Debunking the Most Common Myths About the Byzantine Empire

This amazing truly Christian empire--one that produced perhaps the most vibrant and thriving Christian culture the world has ever seen--should be emulated, not despised 

Originally appeared at: Orthodox Christianity

The Byzantine Church was not a part of the Byzantine state

According to a wide-spread myth, the Byzantine Empire was a despotic state.

—First we need to look into the origin of the word “despot”. In ancient Greece a despot (“despotes”) was technically “master of a household”. The same sense could be found later. To be brief, this word originally meant “a master” (“vladyka” in Russian), an owner of something, without any negative connotation. But from about the eighteenth century on “a despot” meant “a tyrant” in European culture. It was a substitution of concepts. Little by little the word “despot” began to grate on Europeans’ ears. For example, the exclamation “Is Polla eti, Despota”, meaning “Many years, Master Bishop!” It sounded as if the Orthodox were obsessed with despotism!

Thus, a despot is merely a master who is responsible for the territory and people in his jurisdiction. People are obedient to the emperor who rules over them. But there are no signs of violence in this subordination. That is why “despotism” was a normal form of government for all Greeks of that era.

Despotism is often associated with an arbitrary rule, the petty tyranny of one man—a cruel monarch.

—What you have just mentioned was called tyranny and denounced as a perversion of authority. The Greeks viewed the emperor’s authority as lawful governance. There is a law in the Romano-Byzantine legislative tradition that was issued by Emperor Theodosius II (the fifth century) and included into the Justinian Code (the sixth century). It reads: “If an emperor’s edict contradicts the laws, it shall not be executed.” In other words, an emperor must abide by laws and rule justly. And he is accountable before God for that. Interestingly, the emperor stood above the laws—he was not limited by anybody or anything—but Theodosius II imposed these constraints on himself so that his legislative acts could agree with the laws, proclaiming: “Nothing is more wonderful than when an emperor acts in accordance with laws.”

Did the empire have a “checks and balances” system?

—Yes, it did, and a very strong one at that! Firstly, the senate that they called the Synclete was always there. Secondly, the masses and the army played an important role at some points. And, thirdly, the Church was always independent and never controlled by the state.

So the emperor de facto wasn’t the head of the Church?

—Never! It would have been a gross violation of the Church canons that forbid the laity to intervene in the Church affairs, and the emperor was practically a lay-person, albeit with a special status. The Head of the Church is Christ.

The Hagia Sophia.

The Hagia Sophia.

 —It was according to the Church canons and rules, ideally. But what practice existed there de facto?

—There was a consensus: since the Church was in the world, the emperor acted as a representative of the secular society in it. Specifically, on behalf of all the laity he participated in the election of the patriarch. The Synod would nominate three candidates for the emperor to choose from. The emperor would convene Ecumenical Councils and define the diocesan boundaries, which in most cases corresponded to administrative boundaries. Thus he played an important part in the life of the Church.

But if the Church Hierarchy for one or another reason disagreed with the emperor, he had no right to depose the patriarch or a bishop by his decree. To be more precise, he legally had a right to arrest or exile the patriarch, but this would immediately provoke violent indignation in society and potentially lead to his dethronement or even death. History knows the examples of such emperors whose actions (such as use of force against the clergy) provoked disturbances and revolts. The most notorious examples are the iconoclasts and uniates. But these were graphic examples of unseemly behavior that was resolutely condemned.

This is one of the fundamental differences between the Byzantine and the Russian practices. Let us recall that Russian grand princes and tsars would themselves appoint metropolitans and patriarchs. More than that, from the time of Peter the Great, the Russian clergy would swear loyalty to the throne, which in effect was not only a violation of the canons but also a violation of the commandment of God. In the Byzantine Empire the clergy never took an oath to the emperor; they served God alone.

