March 12, 2011

The Glories of Byzantium

Maligned for centuries, the empire that checked the Ottoman advance into Europe is today being celebrated.

One of the world's great empires is on the move, in our imaginations and in the place that it occupies in our understanding of the modern world. Byzantium used to call to mind a sterile, bureaucratic and yet violent society, corrupted by fatuous complexities. The worst failings in our own societies would be described as "Byzantine."

But over the past 20 years this image has begun to shift in important ways. Two great exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in 1997 and 2004)— and more recent ones in Paris, London and Bonn—brought a large audience face to face with a thousand years of riveting artistic achievement. And a new generation of scholars has emerged, re-evaluating the very idea of Roman decline or Dark Ages and arguing that the barbarian forces that occupied the empire's western provinces adopted, adapted and thus perpetuated many of the Roman methods of administration.

At the same time, the recent emergence of an Islamic challenge to the West has urged our engagement with the Christian power that first withstood Muslim attacks and defended Europe's eastern frontier for centuries.

From the beginning, Byzantium manifested highly creative and original impulses to re-fashion rich, pre-existing traditions. Its inner Greek fire came from a unique combination of traits. When Constantine created his new capital, he brought together Roman administrative skills, law and military traditions; the Hellenic wisdom long sustained by ancient Greek education; and the dynamic new Christian belief (which later became the state's driving force). As he fought his way from York to Rome and on to the east, Constantine came to know these strengths at first hand. Like most Romans, he appreciated the superiority of ancient Greek culture, which provided the essential education for all ambitious men—and some women, like Hypatia, the fourth-century philosopher and mathematician. By the fifth century, Constantinople had schools to rival those of Athens and Alexandria (and Beirut for law), with teachers paid directly from the imperial treasury. This re-fashioning genius can be physically experienced today in the Hippodrome of Istanbul—the Roman race track, almost in the shadow of the Hagia Sophia— where Greek and Latin inscriptions appear on the base of an obelisk that originally commemorated a pharaonic military victory of the second millennium B.C.

Read more on The Wall Street Journal: The Glories of Byzantium


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