Bloody Shovel 3

We will drown and nobody shall save us


Everybody in the blogosphere writes reviews of books by modern economists or academics, producing a lively discussion on the topics on vogue. That's also how people like Yglesias or Tyler Cowen get good money also. Well I'm not going to participate in that, and I'm not reading any of these trendy books, in part because my fellow bloggers have done all the digestion necessary for me to know what the book is about without contributing to their chalupas eating budget.

All this doesn't mean that I don't read any books at all. It's that what I read doesn't usually interest anyone else. But to hell with it, I've got a blog and I'm gonna do a book review too.

I just finished reading the 1971 book, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century, by Speros Vryonis Jr.

The Byzantine Empire is one of the most interesting polities in human history, for many reasons. For one, it was the Roman Empire! Or so they called themselves, Romania. It was a Christian bureaucratic theocracy in a time where most of Europe was divided in tiny fiefdoms by uncouth German knights. Humans generally have a fascination for continuity, and Byzantium was a miracle of continuity in a world of violent upheaval. It survived the Goths, the Slavs, the Bulgars. Even the Arabs, although they did do a lot of harm, taking the southern half of the empire forever. Still the empire held to Greece and Asia Minor, and over time even had the energy to acquire (or reacquire, as being the Roman Empire means all land around used to be yours) some territories in Europe. By 1025 Byzantine emperors ruled over a handsome expanse of land.

Byzantium was a theocratic autocracy, whose emperor had absolute personal rule, and whose church held absolute control over the subject's souls. Lately many in the alt-right blogosphere have been turning to monarchy (see here or here), and Byzantium really strikes one as the total opposite of the modern democratic, nanoslice-ic, hedonistic present. Bruce Charlton plainly stated that Byzantium is the ideal state.

Professor Charlton is entitled to his historical preferences, but there's this little problem, namely that Byzantium fell, miserably, to Muslim enemies. See, we moderns live in a world shaped by the utter domination of European culture around the world. Letting modern white guilt and post-WW2 suicide apart, European countries since the 18th century have dominated the globe without real opposition. And HBD tells a simple story as to why it happened. Yet here you have Greece, the mother of Europe, losing its own heartland, 750.000 km² and 10 million people, lost forever to a by all accounts intellectually inferior nation.

The first Muslim wave of the 7th century had its explanation in that the Coptic and Syrian Churches were non Chalcedonian, and deeply resented how Constantinople treated them as heretics to be converted. They mostly welcomed the Arabs. That happens with multi-ethnic empires. But that wasn't the case with Asia Minor. What remained of the empire after the Arab invasions was the Greek core of the empire, a uniform nation united by one language and one church. By far the biggest in Europe. What happened then? What did the Turks do that the Arabs didn't?

I will elaborate in a further post, but in short, as Arnold Toynbee said, Byzantium died from suicide, not murder. Infighting between the army and the bureaucracy in Constantinople ended with the victory of the capital and the hollowing out of the Anatolian army, leaving the territory undefended. The reckless absorption of Armenia scattered its people on the eastern frontier, where in revenge for the loss of their kingdom they exerted themselves in causing all the trouble they could. Palatial intrigues were so bad that the Emperor itself was betrayed and given away to the Turks at Manzikert in 1071, by his own men.

The result was unleashing the biggest and most destructive nomad invasion of civilised territory in history. Millions killed and enslaved (so much for the myth that medieval war was a mild business). Scores of Christian cities razed to the ground, never to recover. The decimation of the Orthodox Church and the Greek nation.  All this happened to the most rationalised and experienced theocratic kingdom on Earth. In my next post I'll explain further how it happened and what lessons we should learn from it.


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  • An empire that stood for a thousand years, whilst being perpetually surrounded by hostiles, that kept devout and steadfast belief in the Faith, and is remarkable by the very fact it died fighting (NOT suicide).

    And, somehow, you're going to find fault with it.


    • The catastrophe of Manzikert is the closest to suicide I've ever read about. France falling to the Nazis was the epitome of national unity compared to it. All empires must fall and Byzantium did good for a long time, but the fact that there's more Christians today in Egypt or Syria than in Turkey really is remarkable.

