Empire History

The Triumph and Tragedy of the Byzantine Empire — How It Preserved the West and Devastated the East

This post is about, of all things, the Byzantine Empire.  Unlike its western counterpart, what is usually called the Roman Empire, it has received little respect over the years.  Even the name is a calumny (drawn from the name of the original Greek city of Byzantium that later became the empire’s capital, Constantinople), which was applied by scholars of the Enlightenment who preferred to root themselves in ancient Rome and Greece rather than in the much more recent and “oriental” empire of the east.  During their entire history, however, the “Byzantines” resolutely called themselves Roman, and their empire spent its early years trying to reclaim the western Mediterranean from barbarian control and its later years guarding it against invaders from the east.    

Ok, but why should we care about the history of this exotic empire, with its Greek language, Orthodox Christianity, and mosaic-studded churches?  (Byron called it a “triple fusion” of a Roman body, a Greek mind, and a mystic soul.)  The short answer is that it’s a classic good-news/bad-news story, which provides rich insight into the factors that fostered the emergence of modernity in Western Europe and that at the same time consigned Eastern Europe to a prolonged reign of the premodern.

I draw this story primarily from a 2009 book by Lars Brownworth, Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization.  

Byzantine Cover

First, the good news.  The gloried Roman Empire lasted roughly 450 years, from from the ascension of Augustus in 27 BCE to the abdication to the Germanic warlord Odoacer of the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, whose doubly illustrious name did nothing to save his skin.  But the Byzantine Empire lasted more than 1,100 years, from the founding of Constantinople in 330 to the city’s fall to the Ottomans in 1453.  Now that’s an empire.  

This was not a millennium of unalloyed glory, as the empire experienced multiple periods of decline and resurgence; but the key is that, though repeatedly hammered from all sides, it kept coming back in a series of golden ages.  For nearly its entire history, Constantinople was Europe’s richest city, the capital of its greatest political power, and the site of its most prolific effusion of culture and learning.  Here’s how Brownworth summarizes its accomplishments:

Western civilization…owes an incalculable debt to the scorned city on the Bosporus. For more than a millennium, its capital stood, the great bastion of the East protecting a nascent, chaotic Europe, as one after another would-be world conqueror foundered against its walls. Without Byzantium, the surging armies of Islam would surely have swept into Europe in the seventh century, and, as Gibbon mused, the call to prayer would have echoed over Oxford’s dreaming spires. There was more than just force of arms to the Byzantine gift, however. While civilization flickered dimly in the remote Irish monasteries of the West, it blazed in Constantinople, sometimes waxing, sometimes waning, but always alive. Byzantium’s greatest emperor, Justinian, gave us Roman law—the basis of most European legal systems even today—its artisans gave us the brilliant mosaics of Ravenna and the supreme triumph of the Hagia Sophia, and its scholars gave us the dazzling Greek and Latin classics that the Dark Ages nearly extinguished in the West.

A key to the continuing strength of the eastern empire compared with its western counterpart was that eastern emperors, starting with Justinian, were strong enough to defeat efforts by the aristocracy to challenge their rule.  In the west, central authority collapsed after the fall of Rome and power devolved to local noble warlords who used the this power to enserf common people and lay the foundations of feudalism, which lasted until the 15th century.  This made for a huge difference in standard of living, cultural development, and local peace.

In Byzantium, primary education was available for both genders, and thanks to the stability of Justinian’s rule, virtually every level of society was literate. Universities throughout the empire continued the Aristotelian and Platonic traditions that were by now over a millennium old, and the works of the great scientists of antiquity were compiled in both public and private libraries.

The old western provinces under barbarian rule, by contrast, were quickly sinking into the brutish chaos of the Dark Ages, with recollections of advanced urban life a fading memory. Literacy declined precipitously as the struggle to scratch out an existence made education an unaffordable luxury, and it would have disappeared completely without the church. There, writing was still valued, and remote monasteries managed to keep learning dimly alive. But throughout the West, trade slowed to a crawl, cities shrank, and the grand public buildings fell into disrepair.

Peasants spent their lifetimes toiling on land they didn’t own, and medicine offered “cures” to the sick that were often as lethal as the disease. The poor subsisted on a diet of coarse, dark bread and cheese, and were lucky to reach the age of thirty-five. Communication between cities was slow, travel was dangerous, and writing was restricted to the rich and powerful. The church provided what little education was available, but only if a literate priest could be found.

In the East, by contrast, wealth poured into the imperial treasury, the population boomed, and famine seemed to be a thing of the past. 

Bad as things were in the West, however, they could have been worse if the eastern empire hadn’t served as a shield against marauders from Asia.  Geography explains much of the problem; religion explains the rest.  Eastern Europe long faced a threat from the east, where a series of of Hun, Mongol, and Turkic horse-riding nomad invaders easily swept across the plains to attack defenseless settlements of sedentary Europeans.  A second surge of threats came from expansionist Muslim attackers coming from Arabia.  Occupying the border between Europe and Asia, the Byzantines were perfectly positioned to be the protectors of the continent from nomads and the defenders of Christianity from the Muslims.  Without this centuries-long barrier, the weak kingdoms of the west would never have had the time to develop.

And that brings us to the bad-news part of the story.  As Walter Scheidel has written in his book Escape from Rome (which I posted about earlier), the collapse of the western Roman empire, which as we have seen was devastating for Europe in the short term (if you can think of a millennium as short term), turned out to be the secret of its success in leading the global shift toward modernity and coming to dominate the world.  

In the absence of a stable central power, western Europe went radically local, turning into a system of small kingdoms that were continually fighting each other to survive and seeking to expand in order to thrive.  This had a devastating impact on life, liberty, and wealth, but it set up a near perfect incubator for innovation.  Empires can afford to coast for a 1,000 years, but little polities in a hostile environment desperately need to outcompete their neighbors, in everything from military technology to political and commercial institutions, economic productivity, and ideology.  Those innovations were the basis for a new kind of social order grounded in rule of law, individualism, economic competition, and civil society.  

The outcome of this transformation was terrific for the West and terrible for the East.  By holding the line for so long and preserving the Roman empire for another millennium, the Byzantines gave the West time to grow and cursed the East with becoming the West’s backward cousin.  As Brownworth points out, the line that divides the rich and highly-developed liberal democracies of Western Europe today from their less fortunate eastern counterparts almost exactly follows the western boundary of the Byzantine Empire.  It held the line and then paid for this dearly. 

Here’s how Brownworth puts into perspective the consequences of the conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

When the smoke cleared from the Turkish cannons that awful Tuesday, it revealed a world that had profoundly changed. The Middle Ages had ended, and western Europe was on the brink of an extraordinary cultural explosion. Only thirty-five years after the fall of Constantinople, Bartholomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, opening up a sea route to India, and just four years after that, a little-known Italian explorer named Christopher Columbus—using a translated Byzantine text of Ptolemy’s Geographia—discovered America.

But even when Constantinople fell, it did not have a chance to develop on its own along western lines but continued in a state of relative stasis under the Ottoman Empire, which managed to hang on for another 450 years, continuing to define the boundaries between east and west.  It wasn’t until 1918 that the east broke free of the yoke of empire.

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