They did not receive pay from the state and were not in any formal relations with it. To paraphrase it in modern legal language, the Byzantine Church was separated from the state, though it was part and parcel of the Byzantine society. The Church and state institutions functioned in harmony with each other yet independently.

As a matter of fact, independence is the most essential instrument in the preaching and mission of the Church. It is no coincidence that anchorites and ascetics were the most influential mentors. If the clergy are dependent on the powers that be, they will hardly enjoy authority.

Only he who has freedom and absolute authority can teach and instruct. It should be admitted that this lack of freedom and independence prevented the Russian Church from playing its role in the pre-revolutionary period. Its dependent state undermined its authority, while in the Soviet era the persecuted Church reclaimed its authority again.

But is it bad if the Church influences the state affairs and state officials? In this case the laws will become more moral and the morals will improve.

—The most important thing is not to pander to the powers that be. The Church must demonstrate that it has its own programs and principles and remind the state that there is a line dividing good and evil. The Church must denounce the state from time to time and publicly instruct it. Such was the mechanism of maintaining Church authority in the Byzantine Empire. Let us remember St. John Chrysostom—a model hierarch for all times.

On the “perfidious Byzantines”

There is another popular myth about the allegedly “perfidious Byzantines”.

—This myth has to do with the East-West culture gap in the middle ages. In the eyes of Western European knights and even Russian chroniclers (unsophisticated people as they were) the Byzantine Greeks were a personification of perfidy. But why? The Byzantine army’s greatest advantage was its skill rather than the number of its soldiers. The secret of the Grand Byzantine Strategy was a bloodless victory with economy of forces. They strove to achieve success by military ruse or diplomacy. So the Byzantines had a reputation for intricate political intrigues. They viewed politics as a chess game.

True, the culture of medieval Western European knights and the traditions of Russian princes’ armed forces considered it as meanness. The honest armored knights preferred single combat and fought in tournaments. The Byzantines couldn’t afford this “luxury”, which is characteristic of young nations which boast so much of their vigor. In this sense the Byzantine Empire can be compared with China.

And what about schemes, plots, betrayals and treachery at the Byzantine court, and conflicts among the elite?

—A high political culture inevitably leads to the atmosphere of tension and the secret struggle for power. It did not spill over into brawl and massacre any more, but it was manifested by intricate and undercover intrigues and elite rivalry. All the more so because women played a very important role at the Byzantine court. The role of women in Byzantine civilization cannot be overestimated and they were almost fully equal to men. Let us take note of the fact that emperors are nearly always depicted symmetrically next to their wives in the frescoes of the Hagia Sophia. The Augusta (the emperor’s wife, or, if he was widowed, his daughter or daughter-in-law) was present at every royal reception. Beyond all doubt, a company of women involved lots of emotions and passions. In addition, there were many eunuchs in the palace, and indeed the first eunuchs had been brought to the Roman Empire from Persia under Diocletian. Although eunuchs were considered as very talented people, they were often power-seeking, full of rancor and involved in intrigues.

Although, compared to the intrigues of the Madrid, Paris and London courts, the intrigues of the Byzantine palace were not so interesting. And the regime was not as cruel as in the above-mentioned cities; for example, according to many sources, dignitaries who were sentenced for high treason or even fled abroad in many cases were pardoned and held high posts afterwards.

And what about blinding? It was a very cruel practice.

—What is blinding? It actually meant removing a very dangerous pretender to the throne without killing him. Some chose to put such a pretender into prison forever (as was the case with poor Ioann Antonovich in Russia), but some preferred to blind him and incarcerate him at a monastery.

The inner world of medieval people is very different from ours


But why did they need to blind these people? Why not just confine them within the four walls of monasteries?

—Because the friends would have freed the pretender immediately. And it would have caused a civil war with thousands of victims. However not all the deposed emperors were blinded. Let us recall Michael VII Doukas who became a metropolitan, or John VI Kantakouzenos (the fourteenth century) who lived for many years as Monk Joasaph, devoting his time to literature and theology.

