(Compliments of Jani Niemenmaa, Wikipedia)
I was asked by my friend to write an article on the achievements of Greece. Like most countries with a long history, you find yourself asking the question, “where do I start?”. I thought about the achievements of Mycenaean, Minoan, Classical and Hellenistic times (post Alexander the Great), I also contemplated the achievements of modern Greece, with all the great artists, numerous Nobel prize winners, shipping owners, writers, performers, music, architecture (the angelic white and the Aegean blue of the Cycladic homes), and of course the screw-ups of the geriatric men’s club also known as Greek politicians (when will the Greek public learn and vote these guys off the island?).
Ultimately, my mind settles upon Byzantium, an oft-neglected period of Greece’s history and in this writer’s opinion, arguably its greatest. I can just see the shock on the faces of Athenians who still live in the past and refuse to acknowledge that they are not the be all and end of the Greek world. In fact to further stir debate, I could argue that Thessaloniki is Greece’s most amazing city, but that’s an argument for another time.
The Byzantine Empire, which lasted 1,100 years, is the reason why Greece exists today. It is also the reason that we have so many well preserved texts from ancient times, and it is the arguably reason why the West experienced the Renaissance. In addition, it is the spiritual home of the Orthodox religion, and it is the place where modern art had its grounding. Despite all of these amazing achievements (not to mention many more), it has barely received mention outside of Greece until recent years. Why is that I hear you ask (and I’m glad you ask)? It probably has a lot to do with the fact that the West has always had an obsession with classical Greece, believing that Byzantium is an inferior successor to ancient Greece and Rome.
In fact, I can recall when I was at high school my history teacher taught us that during the fifth – ninth Centuries AD, Europe experienced the Dark Ages: a time when history was not extensively recorded and there was a lack of governance across Europe. Years later after reading up on the Byzantine Empire I discovered that this period was actually dominated by the advanced Greek Empire in the East. Not only was it not the “Dark Ages” in the East, it was a time of significant achievements for the Greek people of the Byzantine Empire.
I also believe that the Latin and Greek rivalry has had a lot to do with the neglect of Byzantine history. The Greek Orthodox Church and its Catholic equivalent suffered from a theological Schism in 1054, which ensured that the two churches were in essence rivals and there was also a history of the Latin antagonism towards the Greeks. In 1204, through treachery, the Latins captured Constantinople and looted most of the City, killing thousands in the process (this was in retribution to years of tension and a similar Geek massacre of Latins years earlier). Added to this, the Greeks have always resented the fact that the Latins rarely provided assistance to the wars with the Turks.
As mentioned above, the Byzantine Empire lasted for 1100 years, 325AD until the fall to the Ottoman Empire of Constantinople in 1453. The Empire is also known as Byzantium, so called due to the founding of Constantinople on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium in Thrace by the last true Emperor of Rome, Constantine.
In essence Byzantium was a successor to the Roman Empire and it brought together the legal and administrative aspects of the Roman Empire with the culture and language of the Greek world. In a matter of just over two hundred years the Greek aspect of the empire overtook that of the Roman and in time, the Empire, whilst still being known as the East Roman Empire was in essence the empire of the Greeks. The Emperor became known as the “Basileus” and the Greek Orthodox religion became the state religion of Byzantium.
At its zenith, the Empire was home to over 35 million people and ruled most of the Mediterranean. During the reign of Justinian 527-565, the Empire ruled Northern Africa, Southern Spain, all of the Mediterranean’s islands, the Balkans up to the Danube, Italy, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and the Crimea in the Ukraine. Justinian’s reign resulted in the building of the greatest churches and one of the most significant buildings of all time, the Aghia Sofia Church in Constantinople. This high-domed church stands out like a beacon, and its style has been copied ever since across the Orthodox world.
Other notable emperor’s include Heraclius who ended any pretension of Byzantium not being Greek through a series of cultural reforms. Heraclius also took on and defeated an old adversary of the Greeks: the Persians. Sadly, by the early 700’s, this superpower of the medieval world was in decline, seeing its territory shrink across the Mediterranean, especially the African provinces. It was not until the rule of Basil I (867-886), from the Macedonian Dynasty (back then Macedonian, as it should always be, meant the Greek state of Macedonia), initiated a series of reforms that re-ignited the economy, reclaimed numerous Greek dominated areas, such as Magna Graecia in Italy and the Crimea in the Black Sea.
