Byzantine civilization is not a term that the Byzantines themselves used for their civilization, which some
may define as a set of social phenomena (religious, social, moral, economic, cultural, aesthetic) that belong or are common to a major complex literate society. For others Byzantine civilization is the moral enterprise of a collectivity over time, including its central values and how they change, the attempt of its culture to create and realize a good society. It is its values and communities and sets of life and beliefs. It was the learned German humanist Hieronymus Wolf who invented the terminology for Byzantium and Byzantine in the sixteenth century. The ancient city of Byzantium, which constantine i renamed constantinople, was the source of the appellation Byzantine.
Byzantine civilization had periods of transition, rupture and unsettlement and remaking. The Byzantines regarded themselves as Romans. Byzantine civilization itself took recognizable form in the fourth century a.d., in the wake of the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine I to Christianity and the rapid Christianization of the society and empire. Hellenistic civilization within the Roman Empire was already a millennium old when Byzantine civilization took on a distinct form. Earlier Greek and Hellenistic literary, philosophical, and scientific concepts, formulations, and structures created the context in which Byzantine civilization took its initial form. Urban life and structures of Greeks in the Roman Empire constituted an indispensable part of its background. It owed great debts to Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Persian, cultures and later also borrowed from Islamic cultures. But its fundamentals rested on a synthesis, which sometimes was an uneasy and tension-ridden amalgam, primarily of Hellenic and Christian elements. Critics have even labeled it an "Orientalized Graeco-Roman civilization." A Roman element, however devoid of Latin ("Romanized Hellenism" is one description), always constituted part of its identity. No one individual created this civilization, but it had taken distinct form by a.d. 400. No universal consensus exists on this issue; other modern scholars would disagree and date its beginnings to c. a.d. 565 (end of the age of Emperor Justinian I) or even slightly later. But such dating makes no sense in speaking of the civilization in contrast to political events and processes.
Byzantine civilization's genesis and duration resulted from the persistence of a distinctive Hellenic culture within the Greek-speaking parts of the Roman Empire. Some preferred to avoid Latinisms and other neologisms in writing in high style Greek. The relevance of this situation for the development of Byzantine civilization: a relatively
self-contained and confident Hellenic worldview and set of values and literary standards, that is, for style, vocabulary, and formal structures already existed more than a century before the disappearance of the Roman Empire in Western Europe. This self-contained Hellenic worldview permitted the relatively undisturbed continuity and survival of Hellenic culture in a Christian context for more than a millennium more, to the fifteenth century. The arbiters of its unwritten rules and assumptions resided in or traveled between Greek-speaking cities.
Orthodox Christianity became the core constituent, together with Late Antique Greek culture, in the formation of a distinctive Byzantine civilization. The Byzantines lived in a deeply religious society. Orthodox Christianity defined itself in a lengthy and acerbic process between the fourth and eighth centuries. Byzantines retrospectively regarded the eighthand ninth-century iconoclastic crisis (see iconoclasm) as its greatest rupture. The triumph of orthodoxy, celebrated on the second Sunday in Lent to commemorate the definitive restoration of icons in 843, became a dominant feast day in the liturgical year. The controversy about Iconoclasm and its outcome helped to define some critical characteristics of Byzantine civilization. Only the victorious iconophiles developed a justification for miraculous images. Religious pictures and their veneration became a permanent vital part of that civilization. Devotion to Mary Theotokos (Mother of God) changed. The Virgin received less emphasis as the vessel of the divine and more for her motherhood and receptiveness to prayer. Byzantine spirituality emphasized salvation through the Incarnation itself (some scholars would specify divine condescension in the form of the Incarnation) and the doctrine of icons. Many Byzantine churches exerted a centripetal function, lifting the worshipper's gaze toward the central dome.
The failure of Iconoclasm encouraged conservatism and resistance to religious and intellectual change. Byzantines did not think of their civilization as European or Asian or eastern or western, but insisted that it was orthodox Christian. No simple distinction emerged between the political and the religious. They were not nationalist in any ordinary modern sense nor did most of them have any consciously ethnic sense of identity other than being Roman and Christian. It never required belonging to a specific ethnicity to participate in its civilization. Byzantine civilization is not the conscious expression of any Greek nationalism, for example. Some scholars argue that the Church was the primary creative element in Byzantine culture and even sharply contrast alleged ancient Hellenic rationalism with religion-based Byzantine civilization. Yet Byzantine civilization was never an ecclesiastical monopoly.
Byzantines would normally not have thought in terms of the beginnings of their civilization, but to the extent that any did, they would have conceived of its genesis with Constantine I and the birth of Constantinople, even though Graeco-Roman cultural achievements long preceded his conversion to Christianity. The notion of a beginning for Byzantine civilization is controversial in itself, for many scholars will argue that the essential quality of Byzantine civilization is the absence of any breach in continuity with Graeco-Roman antiquity. Many educated Byzantines later assumed some substantive or qualitative break or change in the early fourth century, even though others would still term the empire as Roman rather than Byzantine. Whatever the Byzantines perceived of Rome they took from Greek historians of the late Hellenistic and Roman periods (e.g., Polybius, Plutarch, Cassius Dio), not through Latin authors, whether historians or not.
The extent to which the Byzantines became selfconscious about their civilization is in dispute. Some
would argue that in Byzantium an attitude existed toward continuity with the past (antiquity) that differed from that in the West, one that distinguishes Byzantium. But for others the Byzantine assumption that they were the unique, exclusive descendants of antiquity had tragic consequences that blinded them to achievements and potential of neighboring peoples and cultures. Ecclesiastical authors such as eusebius of caesarea significantly contributed to the elaboration of ideas of the harmony of emperor, empire, and church. The concept of Constantinople as a second or new Rome emerged by the end of the fourth century. Confidence in eternity and the divinely guarded nature of Constantinople and its emperor and in eternal victory emerged only gradually, but such claims were affirmed by the end of the sixth century.
