Byzantine Historiography: Reclaiming the Byzantines as the Vanguard of Western Civilization

In the late 1990s and into the first decade of the twenty-first century, a new renaissance of Byzantine scholarship comes immediately after the dual rise of postmodernism and “Islamic Terrorism.”  Arguably, the recent push to reclaim the Byzantine Empire as Western, the preservers of Greco-Roman art, philosophy, and sciences, and to see the Byzantines as the first martyr in the “clash of civilizations”[1] is directly related to the advancement of postmodernism into Western culture, history, and to confrontations with militant Islam in geopolitics.  As the West struggles with identity and truth in the postmodern age, that which is certainly Western would be an empire that saw the blend of the two classical civilizations that became the progenitors of the Western tradition: Rome and Greece, Christian, and stood at the vanguards of foreign invasion.  Likewise, this Greco-Roman empire centered at the crossroads of Europe and Asia (more specifically the Middle East) was therefore the first “Western” state and society to confront “the dangers of militant Islam.”[2]

            All the following works I will cover are popular “narrative” histories that are easily accessible to the reader, with, for example, much more limited footnoting than one would find in a more scholarly work.  In this sense, the contemporary popular histories are also responding to the need to make history accessible to a wider audience, and there is no better way to accomplish this than to present the Byzantines as a Western Christian empire that was, “[O]n the front line in a long-distance struggle between Islam and Christianity for the true faith.”[3]  Furthermore, these histories take the Finlay Paradigm shift of depicting the empire in a more positive manner to a new extreme, portraying the empire from its inception through its fall as entirely positive.  This move is to garner sympathy for the Byzantines, keep reader interest up, and to cement the idea that the Byzantines were a Western empire to which a Western audience can better relate.

            John Julius Norwich, who had written a three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire from 1988-1995, condensed his work into the easily accessible and traditional political narrative A Short History of Byzantium in 1999.  In his introduction, Norwich quotes Lecky’s “universal verdict” diatribe and goes on to state, “The long campaign of denigration (against the Byzantines) seems to have been given its initial impetus…by Edward Gibbon, who, like all classically educated Englishmen of his day, saw Byzantium as a betrayal of all that was best in ancient Greece and Rome.”[4]  Lars Brownworth also makes clear that Gibbon and other Enlightenment philosophers and historians could not accept the Byzantines as being the scions of the Greco-Roman tradition, so they “…denied the Eastern Empire the name of ‘Roman,’” branding it instead after Byzantium.”[5]  Brownworth ends his introduction by stating, “We (speaking of the “West”) share a common cultural history with the Byzantine Empire…Byzantium, no less than the West, created the world in which we live, and – if further motivation is needed to study it – the story also happens to be captivating.”[6]

            It is important for Brownworth and Norwich to begin their histories by rebutting Edward Gibbon’s account of the Byzantines.  In contrast, Brownworth and Norwich write “in the spirit of Finlay” but take the positive portrayal to a new extreme.  This accomplishes several goals. First, it presents the empire in a manner that “we” can relate to, makes their work easily accessible (they are generally bereft of footnotes and their bibliographies serve more as “additional reading” recommendations), and they counter postmodern claims and the problem of identity crises by highlighting a “heroic” empire as the first truly Western and Christian state in human history.  Furthermore, they counter Edward Gibbon throughout their works.  Norwich goes on to state that the opening of new resources and ease of travel helped to alter the perceptions that were created by Gibbon in his work.[7]  It is through the new wealth of resources and ease of travel to Greece and Turkey that has allowed for an even greater positive shift in Byzantine historiography that started with George Finley in 1856.

            Where Gibbon sees Justinian as a farce that couldn’t hide the problems the Byzantine Empire was suffering from, both Brownworth and Norwich go to great lengths to present Justinian as a great ruler: the man who restored Byzantine (Roman) control over the city of Rome itself.  Rather than conclude with the rejection of Belisarius, Norwich concludes his assessment of Justinian by stating, “He extended its frontiers, he simplified and streamlined its laws.  He worked ceaselessly, indefatigably, as few rulers in history have ever worked, for what he believed to be the good of his subjects.”[8]  Likewise, Brownworth glosses over Justinian’s “human failings” and highlights Justinian’s humble rise to greatness that is similar to the American “rags to riches” trope, making Justinian completely relatable to most readers.[9]  Brownworth eulogizes Justinian, “Few emperors had ever worked so hard or devoted so much to the good of the empire…Never again would such a visionary rule the empire.”[10]  Thus, Justinian is depicted as the “great man” that he was, rather than a politicking and ungrateful emperor that Gibbon casts him as being.

