Anyone who invokes Byzantium these days is not likely to be saying anything positive. Strictly it denotes the ancient city located on the site of modern Istanbul, the former Constantinople, and it serves as a general designation for the Christian Greek empire that was based there, with one major interruption, from 330 until 1453. But the name and its adjective “byzantine” in modern parlance suggest intrigue, complexity, and corruption, and if there is an occasional intimation of glitter or gaudy decoration this rarely connotes beauty. The pejorative sense of the word is so deeply rooted that none of us can do much about it. It tells us as much about the real Byzantium as French toast or French kissing tells us about France. We just have to live with a common usage that grossly misrepresents the culture to which it alludes.

Of course Byzantium has had its critics over the centuries, not least among them Edward Gibbon, who wrote that the Byzantines “present a dead uniformity of abject vices, which are neither softened by the weakness of humanity, nor animated by the vigor of memorable crimes.” But that great historian knew that an empire that survived for more than a thousand years, even with a half-century hiatus caused by other Christians, deserved his attention. His comprehensive view of Byzantium in chapter 48 of the Decline and Fall is a miracle of historical narrative, composed, uncharacteristically and for the only time in his entire work, without a single footnote. Gibbon’s judgment of Byzantium was negative, but that judgment no more diminished his deep fascination with it than his low opinion of Christianity deflected him from theology. Both are important in his history.

Besides, not everyone thought so poorly of Byzantium. The great editor of the Decline and Fall, J.B. Bury, had a profound knowledge of classical history that was complemented by an equally profound knowledge of late antiquity and the Byzantine Empire. As Richard Ellmann cleverly divined, it was probably Bury who, as a teacher of W.B. Yeats in Dublin, inspired the poet with a lifelong love of Byzantium. For Yeats, there was nothing pejorative about the name. His two matchless poems “Byzantium” and “Sailing to Byzantium” have become classics of English literature. As Yeats confessed in his essay A Vision,

I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions….

Nor was Yeats the only poet who took a positive view of Byzantium. At about the same period, the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy turned repeatedly to Byzantine history. In a beguiling poem entitled simply “In Church,” he wrote how he loved going to church. When he sees the silver vessels and candelabra, inhales the incense, and hears the priests chanting, “my mind goes to the great glories of our race, to our famous Byzantinism ( Vizantinismo ).” This was a world in which Cavafy clearly felt at home, a world that linked the past with the present he knew. One of his unfinished Byzantine poems (“After the Swim”) is devoted to an eminent mediator of that world, the Platonist teacher Gemistos Plethon, who dazzled the Italians when he took his Greek learning to Florence in the fifteenth century.

A somewhat younger contemporary of Yeats and Cavafy, the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, was no less seduced by the allure of Byzantine culture. Opera-goers had a rare opportunity at the Bard Festival this summer to see a production of his King Roger (1926). The work begins in a Byzantine church in Norman Sicily, and in the third act a mysteriously androgynous shepherd turns out to be the god Dionysus. Szymanowski was not the first to introduce Byzantine exoticism on the opera stage, since Massenet had already done something similar in his Esclarmonde (1889). The Byzantinism of the grail scenes in Parsifal (1882), on which Wagner worked in Palermo, is unmistakable. The subject could be expanded indefinitely with Donizetti’s Belisario (1836) or even Handel’s Theodora (1750), about the notorious wife of Justinian whom Victorien Sardou also celebrated in a role that Sarah Bernhardt made famous.

So at least among historians, poets, dramatists, and composers, Byzantium has not fared so badly. As a scholarly discipline, Byzantine studies have flourished throughout Europe, in North America, and very conspicuously and understandably in Russia. After all, the Byzantines dispatched the brothers Cyril and Methodios as missionaries to the Slavs to devise the first script for their language—Glagolitic, or Old Church Slavonic, which became the basis for the Cyrillic still in use today. Through a generous gift in 1940 Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss presented Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., to Harvard University with a center for Byzantine studies that is one of the preeminent centers of its kind in the world. Furthermore, every year hundreds of Byzantinists gather for the Byzantine Studies Conference, at which research papers are presented. For scholars, the name of Byzantium has held its own, despite its less savory associations.