By the way, we know that some blinded rulers believed that it was the Divine punishment for their sins, so they began to pray hard and got closer to God. One of them was the Russian Grand Prince Vasily Vasilievich the Dark (1415-1462). Prince Vasily took it as a gift from God that called him away from worldly vanities to prepare for death. We need to bear in mind that the inner world of medieval people was very different from ours. For them death was the beginning of the true life. The purpose of life of every Christian is to enter the Heavenly Kingdom. The emperor was just the “deputy” of Christ on earth. But the normal empire won’t be born until Christ comes again and restores His Kingdom.

The Byzantines put special emphasis on the parallelism between the Kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Christians. They were trying to divine the forms in which the political life would develop after the Resurrection of humanity. It will be a life on this planet with Christ as its Head. The Kingdom of Christ, the Kingdom of the age to come will be the union of the Church and the state. But in our sinful world the secular and the spiritual are separated, and any attempts to unite these two before the Second Coming of the Savior have catastrophic consequences. Once the state undertakes the functions assumed by the Church, the Church degenerates into a state apparatus and state compulsion.

Likewise, once the Church undertakes the state functions, its mission degenerates from spiritual instructions into strict orders. Thus in both cases the main goal—nurturing a new human being—is not achieved. The root of sin has to do with the volitional sphere. It is vicious volition (rather than soul or body) that leads to sin, and it can be healed only through the healing of this free will. Therefore, freedom is a prerequisite for the salvation of humans, and Christianity can rightly be called the religion of the faith, the truth that we get to know out of our free will. In this context any theocracy as a form of government is false and anti-Church by nature. God rules the world—that’s true; but any attempts to pass Him for the Head of the state on earth result in a disaster every time. Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world (cf. Jn. 18:36), and He will not place Himself at the head of that Kingdom until the Second Coming.

So the Byzantine Empire was not a theocracy and the state power did not belong to the Church there. Neither was it a secular monarchy in the modern sense of this word. It was a unique synthesis of two principles, the spiritual and secular ones, which organically united the kingdom and the priesthood, the emperor and the patriarch—there was a “symphony” between the two. The most difficult yet the most important thing was to maintain balance between them, their equal glory and independence.

—And what can we say against the myth of the Byzantines’ “cultural backwardness”?

—As we have already said, Byzantine civilization in its first stage (late antiquity and the early middle ages) demonstrated such a high level of development that it was very difficult for it to develop further. A striking example is the Hagia Sophia. There had been nothing of this kind before it, so this church became the symbol and role model in the Byzantine civilization for many centuries.

On the other hand, it was thanks to its wealth that the Byzantine culture might seem secondary, “borrowed” in the later phases. But one can find this in any civilization at its later stage of development. You can have a similar impression of late antiquity, which may seem “imitative” as compared to early antiquity. By the way, it is inherent in our modern civilization as well. In our days any scientist must know everything that was written before him, and any serious research paper must have a great many references to various sources. If Plato or Aristotle had worked under such circumstances, it would have been extremely difficult for them to create their treatises.

Although there are lots of quotations in Byzantine works, its creativity did not fade away; rather, it was sleeping, hidden under the layers of the thoughts of classics. But as soon as a new task, a new challenge came up, this creativity would instantly awaken. This actually happened in the fourteenth century, when the monk and philosopher Varlaam from Calabria (Italy) came to the Byzantine Empire. When he sharply attacked the Byzantine hesychasm, in response St. Gregory Palamas immediately developed his subtle and sophisticated teaching, which we still do not know thoroughly because the Byzantine Empire fell soon after that and did not have time to promote his ideas. Many of the theological treatises of that era are yet to be studied.

