Lessons from Byzantium

Lessons from Byzantium
by Lawrence P. McDonald

The great use of history is to recognize in it recurring patterns which, read rightly, may serve as guideposts for action. History does not have to repeat itself if persons who understand it take proper precautions. Americans can learn much from the collapse of the ... Byzantine Empire in 1453 A.D.

Time, it is said, changes everything. That's true of the details; but, in broad principle, time changes nothing. And one of the things that has not changed during recorded history is the fact that great wealth and prestige, which may be a blessing to a nation, and for that matter to all the world, are nevertheless certain to excite envy and resentment in the world, provoking at length one or more challenges to its very existence. Thus it was with Britain from the days of the Elder Pitt through the First World War, thus it has been with America since the Second World War. The classical example remain those of the Eastern Roman Empire and of Carthage -- more classical cases than ours, and, happily for us, more final. Of the two, the former is the greater, and nearer to ourselves. ...

The Eastern Empire

A word about terminology: Byzantium is properly the name of the Greek city on the Bosporus which the Roman Emperor Constantine I chose for his capital and renamed Constantinople. (1) The Roman Empire as a whole was coming to be divided into an Eastern [Greek] and a Western [Latin] half, each of these in turn having two sections within itself. This administrative reform of the Emperor Diocletian was not affected without conflict. Following Dicletian's resignation in 305 came an era of civil strife, climaxed in Rome by a battle between Constantine and Maxentius. It was in this battle of the Milvian Bridge at Rome that Constantine saw in the sky a cross with the words "with this thou shalt conquer" [én toúto níke] -- and, proceeding to conquer, then make Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, as anticipated by the Edict of Milan in 313, issued by Constantine and his fellow Emperor Licinius. Constantine was Western Emperor, Licinius the Eastern. When the partnership, which was essentially a rivalry, ended by Constantine's victory over Licinius at Adrianople in 324, the former became sole Emperor. Perhaps it was in part because Constantine was a man of the West that he chose to place his capital in the East and name it for himself. Greek Byzantium was rebuilt as Roman Constantinople.

What seems worthy of emphasis here is that the Roman Empire from Constantine I to Constantine XI [Palaeologos], who was the [Eastern Orthodox] Emperor when the capital fell to the Turks in 1453, was at once Christian in faith and Roman in political continuity [till around the 7th century A.D., by which time it had become an essentially Greek city, and remained so until its fall]. ...

But Western Europe as a whole, where the original Western Roman Empire had collapsed in 476, endured what came to be called the Dark Ages for a disputable number of centuries thereafter. During the thousand years following 476, it was the Eastern Roman Empire, based on Constantinople, that kept alive the Mediterranean culture which eventually civilized us Nordics.

Yet the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire was basically not Roman, but Greek. Constantine, the pagan Roman soldier who became a Christian and recognized Christianity as the religion of the civilized world, was also the Moesian-born Roman barbarian who recognized Greece as the cultural leader of the ancient world. He did not undertake to tell the Greeks they were mistaken in calling all non-Greeks barbarians, he set out to transfer his political center to the cultural center, and unite both with the Church. If this goal was never completely attained, it is nevertheless fair to say that in the Eastern Roman Empire, often called the Byzantine Empire, or simply Byzantium, the grandeur that was Rome was most fully united with the glory that was Greece -- under the Cross.

The power and glory of Byzantium were not to last forever, but did last longer than any other polity known to history. The Byzantine Empire was, after all, part and parcel of a political process which began with the founding of the city of Rome in 753 B.C. and ended only with the fall of Constantinople in A.D. 1453 -- a matter of 2,204 years. Granted that years may be lopped off at either end as not being "really" part of the process. It may be said in fact that Rome was not an empire before Augustus, or at least not before Julius Caesar. It may be said, too, that the ... Byzantine Empire was effectively done for, not by its final defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, but (with tragic irony) by the French and Flemish knights of the Fourth Crusade who sacked Constantinople in 1204, two hundred and fifty years before the Moslems did. Without conceding that those are legitimate curtailments, we may observe that you would still have an empire lasting twelve hundred years -- nine hundred and fifty as a Christian empire. ... During those ten to twelve centuries there was no other nation or empire which compared in greatness with the Byzantine. Not in Europe or Western Asia at any rate

