Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The First Christian Empire

For in contrast to other medieval societies both in the West and among the Muslims, Byzantium was old, many centuries old by the time of Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid in AD 800….

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, by Judith Herrin

I have been wanting for some time to learn something more about Byzantium, its history, the Church that developed in and through and around this empire, and, ultimately, its demise.  This book has been sitting on my shelf long enough, and as I am coming to a close on other topics, it seemed time to pick it up.

Byzantium conjures many images – in some cases exaggerations and caricatures, in some cases deserved (but not unique to it).  Despite modern views, the Byzantines had no monopoly on complexity or treachery or hypocrisy.  They were not unique in pursuing riches and wealth.  They generally avoided burning people at the stake and never developed what could be described as an Inquisition. 

Further, per Herrin:

…I want you to understand that the modern western world, which developed from Europe, could not have existed had it not been shielded and inspired by what transpired further to the east in Byzantium.

A mix of pagan, Christian, Greek and Roman influences, the empire would wax and wane, but is generally recognized as encompassing the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, and Anatolia.  Constantinople was the grandest of cities, its roots going back to the beginning of the decline of Rome. 

It nurtured the earliest Christian monastic traditions on mountains such as Sinai and Athos.  It converted the Bulgarians, Serbs, and Russians.  It maintained contact with many of the Christian centers that fell under Muslim rule during the seventh century – including Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria, and, in varying degrees (and at some times better than other times) Ethiopia, Persia and Armenia.

Hagia Sophia held the title of the largest dome for a thousand years, from the sixth century until the completion of St. Peter’s in Rome.  Constantinople considered itself the center of the world, and the replacement for fallen Rome. 

Until the Muslim invasions, it encompassed regions stretching from western North Africa to Mt. Ararat, southern Italy, Greece and the Balkans.  In the early years of the Church, it was the Church – protecting the Christian West in the early Middle Ages. 

Had Byzantium not halted their expansion in 678, Muslim forces charged by the additional resources of the capitol city would have spread Islam throughout the Balkans, into Italy and the West during the seventh century, at a time when political fragmentation reduced the possibility of organized defence. 

Thus, a Christian Europe was made possible.  Just over half-a-century later, Charles Martel would win the decisive battle over the Muslims near Poitiers in central France. 

Fast forward to the Crusades, with, one would say, mixed results for the Byzantines.  the First Crusade would establish the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem; the Fourth Crusade would turn against Constantinople and sack the city in 1204.  From 1261 until its fall in 1453, Constantinople was basically a city-state.

But arguably its influence on the West grew stronger during this period.  With the sacking of the city, several works of art and books of learning were taken from Constantinople to the West.  Later, Byzantine teachers of Greek were appointed to Italian universities.  Following the fall of the city in 1453, even more works of art and other treasures were brought west, certainly contributing to the Italian Renaissance.

…Byzantine objects have been scattered throughout Europe and are preserved in unexpected museums.

Bavaria and Wolfenbüttel (in modern north-central Germany) are mentioned as two examples. 

And, as if to demonstrate the to and fro of Christian tradition, the early Reformers would turn to the Byzantine iconoclasts of the eighth and ninth centuries in defense of their Protestant condemnation of religious art.


In Rome, Sicily, Moscow, and of course most clearly in Constantinople, all over Turkey, Greece and the Balkans, you can see Byzantium preserved.

It is this story the Herrin will tell. Hers is not necessarily a simple, chronological account.  Each chapter will focus on a particular theme, event, or historical figure.  I will follow along.

1 comment:

  1. I have to admit I know little of Byzantium other than it was the main center of power and culture after Rome fell. I am eager to learn more Bionic.