Lords and Ladies of Byzantium

Ancient Greek culture, Roman law and Eastern Christianity all contributed to the longevity of the Byzantine Empire

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In September 2006 Pope Benedict XVI brought Byzantium to the front pages around the world with his citation of a medieval Greek text, employed to make a sharp criticism of Islam. Quoting from a Dialogue written by Emperor Manuel II (1391-1425), he said: “What did the Prophet bring that was new? Only evil and inhuman things such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached” – as if Christians had never spread the faith by the sword.

While this attack on Islam was clearly newsworthy, editors were puzzled by the source he had quoted. The Byzantine Emperor Manuel II is not a household name, though he turned out to be a distinguished ruler of a once great empire in its declining years. He had even travelled to Paris and London, as well as living as a vassal of the Ottoman Turks as the balance of forces swung against the Byzantines. A remarkable leader, he is the author of Dialogue with a Persian (ie a Muslim). This is a debate on the relative values of Christianity and Islam written in the last decade of the 14th century, while Manuel was detained by the Sultan Bayezid (1389-1402). He also composed theological treatises, speeches and letters, which reflect his deep friendships and intellectual interests. Through these copious writings he is one of the most literate emperors of Byzantium, devoted to ancient Greek culture while profoundly aware of the political problems of his time.

What was this mysterious empire that was suddenly propelled into the spotlight by the Pope? For more than a millennium before Manuel II’s reign, Christian emperors had been ruling in Constantinople. During these long centuries which link the ancient and medieval worlds, Byzantium had developed out of the eastern half of the Roman Empire and grew into a profoundly Christian, cosmopolitan state that withstood attacks by Persians, Avars and Slavs, Arabs, Russians, Turks and Latins. From its inauguration by Constantine the Great in AD 330 to its capture and sack by the Christian forces of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the capital Constantinople remained unconquered. And even after a 57-year occupation by western crusaders, the Byzantines regained the city in 1261, and held it for two more centuries until the final siege by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in 1453.

The secret of Byzantium’s success and staying power is surely related to its component elements: ancient Greek culture and pagan energy, preserved in its original language and transmitted through well-organised educational methods; Roman law, administrative strength and military reach and confidence, and, finally, Christian faith in its eastern form, which remained very close to the stories of Jesus’s life on earth. When combined, these formed an “inner Greek fire”. Greek fire itself was a combustible weapon produced from a mixture of naptha and other substances, which burned even on contact with water. The Byzantines projected it under pressure through siphons against enemy ships, threw it on to city walls under siege and against enemy troops, who fled at the sight. This spiritual version of Greek fire formed the kernel of Byzantine civilisation and stoked the survival of the empire for more than 1,100 years.

Under its inspiration many features of Byzantium assisted in the process, notably the growth of Constantinople as an international market which linked the landmass of Russia with the Mediterranean world. Byzantine emperors also issued a reliable gold coinage with their own names and images, which circulated widely and served as imperial propaganda. They encouraged people of many different ethnic origins to come and trade in Byzantium, creating a multicultural society. Jews, Armenians, Arabs, Slavs were all attracted to Byzantium, not only to the capital but also to the numerous fairs held in provincial cities, often on the feast day of the local Christian saint. They recruited foreign forces, such as the Varangians from Scandinavia, Russia and Anglo-Saxon England, to guard the imperial court and fight in imperial armies. And the development of a sophisticated diplomatic corps sustained Byzantine imperial ideology throughout the medieval world and beyond, extending as far east as China and west to Muslim Spain.