Byzantines did not specifically or consciously celebrate any superiority of their civilization against that of the West or islam. There was no clash of civilizations in any ideological sense. They did not categorize in terms of civilization. However they sharply differentiated themselves from the world of Islam and, following very old norms of classical Greek literature, from the Persians and their ways or civilization. Like earlier Greeks, they differentiated themselves and their way of life from those of various other barbarians, whether Germanic, Slavic, or Altaic. Byzantine authors conceive of a different way of life inside their empire from that of nomadic peoples and other "barbarians" outside it.
Although Byzantine civilization was profoundly Christian, during its initial century significant contributors were pagan. The pagan component receded significantly by the beginning of the fifth century to a modest but vociferous minority who slowly died out in the fifth and sixth centuries. These included Emperor Julian and other members of his fourth-century intellectual circle, including the rhetorician Libanius and philosopher Themistius. Other prominent pagan authors were the historians Eunapius of Sardis and Zosimus, the Neoplatonic philosophers Maximus of Ephesus, Hypatia, Proklos, Damascius, Isidore, Horapollon (fifth century) and the poets Claudian and Nonnus. Yet their imprint remained as well as the imprint of the conflict of Christians with pagans. The word Hellene, for a Greek, lost its meaning and normally signified a pagan, until late in the empire's history, and hence usually was avoided, except in reference to the language. The term "Romania" refers to a Byzantine world associated with the civilization that is not precisely coterminous with the empire's frontiers. It includes areas that lay within the cultural influence or thought-world, but not necessarily the political or military control, of the Byzantine imperial authorities. The limits of Byzantine civilization extended beyond those of the empire. The extension of Byzantine civilization beyond political borders increased after the fourth century.
Historians now interpret civilization in terms of communications instead of influences, regions instead of capital and provinces, demand instead of supply, consumption and acceptance instead of magisterial roles. These innovations are not superficial word-play, for they reflect changes in the conceptual foundations of Byzantine studies, stimulated as much by new theoretical approaches as by the discovery of new sources. Unresolved issues include whether Byzantine civilization formed from the top down or bottom up, from where did change originate, the extent to which it changed, and the intended audience of consumers for Byzantine civilization. There is much less emphasis than previously on the imperial court and its governmental structure as the creator of Byzantine civilization, whether in the form of artistic workshops or as patrons and sponsors of literature.
Although the Byzantines are said to have disliked the sea and travel, the Mediterranean provided the environment for their civilization. Most of the principal cities in which Byzantine civilization thrived are located on or near its coastline. But the Black Sea enjoyed a more important role for Byzantine civilization than for Graeco-Roman civilization, for economic activities that underlay cultural life. There was no great curiosity for individual travel even though there was some interest in the ancients' geographical knowledge.
For most Byzantines, the indispensable context for civilization was the city. Urbanity was part of being civilized. In the early Byzantine period paideia or education or cultivation signified civilization for elites, but that term would not be so common in later centuries. The world was the inhabited or settled world. Cities, as in Graeco-Roman antiquity, were the matrices of intellectual life, creativity and transmission of traditions. For ecclesiastics, whether the clergy or monastics, there might be other contexts, such as the isolated monastery. But Byzantine civilization is inconceivable without the city. Cities provided, at least for the few, the extra comforts of life for those who wished to enjoy the good life.
In contrast to the classical Greek and Roman city, political participation in civic or public life, that is citizenship as a decision maker, became much more passive, even though Byzantines participated actively in the defense of their cities against besiegers, or in church festivals and processions or in viewing games or public spectacles, including punishments. Cities were no longer centers of citizens' public debate and decision-making in the way that many had been in at least portions of Greek and Roman history. Public space in cities assumed different forms in the Byzantine era from that of Graeco-Roman antiquity. Public baths, for example, ceased to have as much importance in accord with changing financial realities and changing Christian attitudes towards public bathing and human body form. Some ancient cities did not entirely disappear or lose all of their economic activities, but most (outside of Constantinople) tended to become smaller and were transformed. Such changes affected Byzantine civilization. Despite ambivalence in Byzantine society and civilization the appearance of wealth persisted until almost its last century.
Although Byzantine civilization centered on Constantinople, its interests and priorities usually concentrated on nearby Asia Minor rather than the hinterlands in the Balkans, for historical reasons. As paradoxical as it seems, Asia Minor was the seat of more distinguished intellectual activity and historical reference in the past than was the Balkans, even though Byzantine civilization would exert greater lasting influence in the Balkans than in western Asia.
The physical environment outside of the cities is important for understanding Byzantine civilization and for understanding how Byzantines viewed the world and created intellectual products. But villages and the countryside also participated in that civilization. The majority of the empire's subjects, as well as adherents to the civilization who resided beyond the empire's borders, lived out-side of cities, in the countryside, engaging in agricultural and pastoral activities. The topography of small isolated valleys with inadequate connections between coastal cities and interior and with main trade routes along mountain passes affected Byzantine civilization. Some Byzantines understood the mountains as a wilderness infested with beasts and robbers. They appreciated the town as a place for mild climate, potable water, arable soil and orchards, rest, pleasure and as a cornerstone of Byzantine morality, not as a center of commercial activity. Byzantines feared the mountains and the sea as well as demons and other unseen and capricious powers while they respected and gave obedience to their God, the holy family, and the saints who could intercede for them. Some distinctly Byzantine literary works represent not the city but rural or peripheral perspectives. The prose Strategikon of Kekaumenos and the verse epic of Digenis Akritas are two such works from the eleventh (the latter possibly from the twelfth) century.
