Byzantine Historiography: Enlightenment and Moral Lessons

When Edward Gibbon published his first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776, it was celebrated for an objective tone and analysis, praised even by the great Scottish philosopher David Hume.[1]  I am not sure how anyone could have come to such a conclusion, for, even in his opening prefaces, Gibbon is outright hostile towards the Greek rulers of Constantinople calling them, “a degenerate race of princes.”[2]   In the end, as many have long pointed out before, Gibbon concludes that the Romans failed because they deserved to fail.  To put it more bluntly, the Romans and the successor Byzantines had become a decadent and immoral civilization that no longer deserved to succeed.  In this sense, Gibbon’s great work is a moral history that uses the Romans as a moral lesson to the British readers of the late eighteenth century.  If Britain is to succeed, whereas Rome failed, she needs value the principles of the Enlightenment: tolerance, diversity, liberty, rather than fold into stock of the late Romans and Byzantines who were typified by Enlightenment and most Victorian era historians as being intolerant, prone to civil war, and a rejected the principled virtues of liberty.[3]

            Moral histories are among the oldest tradition within the historical discipline.  Many Greek and Roman historians can be classified as being the progenitors of the moral history tradition, perhaps the most notable being Tacitus.[4]  Arnold J. Toynbee, in his magnum opus A Study of History, can also be seen as being part of the great moralistic tradition of history, as are many contemporary publications on the Byzantines, least among these being Lars Brownworth’s Lost to the West (2009).[5]  Just like with Averil Cameron, in her most recent work Byzantine Matters (2014), who opens her first essay on the absence of Byzantine studies in the Anglosphere, Brownworth reminisces on curious absence of Byzantine studies until recently, concluding that the absence of Byzantine scholarship, “cosigned [it] to irrelevance, its voices unheeded and its lessons unlearned.”[6]  This, of course, implies that lessons can be learned from the study of the Byzantine Empire, as stated in his introduction.[7]

            Recent books have not been the only medium to promote moral history to the wider public.  In 2008, a Russian documentary narrated by a Russian Orthodox priest called “The Fall of an Empire – The Lesson of Byzantium” was produced.  Beyond being a largely ethno-religious nationalist work, the documentary invokes the moral lesson that the Byzantines were morally weak, often engaging in abortion, had prostituted itself economically to the West (Italian bankers), and had slowly lost an understanding of itself leading to its plunder by the Latins and its ultimate destruction at the hands of the Turks.  Add these major themes together: immoral living, economic rapture from greedy Italian capitalists and bankers, and a lack of national self-identity, and the empire and its people were doomed to fail.  In many ways, the Russian documentary serves to re-inspire the old “Third Rome” prophecy that was of the popular imagination prior to the Bolshevik Revolution.[8] 

Thus, as moral histories tend to convey, there is an important contemporary lesson to be learned from the study of the Byzantine Empire.  For the purpose of this history, the documentary warns a modern Russia of falling into the same trap that the Byzantines had fallen into – with an important emphasis on not selling itself economically to Western powers and abandoning some form of moral code.  Indeed, at one of the climaxes of the documentary, the film offers a critique of the immoral, decadent, and abortion-loving Byzantine society, although the documentary itself carried very subtle, and at times, explicit messages about refraining from opening up the economic market to foreign predators.  This moral vacuum and predatory rapture of the Byzantine economy caused the empire to fall and stands as an enduring testament to modern Russia as the path not to follow if the “Third Rome” is to survive.  In many ways, this documentary is also a subtle warning to contemporary Russia.

            This narrative of economic exploit from Westerners is not, however, altogether new.[9]  Peter Charanis, a Greco-American Byzantine scholar during the post-war period wrote a small article concerning the real factors in the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire in which he asserted many of the arguments that would later be explained in “The Fall of an Empire.”  It should be noted that Charanis is already writing in the aftermath of the Bretton Woods Conference and the formation of the formation of the European Union after the Treaty of Paris in 1951.  Charanis concludes that, although war and military defeat had hurt the empire, the decision of the Byzantines to open their economic markets to Italian bankers and merchants, who then proceeded to exploit the Byzantine economy to their own benefit at the expense of the Byzantines.[10]  As Charanis concludes, the Byzantines were strongest when their economy was effectively monopolized by the state and had little to no foreign competition, while the empire was weakest after opening itself up to exploit by greedy Italian and Westerners who raptured the treasury of the empire and left it unable to defend itself without aid from West.[11]

            Yet, all of the moral histories to be taken away from a study of the Byzantine Empire have their start with Edward Gibbon.  Without Gibbon, one would not have, what John Julius Norwich calls, “a startling diatribe” [12] from the moralist historian William E.H. Lecky:

