The antipathy between ‘Byzantium’ (here used as convenient shorthand for the surviving Roman Empire) and the ‘West’ is longstanding indeed. One can trace it, perhaps, in the machinations of the various Germanic tribes who are once mimicking the trappings of civilisations engendered by the Romans – with about as much understanding as a parrot has of a poem. Certainly, this is in evidence by the time of Charlemagne.
Let us be clear. There never was a zweikaiserproblem. Instead, the Bishop of Rome found his ecclesiastical throne to sit on a very mundane plinth indeed: Rome, alone of the ancient sees, stood in the West and thus wielded immense auctoritas. But the mitre and crook was hardly proof against the Lombard’s sword or local politicking, the Emperor’s presence in Italy was hardly to felt and so Leo turned to another protector.
The rest, as they say, is history and resulted in the founding of a state neither Holy, Roman, or in any sense an Empire.
Now, we could talk about how awful the west was. Forgeries such as the false Donatio Constantini, the differing Germanic law-codes which granted native Romans less than second citizen status (why else assimilate?). We could venerate the bravery of honest Romans like Boethius or the dream of Belisarius and Justinian. These things shouldn’t need repeating.
The real antipathy began in 1054, with the bizarre excommunication of the East. Bizarre in the sense that one still can’t understand just how this happened. Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian I and II had all proved decisively that the Emperor, not any single bishop, is the head of the church. On what authority was this carried out? On whose? Part of the reasoning was the omission of flioque in the creed. Omission! That’s #fakenews for you.
We in the West have had several reasons, both temporal and ecclesiastical, to castigate and malign the medieval Roman Empire. I think any putative connection to Russia is a new one, unlearned and pathetic even by the low low standards one holds what passes for the American press these days.
‘Oh but the workings of the state were ones of occlusion and complexity!’ This from a state which literary hoards terabits of data on both its and foreign citizens. From a state with entrenched civil servants, where corporations may count as personages and wield more influence than federated states. Hmm.
Ah, Byzantium – it’s hard to see what so many could hate about it. The dedication to learning as evidenced by the great academies, monasteries, and law school? The pandidakterion was as much a university as Bologna or Oxford. The welcoming attitude to (assimilating) foreign populations? (I thought this was a virtue we shared?). The wonderful art, poetry, and music? Have you heard the hymns of Kassia?
Even the traditional image, of autocracy and despotism, may not be wholly true as recently argued by Kaldellis in his excellent ‘The Byzantine Republic’. Going by recent news stories, is our democracy really that much better?
In short, there is much to love and admire about Byzantium and little to castigate from our glass houses. Spitting on the toe of a giant doesn’t make you big, it just makes you uncivilised.
If you’re interested in Byzantium, you’re lucky to have three wonderful introductions. Averil Cameron’s ‘Byzantine Matters’ is a thematic history, characterising the best of recent scholarship. Cyril Mango’s edited volume, ‘The Oxford History of Byzantium’ (section on the Macedonian dynasty is very strong), is of a similar vein. Jonathan Harris’ ‘Constantinople’ is ostensibly about the city herself but reveals a lot about wider history and culture.
If you would like a more narrative driven account, Timothy E Gregory’s addition to the Blackwell Ancient History series is up to date and emphasises the Roman connection beautifully. Ostrogorsky’s ‘History of the Byzantine State’ is old but remains a classic.
Of course if you want to physically experience Byzantium, head to your nearest Orthodox church.