Splendid and Strong

But how do we judge these Roman pagans turned Greek Christians to have been so marvelous? The record fills libraries. We confine our attention now to three brief notations. First, there is the splendor of the city. There is a famous passage from the 12th century knight and historian Geoffroi de Villehardouin, who participated in and reported the Fourth Crusade. He Writes: "Now wit ye well that they gazed at Constantinople, those who had never seen it; for they had not dreamed that there was in all the world so rich a city, when they beheld the high walls and the mighty towers by which she was enclosed all round, and those rich palaces and those great churches, of which there were so many that none might believe it if he had not seen it with his own eyes, and the length and breadth of the city, which was sovereign among all. And wit ye well that there was no man so bold that he did not tremble; and this was not wonderful; for never was so great a matter undertaken by any man since the world was created."

To appreciate the significance of that passage, you must recall that the men so stunned by the splendor and greatness of Constantinople were from France and Flanders -- lands which in their own good time would also achieve eminence for splendor, art, and industry. Here, three hundred years before stout Cortez (or Balboa either), they "looked at each other with a wild surmise." And what they saw -- to unspoiled eyes so much more astonishing than the Pacific -- drove them first to a frenzy of destructive conquest, and later, through word back home, to emulate in the future magnificence of Paris and industrial artistry of Liege, some of the constructive ancient achievements of Byzantium.

Sophisticated moderns who assume that the Constantinople so praised could not have compared with our own cities technologically might ask around for the architect-engineer who might try to duplicate the dome of St. Sophia, which was given its soaring life fourteen hundred years ago, in the age of Justinian. Or those who love to shiver at the fearsome secrets of nuclear weapons might ask a contemporary scientist to explain (or explain away) the secret of "Greek fire," concerning which I quote from The New Encyclopedia, a source at once staid and up to date, not given to the perpetuation of legends:

Greek fire, a flammable composition believed to have consisted of sulfur, naphtha,

and quicklime. Although known in antiquity [but not now, though napalm is an

approximation], it was first employed on a large scale by the Byzantines. Bronze

tubes that emitted jets of liquid fire were mounted on the prows of their galleys and

on the walls of Constantinople. The Byzantines in 673 and again in 717-718 destroyed

two Saracen fleets with Greek fire.

Concerning the latter of those events The Cambridge Medieval History says that the Byzantine Emperor "shewed himself as well able to destroy the Mussulman ships with Greek fire as to defeat the Caliph's armies on land. ... When at last Maslamah [the Arab general] decided upon retreat, he had lost, it is said, nearly 150,000 men. ... For Leo III this was a glorious opening to his reign, for Islam it was a disaster without precedent. The great rush of Arab conquest was for many years broken off short in the East as it was to be in the West by the victory of Charles Martel at Poitiers (732)."

Again, the Cambridge History says of Greek fire: "A Greek engineer from Syria of the seventh century, named Callimachus, had imparted to the Byzantines the secret of this 'liquid fire,' which could not be extinguished, and was said to burn even in water. ... The reputation of this terrible weapon, exaggerated by popular imagination [compare today's press on the nuclear holocaust], filled all the adversaries of Byzantium with terror. Igor's Russians, who were crushed outside Constantinople in 941, declared: 'The Greeks have a fire resembling the lightning from heaven, and when they threw it at us they burned us; for this reason we could not overcome them.'... And the Byzantines, conscious of the advantage they derived from this formidable weapon, guarded the secret with jealous care."

