#Neverbyzantium? We would be so lucky

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.

Further Reading

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.

Zukunftsphilologie!?

I write this – after a long absence that has no doubt seen my paltry writing skills atrophy rather than improve – having enjoyed an interesting discussion yesterday, the kind that represents the best of Classics twitter. I want to expand upon some of the short comments I earlier because I worry I came off as a bit short and terse and wish to explain myself a bit better. Besides, we rarely get to discuss such things from a British perspective (for a discussion of American treatments, click here).

Here is the initial tweet, since the original post is well worth reading – as are the discussions on Aramaic and Akkadian with attendant bibliographies.

My response essentially came down to a) the vision being improbable if not impossible and; b) some aspects of it unwittingly carrying the potential to offend. You’ll hopefully note I don’t disagree with any of the assertions being made, I’d quite like all of them to come true. I just don’t think any of them likely. 

I think the improbability comes down simply to the fact that universities are increasingly failing to properly teach Latin and Greek. We take it, bizarrely, as read that we’re increasingly less able than our 19th and 20th century predecessors (hence the above reference to ‘19th C philology’). This isn’t just a hackneyed trope, some traditional veneratio offered to our predecessors as a way to abase ourselves with false humility whilst simultaneously claiming our place in the great academic chain of being that descends from Zenotodus and Aristarchus to Wolf, Wilamowitz, and West. It’s a sad, discomforting, fact.

Sad because there’s truly never been a better time to learn Latin or Greek. Previous generations started earlier, had more time, but we eclipse them in efficiency by orders of magnitude. Students have a phalanx of textbooks to choose from, computer generated word lists, easy access to texts, readers, and even audiotools. We should, in fact, be making our predecessors look like gentlemen dilettantes with regards to their technical skills if not their insights.

One of the original points was that…”the world needs more specialised departments based on our Classical model”. Does it? What can we truly offer, say, Sanskrit scholars? I’m choosing Sanskrit because it’s the ancillary language I know best and because it has an incredible tradition behind it (of which most Classicists are sadly completely ignorant).

Indologists may avail themselves of at least one functional tradition akin to our philology, vyakarana (something like grammar) as well as several theoretical frameworks for assessing texts (I think the most famous in the west is probably mimasa). The study of the language has been not just rejuvenated but elevated by contact with western philology. After all, it was Saussure and his laryngeals which rendered Sanskrit’s intense verbal system fully understandable, British explorers and orientalists who kick-started epigraphy and paleography while fleshing out more fully the filitation between Sanskrit and early Indian vernaculars (the so called prakrits).

This is, notably, well in the past.

Indologists, on one hand, may read their texts with the aid of utterly brilliant Sanskrit commentaries. Meanwhile in 2018 it’s possible to graduate with a Classics degree not having fully read Virgil or Homer, let alone become acquainted with Servius or Eustathius.

I suspect Classics departments no longer have the intellectual, perhaps even moral, substance to offer anybody any sort of example on how to do anything. Ironically, it was those 19th century philologists and not modern comparative literature departments which furnished the inspiration for those studying Indic or Semitic (Sino-Tibetan, Finno-Urgic, Kartvelian etc etc) philology. What can we offer other scholars? Perhaps the ability to point out when someone is dead, white, and male? To turn ‘patriarchy’ from a sociological descriptor to something akin to a taboo word?

This is what I mean by potentially offensive. The days are gone when the Classicist could casually expound the rules and sound changes of Germanic philology more adroitly than the English DPhil, for example.

Another point considered widening the temporal horizon of the discipline until the fall of the Roman Empire in 1453. In some sense, Classics has already traditionally done this. After all, textual criticism by its very nature involves delving into the work of Carolingian monks, the intellectuals of the Byzantine renaissances (under the Macedonians and Palaeologi) and the Italian humanists.

I would love for this to happen to some degree, but again the basis for this has to be a sound grasp of the languages. Lorenzo Valla’s study of the false Donatio Constantini is one of the highpoints of our subject, but like all humanists his Latin can be difficult. The Greek of Laonikos Chalkokondyles is entertaining and electrifying but not for the faint of heart anymore than his subject matter.

As an aside there’s recently been a very interested guest post on Sententiae Antiquae on the merits of including post classical Latin as part of our curricula, which I link here. Unfortunately I can’t think of any similar post on reading post second sophistic Greek to link.

Can we ever engender a return to philology? On one hand I recall the resurgence of philologia propria in China after the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Under the Ming dynasty, critique and interpretation of texts and history had become dogmatically Neo-Confucian. Subsequently, disenchanted scholars found themselves eventually turning to more traditional methods in order to actually try and comprehend the past. Who knows? Maybe McKenna is right to be optimistic. I don’t think so. Out of the academy, none of my colleagues with similar backgrounds also working in black-letter professions (commercial law, finance, and I guess we should include the bloody consultants) seem to think so either. Nor do our bosses who have long since dampened their enthusiasm for hiring people with Classics degrees. Ah well.

The original post ended with an emphatic assertion that “there must be brilliant stuff out there” and I absolutely agree. In fact I’m going to end this blog post by recommending something, the Heike Monogatori. This epic, based on the struggle for dominance between two 12th century Japanese clans, has a strong claim for the best opening lines in world literature. Moreover, its compositional history make it a must read for any Classicist. It is, I hope you’ll agree, brilliant stuff. 

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. — Chapter 1.1, Helen Craig McCullough’s translation

Recommended reading

In an ideal world, I’d go back and re-work the above post, citing and commenting upon the below articles and books in order to strengthen points and provide more entertaining reading. Please accept my apologies and this slightly annotated bibliography instead.

Much the best scholar writing on this questions is Sanskrit Professor Sheldon Pollock. His 2014 article ‘Future Philology’ has been incredibly influential and his shorter 2015 article ‘Liberating Philology’ is at once precis and expansion. For a broader, more multicultural, understanding of what’s at stake see the 2015 edited volume World Philology.

For the Byzantine Renaissances see Cyril Mango’s own contributed to the 2002 edited volume The Oxford History of Byzantium.

For an introduction on the (potential) similarities between Japanese and Greek epic see Naoko Yamagata’s article in Greece & Rome Vol. 40, No. 1 (Apr., 1993). I myself am partial to the Tyler and Watson translation. 

I have made at least two cack-handed allusions herein. I have cheekily titled this post after Wilamowitz’s famous tirade, an English translation of which may be found here. Secondly, I alluded to Said’s article “Return to Philology” which can be found here.