Here is a new essay by the noted European writer Fjordman on the glories of Byzantium. As a son and heir of Byzantine glory myself, and someone who has always thought that the Empire has not received its due by Western historians, I thank him for this, but I would like to note one point. As I explain in my book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades, the Byzantines were not initially opposed to the Crusades. In fact, while the relationship between the Empire and the Crusaders quickly became acrimonious, culminating in the multifaceted disaster of the Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople in 1204, initially the Crusaders were responding to a call for help from…the Byzantine Emperor. After Turkish jihadist armies smashed Byzantine forces at Manzikert in 1071, the Empire was in serious danger; finally Emperor Alexius I Comnenus appealed to the West. So it isn’t true that “the Crusaders arrived – uninvited – in Byzantine territory” — they were invited. Originally the Pope decreed that lands they conquered would be returned to Byzantine authority, but the Crusaders broke this agreement after the Emperor did not aid them during the siege of Antioch. Even after that, there was considerable cooperation between the Byzantines and the Crusaders — until 1204.
And finally, I also agree with Professor Thornton that the Hagia Sophia in Contantinople should be returned to Christian use. Nothing better would show the good will of the Turks as they attempt to enter the EU. But this is not going to happen, not only because Turkey is moving in the opposite direction, but also because the Europeans are too weak and besotted with multiculturalism to insist on such a thing, or to raise a whisper about the slow strangulation of the Constantinople Patriarchate by the Turks.
The following quotes are from the book A History of Byzantium by scholar Timothy Gregory. It is impossible to understand the history of Eurasia for the past 1600 years without devoting considerable space to the Byzantine Empire. It had great influence on Western, Russian and Middle Eastern culture, especially on what is called Islamic civilization, which simply would not have existed without the Greco-Roman heritage of the Byzantines.
Despite this, the legacy of Byzantium is too often ignored in the West. The reason why so many Westerners buy into the idea that Muslims “preserved the Greek heritage” is that they know so little about the Byzantine Empire, where Greek texts were actually preserved and passed on.
Westerners usually say that the Roman Empire “fell” in the fifth century AD. The Western Roman Empire, which included the least urbanized regions, did collapse following the partition after the death of the emperor Theodosius the Great in 395. However, the Eastern Roman Empire endured until it was extinguished by Turkish Muslims a thousand years later.
The inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire called themselves “Romans,” not Byzantines. Since the Byzantine Empire was a direct continuation of the Roman Empire, it is a matter of interpretation when Roman history ends and Byzantine history begins. Personally, I prefer to speak of the Eastern Roman Empire after the Roman Empire was divided in two in 395 and the Byzantine Empire primarily of the Greek-dominated entity that remained after the Arab conquests in the seventh century.
Timothy Gregory begins his account of Byzantine history with the final century of the unified Roman Empire. There are numerous examples of direct continuity. For instance, the Byzantine gold coin, the solidus, was originally struck under Constantine I in 310, but for the subsequent 700 years there was no significant variation in the value of the nomisma, as it came more commonly to be called. Because of its stability, it was used “as a standard medium of exchange within the Byzantine Empire and far beyond its borders. The Arab caliphate normally did not strike gold coins of its own, instead relying on Byzantine coins, which they called the bezant. The solidus also circulated widely throughout Europe.”
The third century AD was a time of great turbulence. The murder of Julius Caesar, who had de facto ended the Roman Republic and plunged the state into civil war, led to the rise of Augustus, or Octavian, who defeated his rival Mark Antony and the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. The Pax Augusta or Pax Romana, “Roman peace,” which had been established when he became the first Roman emperor (r. 27 BC to 14 AD) broke down a couple of centuries later. Hyperinflation caused prices to rise approximately 700 percent between 235 and 284, according to one estimate. The crisis of the third century also created a spiritual vacuum and led to the growth of a number of religions and philosophies, including Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and especially Christianity.
