The World of Byzantium
Lecture given for Swan Hellenic Cruises by The Very Rev. A.C. Bridge
Ladies and Gentlemen. My task it to try to say something adequate in forty minutes about the civilisation and life-style of a people, an empire, a civilisation, which lasted for over a thousand years: and that is a bit like trying to write the Bible on a postage stamp. But even if what I say proves to be inadequate, I hope that it may prove to be worthwhile; for - anyway in my school days - no period of history was so totally neglected as the thousand years and more during which the Byzantines kept alive - preserved, if you like, much that was best in the ancient world, upon which Western civilisation, as we know it, is based, and without which it could never have come to be. I learned a bit of Greek, a bit of Latin, a scrap or two of Greek history, and something about the wars waged by Julius Caesar - but of the Byzantines, not a word. From Caesar we leapt straight to William the Conqueror - 1066 and all that. It was an intolerable and unforgivable gap in our education.
So to my subject, the world of Byzantium - and paradoxically after what I have just said, there is a sense in which there was no such thing as Byzantine Society or the Byzantine Empire - only the continuation of Roman Society and the Roman Empire with the centre of government in a new place. In fact, of course, as the years went by, that society changed so much that it became a new society - the Byzantine; but its citizens never ceased to think of themselves as Romans, and they were hugely proud of their citizenship, even if by birth they might be Syrian, Jewish, Egyptian or what-have-you; and as the time passed, everyone spoke Greek instead of Latin.
You all know the background to the birth of Byzantine society. By the time of the Emperor Diocletian in the late third century A.D., the Empire in the West was in dead trouble from barbarian invasion from the north, and Diocletian’s successor - eventual successor, for he had to fight his way to the throne against rivals - Constantine made the momentous decision to move the capital from Rome to the little colonial Greek town at the mouth of the Bosphorus, Byzantium. His mother, Helena, had always been a Christian, and on May the 11th 330 A.D. he declared that all persecution of Christians should stop, and adopted the Christian faith as the official religion of the Roman world. Moving the capital saved that world from the fate which eventually overcame the West - conquest by barbarians and the coming of the Dark Ages - for the East proved far more defensible than the West, as its astonishingly durable history was to prove; for it lasted for over a thousand years, until it was finally conquered by the Ottoman Turks on the 29th of May, 1493; while the adoption of Christianity filled the vacuum left by the slow decay and death of the old pagan faith of Rome. Whether Constantine himself was a Christian has been debated. That he became both head of Church and State, thus inaugurating the reign of what has come to be called Caesaro-Papism is undoubted, and would suggest that, like his mother, he was indeed a Christian, but he was not baptised until just before he died, and some have suggested that he waited till the last moment because baptism being the sovereign washing away of sin, he didn’t want to waste any opportunities of a little enjoyable sin before he died.
But he made sure of one thing; he and he alone was head of both Church and State. Thus Caesaro-Papism, as it has been called, was born,lasted for a thousand years of Byzantine rule, and was largely passed on to the rulers of such daughter states as the Tsars of Russia - of whom more later - and later still by political inheritance to the Stalins and Kruschevs of this life; so that it is not so very surprising really that with such a history Mr Gorbachev is having difficulty introducing a democratic way of life in what many Russians still think of as Holy Mother Russia.
The Emperors of Byzantium varied enormously but one thing never changed; the Court in Constantinople was the hub and centre of Byzantine life, and as the years passed it became more and more magnificent as Constantinople virtually captured the world’s trade; and it did so because it sat across the great trade routes of antiquity at the mouth of the Bosphorus. All roads might have led to Rome in the old days, but to the new capital of the Roman world down through the Black Sea and the Bosphorus, came furs, salt-fish, and slaves from the Steppes of Russia, while merchants travelled along the great East-West caravan routes from Persia, India and China and brought silks, spices, and the jewellery of the East to the City. Eventually, two monks smuggled some silk worms, hidden in their monastic staffs, to Constantinople and the culture, weaving and export of silk became an Imperial monopoly. As the city became larger, the Court became almost oriental in its splendour, and this was no accident; it was done deliberately to impress and over-awe visiting potentates, ambassadors and barbarians from the West.
The sacred palace was enormous, a cluster of buildings built around gardens and fountains on hilly ground overlooking the Sea of Marmara, where the Sultan Ahmet Mosque now stands. Inside, the main buildings were of extraordinary magnificence with mosaic floors, inlaid marble walls, painted and gilded ceilings, hangings of tapestry and silk, ceramics from China and furniture of ivory, silver, and even gold. The old days of the simple Roman toga soon went; instead, the men wore straights, long-sleeved tunics, rather like a Chinese mandarins robes, stiff as boards with embroidery and encrusted with precious stones, while the women wore silk, were painted to the nines, and glittered with jewellery. There is an account of an audience granted by the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenito in about 950 A.D. to a gentleman named Liudprand. As he was ushered into the imperial presence in one of the great halls of the Palace by two eunuchs, a choir was singing, the floor was strewn with rose petals, and the Emperor was seated on a great golden throne, which was, in effect, an ingenious mechanical toy. As Liuprand approached and prostrated himself before the Emperor, as he had been instructed, a pair of golden lions roared as the machinery of the throne went into action, some little golden birds sang, and the Emperor was slowly and majestically lifted up on high, as the seat on which he was sitting propelled him towards the ceiling.
