The Forgotten Byzantine Era

The lamentably maligned Byzantine period. It lasted a tumultuous 1000 years yet is barely acknowledged and so poorly understood. I have taken many history courses and the Western take on European history is something like this: there was Antiquity (Greeks, then the Romans), Rome festered and eventually fell to the barbarians, then came the Dark Ages. Meanwhile, some strange and forgettable stuff was going on somewhere in the east. Then, like a glorious sunrise, civilization spontaneously lurches forward with the Renaissance. Adding insult to injury, "byzantine" has become a pejorative term as well as an example of a society in stagnation and decline.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Byzantium was a very vibrant, adaptive society and Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) was the greatest city of its time, the New York City of its day and the center of the Mediterranean world. It was a sophisticated society with a codified legal system, a bustling commercial hub and influential religious center. Arts flourished. Even the cuisine was dazzling as chefs incorporated new ingredients from the far reaches of the empire. The spectacularly stunning Hagia Sophia is only one testament to the outstanding creativity and ingenuity of the Byzantines.

What is even more fascinating is that all this was achieved despite the fact that Byzantium was under constant attack from all sides; among others, from the west: Franks and Venetians; the north: Bulgars and Varangians (Vikings;) and the east: Arabs, Persians and Seljuk and Ottoman Turks. At the time, Europe feared (still does) encroaching Islam (this was the period of the Crusades) and Byzantium served as a valuable, but unappreciated bulwark against this threat. The Byzantine navy ruled the waves helped by its secret weapon, the still largely unknown and mysterious Greek Fire. Yet, the death knell sounded in 1204. Many are unaware of the sacking and plundering Constantinople suffered that year at the hands of fellow Christian Crusaders. The looted bronze horses from the hippodrome still adorn Venice's St. Mark's Square. Regrettably, Constantinople never really recovered and the endless Ottoman attacks were just too much to endure. To his credit, the late Pope John Paul II apologized to Orthodox Christians during his visit to the Polis (city.)

As keepers of ancient Greek and Latin texts, it is no coincidence that the Renaissance blossomed soon after 1453. It could have been more brilliant, but many irreplaceable texts were forever destroyed in the tragedy of 1204. Nevertheless, Greece's loss was the West's gain as the professional and educated classes fled to safety. The City was also the western terminus of the spice trade right up to the catastrophe of 1453. Consequently, a new western sea-route had to be found and in the process, the great explorers stumbled upon the New World (although already known to the Vikings.)

The Renaissance and the Age of Discovery owe much to that "unremarkable, atrophied" society far to the east.

Fortunately, I've noticed that there has been a renewed interest in this period including a refreshing objective approach. Greece's contribution to the world is not limited to 500 BC Athens.

February 16, 2006