Byzantium: The Continuation of the Roman Empire in the East


Hagia Sopia interior dome / Istanbul (ancient/medieval Constantinople)


Lecture by Dr. Paul H. Freedman / 11.07.2011
Chester D. Tripp Professor of History
Chair, History of Science and Medicine Program
Yale University

Introduction

The Byzantine Empire under Justinian / Wikimedia Commons

Here I have a kind of periodization. We’ve spoken about Justinian’s expansion. Very shortly after his death, there begins what seems in retrospect, at least in part, to be a reaction to imperial overreach. Imperial overreach is a phenomenon seen throughout history, described most memorably, perhaps, by our own Paul Kennedy, the tendency for empires simply, in order to protect themselves or in order to fulfill their ambitions to get too large for their own ability to hold onto their possessions. This is an economic problem, a logistical problem, a resource problem, and even a cultural problem.

In general, it’s hard to say what provokes the crisis. That is, with the Roman Empire as with the Abbasids, we can say, “Oh, well it was too big”. On the other hand, it was too big and did just fine for centuries. In the case of the Abbasid Empire, maybe not centuries, but 150 years, which as these things go is a pretty long time. Here, however, we’re talking about something that is much more obviously related to some kind of overreach. Justinian formed his expanded empire, which is the first map in the handout. And merely a few years after his death, it started to unravel.

You’ll recall that we said that he had at great cost conquered Italy. After the easy conquest of North Africa, this looked like it would be easy as well. But in fact, while North Africa, occupied by the Vandals, fell within a year or two, Italy took twenty years to wrest from the Ostrogoths. And the peninsula was devastated and in radical economic decline when Byzantium took over.

A mere three years after Justinian’s death in 568, Italy was invaded by yet another barbarian tribe, the Lombards. The Lombards did not take over all of it. The Byzantine Empire– Eastern Roman Empire– managed to hold on to Sicily, much of southern Italy, the east coast, particularly the capital of the Byzantine province, Ravenna. But nevertheless, the Lombards occupied most of the peninsula.

And as we’ll discuss in a moment, other disasters piled up in this period that I have just called “Contraction”. But it’s not just a question of the Empire getting smaller. It’s really a radical crisis and an ongoing crisis with the appearance of many enemies and the radical shrinking of the borders of this empire.

So again, look at the empire in 565. It’s making a good attempt at Justinian’s death to mimic the Roman Empire at the beginning of our course, at its height in the third century. It doesn’t have northwestern Europe, but it has most of the Mediterranean. And to the degree that the Roman Empire was, as we with fatiguing repetition have said, a Mediterranean-centered empire, this empire of Justinian’s does a good job of restoring that Mediterranean orientation.

If you look at the second map during this period of what the author of this book that I took the map from, Haldon, H-A-L-D-O-N, calls “the process of devastation”, you can see how much has been lost. The Empire at this point consists mostly of Anatolia, a little bit of Italy, a few islands. Even the Balkans is mostly occupied by Slavs and Bulgars.

There then follows a period of reconstruction, of the stabilization of borders, of taking back some lands in the Balkans and in Anatolia from the Arabs in Anatolia and from various groups in the Balkans. This is also the period of the iconoclastic emperors. And then finally, an expansion of the Byzantine Empire. The golden age of the Byzantine Empire is this period after the settlement of Iconoclasm in 843, until the appearance of a new enemy, the Seljuk Turks, who won a devastating victory in 1071 and begin a process of what ultimately—but, in this case, ultimately means 350 years– what ultimately would be the final crisis for the Byzantine Empire, which would be extinguished by the Turks in 1453.

So if you look at map number three, the Byzantine Empire around the year 1000– Ignore Bulgaria for the time being; that is a separate kingdom, and we’re going to talk about it soon. This is a compact empire compared to that of Justinian. It is not in control of the Mediterranean. It has two bases, really, the Balkans and Asia Minor. And it has a little bit of territory in Italy still.