To us it all sounds faintly ridiculous, but it deeply impressed visiting barbarians from Russia, Germany, and elsewhere. And oddly enough the ruling never became formal or closed - as did the ruling oligarchy, the Tsars, in Russia. Occasionally, there were both peaceful changes on the throne and occasional violent palace revolutions, and the ruling families were changed; and snobbery was not a Byzantine vice. Justinian, one of its greatest Emperors, was the son of a peasant family in what is now Yugoslavia, while his wife, Theodora, began life as a strip-tease dancer of immense notoriety in the Hippodrome before making a formidably splendid Empress. What with women like Theodora, Elizabeth I, and Mrs Thatcher, I don’t know why anyone argues about the equality of women. One Empress, sole ruler of the Byzantine world in the 8th Century, Irene by name, insisted upon being addressed as the Basileus instead of the Basilissa, and one on occasion having proposed marriage by post to Charlemagne while in her mid-fifties, welcomed the Ambassadors, whom he had sent to discuss the matter, in her bath. There’s confidence for you. She was, alas, deposed.
Being an autocracy, inevitably, the machinery of government under the Emperors was supplied by a bureaucracy. I have already mentioned eunuchs, and much of the state machinery was manned - if that is the right word - by eunuchs. Actually, it is the right word; the popular idea that a eunuch is invariably a fat, sly, lazy untrustworthy, cowardly, and epicene monstrosity is wholly untrue. In Byzantine days, eunuchs often proved themselves to be intelligent, brave, hard-working, and as open and honest as any other human being. Eunuchs became generals of distinction, statesmen of the highest calibre, and admirals of the Byzantine fleet; though what Admiral Sir Cloudesly Shovell would have done had he been told that his immediate superior was a eunuch doesn’t bear thinking about; he was pretty good at sinking English ships at is was; I suspect that he would have sent the entire British Navy to the bottom had the Admiral of the Red turned out to be such a creature. In fact, in Byzantine days eunuchs were often trusted in the highest and most powerful positions precisely because they were eunuchs; for, where a family man might entertain dark and treacherous schemes for his children, a eunuch could not be so tempted. So, where ambitious parents today may put their sons down for Eton at birth, in Byzantine days they sent them to the vet instead to be doctored.
Outside court circles, Byzantine society was, at least in one respect, rather like American society today; for it had the same remarkable ability to turn people of all sorts of ethnic and national origins, of Greek, Armenia, Syrian, Cypriot, Gothic, Slavonic, Turkish or Arabic, rather as Americans have shown their ability to make people of Polish, Russian, Italian, German, Hungarian, Jewish, English and Irish stock into good Americans. Three things welded them together, and made them proudly Byzantine; they were intensely conscious and proud of being Romans, as I have already said, whatever their ethnic origin may have been.
Secondly, they all spoke Greek, which replaced Latin as the language of the Empire soon after Constantine’s day, though Latin was still used in the Law Courts and on formal occasions at court; but Greek had become the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean ever since the Greeks had begun to colonise it nearly 1000 years before Christ, and Alexander of Macedon had taken the language farther still; in fact, it became the world’s second language rather as English has become the world’s second language today and for much the same sort of reasons.
Thirdly, the Byzantines were bound together by sharing a deep and passionate Christian faith, and it is this aspect of their lives which, I think we find most difficult to understand - to enter into and share - living, as we do, in the secular twentieth century world. Unlike most of us, Byzantines lived their lives between two worlds; like us they were born into the physical world of human desire, power politics, war and peace, life and death, and the everyday business of getting and spending; but they did not feel themselves to be primarily its citizens. They were, first and foremost, citizens of the world represented in the glittering mosaics, which surrounded them when they entered one of their Churches; a world ruled by Christ and the supernatural hierarchy of heaven and hell and erupting with miracles. The darkly luminous world of their icons, where martyrs and saints and confessors, silhouetted against golden skies, moved about in a strange and timeless landscape, not subject to the mundane dictates of perspective, with their true home. It was far more real to them than the humdrum world of material reality; it was the primary reality in which they lived and hoped, and planned their future in the prospect of eternity and judgement. One result was a passion for theological debate, and this was taken to astonishing lengths. A contemporary historian remarked how, towards the end of the fourth century, the imperial transport system was so disorganised by bands of bishops travelling hither and thither in government conveyances to synods, where they disputed minute points in Christian doctrine for weeks on end, that no one else could travel. British Rail may have its faults but at least it rarely becomes episcopally clogged. But this passion for theology was by no means confined to the ranks of the clergy.