A new system was established by Diocletian, who was emperor from 284 to 305. He is otherwise remembered for the last, great persecution of Christians until he was replaced by the first pro-Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, who nevertheless continued many of his structural reforms. The civil bureaucracy was vastly increased. The new system that took shape was a form of military despotism which most closely resembled that of their Persian rivals, not ancient Greece or the Roman Republic:
“At the heart of the Diocletianic system was the elevated position of the emperor. The empire of Augustus is often described as the ‘principate’ (rule of the ‘first citizen’) while that of Diocletian is known as the ‘dominate’ (rule of the dominus or ‘lord’). The emperor was secluded from the general public in an elaborate palace and surrounded by a court that was involved in a ceaseless round of ceremonial. Much of this was copied, quite directly, from the court of the Sassanid Persians. Thus, everything about the emperor was ‘sacred.’”
With the founding of Constantinople (New Rome) in 324-330 on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium (Byzantion), many aspects of the later Byzantine Empire were present under Constantine: A Christian-dominated Empire centered around Constantinople, not Rome, and with a bureaucratic and somewhat autocratic political-religious system.
“The Byzantine Empire was a crucial link between the ancient and the modern worlds, but it is far less studied than most other cultures of the Middle Ages and there is very little understanding of Byzantium among the general public.” Moreover, “Overall, it is fair to say that there is ‘prejudice’ against Byzantium in the West (Western Europe, North America, Australia, etc.), and especially in the English-speaking world. While the culture and history of the western Middle Ages are taken seriously and regarded positively (one thinks of King Arthur, ‘knights in shining armor,’ Robin Hood, and Magna Carta), Byzantium is considered negatively – if at all.”
I don’t entirely agree with Gregory here. The term “medieval” is negative in Western history, too, but it is true that Byzantine history is frequently ignored. This attitude, according to Gregory, dates back to the Middle Ages:
“Western Europeans could not understand why the Byzantines were so different from themselves, since they were Christians and their own culture was also derived from Greek and Roman antiquity. It is certainly a truism that individuals and cultures generally dislike and go out of their way to distinguish themselves from those whom they most resemble, and this is probably the case with the relations between Byzantium and the West. Although the West has generally admired the cultures of China, India, and places more remote and ‘exotic,’ it has rarely had the same interest in Byzantium, which has commonly been viewed as a ‘decadent poor relative’ to the West.”
Both the Byzantines and medieval westerners “regarded their version of Christianity as ‘correct’ and that of their opponents as flawed; both thought that the other’s bishops, priests, and lay people looked and acted strangely and their means of conducting the liturgy seemed foreign and inappropriate.” To be sure, “Christianity considers other religions as inherently false, but their adherents can be forgiven since they may not ‘know better.’ Christians who disagree, however, have presumably been exposed to the truth and they cannot be excused so easily.” This culminated in the East-West Schism in 1054, which formalized the now long-established split between the Eastern, Orthodox Church and the Western, Catholic Church.
The Crusades represented another Western innovation the Byzantines were never able to fully understand, as they “always felt that they continued to ‘own’ territories that had once been a part of the empire and, as a result, they believed that the Holy Land rightfully belonged to them and that the Crusades were an intrusion into Byzantine affairs. Thus, when the Crusaders arrived – uninvited – in Byzantine territory, they expected a warm and friendly welcome and full cooperation, but they were greeted with suspicion, a lukewarm reception, and occasional opposition. The westerners regarded this as hostility to the good intentions of the Crusaders, and the mistrust became mutual.”
Byzantine hostility to westerners hardened as a result of the conquest of Constantinople and the partition of the Empire by the brutal Fourth Crusade in 1204:
“Constantinople was still one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Along with manuscripts and religious relics and monuments, the Byzantine emperors had, over the centuries, decorated Constantinople with many of the great masterpieces of art which had survived from antiquity, although the Christian population of the city naturally had mixed feelings about some of the ancient sculptures that represented pagan gods and goddesses or had mythological themes. Nonetheless it is clear that at least educated Byzantines were aware of the beauty and the historical significance of this rich cultural tradition. Niketas Choniates, perhaps the most important Byzantine historian of his age, describes the lamentable fate of many of these works of classical art and other treasures during the Latin sack of Constantinople in 1204.”
