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For a civilization so distant in time and place from our own, Byzantium interests a surprising number of Americans. The Glory of Byzantium exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the spring of 1997 enjoyed even greater critical and popular success than its predecessor on early Byzantine art, The Age of Spirituality. Reviewers have praised recent books on Byzantium by Viscount Norwich and Peter Brown, as well as the three-volume Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Some earlier histories of Byzantium remain both classics and best-sellers, from Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the many works of Sir Steven Runciman. Even some of the Byzantines themselves are being read, with six titles in the Penguin Classics series led by that perennial favorite, Procopius's Secret History. Beyond artistic and literary interest, many Americans are curious about the larger cultural influence of Byzantine civilization on a part of the world that extends from Russia to Ethiopia and includes much of the Balkan region and the eastern Mediterranean basin.
No doubt, as the popularity of the Secret History suggests, Byzantine plots, murders, luxury, decadence, and intrigue explain some of this interest. But the contemporary image of Byzantium is more positive than that. Besides its obvious beauty, Byzantine art combines the traditional with the abstract and the spiritual with the luxurious, implying a society that was at once stable and imaginative, religious and civilized. This art reflects the fact that Byzantine civilization joined a multiplicity of cultures into a harmonious and self-confident whole. Byzantium lives on, above all, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, whose devotion, rituals, and mysticism appeal to many Christians who find such things lacking in Protestantism and too hard-edged in Roman Catholicism.
None of the contemporary perceptions of Byzantine civilization is wholly wrong, and, except for those emphasizing scandal, most are mostly right. Yet, for us, Byzantine civilization remains a curious compound of the familiar and the alien. It was certainly a part of Western civilization, but very much its own part, and different from Western Europe and America. Spanning the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds, it was the successor of the Roman Empire and contributed to the rise of the Italian Renaissance, but its culture was distinct from the cultures of both.
Such differences continue to give rise to misconceptions about the Byzantine world. Norman Davies, in his recent Europe: A History (1996), provides a fairly typical nonspecialist's description:
The state and the church were fused into one indivisible whole. . . . This "Caesaropapism" had no equal in the West, where secular rule and papal authority had never been joined. The imperial court was the hub of a vast centralized administration run by an army of bureaucrats. . . . The despotic nature of the state machine was self-evident in its oriental ceremonies. "Byzantium" became a byword for total subservience, secretiveness, and intrigue. . . . The Byzantine state practiced unremitting paternalism in social and economic affairs. Trade was controlled by state officials, who exacted a straight 10 percent tax on all exports and imports.
Except for the 10 percent duty, which was less onerous and intrusive than most modern tariffs, almost all of this is greatly exaggerated.
In terms of basic material conditions, Byzantium was a typical pre-industrial society, like the earlier Roman Empire or today's Ethiopia. By our standards, it was rural, backward, and poor. Around nine-tenths of the Byzantines were illiterate peasants living in villages and engaged in subsistence farming. Again by our standards, Byzantine cities (like all medieval cities) were small and squalid, with narrow, winding streets, ramshackle houses, and populations seldom exceeding 30,000. Probably the only cities ever to pass 100,000 were Alexandria and Antioch up to the sixth century A.D., and the capital, Constantinople, which might have approached 400,000 for brief periods in the sixth and 12th centuries but was usually less than half that size. Though it boasted a broad boulevard for parades and a few palaces and churches built as showpieces by the emperors, most of Constantinople resembled a collection of small towns separated by fields--an ensemble that would hardly count as a great metropolis today.
Nevertheless, by medieval standards, and in some respects by ancient ones as well, Byzantium was an advanced society. Its cities were larger, its literacy rates higher, and its economy more monetarized and diversified than those of medieval Western Europe, at least up to the 13th century. By comparison with most ancient empires, including Rome, Byzantium was well governed. Our ideas of "Byzantine bureaucracy" to the contrary, Byzantium was blessed with a cadre of officials that was generally efficient, well educated, well paid, and relatively small in number--perhaps 2,500 in the central bureaucracy toward the beginning of the empire's history, and around 600 by the ninth century.
The notion of despotic rule is also a caricature. Although a Byzantine emperor had no formal checks on his power, he had to be acclaimed by the people and crowned by the patriarch of Constantinople at his accession, and he defied their wishes at his peril. The few emperors who showed signs of tyrannical behavior, such as Andronicus I Comnenus (r. 1183-85), were promptly overthrown. Byzantium never endured a Nero, a Hitler, or an Idi Amin. The closest thing it had to a Henry VIII was the emperor Constantine V (r. 741-75), who in an effort to impose the beliefs of the iconoclasts on a recalcitrant church and people not only destroyed religious images but purged the ecclesiastical hierarchy and confiscated monastic property. Although several attempts to overthrow him failed, a church council declared iconoclasm a heresy 12 years after his death, and Constantine went down in history with the epithet Copronymus, which we translate delicately as "Name of Dung." The common modern view that Byzantine emperors had power over the Eastern Church comparable to that of popes in the West--"Caesaropapism"--is an exaggeration.
In fact, the church had profound reservations about almost every emperor and his courtiers. In contrast to the Western Church, which has traditionally accepted that sometimes a greater good can justify acts that would otherwise be sinful--including the waging of war--the Eastern Church has insisted that such acts can never be fully excused. Despite awkward attempts at accommodation, such as blinding political opponents instead of executing them, emperors were always falling short of the church's moral standards. Among Byzantine emperors, the only one to be widely recognized as a saint was Constantine I, who, by delaying his baptism until he was on his deathbed, supposedly gained absolution from his sins. The only emperors in Byzantine scenes of the last judgment are those burning in hell. The modern idea that the Byzantines idolized their rulers is far from the truth.