The irony in all this is that the Byzantines were not known by that name, nor was Byzantium officially known as Byzantium. That had been the name of the Greek city, founded by the legendary Byzas, which the emperor Constantine transformed into the city on the Bosporus that was henceforth to bear his name. Constantinople soon became recognized as the New Rome, displacing the imperial city in Italy, and from the late fourth century onward it was customary to refer to the city on the Bosporus simply as Rome. In the centuries to follow, scholarly historians took care to distinguish old Rome from the new one, but in inscriptions and texts the simple designation “Rome” normally sufficed. All across the eastern Mediterranean writers regularly referred to the city and to the empire as Rum, and the word survives in modern Turkish today.

Who began talking about Byzantium and Byzantines? Historians writing in Greek before 1453 could refer to the city of Constantinople as Byzantium but never to the empire as Byzantine. For them, it was always the empire of the Romans. It was not until the sixteenth century that humanist scholars in the West decided to name the empire Byzantine, since for them the Roman Empire obviously meant something quite different. The new nomenclature arrived at a time when historians were rediscovering the glories of the classical age of Greece and Rome. The resurgence of renaissance Rome in Italy, to say nothing of Moscow’s claim to be the Third Rome once the Second had ignominiously succumbed to the Ottomans, made Byzantium look like a dissolute and failed enterprise.

Judith Herrin, who holds a chair in Byzantine history at King’s College London, has undertaken in her Byzantium a comprehensive review of the Byzantine Empire and its culture. She makes a strong case against those who may persist in thinking ill of the Byzantines. “I hope,” she writes in her final chapter, “I have convinced the reader who has accompanied me this far that Byzantium must be saved from its negative stereotype.” Curiously she goes on immediately to cite major Byzantine exhibitions in recent years at the Metropolitan Museum, the Benaki Museum in Athens, and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. These were all highly successful and suggested that the negative stereotype is really not much of a threat to Byzantium’s image. But she is certainly right to stress the brilliance, beauty, and technical skill of Byzantine art work as a corrective to the old stereotype.

More important to Herrin than polishing the Byzantines’ image is her claim that their empire succeeded in keeping the Muslims out of Europe and saving the West from Islamic conquest. Early on she cites the famous thesis of Henri Pirenne, who emphasized the impact of the Islamic expansion, which cut off the northern European economy from trade, thus causing its decline to an agrarian subsistence level. Pirenne famously declared, “Without Muhammad, Charlemagne is inconceivable.” By this he meant that in launching a series of Muslim conquests that rapidly took over the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain, Muhammad effectively cut off the classical Mediterranean world from Europe and left Charlemagne to establish his Frankish kingdom with the support of the Papacy in Italy. In Herrin’s view Pirenne failed to recognize that Byzantium kept the Muslims from expanding across Asia Minor and the Dardanelles into Europe. Hence she asserts, “Without Byzantium, Europe as we know it is inconceivable.”

This is a bold and provocative hypothesis, which perhaps gives too little credit to Charles Martel’s turning back the Muslims at Poitiers in 733 (or 732) after they had taken over Spain. It also does not take into account the internal dynamics of the Umayyad Empire in the seventh century. Without any doubt the caliph Mu’awiyya wanted to capture Constantinople, and from a base at nearby Cyzicus he tried for five summers to engage the Byzantine navy. But the notorious Greek fire, which incinerated the enemy ships with terrifying blasts of blazing naphtha, helped Constantine IV to force the Arabs to agree to a peace treaty. At that time the Arabs had trouble nearer to their own capital in Damascus, with tribal attacks in Lebanon, as well as their own military expeditions as far west as Spain and as far east as Central Asia.

In 717 another attempt to take Constantinople foundered much as Mu’awiyya’s had and was called off by the new caliph, ‘Umar. Byzantium undoubtedly had an important part in stopping the Umayyad expansion into Europe, but the Arabs had other wars to address. In 750 their capital moved farther east to Baghdad with the accession of the Abbasids; and the independence of the Umayyads, who remained in Spain, already showed the fragmentation of Muhammad’s once unified people.