      • The lack of Christians in today's Turkey is due to the events that happened in the years during and after WW1, in which the territory that remained in Turkish hands after the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire was thoroughly ethnically cleansed. (Of course, the neighboring nations mostly returned the favor.) There were plenty of Christians living in the Ottoman Empire all until then.

  • >Vladimir

    Armenians mostly, and a couple million Greeks, mostly migrants into Anatolia after the Ottoman conquest, not the original population. In 1400 Asia Minor's Greek population was reduced to Trebizond and little else.

    It's a common myth that Christians were a majority until Kemal, but here:

  • Byzantium might have been an autocracy, but there were no clear rules of succession and court intrigue was a staple:

    Primogeniture, or indeed heredity itself, was never legally established in Byzantine imperial succession, because in principle the Roman Emperor was selected by common acclamation of the Senate, the People and the Army. This was rooted firmly in the Roman "republican" tradition, whereby hereditary kingship was rejected and the Emperor was nominally the convergence of several offices of the Republic onto one person.[citation needed] Many emperors, anxious to safeguard their firstborn son's right to the throne, had them crowned as co-emperors when they were still children, thus assuring that upon their own death the throne would not be even momentarily vacant. In such a case the need for an imperial selection never arose. In several cases the new Emperor ascended the throne after marrying the previous Emperor's widow, or indeed after forcing the previous Emperor to abdicate and become a monk. Several emperors were also deposed because of perceived inadequacy, e.g., after a military defeat, and some were murdered. (La Wik)
    A glance at the list of Byzantian dynasties suffices to confirm this. Thus, the Byzantine empire can hardly serve as a model monarchy. However, this is not to say that there is nothing to be learned from its history, rather the reverse.

      • That list of dynasties generally is depressing reading for a would-be royalist. Byzantine monarchies seem to have been the norm, the major exceptions being the Austrians, British, French, Japanese, Koreans and Norwegians. The Japanese dynasty is the champion (at least 1500 years' continuity) but had no real power for most of that period. More recently, Tokugawa shoguns lasted for only 300 years. So the question becomes, what made these peoples different?

      • Yes the Japanese imperial dynasty is just let to continue for the sake of continuity. Not a bad idea if you ask me. Tokugawa's 250 years or so of actual control isn't that different from the standard Chinese dynasty length. Which is quite tolerable. Korea is an outlier but it was a extremely repressive slave holding society too. I'd rather change dynasties once in a while. Also the Ottomans lasted a really long time for local standards.

      • I agree about the Japanese dynasty. Besides just continuity, it had (has?) another very important function: just by virtue of being there, it provided an alternative axis around which power could coalesce. I don't know Japanese history well so I can't tell how important this factor was historically, but it was very prominent during the Bakumatsu period and in the course of the Meiji Revolution that followed it. I imagine Japan could not have reoriented and modernized so quickly after the humiliation at Uraga but for this possibility of uniting behind the Chrysanthemum Throne. Its technological and scientific level at the time could not have been very different from Korea or China.

        As for the Ottomans, just look up how many palace coups they had. Killing off brothers was a necessary precaution for a new sultan, who then proceeded to create the preconditions for the next round.

  • There must be something in the air of Constantinople. Still 600 years is very impressive. And fraticide is always preferable to a Roman style long civil war.

    Historically the japanese emperor was like Pius VII to Napoleon. All big shoguns went to Kyoto to "be named shogun". Most of the time it was a formality, but it did make things smoother. The cause for Japanese speed in modernising is normally attributed to its feudal structure; people were more used to fend for themselves instead of relying on the central government. Feudal samurais were travelling abroad before the Tokugawa government fell.

    • Feudal samurais were travelling abroad before the Tokugawa government fell.
      They did — in the Bakumatsu period, the 15 years between Uraga and Meiji Ishin. Both the rebel daimyos and the shogunate sent envoys etc. Difficult to say how feudal they actually were, given subsequent events.

  • "There must be something in the air of Constantinople."

    It's positively Byzantine.

    Seriously, it more or less was the center of the world for 1000 years. The tourist district downtown has been the tourist district downtown for 1500 years. The touts have been showing visitors the sights for 60 generations.

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