Still, by far the most disastrous external threat the Byzantines encountered was Islam. For more than one thousand years, the Persians had been rivals of the Greeks and later the Romans. The Roman and the Persian states were the two great powers in the Near East. It is difficult for us today to comprehend how unlikely it must have appeared that the Arabs would completely overrun one of these powers and bring the other to the brink of destruction. The Arabs had been there for ages, but had never amounted to anything more than an occasional annoyance:
“It is likely that the earliest attacks on Byzantine and Persian territory were simple razzias, traditional Arab raids. The razzia had for centuries been part of the economic basis of Arabia, and one should remember that large numbers of Arabs had long been settled along the eastern frontier of Byzantium. Many of the Arabs had previously come to abandon their nomadic life in the desert in favor of a sedentary agricultural existence, frequently within the boundaries of the empire. Byzantium had, likewise, long made use of various Arab allies to guard the frontier.”
The first Arab conquests that exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 630s encountered little opposition. Both powers were taken completely by surprise. In addition, a long war between Persia and Byzantium (from about 602 to 628) had exhausted both sides. The Persian Empire simply ceased to exist. The Byzantines lost Syria and fertile Egypt, and the Arabs conquered Armenia, which had long been a buffer state between the two great powers. Unlike the Persian state, however, the Byzantine state managed to survive, if only just:
“The caliph ‘Umar began the process of creating a state, which would ultimately have its capital at Damascus, and in doing so he made use of many Byzantine institutions and, indeed, former Byzantine officials, since the Arabs had no previous tradition of managing a large centralized but diverse empire. In fact, the records of the caliphate were for years kept in Greek, and the earliest Arab coinage imitated Byzantine coins, even so far as depicting a ‘standing caliph’ in imitation of coins showing the emperor in the same pose; only after some time was this human figure removed from the coins, to be replaced by a simple inscription. The same can be said about monumental architecture, since the Arabs had little or no tradition in this regard, and the new rulers naturally employed Byzantine architects and builders in the construction of palaces, mosques, and other public buildings to decorate their cities and places of private retreat. Good examples of the continuity of the Byzantine tradition under the early caliphs are the great mosque in Damascus, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the Ummayad palaces in the Jordanian desert.”
According to Gregory, the Arabs in general “respected and admired the culture and the accomplishments of Byzantium (and, equally, of Persia), and they built their own Islamic culture in significant ways on this base. It is often pointed out that the Arabs made use of the writings and ideas of the ancient Greek philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists, and they played a significant role in the transmission of that knowledge to the medieval West (in the twelfth century). What is not always recognized is that to the Arabs these works were ‘Byzantine,’ and they borrowed the books from Byzantine libraries, where the manuscripts had been preserved and copied, and translated them into Arabic as an important foundation for their own science and culture.”
However, there was a far darker side to these conquests: The threat of Islamic expansionism and violence. Throughout the Mediterranean, regular Muslim raids remained a constant menace for centuries. From the Iberian Peninsula, Muslims used Islamic-occupied Portugal and Spain as bases for attacks. As Bat Ye’or, expert on the Islamic treatment of non-Muslims, explains:
“Al-Andalus represented the land of jihad par excellence. Every year, sometimes twice a year, raiding expeditions were sent to ravage the Christian Spanish kingdoms to the north, the Basque regions, or France and the Rhone valley, bringing back booty and slaves. Andalusian corsairs attacked and invaded along the Sicilian and Italian coasts, even as far as the Aegean Islands, looting and burning as they went. Thousands of people were deported to slavery in Andalusia, where the caliph kept a militia of tens of thousand of Christian slaves brought from all parts of Christian Europe (the Saqaliba), and a harem filled with captured Christian women.”