By the time Basil II came to the throne (976-1025), Byzantium was flourishing as a place of learning especially in Constantinople, known for its art and in particular the mosaics inside churches and the painting of icons, the impressive architecture of churches and public buildings as well as the strength of its economy. Byzantium’s “nomista” was the currency across the known world. It was during these times that a new style of governing was developed and that continues today. Constantinople was the home of many public departments, so unlike the feudal system in Latin Europe, citizens were essentially running the day-to-day affairs of the Empire through a bureaucracy.
The great cities of the time included Ravenna (Italy), Dyrrachium (Albania), Antioch (Syria/Turkey), Ephesus and Smyrna (Turkey), Thessaloniki (Greece), Varna (Bulgaria), and of course, arguably the greatest city of all time, Constantinople.
Constantinople, also known as the City, was the envy of medieval world, and was at the cross roads of the East and West. At its peak, over 500,000 people lived in the City, famed for its wealth, it repulsed sieges from the Avars, Arabs, Bulgarians, barbarians, Latins, Turks and renegade Greeks during the numerous internecine civil wars — a theme that has been a constant in Greek history (again, its time to vote out the geriatric men’s club).
Until the betrayal of the Greeks by the Latins and a renegade Greek faction who briefly captured Constantinople in 1204, Byzantium was the world’s leader. I remember having an argument with another Greek who is besotted with ancient Greece. He believes that the Byzantine Empire was a bastion for religious nuts. If this was the case, Byzantium would never have further developed science and it would not have encouraged art. Sure, the Greeks were extremely superstitious and life revolved around the Church, but it did not prevent the church from supporting the education of the people and it would not have diligently preserved ancient Greek material had it not been an inward looking institution. The preservation and copying of the classics was due to the work of the Byzantines and the Church. Today, we may not have had such as an extensive knowledge of ancient Greek work.
Despite the betrayal and capture of Constantinople between 1204 and 1261 by the Latins (with friends like these who needs enemies), the Greeks kept their strongholds in the Balkans, the Black Sea, Asia Minor and Greece proper. When Michael Palaeologus recaptured the capital, it appeared as though Greek fortunes were looking bright and the Greek world was essentially united again. The exception was the Greeks of Trebizond who formed their own Empire on the Black Sea in Asia Minor and also those Greeks living under Latin rule in Italy and Ottoman rule.
Greeks are rather predictable people. Despite, or rather in spite of the renewed artistic and cultural achievements, especially in the Morea and Crete, intermittent civil war affected the empire in the middle of the 1300’s, which lasted until the last years of the Empire in the 1400’s. It was during this period and the decades following the fall of Constantinople that Greek artists, writers, scientists, academics fled to Italy. It was the advent of their ideas and work that led to the period known as the Renaissance. The Greek influence of this period on Europe is immense and should not be understated.
It is worth pointing out that Mehmet II the conqueror of Constantinople inherited a ready-made bureaucracy for the Ottoman Empire. The tolerance and multi-cultural aspect of some of Byzantium’s areas was another policy he adopted in his growing Empire.
Another lasting attribute of Byzantium is the impact it has had on modern Greece and the Balkans. The Greek Orthodox religion spread across Eastern Europe and into Asia, and today there are 400 million adherents of this religion and it is the state religion of Greece. The brothers and saints Cyrill and Methodius (born in Greek Macedonia) also developed a language for the Slavs and Bulgars that settled in the Balkans from the 600’s. The Cyrillic alphabet is used in languages spoken by 400 million people. Everywhere you go in the Balkans, as well as countries such as Russia, you van see new churches and buildings being built in the Byzantine style as well the mosaic designs in the interior of these churches which are renown all over the world. Byzantium was also a leader in using diplomacy to solve international disputes and it maintained an extensive secret service in enemy places.
Byzantium is the reason why there is a Greece (and Cyprus) today. The cultivation of the Greek language and religion ensured that a national identity was created. Sure the Greeks called themselves “Romaoi,” and the empire was known as “Rumania” by many people, but only the Greeks called themselves by this term. This national identity was only ever seen during the ancient Persian wars and during the reign of Philip II and his successor Alexander the Great. Today’s Greece is essentially the successor state of Byzantium.
The Byzantine Empire does not pretend to rival the Roman Empire (or any others for that matter), in reality it rivals Byzantium. The achievements and longevity of Byzantium ensures that it is in a class of its own. Over the next few decades as increasing numbers of scholars and historians write about this period it will inevitably grow in popularity. Next time you travel to the Mediterranean, try visiting a Byzantine church, castle, fortress, or monument. You can find them in places such as North Africa, Italy, Southern Spain, Cyprus, Syria, Turkey, Palestine, Jerusalem, the Balkans and in Greece, you will not be disappointed.