed it in 1453, can admire the Byzantine Empire, and even feel proud of it, why shouldn’t the rest of humanity admire it?