Some people have not understood how the new world will work. They intend to stop the technical developments and get stuck in their old rules. Also, they want to be subsidized for their inability to adapt. I think of certain elements of the cultural life in my home country, such as the Spanish film makers, who film tapes nobody wants to watch or a certain sinister, obscure organization known as SGAE that extorts a commission out of every technological device you buy, under the excuse of protecting culture and copyright.
12 Byzantine Rulers: The History of the Byzantine Empire
But I didn’t want to talk about those forces of the evil, but about all the opposite. There is this guy who has understood the new models of business and in some way I’d like to pay respect to him, because he seems one of those that will make us go ahead. The main theme of the post will be history of the Byzantine Empire, with some autobiographical bits about my own travelling, both on the road and with the mind.
Üsküdar, Ottoman-flavoured district of Istanbul in the Asian side of it. It was called Chrysopolis in Byzantine times (October 2001)
I think Lars Brownworth has understood it. He is releasing a book (Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization), which will be available since September 15 2009, and that I will buy as soon as possible. First, Brownworth has done a very clever thing, namely sowing. He’s set this neat webpage where you can download a very nice series of podcasts about the Emperors of the Byzantine Empire. That’s for free. The series it is so enjoyable that I cannot help purchasing the book as soon as I see it in one of the bookshops I frequent. These podcasts have accompanied me on my way to and from work in the last week, and it has been a truly enriching experience to listen to them, and some of the best commuting in months.
Hagia Sophia, in the background the Golden Horn
Brownworth lectures about Diocletian, Constantine the Great, Julian the Apostate, Zeno, Justinian, Heraclius, Irene of Athens, Basil I, Basil II, Alexius, Isaac and Constantine XI. A set of 12 rulers out of the 88 that wore the crown of the Empire. It is not a succession of biographies, though. He is able to convey the esprit du temps and the social reality of every moment along the Byzantine history. Also every relevant Byzantine aspect is talked about. Be it war, religion, internal politics, foreign policy, daily life. It totals a good six and a half hours of a very entertaining tale.
Artisans in the streets close to the Great Bazaar (Istanbul, October 2001)
My interest in Byzantine history is tangential, but there is some. Bronwnworth is right when he says that the Byzantine history has been made marginal by the school curricula in the Western world (one thousand years of decline? come on, that’s simply not possible). My first memory of it takes me to the primary school, when I was some 12 years-old. There was that map of Visigothic Spain in which a strip of the south-eastern corner appeared as Byzantine. And to the question, “was Spain ever Byzantine?” the teacher could not answer quite convincingly. I did not think there were Orthodox churches or icons in the South of Spain, and indeed there are none, but anachronic surrealism is one of the risks of reducing one thousand years to a stereotype. Maybe my teacher did not remember Bellisarius or did not have the texts written by Procopius at hand.
The Byzantine Empire in 527 and 565, after Bellisarius conquests for Justinian
In October 2001 my sisters and I spent a week in Istanbul. I remember reading the travel guide and learning more than a few things. Mostly about the Islamic Constantinople, after the Fall, which the Turks know as “the Conquest” instead (I had never thought of that fine example of political semantics before).
Romans knew how to choose the location for a city
But also a few about, for example, the Fourth Crusade and the difficult relations of the East and the West or about Constantine, Justinian, Hagia Sophia or the Hippodrome. Or Atatürk and Gallipoli, for some more contemporary stuff. But indeed, I think that for most Western Europeans, even the cultured ones, there is some kind of gap in history, nothing less than a one-thousand year gap, between the division of the Roman Empire and 1453.
Things I liked a lot about the series. This is a miscellanea of things, some of the things I may have known in some primitive form of knowledge but after this podcast series they became an insight:
- The name of Byzantine Empire was given to the Eastern Roman Empire by historians after it disappeared. During its existence it was known by several other names such as “Rome”, “Romania” or “Empire of Constantinople”.
- So that’s why it was so important that Charlemagne became Emperor! … there was already an Emperor in Constantinople to which the Easterners considered legitimate heir of the Roman Empire.
- Irene of Athens, who was about to marry Charlemagne. What a character! I had never heard of her before. She ordered her own son to be blinded and killed her, one of the most brutal crimes in the long of the history of the Empire.
- I never knew how small the Byzantine Empire actually was when it fell. I discovered this map in my research post-podcast.
- And also another map that shows what Constantinople was in 1453. The coast line is different from the one I strolled in 2001. These bays are not there anymore.
- The tragic death of Constantine XI Palaiologos fighting the Turks in the streets of his city and whose corpse was never recovered. I found very interesting Its ascension to myth and its symbolic importance for Greek nationalism since.
- The Latin Empire (1204-1261) established after the Fourth Crusade is quite a history on its own. Also that sad destination of the bones of Enrico Dandolo,
- Constantinople was not the last Christian city to fall to the Turks. After its fall in 1453, there were three successor empires which outlasted the city of cities: Trebizond (1461), Nicaea (1461), Epirus (1479).
- In October 2006 I entered the tomb of Tuthmose III in the Valley of the Kings, close to Luxor in Egypt. Weeks later I came to realize that I had already seen its obelisk in Istanbul. Very close to it, the Serpent Column, which I did not quite appreciate in its time. Now I’ve read of its long history.
There were indeed many other things that I learnt or that increased my knowledge in this or that respect. This is a mere sample and I recommend to go to the sources to find about it yourselves.