            Additionally, Brownworth showers the crumbling empire with praise, going as far as calling his chapter when he chronicles the civil wars that followed the empire after Michael VIII (Chapter 24), “The Brilliant Sunset.”[11]   While Oman saw little good and accomplishments in Michael VIII, Brownworth and John Julius Norwich detail Michael VIII in almost the exact opposite picture.  Brownworth tries to emphasize Michael’s “brilliant” diplomacy in dealing with the threat of Charles Anjou (during the Sicilian Vespers), and upon Michael’s death calls him, “among Byzantium’s greatest emperors.”[12]  Norwich likewise goes into a long analysis and assessment of Michael’s rise to power, recovery of Constantinople, and legacy as emperor; covering his cunningness, diplomatic shrewdness, courage to rally an army together, and while he closes by saying Michael shouldn’t be given too much credit for recovery of Constantinople, still says of him, “Michael Palaeologus was a great emperor.”[13]

            This change in the historiography of the late period empire is part of a rehabilitating effort to highlight the great triumphs of a long dying empire that has one last moment of glory before being destroyed in 1453.  Indeed, the accomplishments of Michael VIII seem remarkable given the circumstances that the empire was in by the time he had recovered Constantinople.  In addition, the emphasis on “Great Men” is a narrative ploy that keeps the audience interested and the work accessible.  Yet, the story of a once great empire that was nearly shattered after 1204 restoring itself back to a regional power is a good story.

            In the conclusions of their works, Norwich offers a rebuttal to Gibbon, blaming him for the negativity that surrounded the Byzantines for two centuries: “Byzantium may not have lived up to its highest ideals, but it certainly did not deserve the reputation which, thanks largely to Edward Gibbon, it acquired in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries.”[14]  Brownworth also writes similarly at the end of his work (speaking about the Theodosian walls that still line Istanbul after the Siege of Constantinople), “There they serve as a fitting testament to that epic struggle five centuries ago, an unwavering reminder that the Roman Empire didn’t expire in the humiliation of a little Augustus, but in the heroism of a Constantine.”[15]   Both present the end of Byzantium in a positive light of heroism and possible martyrdom which a contemporary audience can relate to, find parallels with the ongoing geopolitical struggle of the twenty-first century, and create great interest in the empire itself.

            Roger Crowley’s 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West, ends fittingly in this positive representation of the empire in a final eulogy of the heroism of the Byzantines in standing against their attackers.  Crowley assures his readers that the looting of Constantinople is to be seen as barbaric.[16]  However, Crowley importantly notes of the massacre and slaughter that pillaged Constantinople after its fall, “…there was nothing particular to Islam in this behavior.  It was the expected reaction of any medieval army that had taken a city by storm,”[17] ensuring the reader that the pillage of the city was not because the attackers were Muslim but because it was common practice throughout the medieval world. However, the heroism of the Byzantines and the cruelty of the Turks are meant to convey to the contemporary reader a sense of pity for the Byzantines.  Even so, Crowley’s entire book reads like a eulogistic letter written by a separated lover lamenting on her (Byzantium’s) disappearance.

            Crowley’s work is itself a reflection of the “return to narrative” historiographical school with traditional elements of “Great Men” theory included in what is ultimately an event(s)-driven narrative chronicling the Siege of Constantinople in 1453 and the immediate aftermath felt in Europe.  As mentioned earlier, Crowley’s book builds on the recent struggles between the West and the Islamic World, evidenced by his subtitle which should spark reader interest.  The Los Angeles Times’appraisal of Crowley’s book even reads, “Crowley’s fascinating account…reads more like lively fiction.  The characters…are drawn in detail from historical source material to bring them to life on the page.”[18]  In this manner, Crowley succeeds in producing a fast-paced narrative on the final months of the Byzantine Empire which still portrays in a light as do both Brownworth and Norwich in their popular histories.

[1] Roger Crowley’s 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash Between Islam and the West rings with such connotations, specifically in his subtitle.  While it is not the assertion of this author that Crowley subscribes to Samuel Huntington’s thesis, the title certainly plays to Huntington’s audience.

[2] Brownworth, Preface, xv.

[3] Roger Crowley, 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West (New York: Hyperion, 2005), 7.

[4] John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), Preface, xxxix.

[5] Brownworth, xvi.

[6] Ibid., xviii.

[7] Norwich, xxxix.

[8] Ibid., 84.

[9] Brownworth, 67-72.

[10] Ibid., 112-113.

[11] Ibid., 271.

[12] Brownworth, 268-270.

[13] Norwich, 314-317, 329-330.

[14] Ibid., 382.

[15] Brownworth, 304.

[16] Crowley, 219-224.

[17] Ibid., 233.

[18] Ibid., back cover.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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