But this empire made logistic sense, was never easy to keep together. Nevertheless, it was stable, had enough money for its substantial military expenses, and even to create a kind of cultural efflorescence.

The Contraction of the Byzantine Empire

Byzantine Empire in 650 under Constans II / Wikimedia Commons

So here we have a story not merely of survival, but of survival, adaptation, and expansion. And that’s what I want to discuss with you today. The reason we’re doing this is because this is part of early medieval history. We’ve talked about the legacy of the Roman Empire, a three-part kind of legacy in our formulation. On Wednesday, we’ll start talking again about Europe, northern Europe and the degree to which Charlemagne in particular it is a self-conscious heir to the Roman Empire. He revised the title of Roman Emperor.

In the case of the East, these people have never abandoned the title of Roman Emperor. And indeed, the key thing about the Byzantine crisis in contrast to the crisis of the West is that the Empire never falls. It is never destroyed. But it does undergo many of the same crises and consequences of the crises that the West did in the fifth century.

I said last time that to some extent, while we don’t like the term “Dark Ages”, certainly after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, Europe enters into a period of radical material simplification: That is to say, it is more rural. There’s less commerce. It is politically more decentralized. It is militarized. And its culture is the preserve of a relatively small group of clergy.

A lot of the same things happen in the Byzantine Empire in the seventh and eighth centuries. This is a kind of dark age for Byzantium. We don’t have a lot of written sources, for example. There seems to be an almost complete desertion of the ancient cities, with the exception of Constantinople itself and one or two others, the same kind of ruralization of society.

It is a militarized society, although as we’ll see, with more central governmental role. But it is a society built around warfare. And it is a society in which culture is also somewhat restricted. The libraries don’t get destroyed exactly, but they certainly don’t get a whole lot of use, at least in terms of things that we can understand or follow.

And the Byzantine Empire faced an awful lot of enemies.

The history of Byzantium is to some extent the history of emperors you’ve never heard of, writers you’ve never heard of, a lot of really neat art, heresies that you may have never heard of before but you have to learn anyway, and invaders, some of whom you’ve heard of, some of whom not. But heresies and invaders are really the story.

I didn’t make this history, but it is very important. And actually, I think heresies are kind of neat, although who am I to say since I went into this for a living? So I must’ve liked them. The most dramatic enemy of Byzantium in this period is Caliphate, the Arab empire of Islam. And so in terms of the shocks and crises of this period of contraction after Justinian, the rise of Islam, and in particular the two dramatic sieges of Constantinople in 674, where a naval battle finally defeated the Arab forces, and the siege of 717. So 674, 717, two sieges of Constantinople by the Caliphate.

So what was the problem of imperial overreach– just to take this back to its origins? Justinian in particular, as we said, was focused on the conquest of the Western Roman Empire, which he saw, of course, not as a conquest but as a reconquest, a restoration of territories taken unjustly by barbarian rulers, which he was determined to take back. He already had one enemy, however, and that was Persia on the eastern front. This is nothing new. We started the course with the Rhine and Danube frontier as one front and the Persian frontier in the East as another. The only difference is now the Rhine and Danube frontier has been breached.

Justinian pacified the Persians, paid them off, made a treaty with them in order to have a free hand to undertake the conquests in the West. In retrospect, with the historian’s ability to quarterback after the game, the lack of attention to Persia was a mistake. The Persians in fact invaded despite this peace treaty in the 540s. The Italian campaign didn’t go well. Things were patched up. Justinian died in peace. But his empire was quite fragile.

In addition to everything else, there’s a plague in 541-542 that kills a very large proportion of the population. And as I said, after Justinian’s death in 568, the Lombards invade Italy.

And beginning just a few years later, in the 570s, we start to have another force that’s a little more difficult to describe. Just in the manner of the convenient term “Lombards” we don’t really know what “Lombards” means. We don’t really know who these people are. I mean, we know a bit about them. But it’s a pseudo-ethnic name. We don’t really know how people identified themselves. But it becomes even more confusing with the groups that invaded the Balkans.