In fact, the accommodation of Arabs to the Christianity that they encountered in the Byzantine Empire greatly weakened the imperialist ambitions of Mu’awiyya or anyone like him. It was not until ‘Abd al-Malik at the end of the seventh century that the Arabs formally abandoned Greek in their bureaucracy, while Greek language and images persisted into the eighth century. Recent studies have shown that the early Muslims were not averse to praying in Christian churches, and they took a great interest in monks and monasteries.1 It has been suggested that their interest in lighting and lamps in mosques, as reflected in the celebrated “Light” Sura (24, verse 35) in the Koran, perhaps derived from their experience of churches: “The likeness of His light is as a niche and within it a lamp. The lamp is in a glass, and the glass as a glittering star.”

All this made a symbiosis with Byzantium much easier to develop than anything comparable later with the Seljuk Turks, who took over Baghdad in the eleventh century. Being Sunni, they took direct aim at the Fatimids, the Arab Shia Caliphate based in Cairo. When the Seljuks defeated the Byzantines in 1071 at the Battle of Mantzikert (Malazgirt in present-day Turkey) this was a portent far greater than the Arab sieges of Constantinople in the seventh and early eighth centuries. In 1087 the Seljuks captured Jerusalem from the Fatimids, and although they held it for only eleven years this was time enough for the Western Catholics to launch the First Crusade.

The Byzantines managed to hold off a Turkish advance into Europe for several more centuries, but in one of the most bizarre episodes in Byzantine history their capital city fell to Christian invaders in 1204. The incompatible theologies of the Western and Eastern churches combined with the ambitions of a European claimant to the Byzantine throne to divert the crusaders from Jerusalem, and they ravaged Constantinople instead. Herrin tells this story well, but it complicates her case for Byzantium as a bulwark of European culture. In 1204 European crusaders were tearing down Europe’s own bulwark. Fortunately Byzantine governments in exile—at Trebizond, Nicaea, and Epirus—survived long enough to allow a recovery of the capital in 1261 and to ensure nearly two more centuries of the Byzantine Empire.

Herrin complains that Western medievalists have tended in the past to view what happened in 1204 as inconsequential because Byzantium was thought to be enfeebled and not to matter. But she insists that it was “the force which checked the expansion of Islam into the Balkans.” Despite the defeat of the Byzantine army by Seljuk Turks in the battle of Mantzikert, that was still true, thanks to the empires of Trebizond and Nicaea during the occupation of Constantinople.

The scope and shape of Herrin’s survey of Byzantine history and culture are impressive. She moves from the foundation of Constantinople to its fall before the Turks in a series of twenty-eight short chapters. This allows the curious or impatient reader to sample, according to taste, such delectable topics as Greek fire, eunuchs, icons, and the Towers of Trebizond (with due acknowledgment to Rose Macaulay’s book on the subject2). Herrin’s mastery of this material will not be surprising to readers of her first book, The Formation of Christendom (1987), which was a pioneering effort to integrate Western medieval history with both Byzantine and Islamic history.

In concentrating on Byzantium in the present book she has sacrificed something of her earlier long-range perspective—influenced by Fernand Braudel—in order to make her case for what she calls in her subtitle “The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire.” Most of her chapters are descriptive or narrative rather than analytical. Most concern politics, wars, personalities, and art. But she has found space for an excellent brief chapter on the Byzantine economy, in which she discusses the absence of excavated Byzantine coinage between 668 and 820. Herrin is prudently reluctant to consider this puzzling gap a sign of collapse into a barter economy with tax payments in kind; it could rather be an indication of the capricious nature of the archaeological record. Her chapter on Venice opens up the tantalizingly rich topic of Hellenism in Italy and the penetration of Byzantine art and culture long after the Ravenna mosaics had receded into the distant past.

It gradually becomes apparent, as one reads Herrin’s book and reflects on the embrace of Byzantium—or Byzantinism—by Yeats, Cavafy, and the composer Karol Szymanowski, that this is a culture still very much alive in a relatively pristine form. When Cavafy entered a church in his own day he was entering a Byzantine world—colorful, sensuous, exotic, and erotic. What attracted him in the twentieth century was not much different from what attracted another poet in the late eighth century, Abu Nuwas, who wrote in luminous Arabic about a young man:

O I wish I were the priest or the metropolitan of his Church!

No, I wish that I were the Gospel and the Scriptures for him! No, I wish that I were a Eucharist which he is given or the chalice from which he drinks wine!