It is amazing that such a bright and fruitful theological and philosophical discourse had flared up in the Byzantine Empire shortly before it came to an end. One would think that the Byzantines ought to have been solving military issues and thinking about how to defend themselves from the Ottoman Turks; but instead they were busy arguing about how to pray properly! It is no coincidence that the main motto of Byzantine civilization was the following: Being with God guarantees the victory, and not having the largest army. And God is with him who prays properly. And who prays properly? He who understands the commandments of God correctly and obeys them.

And we adopted this motto into our culture: “God is not in might but in truth”, St. Alexander Nevsky said. And the words of Vyacheslav Molotov from June 22, 1941, “Our cause is just. The enemy will be defeated. The victory will be ours!” are nothing but a paraphrase of the Byzantine formula for victory.

Rich monasteries with poor monks

—The Byzantine Empire and culture are often criticized for their ostentatious magnificence, the outward and overly pompous piety.

—In the Orthodox tradition, riches and piety are commonly considered as contradictory. But the Byzantine recipe, or secret, is such that wealth is a fruit of piety. Unusual as it is, this statement agrees with the Bible – both with the Old and the New Testaments, for the Lord is the Giver of all good gifts. If we look at the epistles of Apostle Paul more closely, we will see that he was an able and skillful organizer, as it were. For him the practical aspect of Church life was of paramount importance. And if we take Athonite monasteries’ documents, we will find that their wealth and prosperity were always regarded as results of God-pleasing activities of their monks, while desolation indicated that the monks were impious and negligent.

You may ask: “but what about the ascetic tradition?” The main idea is that nobody should be addicted to wealth. If riches enslave us, they become dangerous and a great impediment to our salvation. Let us recall the words of Christ about a camel and the eye of a needle (cf. Mt. 19:24). But affluence and abundance as such are the blessings and gifts of God. Well-being and prosperity can be a great foundation to a pious and righteous life. The most important thing is that we shouldn’t be obsessed with sufficiency and comfortable circumstances. Therefore, in the Byzantine Empire poor monks, ascetics who had only basic necessities, lived in rich monasteries.

In some sense luxury was a manner of presentation in the Byzantine Empire. If you were a dignitary, you were supposed to maintain a luxurious life, to wear luxurious garments and live in a splendid palace. You were expected to spend all your high pay. And orders of high officials maintained a high level of jeweler’s art, icon-painting and building, feeding thousands of families. These were by no means manifestations of vanity and pride. It was a public necessity: By luxury dignitaries demonstrated the significance of the posts they held. This applied to splendid church vestments and decorations as well.

When it comes to monks, they are dead to the world and secular concepts are alien to them. Monastic robes are the simplest and humblest in the world. The vestments of modest priests and bishops are similar to them. In the tenth century Liutprand, Ambassador of the German King to the Byzantine Court, remarked with surprise: “Our peasants are better-off than Greek bishops!” The fact is that in the Byzantine Empire not only was the Church not supported by the state, it was also obligated to pay taxes. The Western notion that the rank of a bishop guaranteed wealth contrasted with modest life of Greek bishops, who had so many things to take care of.

It should be mentioned that even the imperial court would cut down expenses. For example, guess what the cunning Byzantines did trying to dazzle foreigners: They would bring jewels, gold and silverware from jeweler’s shops to the royal palace, fill the chamber with them and invite an ambassador. Of course, the astounded ambassador would write to his sultan or king: “There is no sense in waging a war against them! They have so much gold in the royal chamber alone that they can easily buy all of our soldiers.” This trick helped the empire save its face and save thousands of human lives. But in some sense the Byzantines fell victims of their own ruse, and so their poor neighbors, not least in the West, started to covet the “incalculable wealth” of Constantinople.

The Byzantine Empire as a Christian country

(The Holy Hierarch Photius of Constantinople).

(The Holy Hierarch Photius of Constantinople).

If the Byzantine Empire was a Christian country, then its population was also pious?