The conventional way of describing these is that the leaders were a group called the “Avars” and their subordinates, their sort of cast of thousands, their slave armies, whatever you want to call them, were “Slavs”. The Avars are a Turkic or Mongol people. The Slavs are Indo-European Slavs.

This is to some extent how the Slavs get into the Balkans. How this worked, relations between the Slavs and the Avars, is not completely clear. But we certainly know that they took over much of the Balkans, including Greece. Greece in this case has to be considered part of the Balkans. So the southeastern corner of Europe, modern Greece, Bulgaria, European Turkey, Albania, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Herzegovina, all of these countries are a heartland of the Byzantine Empire in its post-Justinianic form, but now invaded by Avars and Slavs beginning in 570.

Follis showing Emperor Maurice in consular uniform. He ruled from 582 to 602. / Wikimedia Commons

The emperor Maurice was murdered by his troops in 602, campaigning in the Balkans against the Avars and the Slavs. He was succeeded by a cruel but hapless general named Phocas, whose disastrous rule as emperor involved not only the uprising or invasion of Avars and Slavs in the Balkans, but a Persian invasion in the East. Phocas was overthrown in 610.

The Persians, Avars, and Slavs allied against Constantinople. And in 626, the city was besieged from both sides. The Persians camped out across the Bosphorus in the end of Asiatic Turkey. And the Avars and the Slavs camped out outside the great Theodosian Walls of the city that were on its land side, its western side.

The fact that the city managed to overcome this was attributed to various miracles of saints, and particularly the protection of the Virgin Mary. And it’s very important in terms of the later history of iconoclasm to point out that they had icons and all sorts of wonder-working portrayals of powerful saints on the walls in order to protect the city. And it worked– or at least certainly it looked like it worked. The invasions were foiled.

How did the Byzantine Empire fight? How did manage to withstand these invasions? Very briefly, one factor is the strategic position of Constantinople, a city extremely difficult to take by force. Indeed, it would not be taken by a flat-out assault until 1204, when Western crusaders, an alliance of the Venetians and the Franks, as they’re called– basically various Western European groups– took Constantinople. How they took Constantinople; why they didn’t go to Jerusalem, which was the original plan; how they took a Christian city instead of the Muslim-held city of Jerusalem is a topic for the next semester. But that is the first time that the walls were breached by force.

There are very successful sneak attacks. So for example, in our period, the emperor Justinian II had been deposed and had his nose and tongue slit. This form of mutilation was to prevent him from coming back again. It was considered more humane to mutilate someone than to kill them, but the mutilation was considered to be disabling. You can’t have an emperor whose nose is basically gone.

But they were wrong about him. In fact, he came back with a force of people from– if you look at that third map– Cherson, the Crimean peninsula that’s sticking out into the Black Sea. They besieged the city, and he and some followers snuck in at a point where one of the aqueducts met the wall. There was a little sort of space to sneak in. And they managed to, by a surprise attack and by acclamation of the noseless Emperor Justinian, win the city for themselves. So this is an example of a successful siege, but not a flat-out open assault.

Justinian had a reign of terror for another six or seven years after 705, the date of the siege. He was a very angry man. And he got his revenge on as many people as possible, including people who had nothing to do with his mutilation. And he was eventually killed. An awful lot of these emperors died violent deaths. They’re tough guys, but it’s a fairly tough time.

So Persian/Avar/Slav siege of 626, the seeming victory of Heraclius over these forces, and then its virtual undoing by the Islamic conquests of much of the Byzantine Empire. Remember, the conquest of Syria in the 630s, the capitulation of Alexandria in 642? We looked at all of these from the Muslim side very recently.