The social context was equally important for Byzantine civilization, which owes much to but is not merely derivative of material and socio-economic conditions and culture. The empire's institutional continuities permitted the preservation and survival of concepts, words, and objects in some cases for more than a millennium, even though notions of meaning may have radically altered during that span. Byzantine civilization existed within a social context. Its values included respect for order, hierarchy, and tradition although there was a fascination with and horror of excess. Some Byzantinists believe that weak social ties and weak urban self-administration characterized Byzantine society and therefore implicitly its civilization, which they regard as introverted. It is not exclusively a derivative of the Byzantine imperial government and its apparatus. The centrality of the nuclear family is basic for Byzantine civilization and relevant to its sense of insecurity. Byzantine civilization existed in a world perceived to be unstable. Violence, natural disasters and poor health were part of normal experience. Ecclesiastics and their churches provided a haven of safety and peace. They were the locus of local Christian social and cultural life. Byzantine traditionalism and conformity provided security and refuge for a society of lonely, insecure individuals. Hence Byzantine civilization more often took written rather than oral form. Its literature addressed the solitary reader. Marriage was honored, but chastity, virginity, and celibacy were even more highly valued. There was concealed and open criticism of society, the imperial structure, and the church. Oikonomia, dispensation, allowed overstepping strict boundaries (akribeia ).
Yet everything was not private. Byzantine civilization included spectacular processions and pomp, gaudy celebrations, which its population enjoyed. Ceremony contributed to stability, a much coveted and rarely achieved condition, and to solidarity. Court life was important but it was restricted to a very few. At court the banquet became refined to a high degree. The games, races, and other activities at the Hippodrome at Constantinople caused it to remain a vital center of public life. Public punishments were sometimes cruel spectacles. Humility and self-abasement were evident in proskynesis. Color and the use of semi-precious stones, use of light and its reflections on semi-precious stones, various lusters, sheens, and glitters all constituted indispensable elements of Byzantine civilization. Shades of greens, yellows, and reds and blues were all important. Sounds, scents, and fragrances as well as images and color were integral to this civilization, which expressed itself in such forms as liturgy, chants, acclamations, and music. Most conceded that its hymns, works of mystical devotion and histories and biographies constitute some of its best products. Its music brought new hymns and melodies to devotion. Its literature reflects otherworldliness as well as practical commonsense (such as treatises on warfare, mechanics, agriculture). pseudo-dionysius the areopa gite and Hesychast writers such as St. gregory palamas or mystics such as symeon the new theolo gian wrote some of its best works of devotion.
Visual culture is one of the most exiting dimensions of Byzantine civilization, whether in the dimension of painting, ivory carving, architecture, glassware, bronze casting, amulets, lamps, mosaics, or textiles. Fine glass, colored or uncolored, was an important Byzantine product. It was used for vessels, for dishes, and sometimes for receiving representations. Artistic products were created from products of local and imported provenance. The prestige and at least superficial attractiveness of Byzantine production of some objects reveals itself through the hoarded treasures of precious metalwork, textiles, and glassware that are fine examples of Byzantine workmanship. The imperial coinage itself, especially its gold coinage, symbolized Byzantine civilization and its prestige in the eyes of many.
Famous examples of Byzantine civilization on any list include: hagia sophia in Constantinople, the Chora church or Kariye Cami, San Vitale in Ravenna, S. Apollinare in Classe, at Ravenna, the monastery complexes of mount athos, exquisite work in silver plate, such as the David Plates, and other ecclesiastical plate, manuscript miniature art, ivory carvings of diverse types, mosaics, beautiful reliquaries, fine silk textiles, and bindings and covers for manuscripts both secular and religious. More controversial is the imputation of ideological significance to these objects and monuments.
Church fairs (panegyreis ) and distant and nearby pilgrimages were essential parts of daily life and devotional activity and spirituality for men and women. Byzantine civilization possessed ambivalence due to the opposition of centrifugal and centripetal forces, tensions between the impulse to asceticism and that to enjoyment of a joyful and tolerant way of life, conformity and nonconformity. Holy men were important in this society and civilization, but it is incorrect to posit a dichotomy between holy men and bishops. They are not normally represented as rivals in the literature or art. Normally they acted cooperatively or in harmony, not as mutual opponents. Byzantine hagiography describes the progress of the saint through stages of recognition, a life of perceived holiness, and the sources of saintly power, which may become manifest in personal, medical and social dimensions, including ecclesiastical, monastic, and political.
Although Byzantine civilization articulated itself primarily in the Greek language, other languages such as Latin, Armenian, Georgian, and Slavic were also mediums for its expression and elaboration. Byzantine governmental business was normally conducted in Greek after the early sixth century. Some Latin commands persisted in the army until the beginning of the seventh century and the coinage retained Latin until the eighth century. Various individuals may have spoken other languages in their childhood households and may have retained the ability to speak in that vernacular, but public discourse normally was in Greek. Because the empire drew on diverse peoples, many loan words entered the vocabulary for specialized purposes, although high-style usage normally avoided recourse to them. Only a very limited knowledge of written Latin existed after the sixth century, until the Council of Lyon in 1274 and imperatives of ecclesiastical communication with the West stimulated a modest increase in its study. By the fourteenth century Byzantine civilization was intertwined with global civilization of the Mediterranean and beyond.
Byzantium developed a set of beliefs that were not entirely coherent or consistent. It contained pluralism and diversity but its tolerance of diversity and alterity varied. There was a world of demons as well as a heavenly ideal. Rivalries and cleavages affected Byzantine civilization. One of Byzantine civilization's greatest contributions to world civilization was written in Latin not Greek: the compilation and editing of the Corpus Juris Civilis in the sixth century at the behest of Emperor Justinian I (527–65). Despite studied avoidance of Latinisms in high-style prose and verse, Latin maintained its prestige on certain occasions to assert and validate the empire's and its subjects' claim to be Roman. The gradual fading of the importance of Latin in the fifth and sixth century accelerated with the elimination of the requirement for Latin literacy for certain important bureaucratic offices as well as the loss of Latin-speaking areas of the Balkans and the impoverishment and subsequent loss of control of Latin-speaking north Africa and most of Italy by the beginning of the eighth century.