The Byzantines, however, by no means excelled us in every respect, though their dominance endured longer than ours now seems assured of doing. They were, it seems, even more given than we to political intrigue, meaningless party strife (the Greens and the Blues), and an absurd devotion to theatrical games, conspicuous display of wealth, and indulgence in exotic forms of social entertainment. And far more strikingly than we, they had an intellectual elite which acknowledged no superior and had no equal.

The University of Constantinople was founded by the Emperor Theodosius in the fifth century, seven hundred years before the universities of Paris or Oxford. (2) The University of Bologna in Italy, which was a century older than Oxford or Paris, began with books brought from Ravenna, which had long been linked with the Eastern Empire. At Constantinople itself, so much earlier than anywhere in the West, "there flocked students drawn from every part of the Empire, and also from the Arab world and from the distant West."(So Berkeley and Cambridge, Massachusetts, are nothing new.) The Renaissance in Western Europe is often dated as beginning in 1453, simply because the capture of Constantinople by the Turks drove so many [Greek] Byzantine scholars into Italy.

Decadence and Downfall

Which reminds us to ask why so great an empire fell. The process was, of course, not so abrupt as a brief account must suggest, yet it may be summarized by saying that the perfection and enjoyment of its own splendors distracted its ruling class, turning their attention from the essentials of survival of nations great and small. The fact that the Byzantines could not imagine their own destruction hastened it. And it is for this reason that Americans may be advised to study and learn from the past.

The beginning of Byzantine decadence may be glimpsed in such passages as the following from the Cambridge History: "The resplendent luxury of the imperial apartments has often been described, and it is unnecessary to dwell for long on the precious marbles, mosaics, and gold; the gorgeous processions ... the magnificent ceremonial of the solemn audiences, receptions, and State dinners ... the fairy-like setting of [the] court life, whose brilliant picture, worthy of the Arabian nights, dazzled all the Middle Ages like a blaze of gold. ... Then there were ... the festivities, daily processions ..., and audiences in which Byzantium took pride..., seeking even by magical illusion to astonish strangers. There were the feasts of the Dodecahemeron [literally, "twelvedays," ed.] which lasted from Christmas to Epiphany, of the Brumalia [winter festivities. ed.] and many others, in which songs, dances, banquets and performances by buffoons succeeded each other ... "

Sounds like a New Orleans Mardi Gras season raised the nth power. The following sounds more like New York and Washington: "Finally," writes Professor Charles Diehl in the Cambridge History, "in this elegant and ostentatious court, devoted to pleasure and feasting, in which women played a leading part, there was great corruption, and the imperial palace was the home of many startling adventures and wide-spread scandals. ... And from the imperial palace this love of intrigue so necessary for success, this openly-flaunted corruption, spread throughout all classes of society." (3)

It was the failure of nominal Christians to adhere to Christian principles -- only to be expected in view of such an account as that from which we have quoted -- which at length resulted in the destruction of the greatest Christian empire on record. Impossible as it is to trace the labyrinth of Byzantine intrigue -- at varying times both brilliant and stupid -- leading at length to irretrievable downfall, we can cite one or two major cases in which mistake and misfortune can hardly be distinguished from each other; cases which nonetheless illustrate the dangers that surround every great nation or empire that by its pride, self-indulgence, and neglect of security at once provokes and succumbs to the envy and ferocity of the enemies by which it is inevitably surrounded.

It is widely held, as has been mentioned earlier, that the Fourth Crusade gave Constantinople a greater shock than did the final siege by the Turks. Though the dwindling Empire survived the first, it succumbed to the cumulative forces which followed and terminated in the second. The immense tragedy of the Fourth Crusade was that a venture by Christians to rescue the Holy Land from the Islamic forces which occupied it ended in civil war between Christians, and prepared the way for Tartars and Turks to succeed where centuries earlier Arabs had failed even at the peak of their enthusiasm.

