For as long as I can remember, art critics and Classicists have been saying that Byzantium was merely a time of stagnation — that for over a thousand years, the peoples of the Byzantine Empire and assorted neighbors toiled without producing any culture of note or value and failed to contribute anything to the future. When pressed, a snobby Classicist, trained in the dead and ever-dying language of Latin or the surprisingly robust but overshadowed Greek, will respond that okay, fine, yes, the Hagia Sophia is a wonder, but that was created at the beginning of Byzantium, under Justinian no less, the exception that proves the rule. But they weren’t a people at all, just a mish-mash of small cultures with small dreams and they might as well have not existed at all for the impact they left.
By intuition alone, the footprint of a thousand years, for all the acts that took place and all the ones that didn’t, must affect all that comes after it. And yet, being an amateur as I am, I am hard-pressed to talk about this in any detail, though I can point out to you in a cursory manner that Greek may survive as a legacy from Byzantium, the Greek Orthodox Church still stands proudly today, the production of a military general to rival even MacArthur in Belisarius, and perhaps most overlooked but also most compelling: the Byzantine Empire preserved many of the artistic influences that would one day survive and blossom in the Renaissance. As the late and legendary Ernst Kitzinger writes in “The Byzantine Contribution to Western Art of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries” (available on JSTOR):
It was Byzantine art with its continuous and living challenge which had provided the principal schooling for the great and decisive breakthrough in the early 13th century. In successive stages, it had held before Western eyes an ideal of the human form, first as a coherent and autonomous organism, then as an instrument of intense action and emotion. This was what enabled the West finally to make its own terms with the classical past, and to create its own version of humanistic art. Ultimately Byzantium’s role was that of a midwide, a pace-maker. [Byzantine influence] was not the dead hand of tradition. It reflects a series of live impulses from a living art. These impulses entered the main stream of the Italian development, and far from retarding or interrupting that development played an important, if indirect, part in bringing about its climax.
So impress your friends and spread the word: but for the Byzantine Empire, our world may indeed be very different today — whether for the better or not is irrelevant, for it is a part of us. (Yes, it is widely acknowledged by many to be such a successor to Rome, but never with any positive connotation, never with any relish or appreciation — I hope this changes!) Let us recall Byzantium for both the sake of our forebears and progeny.
Would it surprise to know that there are pedants in this mold as well, however? I remember that Antony Bridge in Theodora absurdly claims that there were no poor people in Byzantium, that it had found that cozy equilibrium between all societal interests and resembled much less an empire than a blurry thriving utopia of yesteryear, perhaps the only one to ever grace this earth. There can be no doubt that Eden was wrong about the socioeconomics of Byzantium. Byzantium need not be twisted into something it was not or indeed ever could be (or that any human nation ever could be) in order to receive deserved respect. On the other hand, he articulated a very persuasive picture of how people interacted in their religious communities, illuminating the cultural and religious controversies of the era. He wrote that people were animated by the mystery of the Holy Trinity, not knowing the exact relationship between its constituents, and reveling in this ambiguity through their faiths. If you have seen a Greek Orthodox Church from the inside, then you have seen some striking visual arts. They have been alternately criticized as static, unbending, and useless. But some felt very differently. Rather, they thought that out of the seemingly static, transcendental and timeless truths were possible.
That is how Yeats felt about the mosaics of Byzantium:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
And it is of mosaics that I wish to speak.