Byzantium also benefited from having a particularly grand capital city, Constantinople. At its height, first in the 6th century and then in the 12th, the “city of Constantine” may have contained as many as 500,000 people, vastly bigger than any western medieval city. The accounts of visitors all make clear that its sheer size and fortifications, its harbours and markets, its imperial court, public buildings and huge churches greatly impressed travellers. As the 10th-century Russian ambassadors reported when they entered the church of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth … We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.” Visitors assumed, quite correctly, that such grandeur required immense wealth, which the emperors generated through taxation on land and commerce. A regular tax-raising capacity was another feature unfamiliar to other medieval states. In addition, the city provided education from the lowest to the highest levels, which was essential to a career in the civilian bureaucracy. To gain a paid position required considerable knowledge of ancient Greek rhetoric and culture. The epics of Homer, the plays of ancient Greek dramatists, the speeches of Pericles and Demosthenes as well as the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Archimedes and Euclid were all studied and copied in Byzantium and thus preserved.

The wealth and strength of this inheritance was tested in the 7th century when the Arabs conquered most of the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian empire. The most prosperous Roman provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt were overrun. By 711 Arab forces had advanced to the Pillars of Hercules and sailed over into southern Spain, which they occupied until 1492. In the east they crossed the Oxus and moved into Uzbekistan, which of course remains Muslim to this day. In 717 the Arab navy sailed into the Sea of Marmara, while two land armies from Damascus camped outside the walls of the capital and prepared to starve it into surrender. The newly enthroned emperor, Leo III, was an experienced military leader who called on Khazar allies from the Crimea to attack the besiegers in the rear while he made strategic use of Greek fire to destroy enemy ships and led military sorties from within the city. Fortunately for Byzantium, the winter of 717-18 was extremely harsh and by the following summer the caliph had ordered the siege to be lifted. During their retreat the Arabs suffered storms in the Aegean which destroyed their ships. This great Byzantine triumph was celebrated annually on August 15, already a most holy day as the feast of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Virgin.

The Arab challenge, however, was not exhausted. Constantinople was the great prize that all Muslim caliphs wanted to win, to make it their capital, from which they could advance into Europe to replace Rome and make good their claim to be the true successors to the followers of Christ. Between 719 and 740 their attacks continued unabated. The defence constitutes one of Byzantium’s historic claims: it held off the Arab threat to conquer and occupy Constantinople and thus protected the west from Muslim invasion until the 14th century. While Charles Martel, “the hammer”, defeated the Arabs from Spain in 732 at Poitiers and pushed them back over the Pyrenees, Byzantine forces protected Greece, the Balkans, Italy and central Europe for centuries during times of fragmented political rule in the west. This stalwart and prolonged military achievement permitted the powers of western Europe to develop and consolidate, notably through the short-lived empires of Charlemagne, the Ottonians and the Hohenstaufens, Frederick I and II. Without Byzantium blocking the Arab advance, this could never have happened.

But an indirect consequence of the earlier and most challenging Arab campaigns in the east was a tremendous upheaval within Byzantium itself, directed towards the images of holy persons, icons of Christ, the Mother of God, saints, monks and bishops. As Muslim victories over the Christian forces of Byzantium dominated the first half of the 8th century, churchmen and civilians alike questioned why Byzantine forces were not more successful, and concluded that they must be committing some very grave sin. The emperor’s advisers informed Leo III that it was the sin of idolatry – excessive worship of Christian icons – that was causing divine displeasure. So in 730 he issued an order to remove the holy images, thus opening a period of iconoclasm (the destruction of icons), which dominated the empire until 787, and again from 815-43. The key to Byzantine iconoclasm, however, must lie with the example of Islam, which admitted no figural representation in full compliance with the Second Commandment of Moses: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing” (Exodus 20:4-5).

Leo III’s order to remove figural images was followed by his son’s official declaration of Iconoclasm in 754. The purification of prayer, accompanied by attacks on monks, who were also the chief icon painters, prefigures the Reformation in its stress on worship in spirit and in truth. In many churches figural representations of the Virgin were replaced by a monumental cross, and in Thessa­lonica, a mosaic in the apse of the church of Holy David was whitewashed over. Monks were forced to marry nuns in a typical assault on celibacy. Of course, many people refused to comply with the order to remove their icons because they found the veneration of religious images very important to their faith. Women in particular were excluded from serious roles in the church hierarchy of priests and so may have directed their prayers to holy figures portrayed on icons in private acts of worship.

