The importance of Byzantium for the West


Professor Sean Gabb, lecturer, political activist and the author of nine historical novels about early years of the Byzantium Empire, explains how the Byzantium influenced on the division between the Eastern and the Western branches of Christianity, and how its history lessons could help in the struggle with modern challenged.

We, the Westerners, were civilized from Rome by Barbarian ancestors in the V- VII centuries. Although, in England and in a number of other West European countries, we divided from Rome in the XVI century at the time of Protestant Reformation. We remain in our outlook and in general theology to Western Сatholic Christians. On the other hand, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and other Orthodox communions were civilized from Constantinople. There are considerable differences of emphasis between Eastern and Western Christianity. You can draw a wavy line through Central and Eastern Europe. On the Western side you have Catholic Christianity, even if, as I said, many of us are Protestants.

On the Eastern side you have Orthodox Christianity. We looked to Rome, you looked to Constantinople, and those are differences, which haven't gone away during the past thousand years. Since the end of communism those differences have emerged with increasing force. To understand many of the differences between Russia and Western Europe, it is essential to look at those religious differences.  They were obscured by communism, but never abolished. Since the end of communism those differences have become much more important.

I’ve always been interested in the Eastern Rome Empire. When I was a boy, I fell in love with Greece and Rome. I learnt Latin and Greek, I read everything I could about the Greeks and Romans. When I was twelve, I found a copy of Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of Roman Empire”. This opened up a vast new period in history. I must notice, that an educated man in Europe, and certainly in England, will study the Greeks until the death of Alexander the Great and then he will study the Romans until the time of the end of the Western Rome Empire in 476 AD. His attention will then shift to the Barbarian kingdoms.  In my case, the attention shifts to the Anglo-Saxon kings, from whom we derive our own history. We do not pay very much attention to the Byzantium Empire, it is outside our history. We are aware of it, because the Byzantium Empire would very often reach into Western Europe to use us or to disrupt our various projects. So, we are aware of the Byzantium Empire, but we don’t understand its history and feel rather uncomfortable with it. We often despise the Byzantium Greeks, because they were so conservative in their cultural values. We found ourselves very much uninterested in their particular concerns. But, once I had read Gibbon, this entire period had opened up to me. I did my best at university to confine my studies to the Eastern Rome Empire. I have spent the rest of my life thinking and writing very largely about that period. It is fascinating.

Some years ago, when I decided to become a historical novelist, I had a wide range of choices. There has been very little written about the Byzantium Empire in English, so it was a natural choice for me to settle on the Early Byzantium period. It is a period of enormous interest, an inspiring story of survival and recovery and of progress in terms of human values. It may be not fully appreciated in my part of Christendom, but it is something that allowed me to produce a whole series of, what I hope, very interesting stories.

You can explain many differences in modern Europe to the division between the Eastern and the Western branches of Christianity. Western Christianity is a synthesis of ambitions of the Latin-speaking western Popes and the cultural values of the western Barbarians. Western Christianity is as an expression of the national culture of the Western Barbarians as it is of any particular theological outlook. In same way, Eastern Orthodox Christianity is a synthesis of the Greek-speaking Christianity of Constantinople and the Byzantium Empire and the particular cultural values of the Eastern Barbarians, of the Slavs, of the Armenians and of the various other people, who have adopted the Orthodox rite.

These differences, as I said, have existed over thousand years. They were, to some extent, pushed aside during the communist period, when the Soviet Union was the head of an armed atheist conspiracy against all religion. But, since the death of communism, it looks that Russia has embraced its orthodox heritage with considerable enthusiasm. With that comes a great deal of suspicion of the West.

The West stabbed the Byzantium Empire in the back on several occasions. The Byzantines were not always very kind to the Westerners. They regarded us as Barbarians long after we had ceased being Barbarians, and they despised us. In the next centuries we had produced a most remarkable civilization of our own. But on the other side, when the Byzantines called us for help against the Islamic enemy, we launched the crusades. which, in the first instance were useful to Byzantine foreign policy. but ultimately, we decided that we should make use of the crusades for our own purposes. In 1204AD we broken to Constantinople, burnt the place, destroyed the Byzantium Empire and divide it into western principalities. We left Eastern Europe and central Europe wide open to the Turkish Invasions of the next few centuries.

Then, in 1453 the Byzantium Empire had contracted to the territory of Constantinople itself. When the Byzantines called on the West for help, we gave no help of any use to them. We stood by and watched how the most of Orthodox Christianity were occupied by the Turks. That is something that the Greeks have never forgotten.

Western Christianity is regarded with suspicion and with a little envy, because it have never had to face the challenges that Orthodox Christendom has faced in every century of its existence. The Byzantines spent most of their history facing down Islam. You do not face down Islam for five or six centuries and do it successfully by accident. You do that because you have a deep belief in your own civilization and your culture and because you have the ability to organize yourself for the defense.  But, ultimately, the Orthodox Christians lost that long contest with Islam. Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Athens and all of the centers of Eastern civilization and Christianity were ultimately overrun by the Muslims. The story moves into Kiev and into Moscow. But there also was a long contest for faith: there was a Mongol invasion, the Ottoman Empire invasions and, in XX century, there was a devastating challenge of Soviet communism. Orthodoxy has survived, and in Russia it is triumphed. And that requires a certain toughness which we in the West may perhaps lack. We have never faced an existential challenge in the way that Orthodox Church has faced in century after century. I am not sure that with the same challenges we would survive.

Something that we must accept is that there are radical differences between Eastern and Western Christianity. These are differences of Church doctrine and these are differences of national culture. But ultimately, we are all members of the same Christian civilization. When we face challenges from outside Christendom, I think it is time to set aside some of the differences and to work together for a common survival of our civilization. I am not sure that Islam nowadays is quite a challenge to our way of life, but many people think it is. In any conventional war between the Christian power and Islamic power for the past four hundred years, the Christian power has been triumphed. There is such an enormous difference in wealth and technological ability between Christendom and all other civilizations, that I do not think we need to worry about terrorism.

I think the main challenge to our common Christian Civilization is from a completely non-religious new World Order, a globalized World Order in which there will be an enormously wealthy and privileged small minority of rulers, presiding over a completely homogeneous humanity, stripped of cultural identity, stripped of religion in meaningful sense, reduced to atomized mass of subjects, workers and consumers.

The British and American ruling class is committed at the moment to this project. These people, who like the idea of a globalized World Order, are not all bad. Many of them would argue that history is a nightmare from which humanity is at last waking up and we should set aside our national cultures and our religious values, and simply regard ourselves as individuals and members of a single humanity. That is the position, I convinced, that will lead us to a new kind of civilization, in which individual freedom and all the things that make our lives meaningful would be abolished. There are people with very disreputable motives, who are pushing this New World Order stuff: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, George W. Bush, Hilary Clinton. These are not good people, who have gravitated to bad ideas. But, on the other hand, there are many good people, who are simply misled. Without rejecting the undeniable benefits of the changes of the past few centuries, we need to hold on to our individual, national and regional cultures, because those are things which give meaning to lives of ordinary people. They contain a great deal of permanent truth. For this purpose, I do believe, that the religious and national differences between Orthodox and Western Christians should not be abolished, but to put aside in a face of a common threat. It may be that there are other religions which are worried by the same threat. So, a loose coalition of conservatives, of people of faith, of liberals in the old-fashioned sense, may be something that is worth exploring.