—The newly baptized Bulgarians asked Patriarch Photius why so many people were impious in this Christian empire, while in Bulgaria there were many honest and decent people even among the pagans. The patriarch answered: “Demons are not interested in pagans, whereas Christians are constantly attacked and tempted by them.” For the devil, one righteous man who has been led astray is much more valuable than a thousand people who commit small sins. According to this logic, the spread of Christianity is a long and uneven process.

I would say that the Byzantine Empire for a long time was a late antique society with all its vices such as bribery, greed for money, lust for power, fornication, envy… People continued to follow the old ways, though they lived in a country where Christianity was a predominant religion. But this does not mean that the society did not change. The ideals did change, and saints—examples of a genuinely Christian life—appeared. Their Lives were used as models in Christian upbringing.

As for the specific Byzantine vice that eventually destroyed the empire, I would say that it was egotism. Egotism as individualism increased social stratification. Class egotism led to the aristocracy’s estrangement from common people. Ethnic egotism led to the Byzantine Empire’s degeneration from a multiethnic empire into a national Greek state. After the crusades the infection of nationalism deformed the Byzantine national consciousness. The Greeks began to proclaim: “We are the Hellenes—the greatest nation in the world!”

Like the proclamation, “We are Russians! And Russia is for Russians!”?

—Exactly. The Rhomaioi realized that they were the “Greeks” and began to spurn their neighbors the Serbs, Bulgarians, Albanians and other “barbarians” who, in their turn, paid them in their own coin. Previously united in one Byzantine world, the empire disintegrated into several hostile Orthodox states. And when the Ottoman Turks came, the Serbs, Greeks and Bulgarians preferred to see their neighbors become subjects of the sultan rather than ally against the common enemy. More than that, Serbs would join the Ottoman forces against Bulgaria, and Bulgarians and Greeks would join the Ottoman forces against Serbia. Ultimately the Turks besieged Constantinople. And not only were Bulgarians and Serbs involved in the siege, they also rejoiced at its fall! That’s what the Orthodox nations fell to! But the Ottomans came and made them reconcile, because their inhabitants became slaves. This was the retribution for their nationalism.

The Byzantine elite got their just deserts too. When the rich capital officials offered gifts to the sultan, he answered them: “You should have given all these treasures to your emperor so that he could equip the army to fight with me.” Of course, the sultan took the offerings, but he executed the rich men as traitors instead of thanking them.

Such was the style of Ottoman governance: primitive, cruel, but just. The Turks were famous for their strong sense of justice. The sixteenth-century Russian essayist Ivan Peresvetov wrote that the Lord had punished the Greeks for their mendacity and inability to come to terms with each other. The Almighty turned His back on this nation and turned His Face to the upright Muslim ruler. For despite being a non-Christian he kept the commandments of God not in tongue only, but in deed.

—Can you tell us a few words about the major similarities between Russia and the Byzantine Empire?

—In a nutshell, today Russia is the only country on our planet that is able to defend traditional values. I am even not speaking about the Christian values, but about the basic, universal religious values that shaped and underlie great civilizations of the past, the Byzantine civilization in particular.

—If Russia is the Byzantine Empire’s successor, why do Russian know so little about Byzantium?

—As the poet Alexander Pushkin said, “We are all lazy and incurious”. Sometimes heirs know nothing about their ancestors. It is our misfortune and tragedy. If we remain rootless creatures [a Russian expression, “Ivan without kith and kin,” denoting someone who is forgetful of the history and traditions of his motherland], then our future will be sad.

—In conclusion, what literature can you recommend our readers to read as an introduction to the Byzantine history?

—First and foremost is the book, The History of the Byzantine State, by Georgy Alexandrovich Ostrogorsky. This author was Russian by birth, but wrote this book in German while in Germany. When the Nazis came to power, he was forced to move to Czechoslovakia and then to Yugoslavia. This work was edited after the war, republished several times and translated into many languages.

Yuri Pushchaev
spoke with Pavel Kuzenkov

Translated by Dmitry Lapa

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