Another widespread misconception about Byzantium is that anyone in Byzantine times ever called it "Byzantium." Because it was simply the eastern part of the Roman Empire, separated from the western part through a peaceful administrative division in A.D. 285, the people we call "Byzantines" always called themselves Romans, and their empire the Roman Empire. Byzantium was the insignificant town Constantine I (r. 306-37) chose as the site of his greatly expanded city of Constantinople, after which only archaizing stylists referred to it as Byzantium. The name "Byzantine" was first used for the empire by Renaissance scholars, who hesitated to call it "Roman" because it had not included Rome and found "Constantinopolitan" cumbersome. This modern habit of calling the Eastern Roman Empire by the obsolete name of its principal city is a bit like calling the United States "New Amsterdam." Odd though the choice of name may be, the empire did become different enough to warrant renaming it. Because the division between East and West roughly fit the dividing line in the Roman Empire between Greek and Latin cultures, the Eastern Empire on its own soon shed its Latin veneer, became a mainly Greek state, grew overwhelmingly Christian, and long outlived the Western Empire.
Byzantium's longevity was, in fact, unique. The historical rule for ancient empires had been that after a few centuries of prosperity they declined and disintegrated, usually soon after suffering their first major military defeats. This pattern held for the Assyrian Empire, the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the Achaemenid Persian Empire, the Parthian Empire, the Sassanid Persian Empire, the Arab Caliphate, and the Western Roman Empire. But the Byzantine Empire lasted almost 1,200 years.
Byzantium naturally had its ups and downs. As Gibbon saw, over the very long run the trend was down: the empire fell in the end. Yet the pattern was far more complex than a simple decline and fall. Because Byzantium suffered most of its losses during sudden catastrophes and made most of its gains during periods of steady expansion, it was more often expanding than contracting. Again and again it survived its defeats, usually outlasting the enemies who had defeated it.
The story begins in the third century A.D., a time of crisis for the Roman Empire. Various German tribes devastated the empire's European provinces, the Sassanid Persians overran most of the Asian provinces, and the rebellious Roman ally, Palmyra, briefly took over the Asian lands and Egypt. The commanders of the armies that fought these invaders repeatedly seized the imperial throne for themselves. Between 211 and 284, the Germans killed one emperor, the Persians captured another, a third died in a disastrous epidemic, and the remaining 23 emperors were either certainly or probably killed by Romans, in most cases after reigning for less than two years. Diocletian, who seized the throne in 284 as the latest in a series of military strongmen, seemed to have no better chance than his predecessors of dying in bed or of righting the foundering Roman state.
But the half-educated Diocletian showed remarkable political insight. Realizing that the task of keeping invaders and rebels at bay was too big for one man, he chose a deputy, his friend Maximian, and gave him the title of emperor and the western half of the empire, with a separate army and administration. Diocletian's portion in the East consisted of the Balkans, Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt. Because he kept a separate government in the East and strengthened its army and expanded its bureaucracy, Diocletian can be considered the real founder of the Byzantine Empire, though his favorite residence was at Nicomedia, about 50 miles from the city of Byzantium, and his administration traveled so much that it really had no set capital. His enlarged government succeeded in stabilizing the empire, and he reigned for 21 years before retiring voluntarily.
A pagan of the traditional Greco-Roman kind, Diocletian had thousands of Christians killed or maimed in an effort to suppress their faith--ultimately to no avail. Christianity became the empire's favored religion under the charismatic Constantine I, who took power as a Western emperor in 306, a year after Diocletian's abdication, and finished conquering the domain of the Eastern emperor Licinius in 324. Though Constantine ruled both East and West, he administered them through different officials and through his sons, who were to inherit their portions at his death. His new city of Constantinople grew steadily, and by the end of the fourth century it was recognizably a capital, the usual seat of the emperor and his government. Constantine's new official religion also prospered, and within a century of his accession Christians had grown from a small minority to a large majority in both East and West.
Between them, Diocletian and Constantine set Byzantium on a promising course, even if they did so partly by accident. While Diocletian divided the empire mainly for military and administrative reasons, the Greek East happened to form a natural geographical, cultural, and economic unit. Although Constantine's conversion seems to have been the result of a somewhat confused religious conviction--at first he appears not to have realized that it required him to repudiate paganism entirely--Christianity gave the empire more cohesiveness than the ill-assorted cults we call paganism could ever have done. Constantine seems to have been inspired to refound Byzantium as Constantinople merely because he had defeated his rival Licinius nearby, but the site happened to be well located at a junction of trade routes, on a splendidly defensible peninsula on the straits dividing the Balkans from Anatolia.
During its first 300 years, Byzantium usually prospered. From the late fourth to the late fifth century it lost some territory to the Persians, Huns, and Germans, but by 500 Byzantium had driven out its invaders and held almost all the lands Diocletian had taken for his portion of the Roman Empire in 285. The empire was already thriving before the ambitious Justinian I (r. 527-65) showed what it could do if it tried. Justinian built an array of public structures in Constantinople, of which his great Church of the Holy Wisdom (Saint Sophia) is only the most famous and extraordinary. He deserves some credit for a flowering of art, much of which he paid for, and of scholarship, to which he contributed his great codification of Roman law. Most impressively, if not most lastingly, he dispatched expeditions that won back from the Germans the richest parts of the former Western Roman Empire in Italy, Dalmatia, northern Africa, and southern Spain.
