Sunday 10 June 2012

Why was Byzantium the greatest civilisation?


Because it was the most Christian civilisation over many generations (about a thousand years).


The above is the answer.

If you are not a Christian, presumably you would not agree that this was the greatest civilisation - since you are looking for completely different attainments (military success, peace, comfort, artistic or philosophical attainment - or whatever it might be).

If you do not understand Christianity (e.g. if you are not yourself a Christian), you would presumably disagree.

Or, if your understanding of Christianity is significantly different from how Christianity understood itself for the first half of its existence, then you would presumably disagree.


Or maybe you don't know anything about the subject of Byzantium - like most people.

Or maybe you have read only/ mostly secular historians on the subject of Byzantium, or an account actively hostile to Christianity (this was my situation into just a few years ago)...

...then you would probably be ignorant of the Christian-centred perspective on the civilisation, and unable to make an informed judgement on the matter.  


But for someone with a broadly 'catholic' understanding of Christianity; then Byzantium was the apex of what man has achieved so far - and almost certainly the apex of what he ever shall achieve (on earth, in this life).



Bruce Charlton said...

From a comment by Sylvie D Rousseau:

"Byzantium was certainly a magnificent civilization but it was wiped out by Islam ..."

The fact that Byzantium was the highest Christian civilization does not make it immune to superior force. But the death knell of Constantinople was sounded in 1203 when the city was sacked and taken-over (the destruction was appalling - probably the swiftest destruction of large masses of arts and crafts in history) by Latin Christians of the soi-disant 'fourth crusade' - things were never the same afterwards, although there was a late resurgence of religion, arts and learning.

But the forces arrayed against Byzantium were geographically nearer, far more numerous, coming from more directions and were more sustained than those against Western Christendom - the wonder was that the Eastern Empire survived so many centuries, not that it eventually succumbed.

spandrell said...

I wrote a series of posts about Byzantium and its downfall. They start here:

Perhaps you will be interested.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Spandrell - yes, I'd already seen them. Naturally, I disagree!

spandrell said...

Well what made Byzantium so great then?

It's intellectual output wasn't that great, it burnt more than 100 years in destroying icons and remaking them, bullying eastern Christian subjects into rebellion, bringing infidel mercenaries into its land.

Its politics were bloody and disorderly. Its negligence caused the loss of 10 millions souls to murder, rape, slavery, ultimately to Islam.

The only great achievement it can boast of was the conversion of the slavs, but Rome converted the Germans without making them autocephalous.

Byzantium was more Roman than it was Christian. And it fell in quintessential Roman way. What you admire is the theory, not the reality of how it really was.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Spandrell - because of the first line of my posting! But rather than repeat myself, if you search this blog using "Byzantium" and then "Byzantine" you can see some of what I have said in the past couple of years - including excerpts from some books which encapsulate my point.

Brian C. said...

Professor Charleton,

Apologies in advance if you have posted this elsewhere: which of the many histories of Byzantium do you reccomend most?

Many thanks.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Brian C - set aside half a day, go to a big library, take out twenty or thirty books on Byzantium (esepcially old ones - but not Gibbon) and pile them on a desk, then skim through them to find some which speak to you.

Soem of my own readings can be found by searching this blog for key words like Byzantium/ Byzantine/ Constaninople.

But my overall perspective was infleunced by reading Eastern Orthodox authors such as Fr Seraphim Rose and the authors he recommended. These give the shape of human history from the same perspective as the Byzantines, and the role of the Christian Roman Empire in the world.