To be sure, it was Christian knights of the West who, perhaps suborned by merchants of Venice, sacked the capital of the Christianity of the East in 1204. Yet the Crusaders could not have taken Constantinople had these Westerners not been expected to be, as earlier Crusaders had been, essentially at one with their nominal Christian brothers of the East. The Byzantines had a reputation for being subtle and devious, while the Franks had a reputation for being frank; but, in this event, the Byzantines were the victims of this frank insincerity. Perhaps because the Franks and Flemish knights were not so good at subtle intrigue as they had proved themselves to be at brutal betrayal, they could not make a go of the Latin Empire, and in 1261 Constantinople was recaptured by Michael VIII, first of the Emperors of the Byzantine Palaeologos dynasty, which would rule the Empire to the end in 1453.

That end also was consummated in part as a consequence of reluctance in the West to support coreligionists in the East. Constantine XI, last of the Palaeologi, and last of the Byzantine emperors, undertook to unite his Orthodox Church with the Papacy in the West; yet there were riots in the streets of Constantinople against the union, and a Byzantine Grand Duke declared that he "would rather see the [Moslem] turban at Constantinople that the hat of a Roman cardinal." He was soon to get his wish. Within less than six months the Turk was in Constantinople, and has never left.

In the Orthodox East as in the Catholic West, proof was repeatedly given that while you can trust a Turk to be a Turk, you can't tell what a Christian will do. (Compare the situation in the U.S. today between Evangelical Christians and those of the National Council of Churches.) When (Western) Christians broke a treaty with the Turks in 1444, a great battle ensued at Varna in Bulgaria. Tradition has it that on the battlefield the treaty itself was displayed on a lance, and the Ottoman Sultan Murad II prayed, "O Christ, if thou art God, as thy followers say, punish their perfidy." The perfidy was punished. "The victory of the Turks was complete." (Cambridge History.) It is not, however, recorded that the Sultan was persuaded to convert to Christianity in consequence of his prayers being granted.

The Empire's End

By the winter of 1452-1453 the maimed and threatened empire was ready for the coup de grace. As often happens, its final hour was to be its finest hour, but was not therefore the less final. Since the spring of 1452 the Ottoman Sultan Mahomet II had been preparing for the siege of Constantinople, and by fall of the same year made no secret of it. Within the city preparations to resist went forward. Despite murmurs of discontent, and the previously mentioned demonstration, a union with the Christian West was in some measure effected. A Cardinal and two hundred soldiers were sent to Constantinople by the Pope, and forces arrived from Venice and Genoa. The Genovese soldier John Justiniani, a nobleman, was made commander in chief under the Emperor and took charge of the defenses, which included a great chain fixed upon beams to close the harbor of the Golden Horn.

Numerically, the Byzantines and their Western reinforcements were grievously outnumbered. Within the walls of the city were only some five thousand Greeks ... and three thousand combatants from the Italian cities. Against this total of eight thousand there were beyond the walls 150,000 Turkish troops, including twelve thousand elite Jannissaries. "This," says the Cambridge History, "the most terrible portion of Mahomet's force, was derived at that time exclusively from Christian families. It was the boast of its members in after years that they had never fled from an enemy, and the boast was not an idle one." The trouble with these Christians, enslaved and converted to Islam as children, was that they were totally in the service of an anti-Christian sovereign.

Contrasting with this corps d' elite were irregular troops called Bashibazuks. Commented interpreter Francesco Filelfo: "Being under no restraint, they proved the most cruel scourge of the Turkish invasion." At Constantinople, however they were not up to the required professional standard, except, it appears, to serve as cannon-fodder in the initial assault.

It may be thought that in connection with this medieval battle the expression cannon-fodder is an anachronism. Not so. There were cannon aplenty at Constantinople -- on both sides. The Turks had the advantage. In particular, they had, as armed forces do from age to age throughout recorded history, a super-weapon. This was a great cannon. "In January 1453," says the Cambridge History, "report reached the capital of a monster gun which was being cast at Hadrianople by Urban, a Hungarian or Wallach. (4) By March it had been taken to the neighborhood of the city. Fourteen batteries of smaller cannon were also prepared, which were subsequently stationed outside the landward walls." The Byzantines, of course, also had cannon. Indeed, the use of such artillery had begun in Europe a hundred years earlier, with the introduction of gunpowder, which came from who knows where -- perhaps China, perhaps Syria.