Gregory does mention a few such attacks: “In 826/8 Crete was taken by Arab adventurers from Spain, and in 827/9 Spanish Arabs were able to establish footholds in Sicily. The Arab presence on these two islands was to have serious repercussions for Byzantium. Crete became a base for Arab ‘pirates’ who made the Aegean and its shorelines unsafe for the Byzantines and presumably also disrupted trade in the area. The Arab bases on Sicily were the beginning of a long contest between Byzantines and Arabs for control of southern Italy and Sicily that was also to involve the papacy and, eventually, other powers from Western Europe. The Arabs also used these Sicilian bases to raid Italy and the Balkans.”
Moreover, “in 902 Taormina, the last Byzantine stronghold in Sicily, was lost to the Arabs. Particularly dangerous was the situation in the Aegean, where the Byzantines were not able to provide a vigorous defense against the Arabs. In 904 Leo of Tripoli, a former Christian, led a large fleet from Syria against Constantinople, but he turned and attacked Thessaloniki instead. Thessaloniki, the second most important city of the empire, was not prepared for the onslaught, and it quickly fell. The Arabs slaughtered and imprisoned about half the population and then withdrew. Byzantine military success in Syria produced Arab prisoners who were then exchanged for some of those taken in Thessaloniki. The Byzantine imperial navy sought to reduce the danger of invasion by sea, and attacks were made on Cyprus and Crete, but these were ultimately repulsed, and the Aegean remained subject to Arab incursions.”
Gregory does not use the word “Jihad” in these quotes, but in my view, he should. In his book Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t, Robert Spencer quotes perhaps the greatest Islamic theologian of all time, Al-Ghazali, on the necessity of constant Jihad against the unbelievers: “[O]ne must go on jihad [i.e., warlike razzias or raids] at least once a year…One may use a catapult against them [non-Muslims] when they are in a fortress, even if among them are women and children. One may set fire to them and/or drown them…If a person of the ahl al-kitab [People of the Book] is enslaved, his marriage is [automatically] revoked…One must destroy their useless books. Jihadists may take as booty whatever they decide.”
The tenth century when Thessaloniki was attacked was a time when the Byzantines were in a comparatively strong period vis-Ã -vis Arabs. Although the West was slowly recovering, the Byzantine Empire was still the strongest Christian power. Even in one of the better periods, Muslims could thus raid and pillage the second largest city of the strongest Christian power, and enslave or massacre half of its inhabitants. One can only imagine how severe the menace from piracy and slavery was in the rest of the Mediterranean, where Muslims met with less opposition. Jihad made regular communications difficult and depopulated entire regions.
Muslims claim that they “passed on” the Greek heritage to the West, and that Westerners today should be grateful for this. But it is hard to be grateful for centuries of pillage and slavery. Moreover, the Greek heritage was preserved intact in Constantinople. The problem was that the constant threat of Jihad in the entire Mediterranean region obstructed regular communications and thus cut the West off from Byzantium. Rather than “passing on” the Greek heritage to the West, Arabs and Muslims probably delayed its recovery for centuries.
The Renaissance took place in the city-states of northern Italy, which built their fortunes to a large degree on trade with Byzantine Christians and imported Classical texts from Byzantium; it did not happen in Spain or Portugal under Muslim rule. Sicily was for several centuries occupied by Arabs, but Sicily didn’t give us the Italian Renaissance, it gave us the Italian mafia, with their blood feuds and protection money. Indeed, for a thousand years or more, the most developed regions of Italy have been in the north while the least developed regions have been in the south. As far as I know, such a division between the northern and southern halves of the Italian Peninsula did not exist in Roman times. It developed during the Middle Ages, and it’s tempting to see it as a result of the prolonged impact of Islamic Jihad.
