Review: How the Byzantines Saved Europe

The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Edited by Elizabeth Jeffreys, John Haldon, Robin Cormack. Oxford University Press (2008)

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin. Princeton University Press (2008)

Ask the average college student to identify the 1,100 year old empire that was, at various points in its history, the political, commercial, artistic and ecclesiastical center of Europe and, indeed, was responsible for the very survival and flourishing of what we know today as Europe and you’re not likely to get the correct answer: Byzantium.

The reasons for this are manifold but not least is that as Western Europe came into its own in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, Byzantium gradually succumbed piecemeal to the constant conquering pressure of Ottomans and Arabs. When Constantinople finally fell in 1453 (two years after the birth of the Genoese Christopher Columbus), Europe, now cut off from many land routes to Asian trade, was already looking West and South in anticipation of the age of exploration and colonization. Byzantium, and the Christian East, would fall under Muslim domination and dhimmitude for centuries and its history would fade away before the disinterest, or ignorance, of the West.

This “condemnation to oblivion” as the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies, describe it, is “no longer quite so true as it once was.” New exhibitions of Byzantine art in Europe and America have been hugely successful in recent years and travel to cities with Byzantine landmarks and archeological sites in Greece, Turkey and the Balkans is easier than ever. Academic centers throughout western Europe and the United States host Byzantine Studies departments, scholarly journals proliferate, and a new generation of scholars has elevated the field from what once was a narrow specialty.

The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies is a useful, one volume reference work that would well serve both the scholar and general reader with an interest in Byzantine culture. The editors have prefaced the volume with a detailed assessment of the Discipline, the state of scholarly learning on everything from art history to weights and measures. Other sections examine Landscape, Land Use, and the Environment; Institutions and Relationships (including the economy); and The World Around Byzantium. Each of the nearly two dozen subheadings include concise chapters with references and suggestions for further readings.

For those interested in the economic life of Byzantium, the Handbook offers an account in Towns and Cities that describes agricultural, commercial and industrial activity, and charts a decline in these areas during periodic invasions by various waves of Slav, Avar, Persian and Ottoman peoples, or bouts of the plague. Where political and military fortunes turned favorable, as in the 8th and 9th centuries, economic life enjoyed a parallel revival. Regional cities became economic centers, places like Thessalonike, Thebes (silk textiles) and Corinth, where glass, pottery, metals and textiles were produced. In his chapter on the Economy, Alan Harvey relates how Constantinople, in the 12th Century, “was clearly a bustling city with a wide range of skilled craftsmen, merchants, artisans, petty traders. There was also a transient population of various nationalities, in addition to the more settled presence of Italian merchants.”

And, because it was a Christian empire, the Handbook has a lot to say about the Byzantine Church, its relations with the Empire, and its developing rivalry with Rome, especially as the papal reform movement took hold in the 11th century. The Emperor and Court chapter in the Handbook should also go some way toward a better understanding of “late ancient state formation,” a subject the editors say has received “remarkably little attention” by historians and political theorists.

Writing in the Handbook’s summary chapter, Cyril Mango catalogs the achievements of Byzantium but also adds that historians have not “credited [the empire] with any advance in science, philosophy, political theory, or having produced a great literature.” Maybe the Byzantines had other ambitions. James Howard-Johnston asserts that the “ultimate rationale” of Byzantium’s existence was its “Christian imperial mission.”

That conviction, widely shared in a thoroughly Orthodox society, was the shaping influence on its foreign policy. It provides the basic, underlying reason for Byzantium’s tenacious longetivity, for its stubborn resistance in the opening confrontation with Islam, and, even more extraordinary, for the resilience shown in the last three and half centuries of decline.

