In September 2006, the day after the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist atrocities, Pope Benedict XVI gave a lecture in his former university city of Regensburg, in which he quoted from the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos. The latter had written commentaries about his debates with a Muslim interlocutor, discussing the differences and relative merits of Christianity and Islam. The Pope Benedict XVI chose to extract this quote from the Byzantine emperor’s writings: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
With this quote, Pope Benedict XVI thrust into the limelight not only the name of a previously obscure emperor, but also a long-neglected empire that had fought between the Islamic world, and the main Western Christian church, namely Roman Catholicism. That empire was Byzantium, and most people were asking – what is Byzantium? To answer that question, one should look no further than the marvelous book by Professor Judith Herrin called Byzantium: The surprising life of a medieval empire. I will address the Pope’s remarks a little later.
The title of this article comes from one of the chapters in Herrin’s book – a grand duke and admiral of the Byzantine emperor had made the statement ‘better the Turkish turban than the papal tiara’ back in the 1440s to summarise the crossroads that Byzantine civilisation occupied and the foreign policy dilemmas that confronted the Byzantine political leadership. This popular proverb stands in stark contrast to the sentiments quoted by the Pope above. But what Herrin’s book accomplishes is a sweeping and detailed examination of Byzantine civilisation – its art, architecture, law, economy and politics. Quite a wide-ranging scope in one volume.
Byzantium, the eastern half of the previously united Roman empire, grew from its ancient roots to become a cosmopolitan, medieval civilisation. The first portion of the book documents the transformation of what was the East Roman empire, with its new capital at Constantinople, into the sprawling inheritor of the Roman empire’s mantle, laws, paganism and traditions. But Byzantium then developed its own distinct Greek-speaking imprint on Roman customs, and its version of Orthodox Christianity. It is as a barrier against the spread of Islam that Byzantium is best-known. Apart from the stereotypes of exotic riches, endless political intrigues and interminable theological debates, Byzantium is recognised as the ‘eastern defender’ against Islamic armies. Indeed, Byzantium came close to being totally overrun by the Islamic Arab armies that came out of the Arabian plateau. The dual challenges of the Slavic peoples in the Balkans, and the Persian empire in the east, stretched the resources and fighting capacity of Byzantium to the limit.
But Byzantium survived the Islamic challenge, and ‘rescued’ Europe from the seemingly invincible Islamic conquerors. Herrin states that if Byzantium had fallen, most of Europe would have been conquered by the Islamic forces. In one sense, today’s Europe was only able to survive because of the intercession of the Byzantines. It is this aspect of Byzantine history which the Pope and his supporters would like to enlist for their political agenda during this era of fractious relations between the West and the Islamic communities. But Byzantium was more than just a ‘bulwark against Islam’ – which is the title of one of Herrin’s chapters. Byzantium also had a complex cultural life, with pagan, pre-Christian texts and authors being incorporated into the framework of Byzantine culture and philosophy. Byzantium was an eastern orthodox empire, but with partly pagan features and origins. Byzantium was definitely and stridently a Christian empire, but it also was shaped by the ancient Greek authors, the Roman thinkers and pagan customs which influenced its society. The burning of incense, the veneration of images of gods, the celebration of Christian holidays based on pagan, pre-Christian holy days – these all attest to the complex melding of pagan and Christian elements. The translation of pagan philosophers into Greek, the active debate and commentaries about science, mathematics, whether the world was created has always existed – these debates reflect an active cultural life in Byzantium.
While Byzantium fought to contain the Muslim armies, the empire can hardly be called a defender of Christianity. The great schism between Latin West Christendom and Easter Orthodox Christianity did not start with Byzantium, but it certainly worsened with the arrival of the Crusades. In the chapter ‘Fulcrum of the Crusades’, Herrin details how the Byzantines called upon their Latin Western Christian friends, namely the papacy and the west European Christians to help fend off the growing threat posed by the encroaching Seljuk Turkish empire. With this call, Byzantium and the Christian East opened up a cantankerous, fragile relationship military relationship with the Latin Christian West. While the object of the Crusades was to reconquer the holy lands from Muslim control, the relations between the Christian forces were marked by mutual suspicion and bitter recriminations. By the time of the Fourth Crusade, relations between the Latin crusaders and their Byzantine hosts had deteriorated so much that when the Byzantine side failed to fulfill the terms of their agreement, the crusaders abandoned their original objective of the holy lands and ransacked Constantinople itself. This mass sacking of Constantinople in 1204 not only poisoned relations between the eastern and western Christians, reinforcing the great schism between the Roman Catholic west and Eastern Orthodox East, but also reduced Byzantium to such a perilous state it was divided into a patchwork of Latin and Greek-speaking states. By April 1204, the greatest city in western Christendom was a mass of smouldering ruins, as Herrin states in her book. Anti-Latin sentiment ran high, and the prospects of recovery were bleak.
Yet by the 1260s, Byzantium recovered somewhat, with one of the Greek-speaking successor states, Nicaea, managing to recover Constantinople, holding off the Seljuk Turks and reestablishing a distinctly Byzantine empire, though in truncated form. With all these military fluctuations, it is a wonder that the many architectural achievements of Byzantium have survived – in particular the church of Hagia Sophia. A whole chapter in Herrin’s book is devoted to the construction, engineering feats, and survival of the church, which became a mosque in 1453 with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, and is today preserved as a museum. The scale of Hagia Sophia and its impressive dome suggests engineering skills that are exceptional. Most of the early Christian churches followed the template of a basilica, so to construct a dome was quite novel and daring for Byzantine times. The Hagia Sophia, as constructed by the emperor Justinian, has survived arson, riots and earthquakes throughout the years.
There is so much more to digest in Herrin’s book; I hope I have done justice to its contents with this short review. Byzantium persisted for another 250-odd years after the Fourth crusade. Herrin looks at the frequent challenges Byzantium had to face – wars with the Bulgarians, the transformation of an ancient economy into a medieval one, the continued toleration of a cosmopolitan society that included Jews, Varangians – Armenians found employment in the Byzantine armed forces. But one challenge proved overwhelming – the Ottoman Turks, who expanded from the Anatolian peninsula and finally conquered Constantinople in 1453.
The Byzantine empire was a complex, multifaceted state, with its own combination of Roman traditions and Christian practices. This brings me back to the Pope’s earlier quotation about Islam taken from Manuel II. Why did he choose to make this statement, rather than elaborate on all the scientific and cultural achievements of the Byzantines? I think the Pope’s use of that quotation was more than just misleading, as Herrin correctly notes. It poured petrol on an existing fire – the tension relationship between Islamic communities and the European West. I think Pope Benedict XVI promoted a stereotypical view of the Islamic world as uniquely irrational and incapable of rational change. Herrin’s volume goes a long way towards demolishing the highly inaccurate stereotypes about Byzantium as a tyrannical regime run by corrupt, effeminate cowardly men. We would do well to reexamine our own myths and stereotypes, rather than point an accusatory finger at other civilisations. Read Herin’s book if for no other reason than this one – Byzantium is absolutely fascinating.