I’ve wandered back into one of my periodic obsessions, the Byzantine empire. I’m reading Vasiliev’s two-volume history and enjoying it for its Slavophilia and the utter weirdness of its sources. That’s the history geek in me, who can appreciate that primary sources for a large part of a thousand years of history are sermons and letters and biographies of saints. But I think a lot of what I like about the Byzantines is pretty accessible.
1) There’s a Perils of Pauline aspect to much of the history of the empire, with everything constantly teetering on the edge of complete disaster. When their many external enemies were not threatening them there were palace coups and revolts to deal with, and frequently both at once. One of my college professors commented that, whatever else you can say about Byzantine politics, nobody who wasn’t pretty competent stayed emperor for long.
2) The Byzantines were pragmatic and political. When it was more convenient to bribe than fight, they had no problems with sending a bag of money to a barbarian chieftain so they could concentrate on other things. Byzantine armies were small, and they hired lots of mercenaries, which created the usual problems. But not having the luxury of being overwhelmingly powerful, they often negotiated their way out of problems.
3) The internal politics of the empire are a unique blend of almost every kind of political system but democracy: feudalism, monarchy, Eastern despotism, mixed in with odd remnants of Roman forms. It’s hard to read about how much the Byzantines obsessed over races in the Hippodrome and not think about Ben Hur.
4) They called themselves Romans, right up to the end.
5) Q: Why did the Western Roman Empire fall? A: Because Constantine the Great wrote it off as indefensible and moved his capital east, where it lasted another thousand years.
6) There’s something really charming about the Venetians feeling condescended to because a Byzantine princess married to a Venetian noble wouldn’t eat with her hands. She had special tools (a fork) to prevent herself from touching her food. Chad Ward’s history of the fork (via Smithsonian.com) includes the lovely detail that when she died of the plague some of the local clergy thought it was punishment from God for her overweening fork-vanity.
Love the Byzantines.