Not quite Byzantium

This article is controversial, but so is much of what is written about Greece at the moment. The situation appears not only to be financially painful, but national pride and sensitivities have been hurt as well.

EU demands for austerity will stir uncomfortable memories of Greece’s former imperial glory

by Hywel Williams. First published in The Guardian, Sunday 23 May 2010 23.00 BST.

What shall we do about the Greeks? This is not the first time the question has been asked by European leaders keen on the continent’s integration and finding the Hellenes a bit of a problem in that regard. It’s all rather embarrassing – especially since the democratic innovations of fifth century BC Athens are meant to supply the European Union with a satisfyingly antique pedigree.

Pride in that remote history sustained the Greeks during the long centuries of Turkish occupation after Constantinople fell in 1453. Just as it did in the bleak years after the colonels came to rule in 1967. Taking refuge in the past – either real or imagined – is the lot of many small nations. And a sense of shame about putting up with the yoke of foreign rule or of home-grown despots runs deep in Greece. That same resentment now returns in the form of hostility to an interventionist EU whose leaders demand job cuts in return for bailing the Greek government out of an economic crisis.

But the bit of Greek history that tends to get forgotten by the democratic partisans is Byzantium – the Roman empire in the east that continued for almost a millennium after the fifth century imperial collapse in western Europe. Sacral power of the most exalted kind surrounded the throne of Byzantium’s Christian emperors. Medieval western Europe went through serial traumas before finally establishing that popes and kings were two kinds of beasts who ought not to trample on one another’s rights. But the emperors enthroned in Constantinople were priest-like figures ruling in both church and state, and western-style constitutionalism with its checks and balances never stood a chance in Byzantium.

When crusader knights from the Latin west saw Constantinople for the first time they were overwhelmed by its magnificence – a scale of ceremonious beauty for which there was no parallel in the western Europe of the 11th and 12th centuries. But with the awe there also came suspicion, especially when the westerners observed the rituals surrounding the Greek emperors. Wasn’t that the kind of behaviour encouraged by Baghdad’s emirs and Cairo’s caliphs? Prejudices linking the orient with the despot have a long pedigree, and westerners soon came to view the Greeks of Byzantium as positively un-European.

For Charlemagne too the Greeks were a problem – notably so after he was crowned an emperor by the pope in 800. Byzantium’s dominium might not contain any western European territories, but its rulers were quite clear that the continent could only have one imperator – and he was to be found in Constantinople.

In his biography of Charlemagne, Einhard, the courtier, makes the intriguing claim that the king had never wanted to be an emperor. Indeed, he was taken by surprise when Pope Leo crowned him as such in St Peter’s during Christmas Day mass. This is one of history’s best examples of a biographer fibbing on behalf of his subject. On that day Charlemagne was wearing a tunic and a cloak, both ancient Roman in style – a very rare antiquarian gesture on his part. He had come prepared. Besides which, this was Europe’s premier warrior and he was not naive. Charlemagne’s campaigns had brought most of the territories within the former Roman empire of the west under the sway once again of a single ruler. He had been behaving just like an emperor for three decades – presiding at church councils just as Constantine had done, creating subordinate kingdoms in Italy and Aquitaine and introducing a single currency for western Europe.

But even he had to be careful not to snub the notoriously touchy Greeks. Einhard’s fable reflects Charlemagne’s own ambiguous feelings about being called an emperor, and he was happy for the Greeks to think that he had been overtaken by events on that Christmas morning. In 801 his staff did a lot of rummaging around in the ancient Roman imperial archives left behind in Ravenna to find a precise form of words for his new title that would not offend Byzantium. Not claiming to be ruler of the Roman empire was rather important since it avoided stepping on Greek toes.

Byzantium was still annoyed though, and only in 812 did the Greeks recognise Charlemagne’s new title. It was a victory for realism and diplomacy – qualities that Greeks will need in abundance in the age of austerity that is now visited upon them by their new foreign master, the EU budget.

About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
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