Justinian's achievements were the more remarkable because he finished them in the teeth of the worst epidemic the Western world had known, a bubonic plague that reached the empire from Ethiopia in 541 and killed up to a third of its people. Yet because the plague kept returning at intervals of roughly 15 years right up to the mid-eighth century, Byzantium grew weaker and was thrown on the defensive.
After 602, when the first successful rebellion in three centuries of Byzantine history overthrew the emperor Maurice, the Persians were emboldened to invade Syria and Egypt and the Avars to overrun the Balkans. By 626, Constantinople was besieged and the empire was in mortal danger. The emperor Heraclius (r. 610-41) averted disaster by invading the Persian homeland, which forced the Persians to evacuate Egypt and Syria. But barely five years after Heraclius's victory, with the Balkans unreclaimed and Byzantium still exhausted, the Arabs invaded. After seizing Syria and Egypt and conquering the Persian Empire outright, they seemed poised to deal a similar fate to Byzantium.
At this point, according to historical precedent, Byzantium should have been doomed. The younger, more vigorous Arab Caliphate held about 10 times as much land as the Byzantines, with at least five times as many people and an army to match. The newly Muslim Arabs embraced the doctrine of holy war (jihad), which held that those who died fighting for the faith went straight to heaven; by contrast, the Byzantine Church required a soldier who killed an enemy in battle to do penance for three years before receiving Communion again. Yet Byzantium stopped the Arabs and outlived their state by hundreds of years.
How did the Byzantines do this? Historians still disagree, but most think one answer was a change in military organization. Heraclius's grandson Constans II (r. 641-68) seems to have reorganized the army, previously a regularly paid professional force, into largely self-supporting divisions known as "themes"--army groups settled in districts (also called themes) where they held grants of farmland, probably taken from the vast imperial estates that disappeared around this time. Although some historians doubt that the troops received lands this early (none of the scanty sources records the distribution at any date), the grants were evidently given when the empire could no longer afford to pay its troops a living wage, and that was very probably during Constans's reign.
While Constans's main motive was doubtless to save money, by the same sort of lucky accident that made Diocletian's and Constantine's reforms so beneficial, the themes turned out to put up a stiffer defense than the old army, once the soldiers were stationed all over the empire and were fighting to defend their own lands. The themes helped contain not only the Arabs but the rising new power of the Bulgars in the Balkans. Thus Byzantium held out until the middle of the eighth century, when the plague finally abated and the Arabs started to fight among themselves.
The Byzantines then made a remarkable recovery, again without precedent for so ancient a state. During the next 300 years the empire almost doubled in size, recapturing many of its lost lands to the east and all its lost lands to the north, where it annexed the Bulgarian Empire outright. The final push was the work of three great conquerors, the emperors Nicephorus II Phocas (r. 963-69), John I Tzimisces (r. 969-76), and Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer (r. 976-1025). Byzantine power, wealth, and culture grew to such proportions that the pagan Bulgars, Serbs, and Russians spontaneously requested conversion to Byzantine Christianity. Similarly, the Bulgars and many Armenians and Georgians accepted direct Byzantine rule even though Basil II would have permitted them to become Byzantine clients.
The Byzantines themselves halted their expansion at Basil's death, though they showed every sign of being able to continue it. The weakened Arab states of southern Syria, through which John I had marched at will, could scarcely have prevented a Byzantine conquest. Even the Arabs of Egypt would have been hard put to resist the Byzantines. But the Byzantine reconquest in the east ended approximately where Christians ceased to be a majority. While southern Syria and Egypt had strong Christian minorities--much stronger than today--the Byzantines disliked ruling Muslims, whom in the lands already conquered they had given a choice between conversion and expulsion. Few Muslims chose conversion, and the Byzantines had no use for empty land.
Basking in the afterglow of Basil II's victories, the Bulgar-Slayer's successors misspent their revenues and let the army and navy decay. As a result, the Byzantines were unprepared for the arrival of the Seljuk Turks from Central Asia. At the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Turks scattered the atrophied Byzantine army, and within 10 years they had overrun Byzantine Anatolia. The Byzantines appealed to Pope Urban II, and received the unexpected response of the First Crusade.
With help from the Crusaders, Byzantium took back most of the plains along the Anatolian coast. This was much the richest part of the peninsula, but it was hard to defend while the Turks held the interior. Throughout the 12th century, as the emperors relied more on diplomacy than on rebuilding their army, Byzantium was rich but militarily weak, a dangerous combination. Though the Turks missed their chance, some opportunistic Westerners took it. The knights of the Fourth Crusade turned from attacking the Turks to backing the claim to the Byzantine throne of the pretender Alexius IV. The Crusaders captured Constantinople for Alexius, but when they failed to receive their promised payment they seized the city for themselves in 1204.
After the loss of Constantinople, unconquered Byzantines continued to hold more than half of what had been their empire, divided among several squabbling successor states. Gradually one of these, known to us as the Empire of Nicaea after its temporary capital, gained the upper hand, and recovered Constantinople in 1261. From that date we begin to call the empire Byzantium again, and for a time it seemed to recover much of its former power, though some Byzantine splinter principalities remained independent. But soon the restored empire repeated the mistake of the previous century by skimping on defense. This gave another chance to the Turks, who, led by the energetic Ottoman dynasty, occupied most Byzantine holdings in Anatolia by 1305. Byzantium still seemed to have a future as a Balkan power. Even after crippling itself in a civil war between 1341 and 1347, it might have revived, if the next year the plague had not returned, after an absence of 600 years. Spread largely by ship, the disease hit the Byzantines on the coasts much harder than their Turkish and Slavic neighbors inland. This was one blow too many. Only the walls of Constantinople and occasional help from Western Europeans allowed the sad remnant of the empire to hold out for another century. Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and the Ottomans took the last tiny Byzantine splinter, the Empire of Trebizond, in 1461.