When the controversy over the doctrine of the Trinity was at its height, one of the great doctors of the eastern Church, Gregory of Nazianzus, complained that, if you went into a shop to do something as simple as to buy a loaf of bread, it was impossible to do so without being drawn into a religious discussion. I’m quoting now: “The baker, instead of telling you the price will argue that the Father is greater than the Son. the money-changer will talk about the Begotten and the Unbegotten instead of giving you your money; and if you want a bath, the bath-keeper assures you that the Son surely proceeds from nothing”. The difficulty of imagining that happening in Marks and Spencers is a measure of the difficulty we have in entering into the minds of ordinary Byzantine men and women.
But it was not only in debate and argument that this Byzantine passion for religion manifested itself. Both internal politics and foreign policy were affected by it. Internally, the Sacred Emperor was head of the Church as well as the State. If he didn’t behave himself, there was nearly always a holy man, a popular monk, a miracle-working anchorite dressed in rags and without a possession in the world, who could topple him from his imperial throne, egged on by the people of Constantinople. This actually happened on several occasions - I can tell you one story only for lack of time.
In the 5th Century a miserable little wimp of an Emperor named Arcadius married a beautiful, strong-willed and formidable young lady named Eudoxia who was, as my grandmother might have put it, no better than she should be. The Patriarch of Constantinople at the time was a particularly holy man named John Chrysostom, who ate almost nothing, shared his house with beggars and tramps, was a brilliant speaker, and had nearly killed himself by his austerities before becoming Patriarch. The people adored him, and didn’t think much of the Empress. So when she had him arrested and deported for publicly attacking her morals from the pulpit of the Church of the Holy Wisdom, the city rose in open and furious revolt, surrounding the Sacred Palace and calling for John’s return. The people didn’t dare assault the Palace, defended as it was by Palace Guards, and the Guards did not dare attack so huge a crowd. This stalemate lasted three days; then on the third night there was an earthquake, which shook the city. the damage was slight except in one place, which was wrecked - guess where? - the Empress’s bedroom……..and of course the crowd, whooping with delight drew the obvious conclusion; God had intervened; and, being a Byzantine, Eudoxia entirely agreed, and immediately recalled John from exile. The city went mad with delight, and as John was brought back down the Bosphorus, everyone turned out to meet him in whatever little boats they could find; it was night-time, and the water was sparkling with candles and torches, while the populate of the city, as drunk as lords, sang their hearts out as they greeted their Patriarch.
John Chrysostom had begun life as a monk, ruining his health - as I have said - by the austerities he practised, and such men, far from being rarities, were extremely common. the place swarmed with monasteries and convents and the streets of all Byzantine cities wee filled with monks and nuns who more or less staffed what was, in effect, a welfare state; they housed and fed the poor, nursed the sick, comforted the bereaved, and set an example of dedication which was hugely admired by everyone. Their poverty was a sort of counter-balance to the riches and luxury of the Court, while their faith was so unbreakable that, after the Turkish conquest in 1453, for over four hundred years it kept the Nation’s soul from perishing; the Orthodox Church had its faults, but when the crunch came it proved itself to be invincible - a kind of spiritual rock - a resistance movement - as indeed it has again under Communism. I shall have some more to say on the subject later on in the Cruise, as we sail round Mount Athos with its monasteries.
Meanwhile, in foreign policy, too, Christianity figured large; for, rather as until very recently Russia’s foreign policy has been to covert their neighbours to Communism, so Byzantine policy aimed to convert their Imperial neighbours to Christianity, and thus to make allies of them; at least, that was the theory, though it didn’t always work; the worst and most notorious example of un-Christian behaviour by those who should have been the allies and brothers in Christ of the Byzantines was provided by the men of the Fourth Crusade. But, on the whole, it usually achieved its objective, and it was nearly always achieved by peaceful methods - unlike the methods used by the Communists.
Missionaries were sent to neighbouring lands - Bulgaria for example - where people in various stages of barbarian culture or the lack of it were predisposed to listen to what they said, for the Empire with its power, its riches, its magnificent churches and their equally magnificent liturgy, and last but not least its illustrious peoples. So converts were not rare, especially when the work of the missionaries was reinforced by diplomacy. The conversion of Russia in 987 was a case in point. It had long been the fervent desire of the Byzantine Emperors to acquire Russia to their north as - if not a satellite state - at least an ally; and missionaries had been at work for many years, when a barbarian named Vladimir, who was Grand Duke of Kiev, approached the Emperor Basil II with a proposition: if the Emperor would send him his sister, Princess Anna, as a wife, he would become a Christian and so would his subjects. What poor Anna thought of the idea is not recorded; but it is unlikely that she was overjoyed. For Vladimir was described by a contemporary historian - and though your Latin may be rudimentary, you will understand, this I’m sure - as a fornicator immensus et crudalis. He was reputed to have about 800 concubines. However, Anna was duly despatched to the barbarous wastes of the Ukraine, and Vladimir let it be known that any of his subjects who refused to be Baptised at once would be beheaded. Thus was born Holy Mother Russia, and needless to say in due course, Vladimir was canonised - Saint Vladimir.