For the general reader, perhaps a better place to begin to illuminate the “black hole” of Byzantine history is Judith Herrin’s fine book, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. A senior research fellow in Byzantine Studies at King’s College London, Herrin sets out to trace the period’s “most significant high points as clearly and compellingly as I can; to reveal the structures and mentalities which sustained it.” Her aim is to help the reader understand “how the modern western world, which developed from Europe, could not have existed had it not been shielded and inspired by what happened further to the east in Byzantium. The Muslim world is also an important element of this history, as is the love-hate relationship between Christendom and Islam.”

Byzantium’s ability to conquer, Herrin writes, and “above all, to defend itself and its magnificent capital was to shield the northwestern world of the Mediterranean during the chaotic but creative period that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Without Byzantium there would have been no Europe.”

Her organizational scheme begins with Foundations in Byzantium, which looks at the cultural roots in the East Roman Empire (indeed, citizens down to the end routinely referred to themselves as Romans or Orthodox Christians, never Byzantines). This section also includes discussions of Greek Orthodoxy, religious architecture and art (including Hagia Sophia and Ravenna) and Roman Law. The other main sections of Herrin’s book examine the transition to and establishment of a Medieval period, when the great theological battle with iconoclasts was waged and the missionary work to the Slavic peoples by Sts. Cyril and Methodius was accomplished. She ends with the tragic sacking and desecration of Constantinople and its churches by Latin crusaders in 1204, the last desperate attempts by Constantinople to enlist the aid of Rome and western nobles as the Ottomans slowly tightened the noose around the empire, and the fall of the Queen City in 1453.

Herrin has a particular gift for the personal anecdote and psychological insight, as when she is writing about court intrigues, the institution of being “born in the purple,” and Byzantine women, including the remarkable 12th century princess Anna Komnene. Her Alexiad, an account of the reign of her father the emperor Alexios I Komnenos composed in classical Attic Greek, was a significant work of history. “No other medieval woman, East or West, had the vision, confidence and capacity to realize and equally ambitious project,” Herrin writes.

Readers interested in the soundness of money — a problem that has been around as long as there has been money, it seems — will take note of the lasting value that the Byzantine gold coin, known as the “bezant” in the West, famously retained among traders for centuries. This reputation for value remained even after a devaluation in the 11th century. In the 6th century, a Byzantine merchant noted that “there is another mark of power among the Romans, which God has given them, I mean that every nation conducts its commerce with their nomisma [gold coin], which is acceptable in every place from one end of the earth to the other … In no other nations does such a thing exist.”

As she concludes, Herrin reveals that she hoped to show that “far from being passive, Byzantium was active, surprising and creative, as it reworked its prized traditions and heritage. It bequeathed to the world an imperial system of government built upon a trained, civilian administration and tax system; a legal structure based on Roman law; a unique curriculum of secular education that preserved much of the classical, pagan learning; orthodox theology, artistic expression and spiritual traditions enshrined in the Greek Church; and coronation and court rituals that had many imitators.”

She succeeds and, in doing so, sheds light on an amazing European culture that for too long in the West has been cast into the shadowy recesses of history.

Cross posted from the Acton Institute PowerBlog.


  1. Most people are more familiar with Byzantium than they realize. They just need to be told that Tolkien named it Gondor in his works.

  2. cynthia curran :

    This is true that for many years the Byzantines were ignored. When I gradauted from high school in 1975 many students even never heard of Justinian. This is changed a lot,on You Tube students in high school have created some silly things that deal with the Nika Revolt and so forth. College was a little bit on this,in Western Civilzation, a little on the Byzantines. Actually, people don’t realized that Edward Gibbon had written the Rise and Decline of the Roman Empire in the late 1800’s all the way up to 1453. But most copies mainly have Gibbon up to 473, the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and sections about Justinian and Theodora and the rise of Islam in his Rise and Decline of the Roman Empire.
    As for literature, I’m sure that there are many here that know different periods. Procopius is probably considered one of the better late antiquity historians in his style. The Perisan Wars and the Gothic Wars are put together better than many of his contempories. The Buildings is a so so work and believe it or not, it was progranda for Justinian from the pen of the man that wrote the Secret History or Antedota. As for the Secret History it is probably one of the most savage satires ever written.

