Byzantine Historiography: Cultural Histories and the West’s Debt to Byzantium

While Marxist historiography made headway into the professional historical discipline, so too did cultural history with its emphasis on archeology, art, architecture, and other forms of “high culture.”  The increases in archeological discoveries and cultural anthropology began a new paradigm of Byzantine history that focused primarily on Byzantine culture and cultural influences upon its immediate neighbors (the Slavs, Russians, Ukrainians, and Arabs).  Incorporating the elements of the positive paradigm shift from Finlay, most of the cultural histories of the Byzantine Empire depict the Byzantine people and their culture as highly modern, sophisticated, and “Western.”

            This view is not as much concerned with the legacy of the Byzantine State and society in the strictest sense but concerned with the cultural legacy of the Byzantines at home and abroad.  In her work Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (2009), Judith Herrin argues that the Byzantines are a unique culture of art, science, philosophy, religion, ceremony, and politics in of themselves despite their Greek and Roman inheritance.  Byzantium is more a culture than a political empire; Byzantium’s true expression was as a cultural imperium.  Additionally, in her introduction, Herrin comments that her history is written in the tradition of the Annales School popularized by Fernand Braudel and the longue durée (of history),[1] although she uses this idea concerning Byzantium’s wide and rich culture than the more geographic emphasis of Braudel in his work The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.  In contrast, Colin Wells’s Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World (2006)— unlike Herrin’s history—is concerned more with Byzantium’s cultural legacy with her neighbors focusing on cultural exportation. 

            Lost in the quagmire of the various civil wars that decimated the empire under the Palaiologoi is a cultural renaissance that blossomed during fourteenth century Byzantium over 100 years before the High Renaissance in Italy.[2]  Humanism as a new philosophy emerged in the dwindling days of the empire long before humanism arose in Western Europe.[3]  It has been pointed out by various scholars, Wells included, that the Renaissance in Italy was the byproduct of the influx of Byzantine scholars escaping the advancement of the Turks or their migration to Italy after the fall of Constantinople that helped produce the Western renaissance of famed figures like Da Vinci, Leonardo, Erasmus, and Thomas More.  Thus, the Byzantines are among the first progenitors of a secular and humanistic tradition that has become highly valued by the Western World.  This is therefore one of Byzantium’s great influences upon the creation of the modern world of which we, Wells’s (Western) audience, should be grateful for.

This view differs from the claims of Islamic scholars, historians, or politicians who suggest that it was from the Crusades that Europeans returned home with the ancient tradition and texts of classical Antiquity.[4]  But, as Colin Wells reinforces, even this view would be faulty since the Umayyad Empire was indebted to the cultural influences it inherited through the Arab conquests of Byzantine lands in the Levant and Anatolia.[5]  Wells calls the Umayyads the “Neo-Byzantine Empire,” and goes on to state, “Long before Baghdad was founded, the splendor of Byzantine court ritual first seduced the Arabs into imitating it in their ceremonials…from the first conquests of Byzantine and Persian lands in the 630s, the Arab[s] had maintained the civic institutions that already existed in those lands.”[6]  Even the taxes the Umayyads collected were old Byzantine taxes that were simply renamed in Arabic.[7]  In this demonstration, Wells attempts to portray the influences of the Byzantines upon the new great civilization that arose in the Levant and Middle East and how the Umayyads came to inherit and preserve the Greek and Roman classics.  In either view, the Byzantines are the preservers of the great classics, which are either transmitted to Western Europe through the crusades or after the Greek Renaissance of the fourteenth century.

            Discussing religious and artistic contributions of the Byzantine Empire, Herrin points out that Catholic and High Church Protestants employed the use of icons in their own churches – the Byzantine Empire was the first to begin the widespread adoption of icons in churches and even the use of icons as portraits within one’s house as a decorative form of art.[8]  Although Herrin describes the tragedy of Iconoclasm in the eighth century, she forcefully maintains that our knowledge of the Iconoclasm is a reflection of the highly literate and articulate Byzantine society that was engaging in constant debate over the direction the Church should take concerning icons.[9]  “One reason for believing that arguments for the role of icons were widely known…was that Byzantium was an articulate and literate society in which literacy was highly appreciated.”[10]  In an era when most of the world’s common population was illiterate, even the commoners within the Byzantine Empire had a functioning literacy and were heavily engaged in the evolution of iconoclasm.

            This cultivation of a highly articulate and literate society helped to preserve the empire from invasion from their less civilized Slavic neighbors to the north.[11]  The missions to convert the Slavs through the “apostles” Cyril and Methodius not only brought Byzantine Christianity (Eastern Orthodoxy) to the Slavic world, but these two missionaries helped to cultivate the Cyrillic alphabet for the Slavic people (based on the existing Greek alphabet) and suddenly the Rus’ and Slavs who had posed a major threat to the Byzantines became cultural Byzantines and important friends and trading partners to the emperors in Constantinople.[12]  This important cultural legacy is so critical that Wells spends nearly the final third of his book devoted to the rise of Kiev, the Golden Age of the Kievan Rus’, the formation of Roman/Byzantine identity on Moscow (Russia) and the politico-theological doctrine of the “Third Rome” in which the proto-Russian state envisioned itself as the continuation of the great Roman tradition: “Two Romes are fallen, but the third stands fast; a fourth there cannot be.”[13]  In many ways, after the flame of Constantinople fell, the Russians inherited Byzantine culture, tradition, and through marriage could claim to be the rightful heirs of Caesar.[14] If the cultural legacy of Rome moved from Italy to Greece (under Byzantium), it then shifted to Eastern Europe after 1453 with the rise of an Orthodox Russian state that emphasized its Byzantine connections.

            Wells’s insistence on viewing the Umayyads as a Neo-Byzantine Empire is probably a move to “re-humanize” the Arabs after the rise of militant Islam and the confrontation with the “Islamic World” by the “Western World.” Wells does not harbor any negativity toward the Arabs and Umayyads in his work but emphasizes the contributions of the Byzantines upon the Arab civilization and empires. Additionally, to make a long deceased civilization (the Byzantines) interesting to a predominately Western audience, Herrin says of the Byzantines that they were a cosmopolitan people who valued learning and education and were very much “like us.”[15]  Wells and Herrin both present a Byzantine Empire that is relevant to a Western audience, implicitly and explicitly indicating how the Byzantines shaped “our” modern world or how the Byzantines were a culture and society much like the societies that make up the so-called Western World. From this sense, the West is indebted to the Byzantines by cultural exportation and we exist in their shadow.

[1] Judith Herrin. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), Introduction, xv-xvi.

[2] Colin Wells, Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World (New York: Batnam Dell, 2006), 43-46.

[3] Ibid., 45.

[4] Necmettin Erbakan, Political and Social Thought in the Contemporary Middle East. Ed. Kemal H. Karpat (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1982), 439-442.

[5] Wells, 129-137.

[6] Ibid., 129-130.

[7] Ibid., 130.

[8] Herrin, 98-104.

[9] Ibid., 119-130.

[10] Ibid., 119.

[11] Wells, 177-188.

[12] Herrin, 131-138; Wells, 188-200.

[13] Wells, 277.

[14] Ibid., 283.

[15] Herrin, 336.


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