How to talk to your (Greek) kids about Byzantium
An article by Alexander Billinis for Neoskosmos.com
We often talk about history around the table. The date of 29 May, when heroic Constantinople finally fell to the Turks, always merits a discussion. Dinner table historical conversations are a Greek pastime. Gus Portokalos in Big Fat Greek Wedding made a point of talking about “the history of our people,” at the dinner table, to the neighbours, and to the “lucky” future son-in-law getting baptised into the Greek Orthodox Church, whose “ancestors were singing in trees while Greeks were writing philosophy.”
Add in the Greek Orthodox Church, the costumes, parades, Greek School (if you indulged in this), and you had a sort of timeline. The Parthenon, Alexander the Great, perhaps a word on the New Testament being written in Greek and the Apostle Paul’s travels in Greece, and then … an intermission.
This hiatus in historiography and instruction lasts almost 1800 years, until suddenly the poems, the dances, and the rebellions began again, and this nation extinguished for about two millennia arose again, as if in suspended animation for all this time.
Never mind that one must also suspend belief to make this jump; our dinner table talk, and historiography in general, seems to oblige a two-millennium fast forward.
Obviously, I am exaggerating for effect, but ask yourself. Did the Portokaloses talk about Byzantium at all? We know that the yiayia hated the Turks, but do most Greek viewers know how the Turks got there, or what was there before? How often did you talk about the Byzantine Empire and its one thousand-year history in Greek school or Sunday School?
If you went to school before Western Civilisation courses got axed out due to political correctness, you may have talked about the Ancient Greeks, and then moved West to Rome and never “back East” again, even though East Rome—Byzantium, survived for another 1000 years. Unless you majored in East European Studies, you might never have heard of Byzantium at all.
So, how do you fill in the timeline?
Very simple. First of all, talk about how the Roman civilisation was in fact Greco-Roman civilisation, a fusion of these two high Mediterranean cultures. The Eastern part of the Roman Empire had always spoken Greek as its primary administrative language, and the Romans continued this practice. You might remind both your children—and your Evangelical Christian friends (particularly if, like me, you live in the American South)—that this is why The New Testament was written in Greek.
Then, as the Roman Empire became too unwieldy and attacked by barbarians to the north, the empire was divided into two, and this division ran roughly along the lines of where Greek was spoken (a map helps here). A Roman Emperor named Constantine (that’s why we Greeks have this name all the time) then moved his capital to a place where Europe meets Asia, on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, and it became known as Constantinople. Under Emperor Constantine, Christianity—the same Christianity we Greeks (and Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, Russians and others) celebrate—became the Roman state religion.
With the fusion of Greek and Roman civilisation with Christianity, you have the basis for the Greek identity of today, and this identity was fully formed in about 400 AD, not 300 BC, or in 1821.
It is worth noting, to your children and to your non-Greek friends, that this empire lasted a mere 1000 years, it generally was the strongest and wealthiest European-Mediterranean polity. It might also resonate a bit to remind yourself and everyone else that this Byzantium thwarted any number of Islamic and barbarian invasions of Europe, and when the Byzantines converted peoples to Christianity—unlike Western Christians and scores of other religions—they did so by the Word of God and by the elegance and opulence of their civilizations.
While we rightfully marble at the beauty of The Parthenon and the works of Praxiteles, should we not also wax poetic about Hagia Sophia, The Walls of Constantinople, or the elegant frescoes, mosaics, and edifices of Mystra, Osios Loukas, and literally hundreds of other sites?
Though the Byzantines had an innate sense of superiority, they did not believe, as did the Western Christians, that God could only speak Greek, Latin or Hebrew, and when converting the Slavs, they developed an alphabet and a liturgy in the local languages, so that the South Slavs and the Russians who converted to Orthodoxy did so in their own languages and at the same time fully absorbed Byzantine culture through a Slavic linguistic prism. They conquered with an alphabet army, and it would take the Western Christians another 700 or so years to translate the Bible into local languages.
Medicine, science, technology, and learning thrived under the Byzantines at a time when Western Europe was truly “in the dark.” When you sit down to eat dinner today, the fork you use to put your food in your mouth—rather than use your often-dirty hands—was invented by the Byzantines. The works of the Ancients rediscovered by Western Europe in the Renaissance had been part of the national patrimony of the Byzantines. The Byzantines fleeing the Turks towards the end of the Byzantine Empire were a key catalyst for the Renaissance—again, a fact overlooked and often the Arabs of Spain are given more credit for the Renaissance than the Byzantines.
Since you are on the subject, you might also mention that this empire was set upon by both its fellow Christians in the West, and the Muslims to the East. Caught in the middle, the empire eventually succumbed, but not after a millennium of existence, a track record with few peers anywhere. This is part of their heritage, a huge part.
So great was this Byzantine legacy that, in fact, the conquering Turks could not extinguish it, but rather coopted it in their own imperial system. The Byzantine peoples—today’s Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Romanians, and other Orthodox Christians—retained their religious and community identity as Rums (Romioi-[East] Romans-Byzantines). They were, however, second class citizens in a regressive state that took them from the pinnacle of European learning and technology to a state of impoverishment and underdevelopment.
Nonetheless, they persisted, and whether under the Turkish Sultan or the Byzantine Emperor, they still called themselves Romioi-Romans-Byzantines, and remained loyal to their Church and their history. So powerful was this sense of Byzantine identity—throughout the ex-Byzantine Empire, in fact—that many Balkan revolutionaries wanted to create a Balkan Federation to replace the Ottoman Regime. Rhigas Pheraios, well known to Greek School children for his Thyrios Ymnos, and considered the Protomartyras (first martyr) of the Greek Revolution, was in favour of such a multi-ethnic Byzantine Federation.
The Philike Etairia had Romanian, Albanian, Serbian, and Bulgarian members as well as Greeks. They were united by a common Byzantine identity, a legacy of over 1000 years of common history and culture. Today, the Balkans are divided, and everyone assumes that it has to be that way, it does not. We all had a common Byzantine legacy, yet we all chose to emphasize those things that divide us, rather than unite us. The Byzantine legacy was one that could have been a unifying force. Byzantium also explains why, during the 1990s expansion of the Greek economy, nearly all Greek investments were in Byzantine successor states.
To understand the importance of Asia Minor to Greeks, it is vital to understand Byzantium. Asia Minor was the core of Byzantium, and now it is its necropolis, emptied of its Byzantine inhabitants. It was the Byzantine yearnings of the Greek people, both in Greece and in Asia Minor, that drove the Greek Army into Asia, to claim Greece’s successorship, not to the Ancients, but to Byzantium. What happened in 1922 was truly a catastrophe in every sense of the word, a whole living history excised and amputated, with the survivors who still called themselves Romioi dumped on Greek shores.
Byzantium is the link that is missing in far too many discussions about Greece, and the history and legacy of this empire is vital to understanding Greece, who we are, and who we were. It is the link to our ancestral lands, to our Church, and to our fellow successors in the region. When we forget about Byzantium, we can hardly know ourselves, and one of our greatest ancient ancestors, Socrates, above all admonished one to “Know Thyself.”
The legacy is all around us, hidden in plain sight. It only requires a contextualisation of the historical record. Keeping this record straight, both within the community and without, is vital. If we do not, Byzantium will fade further from historical consciousness, or its glories, legacies, and edifices will be co-opted by others. It’s up to us.