Almost up to the end, Byzantine history shows a pattern of sudden reverses followed by long recoveries, each of which brought Byzantium back a little short of where it had been before the preceding setback. The reason for the incompleteness of these recoveries was more often a lack of interest than a lack of strength. The Byzantines wanted to retake recently lost lands, which they believed were rightfully theirs. The church, for all its reservations about warfare, sometimes contributed ecclesiastical treasures to such efforts, on the ground that they were being used to rescue captured Christians. But the longer a country had been lost to Byzantium, the less the Byzantines wanted to reclaim it. They were not even strongly driven to convert others to Christianity, unless the others asked to be converted. With a high opinion of their empire and church, the Byzantines were usually content to keep both of them as they were, or had been not long before.
This attitude served the former subjects of Byzantium well under the Turks, and helped Byzantine civilization survive the fall of the Byzantine state. Even before the Fourth Crusade, many people who lived outside Byzantine territory spoke Greek and acknowledged the primacy of the patriarch of Constantinople. After the fall of Constantinople, the Turkish sultans appointed patriarchs, as the emperor had done before them. The Russians never came under Ottoman rule, and considered themselves heirs of Byzantium. They, like the Bulgarians, the Serbs, and others, owed Byzantium their Christianity and literacy, and the beginnings of their literature, art, and architecture. Like the Greeks, the Russians dreamed of driving the Turks from Constantinople, which had a large Christian minority until the early 20th century. When the Ottoman Empire fell apart after World War I, the Greeks tried to reclaim something like the borders of Byzantium in 1203. But a Greek invasion of Anatolia ended with a Turkish victory in 1922.
Ever since a population exchange in 1923 removed most of the Greeks from Turkey, few people have spoken Greek outside Greece and Cyprus. Yet a patriarch of Constantinople remains in Turkish Istanbul as head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Eastern Orthodoxy remains the majority faith not only in Greece and Cyprus but in Russia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Belarus. Eastern Orthodox Christians remain significant minorities in Albania, Syria, and Lebanon--and in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Most Armenians and many Egyptians and Ethiopians remain Eastern Christians without formally belonging to Eastern Orthodoxy. All of these groups have inherited much of their culture from Byzantium. It is mainly people who are not Eastern Christians whom Byzantium still perplexes.
As it happens, some works on Byzantium have increased this perplexity by giving a confusing and misleading picture. The objects in the Glory of Byzantium exhibition speak for themselves, and a number of treatments of the subject are balanced and accurate, including those by Runciman and the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (1991). Although some historians, from Gibbon in the 18th century to Romilly Jenkins in the 20th, have disliked Byzantium, that dislike did not necessarily lead to errors in itself; usually what they disliked most was Byzantine Christianity, and they were right that Byzantium was profoundly Christian, like it or not. Probably the main reason for distortion in more recent work has been not bias against Byzantium but well-meant misconceptions of it.
Sometimes the aim has been to reach a wide audience by playing up the exotic and playing down its context. So Lord Norwich in his three-volume Byzantium (1989, 1992, 1996)--which some have taken for an academic history despite his frank disclaimers--has compiled a collection of partly legendary anecdotes about the Byzantine court while almost completely ignoring social, economic, and cultural history. Accordingly, he leaves the impression that plots and intrigue were typical of Byzantine civilization, which they were not--certainly no more so than they were of other great imperial courts. The occasional ruthlessness of the Byzantine court mainly reflects the jaundiced view the Byzantine Church took toward politics, which led some politicians to despair of combining moral behavior with public life and to see a deathbed repentance as their only hope of salvation. When in political difficulty, such emperors and courtiers ventured to commit acts that would have been unthinkable for the mass of Byzantines whom Norwich neglects.
A more serious source of historical distortion is the attempt to connect Byzantium with modern (or postmodern) academic fashions, which are poorly suited to understanding a deeply religious and traditional society. Most notable is the insistence of Peter Brown, in such books as The Body and Society (1988) and Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity (1992), that Byzantine religion was mostly about sexuality, anxiety, and power, a view that owes much less to Byzantine sources than to the poststructuralism of Michel Foucault. Particularly jarring is the view of Brown and other poststructuralists that the Byzantines' idealization of virginity showed an obsession with sexuality.
In another work, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire (1991), Averil Cameron explains the poststructuralist approach to Byzantine Christianity:
The sign system of Christianity . . . [formed] around the body itself, and especially the mechanics and avoidance of carnal knowledge and procreation. Paradoxically, in the context of the discourse of abstinence, the true knowledge at which the signs pointed was defined in terms of desire. . . . Now eros, desire, also occupies the center of poststructuralist poetics and is often seen as a key to theories of the subject. Whereas in modern intellectual circles Christian discourse is rarely acceptable as such, ironically eros, the discourse of desire, has filled the space left vacant.
Yet beyond a reasonable doubt, the Byzantines were guilty of the charge against which poststructuralists defend them: they were less interested in sex than we are, and more interested in God.