  3. cynthia curran :

    Some of us that are interested in churches that were not built by the Emperors or the state, here are a few examples. St Polyeuktos in 527 A.D., built by the wealth of Anicia Juliana, a daughter of Olybrius, one of those latter Western Emperors, family moved to Constanople. This was the largest churches in Byzantine history, and isits in ruins today. Also, later in the period same period around 548 A.D., St Viale in Ravenna, built by the banker Julius Argentius.

  4. Someday they’ll write a book about how the Byzantines saved the American Orthodox Church.

  5. George Michalopulos :

    Thanks, Joe, I really needed a good laugh today. The problem is I laughed so hard I got a bad cramp in my side.

  6. I laughed, too.

    There never were any Byzantines. Only Romans.

    There are no Byzantines today. Only pretenders.

  7. George Michalopulos :

    John, thanks for stating it better than I ever could.

  8. The Byzantine Empire was according to Warren Treadgold
    Roman in that it preserved Roman governmental offices
    and traditions, Christian in religion, and Greek in terms
    of Culture.

    It would be a mistake to say there are no “Byzantines”
    today. The Byzantines considered themselves “Romans”
    from a political standpoint but the Empire was essentially
    Greek, as Steven Runciman and George Ostrogorsky along
    with John Julius Norwhich have all affirmed.

    The Empire itself no longer exists but the descendants
    of that Empire do exist mostly in Greece and Cyprus,
    and a very small few in Turkey. Also, the Byzantine
    tradition survives not only in Greece but in Russia and
    Serbia as well.

    I as an Orthodox Greek consider myself Byzantine in that
    I firmly believe in the great ideals that the Empire
    advocated and represented which was that Christianity is
    universal and that the overriding identity was religious
    and not ethnic.

    Church-State relations in Greece and also today in Russia
    emanate from the model of the Byzantine Empire without the
    trappings that have completely fallen out of date. I
    proudly display the Byzantine two headed eagle in my home
    together with American and Greek flags in remembrance of
    institutions which enabled Constantine to hold the First
    Ecumenical Council of Nicea, and which permitted Saint
    Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, Saint Cyril, John of
    Damascus, and Saint Maximos the Confessor to flourish
    as teachers of Orthodoxy.

    The achievements of the Byzantine Empire are limitless
    and are best recounted by Steven Runciman in his book
    “The Fall of Constantnople 1453”.

    Finally, as Americans today involved in a significent
    fight against evil in the war on terror we should all
    pay homage and respect the Byzantine Empire and its
    Emperors and people for fighting heroically in defense of
    all of Christian civilization.

    The following passage comes from John Julius Norwich in his three volume set on Byzantium and recounts the first
    Muslim attack on Constantinople in 678 AD.

    “”Blocked from Europe by the impregnable walls of Constantinople and the unyielding spirit of the Emperor and his people, the armies of the Prophet were obliged to travel the entire length of the Mediterranean to the Straits of Gibraltar before they could invade the continent- thus extending their lines of communication and supply almost to breaking point and rendering impossible any permanent conquests beyond the Pyrenees. Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe- and America- might be Muslim today”.


  9. There are no Byzantines today. Only pretenders.


    You deserve an award for that quote. How true! In the meantime though you are probably on the omogenia watch list at 79th Street for crimes against the race.

    Welcome to the club my friend.

  10. George Michalopulos :

    Theodoros, your analysis is well thought. However, the term “byzantine” was after the fact and a pejorative. The people of the Eastern Mediteranean called themselves “Romans” even though, as you say, their language and culture were Greek and Christian.

    Indeed, the term “Roman” was meant to signify all Christians throughout the Oecoumene, whereas “Hellene” meant a pagan who spoke Greek.

  11. To George

    It is very true that Byzantine was coined later in 1557.
    This was to avoid confusion between the Christian
    Roman Empire and the Pagan one which preceded it. In my
    opinion, “Byzantine” is no longer a pejorative”.