Not much had changed between Abu Nuwas and Cavafy, and Herrin alludes to this continuity in her chapter on Mount Athos. This is the “Holy Mountain” from which females were and remain formally excluded, a collectivity of monasteries representing various nations that, as she says, “is finding new feet in the twenty-first century.”

The extraordinary cohabitation of mosque and church in the Muslim and Byzantine worlds nowhere found such memorable expression as in Norman Sicily, above all in the Arabo-Byzantine church of Monreale and in the Cappella Palatina, a twelfth-century chapel in Palermo, which has Byzantine mosaics (see illustration on page 78) and an Islamic muqarnas or stalactite ceiling adorned with paintings. It is no accident that Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque confront each other today near the ancient Hippodrome in Istanbul. Hagia Sophia may now be a museum, but it still has the ancient splendor of the church that Justinian built. The music of Byzantium, to which Herrin might have considered allotting a chapter, is no less overwhelming than the places in which it is performed. The success of the contemporary Cappella Romana chamber ensemble, ably directed by Alexander Lingas of London, introduces modern listeners to the sounds that filled the churches of Byzantium no less than the light of their lamps.

These ecclesiastical sights and sounds are naturally no substitute for the miraculous appearances that dazzled visitors to the imperial palace in Constantinople. But they help us to imagine them more vividly. Organs driven by water pressure added to the plashing of fountains and the twittering of artificial birds in the imperial baths. The emperor himself could be seen on a throne, flanked by golden lions that roared, and both emperor and throne could be miraculously raised from floor to ceiling. This is Yeats’s “Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,/More miracle than bird or handiwork.” This miracle may be no more, but we can acquire some sense of it both at Monreale and Palermo, and through contemporary Orthodox rites, with at least as much clarity as we can apprehend the atmosphere of medieval Western rites through monasteries and the traditional Latin Mass.

Perhaps the single most conspicuous feature of Byzantine piety, both then and now, is the icon, to which Herrin devotes two chapters. Icons in Byzantium were not only, as Herrin calls them, “a new Christian art form” but a means of direct access to the holy persons whose image they bore. The painter was no longer an artist or craftsman but the vehicle through which divine or saintly figures made it possible for mortals to be in touch with them. As Gilbert Dagron has argued in a wonderful new study,3 the iconic image was not so much a portrait as a divine presence. The viewer did not look at the picture but through it, and that is why kissing an icon has assumed such importance in Byzantine churches. The struggle over iconoclasm, when images were banned on theological grounds in the eighth century, inflicted deep wounds upon those who revered them, but when victory finally came to the iconophiles (as Herrin calls them in preference to the traditional term, iconodules or “slaves of the icon”), the power of the icons was assured for all time. Nothing in the Western church remotely approached the cult of icons in Byzantium. In practice, icons remain today as conspicuous reminders of the gulf between Eastern and Western orthodoxy.

Dimitri Obolensky once described the Balkan empire of Byzantium as the Byzantine commonwealth.4 It was a state that cohabited with Slavs and Western Europeans, with whom it shared the Christian faith, even as it ultimately settled into an insecure accommodation with Arab Muslims. Only fanatical Christians and Turkish Muslims undid this equilibrium. But for about a millennium the artistic brilliance and deep religiosity of Byzantium united with a ceremonial theatricality that profoundly impressed all those who came into contact with it. With its own distinctive “Byzantinism,” it was at the same time a repository for the whole of classical Hellenism. Its language and its literature were grounded in Greek texts from Homer onward. Its philosophy was steeped in Plato and Aristotle. Its statuary and architecture never broke free from the classical past, and when Constantine moved his capital to the Bosporus he imported relics from Delphi.

All this meant, as Judith Herrin aptly observes, that Byzantium “was born old.” When the Arabs were translating Greek works of philosophy, science, and mathematics, the Byzantines were reading the originals. Although they were the custodians of the past, they were the inventors of a Christian present. What they created may have yielded to the Ottoman Turks at Constantinople in 1453, but it did not die. Of all the legacies of antiquity and the Middle Ages to the modern world, the Byzantine may not be the best known, but it is arguably the most unaltered, and it is still vibrant.

This Issue

September 25, 2008