The Byzantines regarded sex much as we regard smoking or overeating: many did it, but nobody really approved of it. They agreed that virginity was better even than a faithful marriage, not because sex was important but because it was unimportant--a distraction from God, who was transcendently important. Some Byzantine moralists advised the widowed that concubinage was better than remarriage, because asking God to bless serial monogamy was blasphemous, and blasphemy was worse than fornication. Contrasting real Byzantine attitudes with poststructuralist thinking shows (as Cameron hints) how sexuality has taken the place of religion for some of us. Those who think that sexual fulfillment is the greatest good and God is an illusion may well be baffled by people who thought that God was the greatest good and sexual fulfillment an illusion.
Some of Brown's other ideas are similarly anachronistic. Brown sees Byzantine holy men as protopsychiatrists who treated patients for "moral hypochondria" by counseling them. What his sources rather show is monks who worked miracles, mostly to relieve physical or material distress, and treated people suffering from what we would call mental illness not by counseling but by exorcism. Today, however, many find psychiatry far easier to understand than a belief in miracles, exorcism, or God.
Byzantium is also a frustrating subject for those who adopt the modern view that all that matters, or has ever mattered, is race, class, and gender. Like other ancient and medieval peoples, the Byzantines had no idea of race in the modern sense, and to them black skin was like red hair, merely an uncommon physical characteristic. Practically all Byzantines, including their few slaves, were what we would call white. They may be called multiethnic in the sense that, along with the ethnically mixed people we call Greeks, they included Armenians, Slavs, Syrians, Egyptians, Albanians, and others. Sometimes we can find groups of Armenians or Syrians in Greek-speaking territory who helped each other in various ways. But we can also find groups of Greeks from the same town or region who helped each other. Moreover, in a generation or two, the Armenians, Syrians, and others who migrated to Greek-speaking areas forgot their own languages, intermarried with Greeks, and became indistinguishable from them. Byzantium was far less a multicultural society than it was a melting pot.
A few Byzantine theological disputes did correspond roughly to ethnic or linguistic divisions. The most obvious case is Monophysitism, the belief that Christ has a single nature rather than different divine and human natures, which became the majority faith in Egypt but not elsewhere. Yet it cannot properly be called an ethnic or linguistic movement, because Egyptian Monophysites included speakers of both Greek and Coptic (the native Egyptian language). It might be called a regional movement, except that the originator of Monophysitism had been a Greek monk in Constantinople, and at first Monophysites could be found all over the empire. They were common in northern Syria but rare in southern Syria, though both parts of Syria had Syriac-speaking majorities and Greek-speaking minorities.
The apparent explanation for the geographical split in Syria over Monophysitism is that most Christians followed their religious leaders. The church in northern Syria was subject to the patriarch of Antioch, who, like the patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt, came to favor Monophysitism; the church in southern Syria was under the patriarch of Jerusalem, who, like the patriarch of Constantinople, came to oppose Monophysitism. At a certain point these views took root among the local Christian population, and even when the emperor appointed patriarchs of the opposite persuasion, the people refused to change. Because the ecclesiastical jurisdictions were regional, the theological dispute can be mistaken for a regional one--or, by further confusion, an ethnic one. In reality, even though many Byzantines spoke mutually incomprehensible languages, ethnic consciousness was very weak in the empire, as in most premodern societies.
Byzantine class consciousness was somewhat stronger. Although Byzantium never had any hereditary titles of nobility, most Byzantines had some idea of where they belonged in the social hierarchy, based on their wealth or profession. This was particularly true of the group at the top, whose members often held appointments in the army or civil service with clearly graded ranks and salaries. By the 11th century, Byzantium did develop a loosely defined aristocracy, though most of its families were not very old and it remained open to new members, including Turks and Western Europeans. What can confuse modern historians is that this class awareness almost never resulted in a sense of class solidarity.
For example, most historians have seen the late 11th century as the beginning of a period of rule by the landed aristocracy. At this time the dynasty of the Comneni seized power, and the Comneni were indeed landed aristocrats. But the Comneni took over just as the Byzantines were losing the region where aristocrats held most of their land--the interior of Anatolia--and the Comneni made no serious attempt to retake either the region or the estates. Moreover, under the Comneni the highest positions in the government and army were monopolized by members or relatives of the Comnenus family itself. Most of the aristocracy was excluded from political or military power, and aristocrats often joined rebellions against the Comneni. When one of these rebellions finally succeeded, the aristocracy was left even weaker and more divided than before.
The explanation of these seemingly paradoxical facts is that Byzantine aristocrats had almost no feeling that they shared common interests as a class. The Comneni saw other aristocrats as rivals to be kept down, while the other aristocrats saw the Comneni as a clique indifferent or hostile to their interests. Both perceptions were pretty much correct. The rebels who brought down the Comneni, moreover, came from all levels of society and had nothing in common but dislike of the reigning emperor, Andronicus I Comnenus. The aristocracy was riven by family rivalries, and Byzantines cared far less about their class than about their family. The common modern assumption that aristocrats would favor each other out of class loyalty seems unsupported by any Byzantine source.
As for gender differences, in Byzantium, as in any traditional society, sex roles were more distinct than in today's America. Byzantine women had somewhat wider opportunities than women in most premodern societies, though, and no fewer than women in much of Africa and Asia today. Unlike classical Greece, where women were denied any independent role in politics or culture, Byzantium shared the more liberal attitudes of Rome and archaic or Hellenistic Greece. The emphasis that Byzantine Christianity put on morality and orthodoxy also allowed women to gain recognition as nuns, abbesses, and eventually saints. Two Byzantine empresses, Irene and Theodora, were revered as saints for their crucial parts in condemning iconoclasm, in 787 and 843 respectively. They and other empresses became the real rulers of the empire as regents for their underage sons, and three empresses--Irene (797-802), Zoe (1042), and another Theodora (1055-56)--reigned without sharing the throne with an emperor. Emperors often gave their wives considerable prominence; the most famous example is Justinian's consort, yet another Theodora. Byzantium also had a few notable women writers, including the poet Cassia and the historian Anna Comnena.