As the threat from Arab Muslims to Byzantium slowly subsided, a newly converted people started arriving from Central Asia. After the Battle of Manzikert in Armenia in 1071, Turks began settling in Anatolia in large numbers. This process accelerated after the Mongol conquests, when refugees from the East poured into Anatolia, and Turkic peoples increased in numbers: “Asia Minor was divided into a great many independent Turkic principalities, not least of which was that of Osman (1288-1326), founder of the Ottoman dynasty.”
The Ottomans later expanded their conquests into the Balkans: “Smederevo fell in 1439, Belgrade in 1440, and in 1441 the Ottomans invaded Transylvania. The promised crusade was hastened by these events, and the forces of the papacy, Venice, and the Duke of Burgundy promised to set sail in 1444. Leaders of the Christian resistance in eastern Europe were the Polish King Ladislas III, who had become ruler of Hungary, and the Hungarian general John Hunyadi. In addition, a local leader had emerged in Albania, raised as a Muslim and given the name ‘Iskender beg’ (Alexander) by the sultan for his prowess. Skanderbeg, as he was known by the Albanians, escaped from Ottoman control and organized resistance from the mountain fastness of his homeland.” A Christian force was defeated near Varna at the Black Sea coast in present-day Bulgaria in 1444, thus ending any hope of external aid to Constantinople.
While gunpowder had been used in Europe since the fourteenth century, it had not been very effective in turning the tide of war. This changed when in 1452 a Hungarian engineer named Urban came to Constantinople and offered the emperor his services; Constantine, however, did not have funds to pay him his salary. Urban, therefore, offered his services to the Turkish sultan; who paid him a salary four times what he was asking and put at his disposal all the resources he would need. It took 60 oxen and 2,000 men to pull the largest cannon. Urban’s battery of cannons was of critical importance in breaking down the walls of Constantinople. After they entered the city, the Muslims raped, pillaged and murdered for days and enslaved the survivors, while books were burned and mosaics and frescoes were gouged and hacked.
What long-term effect did the Muslim conquest have on the level of learning in the region? According to Gregory, “the monasteries were among the very few Byzantine institutions that survived intact” into Ottoman times. “They also served, to a certain degree, as intellectual centers, given the reality that there were no non-Muslim institutions of higher learning in former Byzantine territory and that learning generally fell to a low level.”
Meanwhile, while learning “fell to a low level” in the Islamic-ruled former Byzantine territories of the Ottoman Empire, the West embarked on a long period of unprecedented scientific progress, aided by Classical knowledge recovered via contacts with the Byzantines. The process had started in the High Middle Ages, when Westerners were in the process of re-establishing stronger states. In contrast, the eleventh century witnessed a decline in the conscript Byzantine army, and the state had to rely more and more on foreign mercenaries. Byzantine contacts with Westerners grew more regular, but especially intense with the city-states of northern Italy.
A treaty with the Venetians (1082), followed by similar concessions to Pisa (1111) amounted to a virtual surrender of trade to Italian merchants. According to Gregory, “This has been seen by some historians as a fatal mistake that ultimately ruined the Byzantine economy. Others have pointed out that Italian merchants already had the greatest share of Byzantine trade.” The Venetians “promised to aid the Byzantines militarily, in return for honors, payments in cash, and most important, the right to trade freely throughout the empire without the imposition of taxes. This important concession was the foundation of Venice’s maritime empire.”
Connections, though complicated by the Muslim presence, had existed between Byzantium and Italy for a long time. “In the last century of the Byzantine Empire, however, and in the years following the fall of Constantinople, these connections increased and, perhaps ironically, as Byzantium weakened and finally collapsed, Byzantine culture had a powerful impact on developments in Italy. This was, in part, the result of the strong economic relations between Byzantium and the Italian maritime republics. The Byzantine impact on the Italian Renaissance was enormous and it is impossible to imagine the Renaissance without the participation of Byzantine scholars.”
