“Of that Byzantine Empire the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed …. There has been no other enduring civilisation so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness … Its vices were the vices of men who had ceased to be brave without learning to be virtuous … Slaves, and willing slaves, in both their actions and their thoughts, immersed in sensuality and in the most frivolous pleasures, the people only emerged from their listlessness when some theological subtlety, or some chivalry in the chariot races, stimulated them to frantic riots … The history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.”
from W. E. H. Lecky’s History of European Morals published in 1896.
As John Julius Norwich says in his introduction to his epic 1,200 page trilogy The History of Byzantium, that last sentence makes Byzantine history sound not so much monotonous as distinctly entertaining. And today, 1,681 years after the formal foundation of the City of Constantinople by Constantine the Great, we can celebrate that fascinating and entertaining history.
Norwich points out that until the second half of the twentieth century this campaign of denigration had continued, with Gibbon foremast in his dismissal of the Empire as all that was bad, in fact nothing less than a betrayal of all that was best in ancient Greece and Rome.
The Byzantine Empire lasted for 1,123 years and 18 days, which Lord Norwich remarks is less than the time that separates the modern Englishman from the Norman Conquest. Throughout that long period Byzantium lived “under perpetual threat of attack. Siege followed siege; again and again the city was saved only by the heroism of the Emperor and his subjects … The Byzantines were mystics, for whom Christ, his Mother and the Saints were as real as members of their own family … and Byzantium was an autocracy, ruled by an Emperor half-way to heaven, Equal to the Apostles, God’s Vice-Gerent on Earth, who held the life of every one of his subjects in the hollow of his hand. Some of these Emperors were heroes, others were monsters, but they were never, never dull.”
Reading John Julius Norwich’s trilogy is a constant pleasure (and now I have it on MP3 read by John McDonough), and I recommend reading it if you have not already done so. He is too modest when he says it is no scholarly work; it is in fact the result of twelve years’ labour, and refers to many authentic texts. What it is does also have is good maps which I find are absent from so many history books.
So on this day, let us think once more of the work of Constantine I, The Great, and of his final worthy successor, Constantine XI Dragases. These Emperors, and the people of the Empire, were a bastion of Christendom, keeping out the armies of Persia in the seventh century and the those of the Caliph of Baghdad in the eighth. As the western Roman Empire fell to the unceasing advances of barbarian hordes from beyond the Rhine and the Danube, Byzantium kept on the lights of Christendom and learning, retaining for us the laws, the highly developed medical practices, and the classical heritage of ancient Greece and Rome. They held off and delayed the advance of the Ottoman’s long enough to allow medieval Europe to emerge from the so-called dark ages as strong nation states that were able to stem the advance of Suleiman the Magnificent at Vienna in 1529. Most of all we can thank them for their art, which is so deeply spiritual and speaks to us, even now, now across the centuries.