Like Byzantine aristocrats, however, Byzantine women showed scarcely any signs of solidarity as a group. Neither Irene (a determined and skillful politician of the type of Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi) nor any other empress made a serious effort to promote other women. The attitude shared by almost all Byzantines of either sex seems to have been that women, though capable of taking part in public life, were poorly suited to it. If dynastic accidents put a woman in power, she was better than a civil war, but not as good as a legitimate male heir. Many Byzantines believed that women in their private roles were not inferior to men, and every Byzantine had to admit that female saints were spiritually and morally superior to ordinary males. (That Theodora--"gift of God"--was a favorite Byzantine name for girls is hardly a sign of misogyny.) But practically no Byzantines, male or female, seem to have felt that women as a group were being deprived of their due, or that their role in society ought to be expanded or changed in any way.
In Byzantium, as in nearly all premodern societies, not only were race, class, and gender not matters of ideology, but ideology itself barely existed in the modern sense. Byzantines occasionally showed patriotism, but it was emotional and not ideological--patriotism rather than nationalism. In part it was loyalty to the state, though most of the opinions the Byzantines expressed about their government were complaints about taxes and corruption. The Byzantines felt some loyalty to their emperors, though usually when an emperor was overthrown that loyalty went automatically to his successor. Most of all, the Byzantines felt loyalty to their state religion, Christianity. Their army's victory cry was not a patriotic slogan but "The Cross has conquered!"
This lack of ideology has long been hard for modern scholars to grasp. For instance, most have looked for an ideological significance in the Byzantines' two factions, the Blues and the Greens, whose official function was to organize sports and theatrical events, mainly chariot races and performances in which women took off their clothes. The Blues and Greens also cheered on their own performers and teams, and sometimes fought each other in the stands or rioted in the streets. Persistent modern efforts to define the Blues and Greens as representatives of political, social, or religious groups have so conspicuously failed that they seem to have been abandoned. Now, however, without trying to distinguish Blues from Greens, Peter Brown has depicted their spectacles as solemn patriotic ceremonies. Yet such a generalization seems indefensible after Alan Cameron has shown in two meticulous and persuasive books, Porphyrius the Charioteer (1973) and Circus Factions (1976), that the Blues and Greens were interested primarily in sports and shows, secondarily in hooliganism, and not at all in ideology.
If the Byzantines were so unlike us Americans--or at least unlike the way modern scholars think we should be--why should we care about them today? One answer is that we should care even about people who are unlike us, including Russians, Greeks, Serbs, and others who continue the Byzantine tradition and with whom we still need to deal. Another answer is that in some ways the Byzantines did resemble some of us, and in a few ways were a bit like the most up-to-date of us. Let us take up these points in turn.
What difference has the Byzantine heritage made in the dozen or so countries where it remains strongest? At first glance, Russia, Greece, Yugoslavia, Armenia, and the rest look just as nationalistic as any other countries, indeed more so. Several of them have recently fought wars with their neighbors, inspired by rhetoric that seems to us ultranationalistic. On closer inspection, however, we should note that their sharpest conflicts have been not with other Eastern Orthodox nations but with countries or peoples that do not share their Eastern Orthodox background.
Thus, Orthodox Serbs have fought Muslim Bosniacs and Kosovars and Catholic Croats, Orthodox Russians have fought Muslim Chechnyans, Orthodox Georgians have fought Muslim Abkhazians, and eastern Christian Armenians have fought Muslim Azeris. Orthodox Greeks remain distrustful of Muslim Turks, as was made evident by the passion shown on both sides in a recent dispute over an uninhabited islet in the Aegean Sea. Since 1974 a cease-fire line has divided Cyprus between an Orthodox Greek majority and a Muslim Turkish minority, and all attempts at reconciliation have failed. Also within national boundaries, tensions persist between Orthodox Bulgarians and a Muslim Turkish minority, between Orthodox Romanians and a Catholic or Protestant Hungarian minority, and between Orthodox Macedonians and a Muslim Albanian minority.
Although there have been some cases of Orthodox fighting Orthodox--Moldovans and Russians in Transnistria, and Balkan states on different sides in the Balkan Wars and the two World Wars--many more of the recent conflicts have been between different religious groups than between different ethnic groups. Most Bulgarian "Turks" speak Bulgarian, and Bosniacs and Croats speak the same language as Serbs, which used to be called Serbo-Croatian. Greeks, Russians, and Romanians have all shown obvious sympathy for their fellow Orthodox Serbs, whom most of the rest of the world, regardless of religion, has blamed for aggression against the Muslim Bosniacs and Catholic Croats.
By the same token, the heirs of Byzantium seem scarcely nationalistic at all. Romanians, for example, have only the most tepid interest in unification with Moldova, a Romanian-majority statelet that Romania lost in 1940 for no better legal or moral reason than the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Bulgarians care even less about annexing Macedonia, which was part of medieval Bulgaria and whose residents still speak a language barely different from Bulgarian. Greek Cypriots, in their struggle with Turkish Cypriots, have largely forgotten the cause of unification of Cyprus with Greece.
