WHY ARE WE THE BYZANTINE TIMES?

I like the words. Unfortunately, my vocabulary in English is not extraordinary, perhaps not even in Italian, my native language, but I like to know origins and play with words. In this playful effort of mine, I hope I’ll never become like Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, to the best known as John Conrad (I am modest, I know), a man with a very interesting life, but with rather boring writings, maybe also due to the spasmodic research of linguistic perfection. I don’t think our project – The Byzantine Times – has an extremely original name, but it has a valid reason. What does Byzantine mean? The first known use of the adjective in its English form dates back to 1651, relatively late, and obviously it indicates something or someone characteristic of Byzàntion, then translated by Latin in Byzantium, which then became Constantinopolis and finally Istanbul. In a broader sense, it concerns the architectural style which, starting from the Eastern Roman Empire, then spread to various areas of the Mediterranean, especially the western one, characterized by richly coloured and gilded pendentives, marbles and mosaics, especially on the floors; for the same reason, in the Christian context, the Greek Orthodox the rite can be defined as Byzantine. From all this derives the adjective, often written with a lowercase initial, which indicates a subtle and surreptitious act, as happened for the taking of power in the ancient empire, therefore the same adjective in a more general sense, that of complex, intricate, labyrinthine. Another popular meaning of the adjective disappeared in the Cold War years with the rise in popularity of the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Byzantine, in fact, revered to the secrecy and despotism of the Stalinist regime, comparing them to the regime of the Eastern Roman Empire. But why then, do we often tend to imagine the fall of Constantinople under the powerful Ottoman army, led by Mehmet II, as the fall of civil society? It is a largely distorted and Eurocentric idea, which refers to a romantic and nostalgic idea of Constantinople, actually an intellectual bulwark for a certain period.

Byzantine Empire is a term coined by scholars, at the time it did not exist. To make it short, too short, in 330 AD, the Roman emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Empire to Byzantium, later called, for this reason, Constantinople. After the fall of Rome, in 476, by the Scirian Odoacre, the eastern half of the empire continued to prosper, especially as a maritime power. In 532 the Revolt of Nika (Win!) Broke out, at the hippodrome, aimed at dethroning the Emperor Justinian I, guilty of having pushed for the arrest of some ultras, but in reality even more guilty for his lax policy in the against city factions. The revolt was stopped five months later and Justinian I remained in power, rebuilt the city and undertook to recover what had been lost with the fall of Rome. He also promulgated the Justinian Code, one of the main sources of subsequent Western legal codes. In the second half of the 6th century, the Lombards, lead by King Alboin had by now conquered a large part of the Italian peninsula and therefore of the reconquests of Justinian. The exarchate of Ravenna and the Roman Duchy remained in the hands of the empire, plus the coastal territories of southern Italy and the islands.

Drink, Rosmunda, in your father’s skull! – King Alboin

Furthermore, the Slavs had entered the empire because of weak defences, the Sassanids threatened the eastern borders and Constantinople was now in danger because of the people from Central Europe. In 610 Emperor Heraclius was therefore elected, he managed to remain in besieged Constantinople, above all thanks to the superiority of the Byzantine fleet, and defeated the Sassanids in the East. These hostilities ended up dramatically wearing down both empires, both plagued by other external threats as well. The Sassanids, therefore, perished during the reign of Heraclius, but not by his hand, but by an ascending people: the Arabs. Between 636 and 637, in the Battle of Al-Qādisiyyah, the Sassanid army was routed and Yazdegerd III was assassinated in 651, 9 years after substantially losing the empire with the battle of Nahāvand. The Arabs, therefore, headed towards the Eastern Roman Empire, inflicting heavy defeats, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, a Christian bulwark that became Muslim. The Iberian Peninsula and Sicily became Arab territories and actually began a profitable period there. The Byzantine Empire, however, which had control of the Mediterranean, was losing territories, resources and prestige. This ruinous fall, especially in terms of prestige, was probably also caused by the caliphate’s tolerance of the subjugated populations. The Byzantines resisted only thanks to the fleet that remained almost entirely in Egypt, but the decline had now begun. Thanks to the fleet, in 678, the caliphate was forced to ask for peace and the Bulgarians recognized the supremacy of the Byzantines. The empire was now to renounce being truly such, closing in on itself, especially between Anatolia and Greece. The caliphate also entered into crisis, allowing recovery of some Middle Eastern territories by the Byzantine Empire, but above all, it favoured a people originating in Central Asia: the Turks, who bound the caliph to a religious leader and created their sultanates. Taking advantage of the Byzantine financial crisis, the Turks invaded Anatolia. The empire was Christian (Constantine made it so) and the clergy played a central role in society, but religion was important perhaps above all in the architectural sphere. In 1054 the quarrels (that began years before during the period of Emperor Maurice) with the religious capital of the western world led to the schism of the East, from which the Orthodox Church was born (the Pope, during the siege of Mehmet II, however, sent some help through the Genoese).