Located along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Byzantine civilization drew on many varied intellectual and cultural riches of that region. A multiplicity and network of cities, including Smyrna, Ephesus, Alexandria, Antioch in Syria, Antioch in Pisidia, Prusa, Nicomedeia, Sardis, Beyrut, Gaza, Caesarea Maritima (Palestine), Gadara, Gerasa, and Jerusalem, all helped create urban contexts in which rhetoricians, artists, philosophers, physicians could develop and thrive. All this was fragile, for it depended on sufficient economic prosperity and public encouragement and enthusiasm to provide sufficient surplus to support scholarship, inquiry, discourse, and creation of artistic and architectural and musical products to embellish cities and society.
In contrast to the earliest period, in which there were multiple urban centers in which civilization and culture flourished, after the early Islamic conquests and the concomitant loss of territory in the west, Constantinople became the culturally dominant metropolis, in ways that it was not in the fourth century, when intellectuals at Antioch and Alexandria and other cities of Asia Minor competed against it and sometimes resented its rise to intellectual prominence.
Byzantine civilization communicated with the West in many different ways, with respect to liturgy, literature, and art, especially from the fourth through eighth centuries, but on to the twelfth century in visual domains. Likewise communication existed between Latin and Greek in the earliest three centuries, although most heavily with respect to law, and then again in logic and other aspects of learning in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Communication with the West never wholly disappeared. Some Byzantine pagans (e.g., the neo-Platonist Damascius) perceived that Rome had "fallen" and hoped that other pagans would revive or restore it. These were a shrill and untypical minority. The majority of Byzantines may well not have shared this pessimistic assessment of late Roman conditions in the West. However it is wrong to assert that no one used the verb "fall" in speaking of the condition of Rome. Some eastern constituencies with admitted agendas did perceive and lament what they saw as a collapse in the west.
Even in the so-called "dark" seventh and eighth centuries more communication and contacts existed with the central and western Mediterranean than has been hitherto assumed. Despite its lack of travelers to other societies Byzantine civilization never completely insulated itself from others. Western customs such as jousting became popular in elite circles during the twelfth century.
Byzantine and Latin civilizations or cultures were closely interrelated and even interwoven, even though each reacted against the other in rivalry and hostility. A complex process of acculturation took place. No perfect synthesis ever formed between Greek and Latin cultures. Within the civilization existed sub-groups with their own cultures, such as Jews, Armenians, Georgian, Slavs, and Christian Arabs.
The designation of periods in Byzantine civilization is necessarily subjective and controversial. Byzantine and Roman civilization overlap. Some would classify as Byzantine what others would classify as Roman or Late Antique or Early Medieval. The Age of Justinian I, the tenth century, the eleventh century, the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries all have claims to intellectual brilliance. One of the greatest problems is understanding what happened to Byzantine learning in the Dark Ages, between approximately 640 and 800, that is, between the end of the ages of Emperor Heraclius and Isaurian dynasty (end of reign of the iconodule Empress Irene) respectively. The silence of the sources contrasts with the evident flowering of intellectual life after 800. Presumably some intellectuals and education continued and someone preserved manuscripts but mysteries and theories abound concerning conditions and developments.
Some admirers of Byzantine civilization argue that it surpassed Latin civilization in an early phase, from the fourth through the early eleventh (others might sharply dispute that), followed by a period of confrontation from 1095 to 1261 (First Crusade to the Byzantine recovery by Emperor Michael VIII of Constantinople from its Crusader occupiers), antagonism from 1261 to 1453 (duration of the final Byzantine imperial dynasty, the Palaeologi), amalgamation after 1453 (fall of Constantinople to Ottoman Sultan Muḥammad II). Some Byzantines developed a fear of Latin cultural penetration and dominance, of cultural transformation, especially after 1095 and even more so after 1204. Latin theological dynamism and growing technological superiority stimulated fears of cultural Latinization. Opponents of reunion of the Orthodox and Catholic churches after the schism of 1054 also tended to resist Latin culture even though diplomacy concerning reunion, especially during the Council of Ferrara-Florence from 1437 to 1439, intensified cultural exchanges between Latins and Greeks. Antiunionist ranks included Mark Eugenicus, Lucas Notaras, and Gennadius Scholarius. There was an ineluctable choice between Turkish conquest or religious and cultural assimilation. These fears encouraged the careful and meticulous preservation of traditional Greek religion and culture.
Byzantine civilization's conception of antiquity drew little directly from Latin authors, whether Cicero, Livy or Tacitus, or Early Christian Latin Fathers such as Tertullian, Augustine or Jerome. It preserved memory of some Roman titulature and institutions, although sometimes in a skewed and very antiquarian fashion. Compared with what evolved in western civilization, it has a stronger admixture of Armenian, Syrian, and other west Asian and Egyptian influences. It peaked earlier than western European civilization, in most aspects excluding the visual arts and architecture—by the end of the tenth century or early eleventh. The reasons for its failure to compete successfully with the West are debatable. It lacked the vital variety of municipal contexts that stimulated many kinds of intellectual activity in western Europe from the late eleventh century. It faced greater external threats from the middle of the eleventh century that diverted its attention and material resources. But its writers and leaders coped as best they could. To some critics, it represents a case of arrested development. Others will argue that despite a devotion to the past Byzantines managed to adapt resourcefully to changing conditions and did not merely cling to conservation. Byzantine civilization was not immutable. It adjusted and evolved, however slowly due to its contacts with other civilizations, whether those of Islam or the West, especially in the fourteenth century.
