Empire of God: How the Christian Byzantine Empire Saved Civilization
Journalist and scholar Robert Spencer has just published Empire of God: How the Byzantines Saved Civilization. The Byzantine Empire, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, survived for a thousand years after the western half had crumbled into various feudal kingdoms. Byzantium finally fell to Ottoman Turkish onslaughts in 1453. A deeply scholarly work, Spencer’s book argues that Christian Byzantine civilization kept the learning and faith of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem alive and protected the West from the aggression of Islam in the East. The Stream’s Mark Judge recently spoke with Spencer about his book.
Mark Judge: Your new book Empire of God argues that the Byzantine Empire has not been given the credit it deserves as a dynamic Christian civilization that kept alive the heritages of Athens, Jerusalem and Rome. Part of this, you write is due to the bias of certain historians, including Edward Gibbon. What is the real truth behind the Byzantine Empire?
Robert Spencer: There has been a lot of prejudice against the Byzantine Empire over the last several centuries, resulting in a general discounting of its significance and contributions. This is primarily due to a phenomenon that is a recurring theme of Empire of God: the Great Schism between what are known today as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches in 1054, and the resulting estrangement between East and West. Instead of seeing the Byzantines as Romans and exponents of Western civilization, albeit on its edges, Westerners all too often tended to see it as both foreign and benighted, featuring confusing (“Byzantine”) cultural and social practices and a form of Christianity that appeared both alien and inscrutable to Western eyes.
Then there was the Crimean War in the 1850s, when the British allied with the Ottoman Empire and an immense Turkophilia swept over the British Empire. This was when the idea that Islam is a “religion of peace” first began to be propagated, to ease the suspicion of ordinary Britons toward an alliance with the Islamic caliphate. And if the Turks were such grand fellows, then the people they defeated and supplanted, the Byzantines, must have been correspondingly backward and benighted. These attitudes took hold among English-speaking historians and have lingered long after the impetuses for them have vanished from the earth.
We Were Almost Muslims
You argue that Byzantine Civilization was “a bulwark” between the Christian West and Islamic jihadism in the East. Could the West really have been lost without the Byzantine Empire?
Most certainly. The Arabs first besieged Constantinople in 675, and the Turks finally breached its walls nearly 800 years later, in 1453. This was the time of the conversion and formation of Christian Europe, with the apex of Roman Catholic philosophy in the High Middle Ages, followed by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which formed the spiritual and intellectual foundations of the contemporary world. Imagine now if the Arabs had succeeded in taking Constantinople in 675, or at any of numerous times after that but well before 1453. There was no significant force in Europe that would have been able to prevent the conquest and Islamization of the entire continent.
Western civilization, with its ideas of the equality of rights of all people and the freedom of speech, and with its philosophical and artistic insights, would have been stillborn. The very presence (and resistance to the jihad) of the Byzantine Empire during Christian Europe’s formative period, even as the pope and other Western authorities were deriding the Byzantines as schismatics, enabled the founding principles of our civilization to develop. If the Byzantines had lost earlier or not been there at all, we wouldn’t be having this discussion now, and the West as we know it would not exist.
No Byzantine Empire, No Philosophy
You note that the Byzantines saved Greek writing and philosophy. This is a major contribution to our world.
Yes. The Byzantine educational system was remarkably stable. Rather than chasing after every new educational fad (there were in fact no educational fads to chase), the Byzantines continued to teach the Greek classics that had been the foundation of Roman education since before the empire adopted Christianity. When only two works of Plato were known in the West, the philosopher Gemistos Plethon traveled from Constantinople to Florence for the Council of Florence in 1439. Once there, he began holding lectures on Plato for the rapt Italians, and introducing them to Plato’s works that were unknown in the West. Gemistos and other Byzantines were directly responsible for sparking the Renaissance in Europe.
The Roman Empire Didn’t Fall Until 1453
You write that the Byzantines considered themselves Roman. That is fascinating. Please explain.
The Byzantines were indeed Roman. The Roman Empire started, of course, from Rome and spread across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Eventually, it was decided that there would be two emperors, one in Rome and one in Constantinople (“New Rome”), as the empire was simply too large to be governed effectively by one man. The empire in Rome fell in 476, but even then, Odoacer, the Goth chieftain who deposed the Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus, immediately pledged his fealty to the Emperor Zeno in Constantinople. Odoacer did not think of himself as having destroyed the Roman Empire.
Meanwhile, in Constantinople, the empire went on, with its people thinking of themselves throughout the centuries as they always had: as “Romans.” They never referred to themselves as “Byzantines” or even as “Eastern Romans”; these designations were imposed by later historians. Consequently, the Byzantines considered themselves to be the heirs and custodians of the Roman culture, and of the Roman intellectual, legal, artistic, and philosophical traditions. They behaved accordingly, and are responsible for the preservation of a great deal of that tradition.
Why Are Icons So Captivating?
Finally, a word about Byzantine art. I’ve always found their mosaics mesmerizing and holy. It’s unfortunate so many Western Christian churches have lost that.
In the Byzantine Christian, or Orthodox, tradition, there is a deep sense of beauty as leading one to the contemplation of and love for God. There is also a tremendous sense that the liturgy, unchanged in significant detail since the fourth century, bears witness to the unchanging nature of eternal truths. These ideas stand in stark contrast to the views of some Western Christians who believe that it is important for Christians to adapt their worship, as well as their religious art, to the sensibilities of their particular time and place in order to remain “relevant.”
Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C. His new book is The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs the New American Stasi.