Whether or not there is a more general association between female worship and icon veneration, it is striking that two widowed empresses were in control of the empire when the order of 730 was reversed. In 787 Empress Irene with her young son Constantine presided over the Council of Nicaea which restored the icons; and again in 843 Theodora, widow of Emperor Theophilos, repeated the process through the creation of a new liturgy which condemned iconoclasm and brought back the veneration of icons. As her son Michael was only three years old at the time, it seems fairly clear that she took the initiative and followed the example of her predecessor Irene. These “women in purple” wore the costume of the emperor and ruled almost as if they were men to ensure that Byzantine religious art could return to the patterns established before 730. Their “Triumph of Orthodoxy” was also a triumph of pagan figural art in portraits painted on wood and of traditional pagan styles of expressing veneration.

The style that was re-established in 843 undoubtedly influenced all later Byzantine art. And it is through the exquisite icons, enamels, jewellery, silks and silver objects that Byzantium is generally known, at least to museum visitors. Such objects are found in collections throughout the Balkans, in central Europe and across Russia, since they accompanied the missionaries who converted the Slavs and then the Russians to Orthodox Christianity. Although Patriarch Photios believed in the superiority of Greek, in the late 9th century he approved the translation of the Bible, liturgical texts and law books into the languages devised by SS Cyril and Methodios to render spoken Slavic and Russian. This too was to prove an important link for Protestant Reformers, who believed that reading Scripture in the vernacular was critical.

It was however the Muslims who provoked the most dangerous event in Byzantine history, the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by the crusaders. When the Seljuk Turks overran the Christian holy places, Pope Urban II (1088-99) preached on the need for a crusading movement of Christians to march against the infidel forces. Although Emperor Alexios I had appealed for military help and had made alliances with Venetian merchants, who were familiar figures the empire’s ports, the arrival in Constantinople of pilgrims and mounted knights from northern Europe caused many anxieties in Byzantium. The western Christians did not worship in the same language or in the same way as the Orthodox: they used unleavened bread in the sacrament and recited a different wording of the creed; their bishops and monks all carried weapons and intended to fight, which seemed sacrilegious to the eastern Christians.

The initial co-operation between Latin- and Greek-speaking believers during the First Crusade rapidly gave way to mutual distrust. Through a series of accidents and miscalculations on both sides, Venice, which had the most to gain, encouraged the diversion of the Fourth Crusade. Instead of a sea-borne attack on Alexandria, the western forces sailed to Constantinople and sacked the city in 1204. This was a turning point in Byzantium’s history which defined its particular character and divided it from the west forever. Loot from the city now adorns numerous western cathedral treasuries, particularly the church of San Marco in Venice.

In the west’s bad faith over the capture of 1204 crusaders and religious authorities alike created a view which perpetuated the heretical nature of Byzantine Orthodoxy and the unworthy nature of an empire that had accumulated so much wealth in holy relics and art. This negative approach was greatly intensified by Enlightenment scholars such as Voltaire and Gibbon, who saw in Byzantium nothing but unproductive monks, sycophantic eunuch courtiers and feeble imperial leaders. One of the most important acts of modern times to counter this ill-informed attitude was Pope John Paul II’s apology made in 2000 to the Patriarch of Constantinople for the capture of 1204.

Pope Benedict XVI has now undone much of the good will, despite his successful visit to Ankara and to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. By citing the Dialogue out of context, he projected Byzantium as thoroughly antagonistic to Islam. Yet the debate came out of a tradition of interfaith discussions going back centuries, in which the Orthodox Christians had tried to understand and correct what they perceived to be the errors of Judaism, Islam and other heresies. Byzantium also maintained diplomatic relations with Arab rulers even during times of warfare, and regularly tried to resolve military problems by negotiation. Of course Manuel II wrote a work of Christian propaganda, but it records at great length a serious debate with a Turkish Muslim. The emperor probably realised that Byzantium would fall to the Ottomans one day. Yet even then, he took pains to clarify what Islam taught. It is a message that should not be lost today.