Byzantine interest in Latin writers swelled in the thirteenth century. Polymaths such as Maximos Planudes translated Cicero, Ovid, Boethius, and Pseudo-Cato and other Latin authors. In the fourteenth century Demetrios Cydones and his student Manuel Calecas read and translated Latin ecclesiastical writers including Augustine and Aquinas. Another scholar who investigated Latin scholarship was Andreas Chrysoberges. This trend culminated in Cardinal Bessarion's collection and study of Greek manuscripts in the fifteenth century.
Byzantine civilization's final theological controversy was hesychasm. Through meditation believers sought a momentary glimpse of the uncreated divine light and a brief enjoyment of that union with God that Orthodox Christians thought every Christian could attain. Opponents led by barlaam the calabrian questioned the addition in devotional exercises of a new special posture, control of breathing, and repetition of a short prayer. By 1341 proponents of Hesychasm, led by St. Gregory Palamas, won definitive victory and condemnation of their opposition.
Some interpret Byzantine civilization as pluralist in its initial centuries but taking on a negative and intolerant narrow Hellenic form later. Some argue that the splendor of its classical inheritance paralyzed other cultural initiatives, causing some supposed sterility. However its civilization was never a multicultural paradise. There was always ethnic stereotyping and new inputs created backlashes. Its adherents did not cherish and value highly the diversity that actually existed within its midst.
The issue of Byzantine intolerance for intellectual diversity is complex. Several periods are candidates for a narrowing of intellectual inquiry: (1) the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth century (2) the Age of Justinian, with the alleged closing of Platonic academy in Athens (3) the triumph of orthodoxy at the end of the iconoclastic controversy, and (4) the early Comnenian period, most notably, the trial and conviction of philosopher John Italos (1082).
Byzantine civilization existed on much of the same physical terrain that some earlier ancient eastern civilizations had occupied. Cities and towns and their fortifications and connecting routes bore the imprint of earlier peoples. Remains of ancient theaters and temples occupied many Byzantine urban sites. Byzantine fortifications occupied locations that often had served as strategic points for earlier peoples and polities. But beyond the more obvious debts to buildings, architecture and infrastructure of the classical world, there was an underlying ancient Near Eastern one, to which Byzantium owed some vague debt in manifold ways. Sealings and other techniques of control, procedures for record-keeping and internal security, many sites of habitation, symbols possibly including the double-headed eagle and even the protocol of the banquet and assassinations at lavish banquets and even proskynesis (prostration) have ancient eastern precedents, even though the Byzantines knew very little about most of those civilizations except through the filter of Herodotus or the Septuagint. The relationship of Byzantine practices with respect to these ancient Near Eastern practices may be very tenuous or even false, but scholars need to be mindful that precedents may not originate in the third through seventh centuries; they may have very much more ancient precedents that resurfaced after long gaps, for a variety of reasons.
The civilization owed much to its development and maturation in an already very old bureaucratic empire, which elaborated many techniques of sealing and authentication and control. We have only limited knowledge of the unwritten lore that passed down within bureaucratic circles. That secular and ecclesiastical bureaucratic culture preserved, adapted, and transmitted an intellectual heritage.
The empire's monasteries for their part also preserved, adapted and created intellectual products and a heritage. Three types of monasticism arose: eremitical (solitary), coenobitical (communal), and, especially widespread starting in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the lavriote (a combination of the above two types, with monks living in a loosely affiliated community or lavra under a hegoumenos or abbot). Prominent early monasteries included Egypt's St. Menas, White and Red Monasteries and Isauria's Alahan Monastery, all of which already existed in the fifth century. The Middle Byzantine Period witnessed the founding of St. John of Stoudion and in the tenth century both the Mount Athos complex and Hosios Loukas while Nea Mone appeared on the island of Chios before 1042. The monastery of St. John arose on Patmos early in the twelfth century. Monasticism received honor, devotion and imperial and private financial support and attention. Byzantine monastic houses were not parts of specific international orders. Although subject to the episcopate they depended on the discretion of their founders and were less strictly regulated than those in western Europe. Monks took the initiative in theology, cultivation of icons, and in shaping piety and religious priorities. At times they enjoyed a popular and even evangelical role among the populace, which enabled some of them to mobilize popular opinion effectively on religious issues. Notable monastic writers include Maximus the Confessor, Theodore the Studite, and Symeon the New Theologian, respectively in the seventh, early ninth and eleventh centuries.
Any evaluation of Byzantine civilization requires understanding of the survival, transformation, and transmission of selected parts of ancient Greek literature, philosophy, and science. The Byzantines preserved and adapted parts of that heritage in accordance with their own values and needs as their elites understood them; they developed a historiography that adapted traditional rules of historical composition in Greek to the shifted realities of a Christian world. Their use of classical Greek ethnic designations for some neighboring peoples reveals their conscious imitation of their Hellenic literary heritage.
The Byzantines preserved much ancient learning in order to use it for imitation themselves or for others to use and emulate. St. Basil of Caesarea had legitimized the utility of reading selected ancient Hellenic authors. So the propensity to imitate resulted in much selective preservation of ancient dicta, verse, and wisdom. Byzantine literary critics developed a repertory of classical Greek and early Byzantine and patristic authors who terminate in the eighth century. Later Byzantine authors of prose and verse did not become comparable models for imitation. The enkyklike paideia was a cycle of higher curriculum of literature and grammar. It emphasized rhetoric and philosophy, although arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music received some, but lesser, attention. Favorite classical authors included Homer, Lucian, and Plutarch, although Isocrates, Thucydides, and Herodotus also enjoyed popularity. Some scholars argue that there is a break in the quality of classical scholarship in Byzantium after 1350.