The “rediscovery” of the Greek language effectively began in the fourteenth century, spurred on by the poet Petrarch (1304-74) and his disciple Boccaccio (1313-75), who translated the Iliad into Latin. In 1360 the first professor of Greek was appointed at the University of Florence, and in 1397 Manuel Chrysoloras attained that chair. Chrysoloras “was a friend of the emperor Manuel II and undertook many diplomatic missions to the West, primarily to seek military aid. He was also a scholar of considerable ability and insight. He wrote a textbook on Greek grammar and an interesting Comparison of Old and New Rome, in which he demonstrated an interest in and sensitivity to the works of art in Rome (although he ultimately concluded that the ‘New Rome’ – i.e., Constantinople – was more beautiful).”
Georgius Gemistus (ca. 1360-1452), who took the name Plethon in honor of Plato, had contact with Italian scholars in Florence and discussed the ideas of Plato with them. “Among those who attended these discussions was the Florentine politician Cosimo de’ Medici who in 1441 founded the Platonic Academy in Florence, the institution that is often seen as the most important in the development of Renaissance thought.”
According to Timothy Gregory, “The Italians themselves began to come to Byzantium, in search of knowledge of the language but even more in order to bring back Greek books. In 1418, for example, the Sicilian Giovanni Aurispa went to Constantinople in order to study Greek and collect manuscripts. In 1423 Aurispa returned to Venice with 248 books by classical Greek authors, most of which were unknown to the West. Among these were the Illiad, the works of Demosthenes, Plato, and Xenophon, along with a tenth-century codex that includes seven plays of Sophocles, six of Ã†schylus, and the Argonautica.”
Also, “After the fall of Constantinople many well-to-do Byzantines fled Constantinople and established themselves in Italy, especially in Venice, which in the 1470s had a population of some 4,000 Greeks. Among these immigrants were some scholars. John Argyropoulos went to Italy in 1456 on a diplomatic mission but he was offered the opportunity to teach Greek in Florence and he immediately accepted. Theodore Gaza of Thessaloniki taught at Ferrara, Naples, and Rome, Demetrius Chalkondyles of Athens at Padua, Florence and Milan, and George of Trebizond in Rome. These scholars not only encouraged the study of ancient Greek authors among Italians (and westerners generally); they also carried out important research and publication themselves, including the translation of Greek works into Latin.”
One important contact was the scholar Bessarion, a monk from Constantinople who later became a Catholic and was “a serious candidate to become pope on two occasions. He was a prolific scholar in his own right, writing in both Greek and Latin, and he founded an academy in Rome that produced translations of ancient Greek authors. He was an avid collector of Greek manuscripts and eventually willed his vast collection to Venice, where they became the core of the Marciana Library there. Venice was the location of the press established in the 1490s by Aldus Manutius. This publishing company issued most of the early printed editions of Greek and Latin classical works, dictionaries, and texts of Byzantine authors. Many of these were written, translated, or edited by Byzantine Ã©migrÃ© scholars and they had a powerful effect on the spread of knowledge about both the Byzantine and the ancient worlds.”
We should not forget the major impact Byzantine culture had on the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe. The Byzantines sent missionaries to the Bulgarians, the Serbs and others, and greatly influenced them culturally. The conversion of Russia to Christianity came from Byzantium:
“After the fall of Constantinople, the Grand Prince Ivan III married Zoe Palaiologina, the younger daughter of Thomas Palailogos, in 1472. Zoe, known to the Russians as Sofia, thus brought a close connection between the last imperial family of Byzantium and the ruling family of Russia, and indeed some Russians had been speaking for a time about the ‘mantle’ of Constantinople passing to Moscow. In the early sixteenth century the monk Filofei of Pskov wrote that the ‘two Romes’ (Rome and Constantinople) had fallen, and Moscow had become the ‘Third Rome.’ This was clearly seen in an apocalyptic sense, prefiguring the end of the world, and the Russian aristocracy never adopted the idea that Moscow had taken on all the ideology of Byzantium.”