    Scholars such as Runciman, Ostrogorsky use the term
    “Byzantine” and I follow their lead.


  12. cynthia curran :

    That’s true George, but to me those Romans in Constantnople live mainly in the middle ages. Sure, in the 6th century there was still some resembled to the older Roman system by the 7th century this basically disappeared. Maybe, they were middle age Romans instead of Ancient Romans. J.B. Bury called the Empire:The latter Roman Empire

  13. George Michalopulos :

    Cynthia, you’re absolutely correct. It’s hard for us to look at a beared, long-haired emperor like Constantine IX and somehow view him as a Roman of the Old Republic (a la Cicero, Cato, etc.), or even their institutions in line with even the latter empire, but it’s hard for many to view me, an olive-skinned, Orthodox Christian of Balkan heritage as an American, but that’s definately my nationality. My ancestry wasn’t from the Mayflower and my mother wasn’t a member of the DAR, but I’m part of this country’s civilization, for better or worse.

    We can look around us at our institutions: the Federal government is now responsible for doing literally thousands of things that used to be the province of the states. The racial and ethnic composition of our population is more diverse than it was in 1789, and so on. Are we not the same country however?

    That’s why I’d be really reticent of assenting to the Western view that the Byzantines could not really be “Roman” in any meaningful sense of the term. At least by their lights, they considered themselves to be every bit the heirs of the Caesars. More so than the Germanic upstarts that came in after the coronation of Charlemagne.

    The view that the Franks were heirs to Augustus was far more strained at the time and the papacy had to do backflips to justify it to the real Romans in the East. The discontinuity that existed between AD 476 and 800 was glaring in almost every fashion. It would be like a American teenage garage band today somehow claiming to follow in the footsteps of the Beatles and even affecting Liverpudlian accents. It’d be so obvious.

    Anyway, sorry for lecture. I got too much time on my hands today.

  14. George Michalopulos :


    I’m ready to agree with you about it not being a pejorative. I can see that for many historians (Obolensky, Runciman, etc.) it’s a descriptive and not necessarily a pejorative, but the devious connotation is always just beneath the surface.

  15. cynthia curran :

    Well, I agree with you about the Franks. As for Eastern Romans dislikely Charlemagne because he was not that literate, well the Eastern Romans had a few emperors not that literate either. Charlemagne was a clever politican and of course ambitious. The Empress Irene even thought about a married proposal from Charlemagne. She wanted a strong ally to use against her poltical arrivals. And he wanted to have a lot more territory the easy way. The Eastern Romans respected the Germans military abiity but feared them since they seen what happen in the Western Empire. In fact, in the late 5th century, the Excubitors were form as a new palace guard unit in Constantinople to counteract the influence of the Germans among the palace guard units. From the excubitors came the Illyrian or Thracian Peasant Justin I, uncle of Justinian. As for skin color in the US, it will probably become more brown since Mexican immirgation and birthrates in SouthWest states like California and Texas will give those of Mexican ancestory the edge by 2020.

  16. George Michalopulos :

    Good points Cynthia. Actually, I don’t think I said anything about the Franks’ illiteracy, you’re right, a lot of the Byzantine emperors were nothing but bouncers who made it big as well. That wasn’t the Byzantine’s distaste for what Charlemagne and the pope did. In their eyes, the Roman Empire was continuous and legitimate, neither man had the right to establish another seat of empire. Only one could do that: the one in Constantinople.

    I often wonder how the world would have been different if Irene had accepted Charlemagne’s marriage proposal?

  17. cynthia curran :

    Anyway in not so serious a subject matter. Byzantines have not been done in movies. The closest in American TV movie was one on Attica the Hun about 5 years ago which mentions Theodosius the 2nd who tried to bribe him. Also, his sister the famous Pulcheria was see and her sister going to a charity function. In fact, Pulcheria is the only character that says anything that she is a christian.

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