The heritage of early Christian martyrs and patristic writing was also important. Seminal were the writings of origen, clement of alexandria, athanasius of al exandria, john chrysostom, and john of damascus. Some of the most important achievements of Byzantine theologians were formulation of Trinitarian and Christological theology in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Books were very expensive and hard to find. Parchment replaced increasingly scarce papyrus for books by the seventh or eighth century. Paper eventually, especially after the eleventh or twelfth century, spread first from northern Syria, then from Italy, as the medium for writing. Rare are the accounts that provide information about holdings in personal libraries, especially in the provinces. Private libraries were far apart and rare. Transmission and preservation of Byzantine civilization thus depended heavily on a small group of urban elite scholars, estimated to number perhaps 500 in later centuries of the empire. Constantinople provided the urban context for this civilization after the empire gradually lost control of other major Mediterranean cities. The Patriarchal school at Constantinople was a particularly important center of learning. However, it is incorrect to speak of a "university" in the medieval Western sense at Constantinople. There were scholars who received government salaries to offer public instruction in law, rhetoric, and grammar, but these were really schools, not universities. There was no building or grounds to house them. Caesar Bardas was an important patron of public instruction in the ninth century. The ninth century profited from the erudition of three major intellects: John the Grammarian, Leo the Mathematician, and Photios. Among its foremost philosophers were Michael Psellos in the eleventh century and George Gemistos Plethon in the fifteenth.
Educational structures for young children vanished in the course of the seventh century, although monastic schools provided some basic education to limited numbers of boys thereafter. It is impossible to estimate the rate of literacy with confidence. Memorization was a basic tool in education.
The concept of taxis or order or harmonious hierarchy is an important value for Byzantines. So is mimesis, imitation, including theomimesis and Christomimesis. Each person had a place in the order, which was an imperfect imitation of celestial order. Byzantine civilization includes but is not synonymous with a Byzantine worldview or conceptual universe or mentality. Byzantines assumed their empire was protected by God, Christ, and the Virgin Mary. From the fourth century, most Byzantines assumed the congruence of the fortunes of emperor, empire, and church, whether positive or negative. Byzantines assumed that there could be debate and dissent about ecclesiastical topics. The concept of caesaropa pism, exercise of supreme authority over ecclesiastical affairs by a secular sovereign, is a modern concept that some emperors, such as Justinian I or possibly Leo III, may unconsciously have sought to implement, but it was never an explicit ideal and it was never universally accepted and adopted and was never codified in writing.
Continuity of classical forms in literature and medicine and art works persisted as late as the initial decades of the seventh century, after which the attenuation of financial means and decreased demand reduced the market. It becomes difficult to trace continuing forms of secular education and production of sumptuous objects in a classicizing style after 650. But some criticize the Byzantine impulse to perfect imitation as a tragic problem: representing itself as the exclusive and true descendant of antiquity, it became hopelessly entangled in and dulled by the process of imitation.
Intellectual activity and literary production flourished in certain categories and waned in others. Its education was based on the study of rhetoric, as was the case in the Hellenistic world. Rhetoric was important, a modified heritage from the classical past. A related form of rhetoric that elaborated itself into a highly polished form in the early Byzantine period was the sermon. The influence of sermons or public orations was probably enormous in a world of few books or other stimulants to thinking. Superb homiletic examples come from such Cappadocian Saints as Saint Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. John Chrysostom. The homily had reached a perfected form by the end of the fifth century.
Distinctive literary forms include the verse form of kontakion (a specific form of hymn or sermon in verse, in the sixth and seventh centuries), and the Byzantine epic of Digenis Akritas (eleventh or twelfth century). Prescriptive lists of vocabulary were also important. More traditional genre included epistolography and speeches. Byzantines polished the chronicle form as well as the saints' lives. Some Byzantines composed apologias against Islam, Jews, and to a lesser degree, refutations of Latin errors. Apocalypticism and exegesis were two other forms of religious writing and thought. Byzantine lexicographers were active, including Thomas Magister in the fourteenth century. Eustathius of Thessalonica produced an important commentary on the Iliad. The liturgy and the related liturgical calendar were also important. Lectionaries became exquisite objects in public religious culture.
Theodore Balsamon assembled the most substantial collection of Byzantine Canon Law. Ecclesiastical canon studies flourished in the eleventh, twelfth and fourteenth centuries; however they never took the elaborate form and legal status in the Byzantine world that they developed in western Europe.
Women participated in Byzantine civilization in many ways, which included church feasts, cult of the Virgin, saints and their cults, foundation and maintenance of nunneries, monasteries, patronization of holy men, encouragement of religious pictures and their cults. One of the most important Byzantine historians was Anna Komnene (twelfth century). Nevertheless women often did lack equal access to education including literacy. Of course they encouraged and stimulated much cultural activity as well, patronizing poets and other authors. Some, like the fifth-century Empress Eudokia and the ninth-century Kassia, were poets. Women's philanthropic roles were very significant from the beginning to the end of Byzantium.
The Greek language continued to evolve. Although Attic Greek and the Second Sophistic influenced high-style writing and vocabulary and grammar, a virtual diglossy evolved that graduated separated spoken forms of the language from written Greek. There was a snobbery, which may owe something to the insecure status of many practioners. Bureaucrats were familiar with and used classicizing rhetorical language together with very technical administrative and fiscal terminology from Late Roman governmental usage. Rhetoricians were expected to say the appropriate things and use the appropriate language and style. The process had begun before the Byzantine era, but it continued unabated. The ancient Greek heritage of drama was relatively unimportant. Byzantines produced vernacular verse romances but did not develop the vernacular for prose. The resolution of linguistic difficulties persisted as a challenge into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in Greece. Hagiography and some chronicles (e.g., John Malalas, sixth century) provide some of the most useful hints about changes in the spoken language.