Of the Byzantine Empire the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form civilisation has yet assumed.  Though very cruel and very sensual, there have been times when cruelty assumed more ruthless, and sensuality more extravagant aspects; but there has been no other enduring civilisation so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness…The Byzantine Empire was preeminently the age of treachery.  Its vices were the vices of men who ceased to be brave without learning to be virtuous…slaves were willing to be slaves, in both their actions and their thoughts, immersed in sensuality and in the most frivolous pleasure…The history of the empire is a monstrous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.[13]

In an ironic fashion, Lecky writes like Tacitus in his uncompleted treatise Germania.  As Tacitus compares and contrasts the Germanic barbarians with the Romans to prove a moral point, so too is William Lecky in later nineteenth century Victoria England.  He presents the Byzantines as the antithesis of what a liberal Britain should be, or aspire to be.  The lack of liberty, the lack of patriotism, constant political strife and civil war, murder, and superstition is contrasted with the prevailing expansion of liberty as being necessarily tied to the British Empire, somewhat ironically, and that patriotism and rationalism are the values that proper people of the British realm should aspire.[14]

            However, one does not approach the extent of histories that use the Byzantines as a moral lesson without first consulting Edward Gibbon.  For, as I mentioned, Gibbon’s work influenced every generation of succeeding historians in the field, and as John Julius Norwich comments, “The long campaign of denigration seems to have been given its initial impetus in the eighteenth century by Edward Gibbon, who, like all classically educated Englishmen of his day, saw Byzantium as the betrayal of all that was best in ancient Greece and Rome.”[15]  Thus, it is necessary to look at the first great text of the Roman (and thereby, Byzantine) Empire in the Anglo academic tradition.

            As already stated, in his own prefaces to his work, Gibbon makes no attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with the “feeble princes of Constantinople” who had long forgotten the manners and customs of the ancient Romans.[16]  His very opening stands in dark contrast with his eventual closing, in detailing the final expunging of an already tainted flame claiming to be the successors to the noble Roman tradition of antiquity by stating that the Roman Empire at the beginning of the second century was composed of the most civilized people of the world.[17]  It was a Roman commitment to republican and civic virtues, and patriotism, that helped usher in the Roman ascendency in the greater Mediterranean World.[18]  This statement will fall tremendously far when, in commenting on the decrepit state of Byzantine society, he concludes that not a single soul in the whole of the Byzantine Empire deserves to be rescued from their impending oblivion:

The freemen of antiquity might repeat with generous enthusiasm the sentence of Homer, “that on the first day of his servitude, the captive is deprived of one half of his manly virtue.”  But the poet had only seen the effects of civil or domestic slavery nor could he foretell that the second moiety of manhood must be annihilated by spiritual despotism, which shackles not only the actions but even the thoughts of the prostrate votary.  By this double yoke, the Greeks were oppressed under the successors of Heraclius; the tyrant, a law of eternal justice, was degraded by the vices of his subjects and on the throne, in the camp, in the schools, we search, perhaps, with fruitless diligence, the names and characters that may deserve to be rescued from oblivion.[19]

            It is evidently clear that Gibbon, as many other Enlightenment men did as well, view the Byzantines as the exact opposite of everything that a rational and enlightened, liberty-loving people should embody.  It is often said of Gibbon that he writes that the Romans, in this case, the Byzantine Greeks, failed by they deserved to fail.  There was not an ounce of virtue and liberty left in the very core foundation that drove the Greeks and Romans of Antiquity to greatness, and, by this devaluation of their own moral character, deserved the long and painful decline that they suffered, which was only hastened by the constant civil wars and power-hungry emperors who put their own self-interest and petty ambitions for power above the collective whole.[20]  Indeed, several of the main causes for the decline of the Romans can be seen in the opposite prism of Enlightenment values, especially religious intolerance and civil strife in contrast to religious tolerance and political and civil stability.[21]

            A formerly enlightened civilization that valued tolerance and education, barbarism and ignorance had come to dominate the latter society of the Romans and Byzantines.[22]  Gibbon is not alone in his assessment of Byzantine history as having been regressive from its once noble and virtuous underpinnings from the civilizations of Antiquity.  The French philosopher Voltaire saw the history of the Byzantines as an utter travesty and embarrassment to the human intellect.[23]  With the onset of the Enlightenment, and Enlightenment principles holding sway over much of Europe’s intellectual and academic elite, it should come as no surprise that men who were largely apathetic toward religion, promoted religious tolerance, and advocated for strong civil society.  The Byzantines, by contrast, with their commitment to superstition, confrontations of heresies, and civil wars or revolts breaking out every ten years on average, were the antithesis of a model of virtue. 