The fortifications of Constantinople were formidable. Are formidable, I might say. I have visited Istanbul, as it is now called, (5) and seen these city walls, which have not suffered much additional damage since the Turks, who now possess them, bombarded them [more than five] centuries ago. The Cambridge historian also saw them, as have so many visitors. "The length of the walls," says the late Sir Edwin Pears, sometime president of the European Bar at Constantinople, "is about thirteen miles. Those on the Marmora and the Horn are strong but single. Those on the landward side are triple, the inner wall being the loftiest and about forty feet high. The landward walls have also in front of them a foss [ditch. ed.] about sixty feet broad, with a series of dams in every part except about a quarter of a mile of steep ascent from the Horn, where exceptionally strong walls and towers make them impregnable before the days of cannon." Days which began a hundred years before the end of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The siege lasted from April 7 to May 29, 1453. Despite the manpower odds of nearly twenty to one against the defenders, despite the monster gun, which with smaller cannon as well battered great holes -- still there -- in the walls, and despite the presence of the Turkish fleet, the defenders repulsed attack after attack. In the long run, surely, the situation was hopeless. The breaching of the walls continued. The big gun threw a ball of twelve hundred pounds seven times a day. Smaller cannon fired without ceasing. The Turks themselves, however, became discouraged, but were ordered by their Sultan, Mahomet II, to begin the final assault. Wave after wave of troops stormed the walls, and wave after wave was repulsed. At length the elite Janissaries were called in, and the great cannon was dragged nearer. She Sultan placed himself at the head of his archers and infantry. "Arrows and other missiles fell in numbers like rain," says the historian Critobulus. At length came the signal for the final assault. The Janissaries attacked. After a fierce but short struggle, the defending line broke, and the invaders in their immense numbers were irresistible.

The leaders on both sides were heroic. Mahomet led his Janissaries; Constantine XI died fighting -- "perished among his own subjects and the remnant of the Italians who were fighting for the honor de Dio et de Christianitade." (6) Yet the bottom line -- to use the vulgar, commercial expression -- is that what was arguably the greatest empire in history perished on May 29, 1453, through long neglect of its own piety and prudence. It had taken its own military superiority for granted, even while allowing its military establishment to deteriorate. Greek fire was not used at Constantinople in 1453, and it was the Turks who introduced the new weapon of the monster cannon. The Empire's diplomacy, once incomparable, had become one of improvisation based on wishful thinking -- assuming the value of alliances with Western Europe, underestimating the malignity and force of the threat from what we now call the Middle East. In their complacent overestimation of themselves, their love of wealth -- not miserly wealth, but that of conspicuous consumption, in their addiction to games, spectacles, and political and amorous intrigue -- in all these often amiable but generally dangerous traits, they provoked that decline and fall which Edward Gibbon was to attribute to Christianity, but which was actually due to failures in Christian conduct. They did not always succeed (who does?) in being, as the Master enjoined, "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." We may honor them for the times and to the degree in which they did so succeed -- surely more often, considering their longevity, than most; we must yet be warned by the consequences of their ultimate failure. In God We Trust involves keeping His commandments.


Source. The New American. March 2000. Vol. 16, No. 7. pp 26-31. Emphasis added.