At the high-style end of literary production, the Byzantine author, reader and auditor might be attentive to allusions and associations from a repertory of Greek and Biblical literature. It was possible for the educated few to know some lines from age-old Greek poets and rhetoricians and philosophers. Literary and artistic perceptions of and by the Byzantines are only partially understood today, and our perception of them differs considerably from what scholars assumed a few decades ago. Scholarship has only begun to analyze and reflect on how the Byzantines themselves visualized things and concepts. We are still trying to understand what the Byzantines saw when they contemplated a painting or architectural or sculptural detail. It is uncertain what we may be missing. The broader public seldom had an accurate understanding of the identification of surviving ancient statuary, but their interests and beliefs about it derived from different perspectives. Intellectuals competed in erudition and for literary fame at and near the court and within privileged circles at Constantinople. This competition did not involve the broader urban let alone the rural population.
Criticism and evaluation of Byzantine civilization has taken many forms and has changed. Earlier treatises on civilization often criticized Byzantine civilization as essentially the infiltration of Oriental ideas to tinge Graeco-Roman traditions, and the periodic reaction to that process, as representative of decline, decay or other negative features (corruption), but these have long since become obsolete. Those criticisms often depended on narrow and now outmoded defining criteria of classicism as the benchmark of quality and style. They criticize it as lacking creative spontaneity or for adherence to stiff conventionality. Byzantine scholars failed to construct mental systems from first principles and hence lacked systematization, they lacked specialization, and were too unadventurous and too inward-looking. Historians no longer conceive of Byzantine civilization in triumphalist fashion primarily as a medieval bulwark of Europe against Islam.
Some extreme critics call Byzantine civilization a withered and culturally impoverished entity, even a shriveled de-Romanized skeleton, and question whether survival was better than extinction, a civilization in which literature lapsed into obscurity. To some contemporaries it was a closed and arrogant civilization. For them it was and may still be an object of resentment. But it impressed many so much that that they respected and emulated it even though they disliked and resented it. Likewise there is an issue of coping with change. Byzantine civilization has been accused of extreme conservatism, but that depends on which century and which aspect is under investigation. Issues of rationality, irrationality, and intolerance are important in any evaluation of Byzantine civilization. It has attracted some as curious and strange and convoluted, confused with the concepts associated with the pejorative adjective Byzantine that has existed for more than a century in popular usage. The civilization had genuine complexity, even though modern pundits have caricatured it in clichés as excessively complicated and even convoluted.
Contributions of Byzantine civilization include preservation of the following components: (1) pagan Hellenistic culture (2) Roman tradition in law and government, including jurisprudence (3) Christian ecclesiastical Hellenistic models (4) Greek and Hellenistic language, literature, and philosophy (4) historical records and memory (5) Christian tradition refashioned on a Greek model. Beyond its role in preservation its civilization created an important missionary church with multiple successful missions, vital centers of monasticism, and seminal and lively religious art. Some argue that the civilization of Europe is a by product of the Byzantine Empire's will to survive.
Two periods in which Byzantine civilization most energetically and most successfully extended its attractions beyond imperial frontiers were the fourth through sixth centuries, and again in the late ninth. Byzantine civilization exerted a strong attraction or pull on Serbs, Bulgars, and Russians. Armenians and Georgians has a mixed reaction to it, as did Muslims. Patriarch Photius at the beginning of the 860s encouraged the unsuccessful mission of Constantine (Cyril) and Methodius to Moravia to convert the Moravians with the assistance of a newly devised Slavic alphabet and newly translated devotional works. But their labors soon bore fruit in Bulgaria where Khan Boris' conversion to Christianity in 870 brought Bulgaria and soon other south Slavic peoples permanently into the orbit of Orthodox Christianity and Byzantine civilization. The conversion of Prince Vladimir resulted in conversion of Kievan Russia in 989, an event with enormous political and cultural consequences, even though the process of the Christianization of Russia required much time. The most significant role of Byzantine civilization in influencing others involved the Slavic world, both that of the South Slavs and that of Russia. Byzantine influences were extremely important in the Caucasus as well. Russian inventories of objects in Kiev and early Muscovy indicate the continuing local prestige of Byzantine civilization despite its waning political and military fortunes.
If one examines self-consciousness, self-reflexivity and the civilizing process rather than the civilization as a holistic entity, the Byzantines possessed no impulse or imperative to civilize let alone conquer or transform the entire inhabited world as they understood it. Their secular and ecclesiastical leaders did seek to send out missionaries to convert non-Christians. They did not however seek to convert Muslims or to hellenize western Europe. Ecclesiastical leaders did seek in specific instances and localities to extend their control and appointive power over Christian churches. Although some Byzantines possessed visions of the end of the world and their empire, there was no collective will to implement policies that would accomplish that objective.
Influential for one aspect of European thought was Byzantine military literature and science, which developed from an accumulated heritage of Hellenistic military manuals as well as from Greek ones of the Roman Empire. These preserved, adapted and transmitted lore of craft and stratagems and prudence as well as diagrams of specific formations of cavalry and infantry. Military thinkers in early modern Europe borrowed and applied some of the information from those Byzantine treatises for their own purposes. The word strategy itself in French and English traces back to the use of the concept by the late eighteenth-century French theorist Joly de Maizeroy who borrowed it from his reading of maurice's Strategikon, a Byzantine text from c. a.d. 600. This is a little studied and poorly known aspect of Byzantine intellectual activity, but its influence extended far beyond the borders of the empire and continued far beyond the demise of the empire. This needs to be appreciated in a broader perspective. Although a tradition of ancient Greek military manuals stimulated a continuing tradition of writing military manuals, and Byzantium inherited and transformed rituals of the military triumph from Rome, warfare and military victory were not the preeminent values for this civilization. Warfare was a common experience, yet Byzantine civilization was not overly militaristic.
