where Byzantium fits in

I’ve continued learning about the history following the Roman Empire. Just as many of my old questions were answered by learning more about the Goths and Vandals who invaded Rome, the story of Byzantium, the 1000-year empire that followed Rome, answers many more, and completely changes my view of what might have been going on in these times.

The word Byzantium refers to a little village where, in 324 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to build his new Rome, “Constantinople”. All of the administration of Rome was moved there, along with most of the population. (The old Rome did not fare well after, as I described earlier.)

You maybe heard all that, and also that Constantinople was taken by the Turkish Ottomans in around 1400 AD. Well, even that is a gloss of the story. The Ottomans did not destroy Constantinople — quite the opposite. Somebody else is to blame.

Where did the Renaissance come from? People will say that it was a rejection of traditional oppressive church views, or that after the black plague, everybody was just so happy, they got all scientific and artistic. These are both nonsense of course. There is a better explanation.

The dark ages — why so dark?

And given what I learned last year about the fall of Rome — that after 500 AD it was a little town of maybe 15,000 inhabitants — where was the Pope all this time, and how was he running much of Europe from such a nowhere place? How is it that Rome is destroyed, but the Pope of Rome is the center of power and wealth in Europe all through the Middle Ages? Can both be true? Well, actually — no.

Much of what we’ve all heard religion and politics in the Middle Ages is a very Roman Catholic viewpoint. There are other quite different viewpoints.

The answer to the dark ages is: it never was dark — the light just moved further East, to Constantinople. This city, from around 350 AD to after 1200 AD, was by far the largest city outside of China, by far the richest city in the world. It was the light of the West … just … farther from Western Europe than Rome is. So to Western Europe, things seemed relatively dark. But not so for Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

In the Byzantine Empire, learning, art, sports, religion and politics flourished and progressed. And trade, trade, trade … between West and Eastern Europe, the Near East, Africa, India, and with China. Constantinople was the richest city in the world for around 800 years. The old Roman empire had lasted only 400 years. In fact, only the Egyptian culture endured longer than the Byzantine.

The Byzantine Empire was Christian from its very founding. This is “Christian” in the modern sense of “Orthodox Christian”, although the distinctions were at the beginning just a matter of opinion among many. (There were other separate Christian groups at the same time: the Arians, as I described before, and Copts, who still live in Egypt.) There was no Pope in Byzantium — the Emperor was the sole head of the Church and ruled by divine right. Basically, whoever took the throne in Byzantium, by whatever means (insurrection and murder, commonly), became the head of the Church.

A lot of stuff happened — but the part connecting to Western Europe is this.

All along, the Roman church continued to exist, and the two groups mostly tolerated one another.

The Roman church had no choice in this though, as it had no direct political power. It wielded influence over most of Western Europe primarily by an economy of promised favors in the afterlife. The Roman Catholic church was a very little thing compared to Byzantium, and relatively impoverished. This is very different from the story I’ve always heard, where the Roman church ruled over all the kings of Europe. It never did, really. Charlemagne around 800 AD became a Roman Catholic, and bloodily forced everybody in his realm to the same belief — but this was very much his choice. And Rome was not very rich until something bad befell Constantinople.

The Byzantines weren’t especially concerned with Western Europe, whom they considered rude and — well — in the dark. They usually controlled the Balkans, and much of Eastern Europe, and at times parts of the old Persian Empire, and around the Mediterranean.

Russia and the other Eastern Slavs were (and remain) heavily affected by the Byzantine Empire. They took their religion, their laws, their architecture and much of their general culture from the Byzantines.

What did in the Byzantine Empire was: The Fourth Crusade, in 1204. The Pope of Rome whipped up the European population to launch an expedition to make the Holy Land accessible to Christian pilgrims. (Also as a bonus, to pillage and pirate and rape and enslave like crazy… generally win-win.) When the armies were en route, there was a re-think of the whole enterprise. A Byzantine prince conspired with the Crusader commanders to help him attain power. They came in and did so, but the prince was soon himself murdered, so the Crusaders couldn’t get paid for their services.

The Venetians and the commanders reckoned they were well positioned: Christian Crusaders were not expected in Christian Constantinople as enemies. They walked right in, killed all the powerful families and anybody else who resisted, and set up an administration for the purpose of shipping all the riches out of Constantinople to Europe.

The Pope was maybe not directly responsible for this treachery. He condemned the killing of Christians by the Crusaders. But — then the gold started coming; he found he could live with the pain.

Much of the old gold in Europe came from this event, as did much of the riches of the Vatican, and of Venice and Florence and Vienna. The pillage went on for 50 years. (It was a lot of stuff.) The new lords of Constantinople didn’t care a whit for the population, who became impoverished and sick.

So, within three generations, Constantinople was reduced to a tenth of its former population. Everybody else left or died. Many of the learned or artistic or ambitious moved to European cities. (Many more moved to Muslim lands.)

And this — was the Renaissance. Early Renaissance painting is late Byzantine painting. It was a cultural repotting that flourished.

Suddenly the Roman Catholic church, and many Roman Catholic cities, were much richer than before. And for a good while, about 300 years, the Roman church became very powerful indeed — but it wasn’t long before the Renaissance, and the displeasure of kings caught up with them.

Get this: the Renaissance and the ascendancy of the Roman Catholic church were part of the same thing, the dispersion of the wealth of Byzantium.

Two hundred years after the Fourth Crusade, Sultan Mehmed II took what remained of Constantinople, but he was very disappointed by what he found inside. It was largely a slum — all the riches gone. Only some of the great buildings remained (the Hagia Sofia, especially). Mehmed didn’t destroy the city at all — he rebuilt it to be the greatest city in the Ottoman empire. (Its modern name, Istanbul, is from a Byzantine phrase meaning “to the city”.) It has remained mostly Turkish and Muslim ever since.

So there you are, several questions answered, and a different perspective on the middle ages.

Oh one more thing. We who harken from Western Europe may have forgotten all about Byzantium, and about the Fourth Crusade that ended it. Well, the Russians and other Eastern Slavs haven’t. This is an old, sore hurt for them, and the source of much of their mistrust of their Western neighbors.