An introduction to Byzantium (part two)

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Between East and West: The Mediæval Superpower

Able to play the role of a superpower for over seven hundred years, Byzantium retained a level of cultural and social refinement far in advance of anything else in mediæval Europe and more comparable with the great Islamic civilisations of North Africa and the Middle East.

Mosaic of Christ with the Emperor Constantine Monomachos and Empress Zoe (11th Century)

Byzantium was able to maintain a literate population, a well organised central government, and a monetary economy. The Byzantine gold coin, the Nomisma, was the international currency of its day; recognised from India to Spain and trusted for its stability.

Byzantine diplomatic and cultural influence spread across south eastern Europe, to Italy, to Russia and also to the Middle East. The Byzantines' diplomatic skill, and a preference for avoiding full scale warfare wherever possible, earned them a reputation in Western Europe as limp wristed double dealers, to be scorned in preference for the supposed simplicity and moral superiority of the feudal west.

This difference in approach was drastically exposed when the two competing sister civilisations of mediæval Europe; the Latin speaking Catholic west, and Byzantium, the Greek speaking Orthodox east, came into violent face to face contact during the Crusades.

Despite a constant level of conflict with their Arab and Turkish neighbours, the Byzantines had never fully developed the concept of holy war and recognised Islamic rulers as cultural equals. Byzantine attitudes were incomprehensible to the Crusaders, who were resentful of Byzantine cultural superiority and who furthermore suspected the Byzantines of treachery against the rest of the Christian world. In return, the Byzantines treated most westerners with condescension and failed to fully appreciate the threat they posed to Byzantium.

Decline and Fall

Finally, in 1204, Byzantium's wealth proved an irresistible lure to a large Crusading army diverted from its original objective in Egypt. These soldiers of Christ attacked and partially destroyed Constantinople, the pre eminent city of the Christian world. Massive numbers of books, irreplaceable art works and holy relics were destroyed or stolen by the Crusaders, who congratulated themselves upon having taught the untrustworthy Greeks a lesson.

Constantinople never recovered from the shock of the Crusaders' attack and the Byzantine government found itself unable to counter a growing threat from the Ottoman Turks.

The Sultan Ahmet (

The Turks were based in Asia Minor, but by the 1300s had crossed over into eastern Europe. Confident and dynamic, the Ottomans soon controlled large sections of south eastern Europe and had reduced Byzantine control to the Peloponnese, in Greece, and Constantinople itself.

By 1453 Constantinople's population had shrunk to a fraction of its former size and much of the city lay in ruins. An Ottoman army of more than 80,000 men finally overwhelmed the city's defenders and began Constantinople's immediate conversion to a Turkish city. Hagia Sophia became a mosque, and remained so until another conversion to a museum in the 1930s. Inspired by Hagia Sophia, Turkish Sultans adorned their new capital with impressive new mosques, the domed silhouettes of which are a distinctive feature of Istanbul's skyline today.

The Byzantine Inheritance

Detail from the Deesis Mosaic, Hagia Sophia (14th Century)

The rest of Europe proceeded to forget about Byzantium. Even today the Byzantine role in maintaining an unbroken line of civilisation throughout Europe's "dark ages" is minimised: a legacy of 18th and 19th Century historians who treated Byzantium as pale and unworthy reflection of Imperial Rome.

In fact a huge and until recently unrecognised cultural debt is owed to Byzantium for its role in preserving the legacy of Classical Greece; which in turn contributed to the Italian Renaissance and the cultural and scientific development of modern Europe.

But the Byzantine inheritance also stands on its own terms, particularly in the fields of law, diplomacy, historiography, architecture, religion and, especially, in art. Abstract and intense, Byzantine religious art closely reflects the Byzantine self image: spiritual, melancholic and compassionate.

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An introduction to the Byzantine Empire
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