Two of the most important documents of Byzantine civilization are compilations under the authority and initiative of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus: his De Administrando Imperio, and his De Caerimoniis, respectively manuals on how to handle foreign relations with neighboring peoples, whether hostile or friendly, and a diverse group of imperial ceremonials for different ordinary and unique occasions. Both reveal some of the most distinctive aspects of Byzantine civilization. The ceremonies and pageants contain accretions from many different periods and places within Byzantine history. They display different examples of the preservation, filtering, and transmission of antiquarian lore that is elaborated for practical purposes and to bedazzle the foreign visitor, to emphasize the uniqueness and special mission of the empire and its leadership.
Excerpting and encyclopedism are other significant features of Byzantine civilization. Florilegia were important to Byzantines. Encyclopedias like the Suda typify some of the best accomplishments and limitations of Byzantine civilization. Others might put the Bibliotheke of Photios (late ninth century) among the most important Byzantine works of reference and other anthologies of ancient Greek literature and vocabulary.
Recording and understanding the past were important. Time is reckoned in indictions (15-year tax cycles), regnal years, years since creation of the world, or occasionally since the foundation of Constantinople. Although there were apocalyptic fears about the end of the world, these were not founded on any fears of millennial dating from the birth of Christ. Historiography, including ecclesiastical history and hagiography, the chronicle, narrative history in imitation of great examples from earlier Greek historical writing, are all examples of Byzantine historiography and preservation or recovery of memory. They explain continuity and unfolding of God's purpose on earth, the Roman empire's place in universal history, divine judgment through natural and human disasters and experiences. Among its best historians are Procopius of Caesarea (sixth century), who was a superb and detailed and observant reporter, Michael Psellos (eleventh century), Niketas Choniates (late twelfth-early thirteenth century). Kinnamos, George Akropolites, and George Pachymeres wrote useful if uninspired narratives, but that of Pachymeres is vitally important for understanding the late thirteenth century. The histories of Nicephorus Gregoras and John Cantacuzenus are deeply imbedded in the political and religious controversies of the fourteenth century. None of these created any new philosophy of history or new historical method. Chronicles often had a straightforward religious purpose: to record absolute chronology, including the meaning of time in God's plan for salvation. There is a narrative with a clear plot, through it one made sense of the present. The sequence of Byzantine historical prefaces with inspiration from ancient Greek prefaces is a reasonably continuous one that stretches to the end of the empire, to Critoboulos of Imbros. The corpus of Byzantine historical writings provides a record and perspective, however imperfect, that stretches eleven hundred years. Much of it is Constantinopleocentric, and focused on the imperial court, with many omissions concerning those at the social and economic bottom, but it is an invaluable narrative from the perspective of the northeast Mediterranean. Without it historical knowledge of southeastern Europe, western Asia, and the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea would be much poorer.
Byzantine historical memory was selective. But historical memory primarily existed for members of the learned elite and clergy, not for the majority of the population. World chronicles, which commenced with creation and evolved from very early Christian models, took a different form and simpler style, but provided more precise chronology than some narrative histories. Priorities did not lie with historical knowledge of classical antiquity, even though some of its individuals and writers acted as models for action and literary style while earlier church fathers, whether Greek, Latin, or Syrian, acted as models for religious devotion and action. The autobiographical writings of thirteenth-century authors Nikephoros Blemmydes and Gregory of Cyprus are important examples of that genre.
Byzantine civilization formed part of the intellectual environment in which Islamic civilization developed along the Mediterranean littoral. Byzantine civilization left an imprint on parts of Africa, especially Ethiopia, and related parts of the south Arabian peninsula. The role of Byzantine civilization in the Arabian peninsula, including north and central Arabia, is poorly understood and very controversial. Influences of Byzantine civilization on medieval Muslim societies may be more difficult to perceive but exist nonetheless. They range from word loans to art forms to architecture to shipping and maritime law. The process of translation and exchange of learning between the Muslim and Byzantine worlds intensified in the ninth and tenth centuries.
Humanism existed in Byzantium, especially in two periods: the ninth and tenth and again in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. External appreciation of Byzantine civilization expanded in the era of humanism as a limited number of Italian humanists sampled and appreciated aspects of what they considered to be ancient Greek learning, although it was difficult for them to separate out the Byzantine aspects, which they did not appreciate so much. The prestige of Byzantine civilization probably reached its nadir in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Mistra in the Peloponnesus (so-called Despotate of the Morea) briefly served as an important center of Byzantine civilization in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, even though financial resources were limited. Scholars such as George Gemistos Plethon were active there. Painting and architecture also managed to flourish. That flowering terminated with the Ottoman conquest of Mistra in 1460. As financial resources dwindled, the dimensions of architecture whether public and secular or ecclesiastical also became more modest.
Many scholars see a breakdown in Byzantine civilization, but disagree concerning its date. The dating of an irrevocable crisis and breakdown in the Byzantine intellectuals' confidence and worldview is not an easy task. For some it is the early fourteenth century, in the writings of Theodore Metochites, for others it can be as early as the eleventh-century historian Michael Attaleiates' pessimism about conditions. Others might even find Emperor Constantine VII or his father Leo VI the Wise already recognizing and lamenting decay.
Byzantine civilization did not die on May 29, 1453, but continued to influence Greeks under Turkish and foreign rule as well as the culture of modern Greece and surrounding countries. Knowledge of Byzantine civilization is indispensable for understanding the culture of the early modern and contemporary Balkans and for understanding the culture of Greece and Greeks during the Ottoman and post-Ottoman periods. However post-Byzantine cultural phenomena cannot be the ultimate lens or benchmark by which to evaluate Byzantine civilization.
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[w. e. kaegi]