Brilliant, Beautiful & Byzantine

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,…

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