Similarly, Russians have shown little enthusiasm for reincorporating Belarus, even though its president says he wants the reincorporation, or Ukraine, where a strong minority wants the same. Yet both Belarus and Ukraine were part of Russia through most of its history and speak languages quite close to Russian, and two of the three stripes of the Russian flag stand for Belarus and Ukraine. One would expect any true Russian nationalist to want both of them back more than anything else. But the people we call Russian nationalists care more about denouncing Catholics, Protestants, and Jews within Russia proper. In all of this, modern national boundaries seem to matter less than the transnational solidarity of the old Byzantine melting pot.
This bond is more complex than a shared devotion to the Eastern Orthodox faith, even though the fall of communism has brought a modest Orthodox revival in Eastern Europe. Though church practices had differed slightly in the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire even before the third century, none of the differences was of obvious importance, and scarcely anyone made an issue of them until the 11th century. The usual date given for the schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism is 1054, but all that occurred then was the excommunication of Patriarch Michael Cerularius by three legates sent to Constantinople by Pope Leo IX (who by that time was dead), and the patriarch's retaliatory excommunication of the legates.
Personal animosities aside, the main issue at the time was the patriarch's objection to western (and Armenian) Christians' long-standing use of unleavened bread in the eucharist. Yet the personal animosities really were the main issue, as each side defended its dignity jealously and took offense easily. That this petty quarrel was allowed to become a schism shows a growing xenophobia on both sides that led to still more hostility during the Crusades, culminating in the brutal conquest of Constantinople by the misdirected Fourth Crusade.
Once the schism had begun, theologians found reasons for it. The authority of the pope eventually became an issue, but in the 11th century it was a minor matter, since papal claims were no more extensive than they had long been, and the Eastern Church recognized most of them. True, some Eastern Christians objected that the original version of the Nicene Creed, still used by Easterners, says simply that the Holy Spirit proceeds from God the Father, while the Western version adds "and the Son" (in Latin, filioque). But this difference had no real consequences for religious belief and had caused no schism for centuries. Even in medieval times, the main Orthodox criticism of the filioque was the reasonable one that the western part of the church had had no right to add to the creed without consulting the eastern part.
As this objection and the matter of the Fourth Crusade might suggest, much of the reason for Eastern Orthodox distrust of Muslims and Western Christians is a lingering and not wholly unjustified sense of grievance. To Eastern Christians, with their traditional reluctance to engage in aggressive warfare or vigorous evangelization, differing Western and Muslim attitudes toward Orthodoxy can look like unprovoked hostility. After all, no predominantly Eastern Orthodox armies have ever marched into Mecca, Baghdad, Paris, or London. But both Muslim and Western Christian armies have conquered Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, and none of those great Byzantine cities is in Orthodox hands today. Except for the Russians, all the Orthodox peoples were under foreign rule until the 19th century, and even the Russians suffered severely from invasions by Western Christian powers in the Napoleonic and First and Second World Wars.
By comparison with almost all western Christian countries, almost all Eastern Christian countries are impoverished today, and not even Russia is a truly great power any longer. Only Greece has been accepted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, both of which regard it as something of a problem member. Americans and Western Europeans still harbor more serious reservations about Orthodox countries than about Western Christian countries with a communist past, such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Estonia. None of the formerly communist Orthodox countries has yet made as good an economic recovery as any of those, or has yet established quite as stable a democracy. In the Balkans and the Caucasus much can be blamed on the combined heritage of some five centuries of Turkish rule and communism, but the question remains whether Byzantium might also be to blame.
Probably a little, at least as far as democracy is concerned. Though Byzantine emperors were no more absolute in their rule than Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Mussolini, or Franco, Byzantium was a somewhat less pluralistic society than late medieval or modern France, Germany, Italy, or Spain. Church leaders were a bit less independent of the government in Byzantium than in Roman Catholic countries--though more so than in Protestant ones. The Byzantine aristocracy was more fractious than Western European aristocracies, and so more easily manipulated. Byzantium, with a Senate that was merely a group of officials appointed by the emperor, had no representative body like the British Parliament or the French Estates-General, and no independent or nearly independent cities such as those in Italy or Germany. Probably most important, the general Byzantine disapproval of politics--the result of uncompromising Eastern Orthodox morality--kept many people from taking part in public life and discouraged some who did from trying to act responsibly.
Yet, as a hindrance to the development of democracy in Eastern Orthodox states, only the distrust of politics was nearly as important an influence as years of Turkish autocracy or communist dictatorship. Both of these periods reinforced the traditional Byzantine feeling that decent men should avoid political life. Both also deprived the Orthodox, who in Byzantine times had had at least as strong a legal tradition as Western Europeans, of the chance to develop in modern times a rule of law comparable to that of Western Europe.
Many of the character traits of the empire's modern successor states have little to do with Byzantium. Russian autocracy antedated Russia's conversion to Orthodoxy, and, if anything, was Scandinavian in origin. In any case, Greece and Cyprus, the only Orthodox countries to be spared communist dictatorship, have as good a democratic record since their independence as Spain or Germany. And Orthodox Romania and Bulgaria are currently more democratic than Catholic Slovakia or Croatia.