Still, Byzantine civilization had a lasting impact on Russian culture. This is clearly detectable in modern literature, as “The novels, plays, and poems of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn have countless references to Russian religion and its close connections with the religion of the Byzantine Empire. The omnipresence of the village priest and his frequent failure to meet the expectations of a fully Christian life is a commonplace in Russian literature, and the monastery features frequently in important passages.”
Finally, though, Gregory notes that many of the Orthodox heirs of Byzantine civilization have a complicated relationship with Byzantium today: “The Greeks, Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbs, and other Slavic peoples, both in their own countries and in the international diaspora which they have experienced, are the direct cultural heirs of Byzantium. They have all been, in one way or another, intensely aware of that heritage and its role in making them who they are.”
According to him, the “heirs” of Byzantine culture have often been ambivalent towards this legacy. Greece, for instance, is divided along the fault lines between Hellenismos (based on the classical tradition) and Romiosyne (based on the Byzantine tradition):
“Indeed, in the Orthodox areas there is not surprisingly an acute awareness of the ‘superiority’ of the modern West – in technology, wealth, and military power – and a rarely spoken fear that the reason that the Orthodox countries have not ‘developed’ in the same way is because of the Byzantine tradition. Westerners, of course, have often been happy to encourage this kind of thinking, in part as a result of the anti-Byzantine attitudes that have been characteristic of the West for the past thousand years. Indeed, one does not have to look far in contemporary politics and journalism to find the term ‘Byzantine’ associated characteristically with all that is ‘wrong’ about the Balkans and Russia. The direct heirs of Byzantium are torn in this conflict of ideas, for they often are ready to admit with the critics that their Byzantine heritage (often associated with stale religious traditions and ‘backwardness’) has ‘held them back.’ On the other hand, Byzantine cultures clearly survives in the cities and villages that were once part of the Byzantine Empire (and increasingly in the diaspora), and ordinary people often feel closely and personally attached to it.”
Gregory clearly appreciates Byzantine culture: “George Ostrogorsky did not end his still standard History of the Byzantine State by exulting with Leakey that Byzantium fell to the Turks, its inhabitants ‘wrangling about theology until the end.’ Instead, he took a very positive tone, arguing that Byzantium had performed a crucial historical service, preserving the culture of classical antiquity until the West was ‘ready to receive it.’ Although I agree with Ostrogorsky about the importance of this phenomenon in general terms, I think that the significance of Byzantium is not in what it preserved but in what it created.”
It is true that the Byzantine Empire has received some bad press. However, scholars James E. McClellan III and Harold Dorn sum up the established wisdom in their book Science and Technology in World History, second edition, when they state that “Byzantium never became a center of significant original science.” It is surely one of history’s great ironies that the Greco-Roman knowledge that was preserved by the Byzantines had a greater impact in the West than it did in the Byzantine Empire itself.
Although being for centuries at the front lines of Islamic Jihad certainly didn’t help, this doesn’t suffice to explain fully the failure of Byzantium to develop modern science. When studying the Byzantine Empire, one cannot help but notice that the separation of church and state which took place in the West after the papal revolution never happened there. Byzantium remained a somewhat autocratic state, thus in some ways resembling China – and perhaps later on Russia – more than Western Europe. The development of parliaments, autonomous cities and numerous universities that took place in the West did not happen in Byzantium.
That should not, however, make us appreciate its greatness and legacy any less. Although I would personally have preferred a greater understanding of the impact of Islamic Jihad than is displayed in this book, Timothy Gregory’s A History of Byzantium is a good overall introduction to Byzantine history.
On a final note, I agree with Professor Bruce S. Thornton that the Hagia Sophia in Islamic-occupied Constantinople, sometimes known as Istanbul, which was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and for nearly a millennium was the grandest church in Christendom, should be restored by the Turks to the Orthodox Church, as a sign that Turkey is sincere about entering the modern world.