Editor's notes

1) Though there is some scholarly difference of opinion about how the name "Byzantium" originated, the Megarians seem to have the best claim. According to this theory, the city was named for the leader of the first colonizers, whose name was Byzus of Megara (a city near Athens). The proximate date of its founding is ca 668 B. C. The city lay on the European side of the south end of the Bosporus, occupying the eastern tip of the Serai promontory. (cf. Hdt. 4. 144 where Megabezus, the Persian, talks about how the Chalcedonians founded their city earlier than the Megarians, but stupidly chose the poorer, less fertile, Asiatic side instead.) It came under Athenian influence in the early 4th c., and was an ally of Athens when it resisted Phillip of Macedon's siege in 340-339. Hecate (a northern and eastern version of the goddess Artemis) helped the city withstand the siege, and, in her honor, her symbols, the Crescent and Star, later appeared on the coins of the city. This symbol later passed from Greece to Islam. So that this symbol had been known long before Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks on Monday night of the 28th to early Tuesday of the 29th of May, in 1453. The misconception comes from the (spurious?) story that there was a crescent moon with a star visible on that fateful night, and so the Muslims made the Crescent and Star their symbol, but this is not the case.

2) The Academy of Athens, the school or college founded by Plato in 385 B.C. remained in continuous operation for over 900 years. It was finally closed by order of the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, in 529 A.D. This makes it the oldest college or university in the world, pre-dating the University of Constantinople by 800 years or so, and the Universities of Paris and Oxford by about 1500 years.

3) The Byzantine historian, Procopius of Caesarea (fl. mid-6th c. A. D.), writes of the depravity and abuse of power exhibited by the Byzantine elite in his "Anecdota": "And with the long continuance of the evil [of this corruption in high places], all men have finally been taught by facts that whereas man's natural depravity is wont to grow beyond all limits, yet when it is nourished by the instruction of [powerful] predecessors, and when, through the influence of the license which complete immunity inspires, it is lured on to wreak foul injuries upon all who fall in its path, then it seems invariably to attain to so great a bulk that not even the imagining of its victims is able to measure it."

4) There has been speculation as to whether Urban, the Hungarian engineer, was a Jew. Since he first offered to build his cannon for the Christian Emperor Constantine XI Palaeologos, we conclude that he probably was not. Unfortunately, due to the lack of funds, the Greek emperor had to decline the proposal, and so Urban went to the Turks. The rest, as they say, is history.

5) The etymology of the word "Istanbul" comes from the Greek phrase (éis tín pólis), which literally translates as "to the city," or "in the city." The "city," or "polis" was the commonly used term for Constantinople, just as one might say "The Big Apple" for New York City today. (Constantinople was also referred to as "The Red Apple," or "The Red Apple Tree," (ái kókini milía), and is referred to by that name in Greece even today.)

6) The "remnants of the Italians," however, lost heart when they saw their leader quit the battle after being wounded. Gibbons, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, gives us this account: "The immediate loss of Constantinople may be ascribed to the bullet or arrow, which pierced the gauntlet of John Justiniani. The sight of his blood, and the exquisite pain, appalled the courage of the chief. ... As he withdrew from his station in quest of a surgeon, his flight was perceived and stopped by the indefatigable emperor. 'Your wound,' exclaimed Palaeologus, 'is slight; the danger is pressing: your presence is necessary; and wither will you retire?' -- 'I will retire,' said the trembling Genoese, 'by the same road which God has opened to the Turks'; ... By this pusillanimous act he stained the honors of a military life, and the few days which he survived [on] the isle of Chios were embittered by his own and the public reproach." Emperor Constantine, on the other hand, continued fighting valiantly on the ramparts. When he saw that the Turks were pouring through the breached walls, he knew that the City was lost. He is said to have shouted: "The City has fallen and I still live?" With that he threw himself into the fray, never to be seen again.

About the author

The late Lawrence P. McDonald was a U.S. congressman from Georgia. He was killed on the ill-fated KAL Flight 007 in 1983, along with all the other passengers and crew. There has been speculation that, because Congressman McDonald was such a staunch America-firster, and a committed non-interventionist in global matters, the flight had been targeted because he was aboard. Like the Kennedy assassination, it seems we will never know. America suffers from such a dearth of such superbly educated politicians that we can only mourn his passing not only as a personal loss, but as a loss to all of humanity.