Byzantine influence may also have been slightly unfavorable to the growth of capitalism, which shows some correlation with democracy. Byzantine merchants, while probably richer than their Western counterparts until the Renaissance, were less independent than Italian or German merchants because the Byzantine government was stronger--though Byzantine emperors taxed and regulated trade scarcely more than French or English kings did. In Byzantium landholders were richer and more powerful than merchants, but the same was true in most of Western Europe until the French Revolution. The Byzantine Church was often suspicious that merchants might be exploiting the poor, but so was the Catholic Church in Western Europe. Ottoman and communist influences have surely harmed Eastern European business more than Byzantine influence has, and in the 20th century Greek and Armenian businessmen have been no less enterprising than Westerners. If the business climate is now worse in Romania or Bulgaria than in Hungary or Poland, the main reasons are probably that the old indiscriminate distrust of politicians has led to a resigned tolerance of government corruption, and that the lingering eastern distrust of Westerners applies to foreign investment.
How much, then, do the Byzantines and their heirs resemble some or all of us Americans? First and most obviously, around five million Americans belong to Eastern Orthodox churches that officially hold the same doctrines that the Byzantine Church did. Most other American Christians accept the dogmas defined by the first six ecumenical councils, which were held by Byzantine emperors on Byzantine territory, and use the Nicene Creed (though usually adding the filioque). Roman Catholics also accept the Byzantines' seventh ecumenical council, which endorsed the use of religious images, and share the Orthodox prohibition of married bishops and of the ordination of women. The Orthodox resemble Protestants in ordaining married men (though the Orthodox prohibit marriage after ordination) and in permitting remarriage after divorce (though the Orthodox strongly disapprove of divorce and impose a lifetime limit of three marriages).
American pacifists would sympathize with the Byzantine argument that killing an enemy soldier in battle is a sin, but would be puzzled by the fact that Byzantine soldiers went ahead and killed and then did their penance. This is an instance of a more comprehensive Byzantine and Orthodox attitude alien to Catholic and Protestant thinking: that sinful actions are sometimes allowable or even necessary, but still sinful. Such a denial that ends could justify means was the main reason Byzantines judged politicians so harshly. Though compatible with the Christian doctrine of original sin, this idea may well go back to the ancient Greeks, who felt that Orestes had to kill Clytemnestra because she had murdered his father but still blamed him because she was his mother.
Although some of these attitudes may appear primitive, Byzantine culture can also seem strangely modern. One reason for the success of the Glory of Byzantium exhibition is doubtless that Byzantine art is often abstract, more concerned with emotions and ideas than with realism. Because much of it is formulaic, employing set religious images and repetitive patterns, it puts a high value on technique, just as modern artists do. Byzantine literature and scholarship are again more concerned with style than with mundane reality, and often attain a virtually postmodern level of incomprehensibility and self-indulgence.
All of these characteristics reflect the fact that most of Byzantine art and literature was produced for an elite--the small fraction of Byzantines who had the money to pay for art, or the education to read literature, even though most of the best artists and some of the best writers came from humble backgrounds. While some Byzantine art and literature of a more popular kind has survived, most of it religious, even lower-class Byzantines considered it inferior, meant for people lacking the education or wealth to enjoy the best. In its cultural divide Byzantium somewhat resembled our own society, where most serious art, literature, and scholarship is intended for an elite, and most of what the population at large watches or reads (some of it religious) makes no pretense to literary or artistic value. Yet many other places and times have shown no comparable divide between elite and popular culture. Ancient Greeks of every sort, including the illiterate, listened to the poems of Homer, the tragedies of Sophocles, and the comedies of Aristophanes. A cross section of English society flocked to Shakespeare's plays and, with the rise of mass literacy, read Dickens's novels. But today, American efforts to bring together elite and popular cultures are largely limited to some professors' offering courses on television shows and other products of the entertainment industry at the expense of supposedly elitist works, including those from other countries. Like us, the Byzantines made few efforts to bridge their culture gap and were particularly indifferent to foreign cultures.
Byzantium, like the United States of today, was both a state and a world of its own, a great power with a diverse but largely self-contained economy and culture. Both Byzantium and America deserve comparison not to England, France, or Germany, but to all of Western Europe, or to all of today's Eastern Orthodox countries. Like the contemporary United States, Byzantium felt even more self-sufficient than it was. Such a feeling can lead a society to think that the diversity at home is all the diversity there could possibly be, and such thinking can lead that society either to ignore the outside world or--in the case of the better educated--to picture the outside world too much in one's own image.
Thus, educated Byzantines often saw Islam simply as a particularly aberrant Christian heresy, and thought of Western Europe as a poorer, weaker, and more ignorant version of Byzantium. So some educated Americans have believed in a democratic Soviet Union, a feminist Third World, a Bosnia ready to implement the Dayton accords, or a Byzantium more interested in sexuality than in spirituality. Such misunderstandings of outsiders can lead to unpleasant surprises, such as the Arab, Crusader, and Turkish invasions of Byzantium, or the Bosnian crisis so mishandled by the United States. Today's Eastern Orthodox countries remain at something of a political and economic disadvantage because they have inherited some of this myopia from the Byzantines.
Yet this weakness of Byzantium was in most respects a result of its strengths. If Byzantium had a strong sense of superiority over its neighbors, it usually did surpass them in wealth, political and military organization, literacy, and scientific and philosophical knowledge. Even in the 14th and 15th centuries, Byzantine scholars who arrived in Italy were greeted as the bearers of a superior culture, with more to teach the West than to learn from it. Even so, some Byzantines were already beginning to learn Latin and to translate Latin literature, and if the empire had survived, there is every reason to believe that it would have participated in the scientific discoveries of the Renaissance. While Byzantium's complacency and lack of aggressiveness may have contributed to its fall after 1,168 years, that was nonetheless more than five times as long as the United States has lasted so far.