If the picture I have drawn of Byzantine life and society has made it look unbelievably pious, I have misled you. The Byzantines were primarily and deeply religious, but that didn’t stop them from, being highly sophisticated and civilized to their finger-tips, while it actually encouraged them to be somewhat cynical about the prospect of the survival of their way of life in this world - of the Empire - for all around them they saw the darkness of barbarism, rendered even more threatening in later years by the rise of Islam. Yet, other-worldly and pessimistic as they may have been, when they entered the Hippodrome to watch the races between the factions known as the Greens and the Blues, they shed their other-worldliness and their cynicism as one might shed one’s winter clothes when summer comes, and went raving mad with sheer passion and partisan excitement. Men would bet and lose fortunes on the outcome of a chariot race, others would threaten to kill themselves if the Blues won and they happened to support the Greens and vice versa, and successful chariot racers became national heroes.
The reason for all this passionate excitement was, at least in part, a result of the fact that the factions were more than sporting clubs. They played two other roles in the lives of the people, as well as dividing their sporting loyalties between them. The Blues tended to be politically conservative, supporting the cause of the wealthier classes, and most of them were strictly orthodox in religious matters, while the Greens were the party of the workers and the champions of those, like the monophysites, who opposed a rigid religious orthodoxy; though, of course, the divisions were not as neat as that. But on the whole, if you can imagine Manchester United composed entirely of Northern Irish Protestants, all of whom are supporters of Mr Kinnock, playing Tottenham Hotspurs, Roman Catholic right back to the goal keeper and devoted Thatcherites, you will get some idea of the mayhem aroused by the racing in the Hippodrome between the Blues and the Greens. That mayhem could be dangerous, letting loose the worst kind of ferocious tribal loyalties and sectarian hatreds from time to time; but it could also be valuable, for the Hippodrome was the one place where the voice of the people could make itself heard - the one place where the absolutism of the Byzantine state could be challenged by its ordinary citizens.
I must begin to stop, and I’ve said nothing yet about Byzantine art; but that has been intentional. For, if I believe anything, I believe that the art of any given civilisation must be allowed to speak for itself - that’s one reason - meanwhile the other reason for not talking about the arts is that most art critics talk such trendy rubbish that they are not worth listening to. In the case of Byzantine art, for years all art critics in the West wrote it off as crude, garish, out of drawing and not to be taken seriously. In fact, most secular Byzantine art has been destroyed or has disappeared - over the years a few mosaic floors of the Sacred Palace and other houses can be seen, that marvellous mosaic of Justinian and Theodora in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, and some splendid ivory furniture in the Museum there remain - but not much else.
Similarly, far too many churches have also been destroyed, but at least there are some splendid ones left - including St Mark’s Venice - where one can enter into the symbolic world of the Byzantine universe - almost as if one was privileged for a moment to enter the mind and head of a worshipping Byzantine man or woman, to see through his or her eyes, and to adore with him or her the invisible hierarchy of things: Christ the icon of God, Mary the Theotokos or mother of God, Angels and Archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged with eyes behind and before, Apostles, Saints, Virgins and Martyrs populate the space and surround the worshipper, against a golden background strewn with the flowers of Paradise and framed by the stylised architecture of remembered Greece.
It is a vision of the nature of the extraordinary universe in which we live our mortal lives - and of their purpose - a vision which attempts to give shape and form the mysteries behind the business of living, loving and dying. Paul Gauguin painted a picture, which used to hang in the Tate Gallery and may still do so - I haven’t been there for years - of a dark-skinned Polynesian girl lying naked on a bed against a strange and rather frightening background, and he entitled it ‘D’ou venons nous? Que sommes nous? Ou allons nous?’ Whence do we come? What are we? Where are we going? The mosaics, icons and mural paintings in the Churches of Byzantium were answers to those questions - indeed, are answers to them.
In strict conclusion, I shall say just this. for over a thousand years, while the West was struggling to emerge from barbarism and bloodshed, the much neglected, misunderstood and undervalued civilization of Byzantium preserve for us - for our latter-day Western world - three inestimable treasures without which that world would never have become what it is: the heritage of classical Greece, Roman law, and Christian vision of the mystery of being alive - of its nature and purpose - and of the God who was made flesh in Christ. We owe them an incalculable debt.