Byzantium or Medieval Greece?

I received my master’s degree in “Byzantine” history and during my studies I never questioned the legitimacy of “Byzantine” in describing or distorting the history of the Greeks after their forced conversion to Christianity in the fourth century of our era. Greece had been a Roman province since 146 BCE.

Emperor Constantine, for reasons unfathomable to this day, dumped the many gods Greco-Roman civilization for the one Jewish-Christian god. He triggered that civilization earthquake in his new capital, Constantinople, now Istanbul.

But neither Constantine, later emperors, nor Christian Greeks and Christian Romans would imagine their empire was Byzantium or that they were Byzantines. They considered themselves Roman.

I prefer Medieval Greece to Eastern Roman Empire because, starting in the seventh century, most emperors were Greek and the language of the state was Greek. This Medieval Greece included the territory of the Eastern Roman Empire: Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor and Italy. It lasted for more than 1,000 years.

The conquest of Medieval Greece by the Turks in 1453 was a result of centuries-long enslaving of the peasants, the loss of young men to monasteries, the abandonment of national armies for mercenaries, and the hostility between Greek East and Latin West. In 1054, the Eastern and Western Christian churches excommunicated each other. This civilization schism was followed by the fourth crusade. In 1204, Venetians, Germans and French sacked Constantinople, slaughtered its residents for days, burned its libraries, and dismembered Greece.

The Greeks recaptured Constantinople in 1261 but they remained vulnerable to powerful enemies. The Europeans exploited them. This was ideal for the Turks. They stepped into the power vacuum the Westerners had created in Medieval Greece.

There was a silver lining to the fall of Medieval Greece. Its scholars rushed to Padua, Venice and other great cities of the West. They carried with them the culture of ancient Greece. They translated into Latin key Greek scientific and philosophical texts, which triggered the Renaissance.

A few European scholars also saw the value of editing Medieval Greek texts, thus inaugurating the study of Medieval Greek civilization. One of those scholars was Hieronymus Wolf, a sixteenth-century German intellectual who edited Medieval Greek historians. Wolf coined the term Byzantium for the Eastern Roman Empire. He and other European scholars thought “Greek” ought to be reserved for ancient Greece. As for “Roman,” it was out of the question since the West had its own Roman emperors.

Wolf’s “Byzantium” triumphed in the scholarly community, at great cost to the integrity and understanding of Medieval Greek history and culture. Few people understand that under “Byzantium” there are centuries of Greek history, not ancient Greek history, but Christian Greek history, which is Greek history nevertheless. “Byzantium” and “Byzantine” obscure the contributions of Medieval Greece to this very day.

“A Short History of the Byzantine Empire” (I. B. Tauris, 2015) by Dionysios Stathakopoulos demystifies Medieval Greek history. The author, lecturer at King’s College London, is an experienced teacher who realizes the pitfalls of standing by a misleading name, Byzantium. But he works for a discipline that holds tight reign on history.

Nevertheless, this short history is, as he says, “a straightforward and sober account” unfolding in the context of European and Middle Eastern Middle Ages. It highlights the political, economic, agricultural and intellectual developments of a complex and lasting civilization. It is a riveting and important story.

Its narrative throws light on the effects of Christianization: “a constant but also gradually intensifying set of prohibitions and exclusions: withdrawal of imperial support for pagan cults, stripping temples of property, bans on sacrifice, first in public, then also in private, closure of temples to any ritual actions…. There were bouts of violence… between Christians and pagans… in 415, the brutal lynching of the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia by a Christian mob in Alexandria.”

The beneficiaries of Christianization were the emperors, a landowning elite that enslaved the peasants, and the clergy. To their absolute power, the emperors added Jesus as their coequal. The church acquired enormous wealth and power. In fact, the church became the largest landowner, a condition it still has in modern Greece. Christianity created a grand edifice of monasteries, churches, palaces, landed estates, and high officials acting like princes.

The sixth century was especially harsh on the losers, the pagans. Emperor Justinian terrorized them. In 529, he shut down the Platonic Academy of Athens, which for about 900 years was the greatest university of Greece.

The seventh century was an era of perpetual warfare, massacres of Christians, massive refugee migrations, plagues, political and religious instability, suppression of pagans, depopulation, and fear of the coming of the end of the world.

Christian Greeks saw Islam as an avenging sword for their sins. In fact, Islam became an existential threat to Medieval Greece. It was full of holy wars, conquering Palestine, Syria and Egypt, about two-thirds of Greek territories.

Stathakopoulos says Islam triumphed because it divided the world into the Muslim faithful, House of Islam, and unbelievers, House of War. Muslims made holy war, jihad, against non-Muslims their chief priority and duty. Islam’s vision then, as it is today, is to convert all non-Muslims to Muslims.

Stathakopoulos emphasizes that despite the anti-pagan policies of church and state, they made room for the survival of important Greek texts by agreeing they become required school textbooks. These texts later fuelled and boosted science and civilization in the West.

Medieval Greece protected Europe from the Turkish menace for centuries; Medieval Greece civilized Russia and Eastern Europe.

These are great achievements that shaped Western civilization. In fact, they continue to influence our lives. Present tension between East and West has its origins in Medieval Greece that refused to side with East or West.

This is another reason why Stathakoploulos’ book must be read. It captures both events and the politics and ideas behind them. Its valuable insights are timely and admirable.