            As already mentioned, William Lecky writes of the Byzantines in a similar fashion to that of Edward Gibbon, and is undoubtedly influenced by Gibbon when he writes of that “startling diatribe.”[24]  Lecky proceeds to write that Byzantine society lacked patriotism and civic virtue, neither did have live in liberty, nor did they desire liberty.[25]  In his broad closing remarks, William Lecky states, somewhat emphatically, that the Byzantine Empire shares absolutely no resemblance to the more noble and virtuous Roman Empire of the Antonine Dynasty, and even appears to celebrate the demise of the debased civilization that was mired in theological controversy right up to the day of the fall of Constantinople.[26]  In every sense, and through such depictions, these historical writings emerged in an age when political and civil liberties, including religious tolerance, were highly valued and in the Byzantine Empire, a society apparently wrought with civil disorder, discontent, constant civil war, lack of liberties and virtues, and always lost in religious controversy, the Byzantines remained the very antithesis of what an Enlightened society should strive to be.

Even some of the more moderate writings of the Byzantines, who attempted to rehabilitate the empire to some degree, are not without their stern repudiation.  Charles Oman, who had earlier written that his work was “in the spirit of Finlay and Bury,”[27] asserts that the last imperial dynasty, the Palaiologoi, were an inept dynasty more concerned with fratricide, murderous politics, and power usurpations more than the welfare of their people or empire.[28]  John VI Kantakouzenos is of a particular focus for Oman.  Hoping to usurp the throne, he calls upon the Byzantines mortal enemies, the Ottomans, to aid him.[29]  This would have been the same as if a prince or scheming nobleman in England had called upon Napoleon Bonaparte to help overthrow King George III during the Napoleonic Wars.  Achieving his backstabbing usurpation, Oman describes John’s schemes as “evil work[s].”[30]  John’s bid for the throne, for no reason but to inflate his own ego, allowed the Ottomans to cross the Bosphorus and begin their final push to against Constantinople.[31]

Ultimately, the Bosphorus which had long served as the natural barrier against Ottoman aggression and entry into Europe, was now broken because of the personal ambitions and gambit of a petty Greek nobleman who sought the throne.  John VI’s ascension was marred due to his use of the Ottomans to back his claim to power.  Furthermore, the weakened Byzantine state would never again be capable of waging even a defensive war against the Ottomans due to their now constant presence in southern Europe thanks to John’s invitation to them to aid him claim the throne of Constantinople.

[1] Gibbon, xviii-xix.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Lecky, 13-16.

[4] Tacitus’s Annals is his most famous work.  Although never completed, his work Germania is probably a clearer moral history.  He contrasts the simple virtues of the Germanic Barbarians with the immoral and effeminate virtues of the Romans of his day.  Thereby, he uses the Germanic Barbarians as a contrast to the Romans, if not to entice the Romans to see the virtues in the Barbarians and recognize their own (Roman) faults.

[5] Brownworth, 304.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., xviii.

[8] The Third Rome Prophecy was never an official position accepted by the Russian Orthodox Church, although it had powerful popular standing among the Russian population and was often used as a tool of the Russian state under the tsars.  A monk named Filofei is supposedly to have prophesied that the Grand Duchy of Moscow was now the inheritor of the Christian Roman tradition, and that this “Third Rome” would not fall.  It gave an important dimension to ethno-religious nationalism in Russia centuries later.  For further reading on the evolution of this popular doctrine, see Dimitri Strémooukhoff, “Moscow the Third Rome: Sources of the Doctrine,” Speculum 28, no.1 (1953): 84-101.

[9] See Peter Charanis, “Factors in the Decline of the Byzantine Empire,” Journal of Economic History 13, no.4 (1953): 412-424.

[10] Ibid., 421-424.

[11] Ibid., 424.

[12] Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 25.

[13] Lecky, 13-14.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Norwich, The Early Centuries, 25.

[16] Gibbon, 3-4.

[17] Ibid., 9.

[18] Ibid., 17-18.

[19] Ibid., 584.

[20] Ibid., 744.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 759-761.

[23] Quoted in Norman H. Baynes, “Byzantine Civilisation,” History 10, no. 40 (1925): 289-299.

[24] Refer back to supra notes 31 and 32.

[25] Lecky, 14.

[26] Ibid., 14-15.

[27] Oman, v.

[28] Ibid., 311-331.

[29] Ibid., 327.

[30] Ibid., 328.

[31] Ibid., 329-331.


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