Only 17 years after the schism, the Byzantine Empire suffered another serious loss: the defeat Manzikert sanctioned the beginning of the conquest of the Turks in imperial territory, despite the emperor of the time, Romanos IV Diogenes, had in mind to pursue an offensive and no longer a defensive campaign. The defeat had not been so ruinous, but it had taken place simultaneously with an internal revolt and serious losses in Italy.

The Komnenos dynasty halted the decline of the Empire and, through the crusades, attempted to regain the lost territories, but the disagreement between Byzantines and Europeans, aggravated by the Schism of 1054, created the first serious political breakdowns. About 100 years later it was the Angelos’ turn, which saw the empire eroding: Bulgaria and Serbia regained independence, but above all French, Germans, Italians and Venetians, favoured by a succession crisis, seized Constantinople during the fourth crusade. The Eastern Latin Empire (1204-1261) was born, to which were added the empire of Nicaea, the Despotate of Epirus and the territories around Trebizonda.

Initially, it was the Epirus that thought of a reconquest, but in reality, this succeeded to the Nicaeans. At the time in Nicea the emperor was 10 years old (John IV Laskaris) and so it was easy for his co-emperor, Michael VIII Palaiologos, to take the throne. The Turks were in the meantime fighting against the Mongols and for this, it was easy for the Palaiologos to strengthen defences and society, also making agreements with the Mamluks in Egypt. It is known, however, that Constantinople fell less than 200 years later and so did the
empire in the following decade. Yet only a few years earlier it was still thought that the Turks could be chased from Anatolia and that a new crusade could restore Turkish territories to the Byzantine Empire. In order to recover these territories, however, funds, that the Byzantines did not have, and religious submission to the Pope were needed, something that not all emperors were willing to accept. The lack of funds, combined with the small territories and the lack of men, meant that the Byzantine army became obsolete, disorganized and reduced numerically. The empire was also outdated in its institutions, with an overly autocratic emperor, almost divine personification, constant internal turmoil and high taxes. Thus the empire’s mesh became wider and wider, while the territories were always smaller, until, on May 29th, 1453, Constantinople fell, under the weight of the powerful armies of Mehmet II, perhaps a little crazy, but absolutely brilliant and unpredictable.

So, in the end, why can Byzantine be a negative term?

The Eastern Roman Empire had now become old, confused, despotic, corrupt. Its inhabitants were looking for an emperor who could make a change, but they never got enough. The cities of Anatolia (but also the countryside) were tormented by constant turmoil. The populations of Asia Minor, towards the end of the Byzantine Empire, often sided with the Turks, even the Greeks of the Christian religion. Not to mention those who professed other religions, much more tolerated by the sultans than by the emperors. Crete and Cyprus saw the arrival of the Turks as an opportunity to free themselves from Venice (but also Venetians preferred Ottomans). Obviously this was not true for everyone, some cities resisted years after Constantinople, but even before its fall, various Byzantine factions had already made use of the Turks, creating ties with them. The military often became debt collectors, making them frowned upon by the population. In the Turkish world, there were also personalities such as Gialal al-Din Rumi, in Konya, a great thinker and writer of the Sufi tradition, personalities who were missing on the Byzantine side. By the standards of the late Middle Ages, the Turkish regime was probably among the prettiest in many fields. Hungarians and Serbs were not great friends of the Byzantines and ended up not helping them in times of need (just Genoa did it effectively). In a nutshell, the Byzantine Empire fell because it was no longer what it had been: a bulwark of civilization and civil and social organization. Instead, it was replaced by another great empire, albeit less lasting, but perhaps equally organized and tolerant: the Ottoman Empire, which by the way ended for similar reasons. This negative reputation of Byzantine, therefore, derives from the confusion of the late empire and the complexity of its ceremonials, as well as the internal struggles (for power). An exaggerated picture, which presents, however, bases of truth.

So what does Byzantine mean?

In modern times it is precisely a negative adjective, but, at the same time, one that describes a complexity, probably not understood, a complexity of people, stories and diversity. The complexity of a heavy inheritance, taken and bequeathed. And this is what we would like to be: a group of people with different origins, different ideas and different cultures, in a common space, with an organization that is in any case not simple, with which we want to take and leave to the world and to the people which they live in it.

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