Meanwhile, while Byzantine was busy losing much of its empire in the East, the Slavs were permanently settling in the Balkans and in Greece. And they were now joined by another invading people, the Bulgars. The Bulgars– that is, the people who live in Bulgaria now– are a Slavic people. But the original Bulgars were a more Turkic people who formed a kind of what was called khanate– that is, a state ruled by a military leader, a khan.

But here again, who are the Bulgars ethnically? How many of them have Slavic followers? It’s both very controversial– that is, the modern Bulgarians hate the notion of being thought of as ancestrally Turks, so what I’m saying is heresy in some quarters. But these ethnic designations are not as meaningful, or at least as stable, as we often tend to think they are.

The Bulgars would intermarry with the Slavs. And they would eventually convert to Orthodoxy. But they would be a problem for Byzantium from about 700 until just after 1000.

Reconstruction of the Empire

Byzantine Empire in 717 at accession of Leo III, striped area indicates land invaded by Arabs / From J. Haldon, Wikimedia Commons

So how was this empire rebuilt? It was rebuilt on the basis of control over the Balkans and Anatolia. It was also rebuilt on the basis of reorganization of the army. Obviously, the position of Constantinople and its walls is not enough to assure victory in battle once you get away from Constantinople. There’s certain kinds of weapons that they had. There’s this mysterious one that I mentioned before called “Greek fire”, which is certainly part of the victory of 674, the naval battle against the Caliphs. It’s a some sort of burning substance that explodes on impact and is useful to burn ships.

But the army is reorganized. And this is one of the key aspects of this period of contraction and of reconstruction, of crisis and of recovery. And we’ll come to that in a moment.

During this era of crisis, it should not be thought that they didn’t have time for religious controversies. In the seventh century, the big controversies continued to be those related to the natures of Christ. Even though the territories that were Monophysite had been taken by Islam, or at least the most Monophysite territories, there still are controversies trying to compromise this question of does Christ have one or two natures, how, if he has two natures, are these two related?

Rather than saying he has two natures, the emperors proposed two possible solutions. Christ is both God and human, but he’s got one energy, Mono-energism. Well maybe he’s both God and man, but he’s got one will, Monothelitism. The emperors in the seventh century tried to impose Monothelitism, or tried to impose Monothelitism and then prohibit discussion, or just prohibit discussion about it.

The Papacy was adamant in upholding the two natures, one person. And this eventually won. But a huge amount of energy was expended in this controversy. And in the eighth and early ninth centuries, we then have Iconoclasm, which as we’ve spoken about, is the prohibition on the worship of icons.

Icons, again, are a form of religious art that remains characteristic of the Eastern Church. And the difference between icons and other forms of religious art is that they’re portable. You can carry them around. And they are non-narrative; they don’t tell a story.

So an icon doesn’t have a depiction of the Annunciation or a depiction of events. They don’t come in series, showing, for example, the life of a saint or the life of the Virgin. They are a single depiction.

The iconoclasts were worried about this as a form of idolatry. We’re not sure where this concern came from. There is no evidence that it comes directly as a reaction to Islamic or Jewish criticism, although of course Islam and Judaism patrol the frontier against idol worship or image worship much more severely than does Christianity.

It does seem to be a reaction to the crisis. It does seem to be part of an effort to remake Byzantium into what I guess now would be called a leaner, more adroit, responsive, or that obnoxious business word, now, “robust”, a robust response to the crisis imposed by Islam. Certainly it has something to do with that.

But what it really shows us is the role of the emperor in religion. The role of the secular ruler in the West is not as extensive, even as we will see soon under Charlemagne. Remember Chlothar and his attempts to dictate religious doctrine to Gregory of Tours, who, scared though he is of Chlothar, basically laughs at him? That shows a ruler who does not really have control, at least over the doctrine of his church, even if he’s got a lot of control over the wealth of the Church. The Western tradition would tend to separate out ruler of the state and ruler of doctrine. The East less so.

This is partly just the way the Patriarch of Constantinople is situated. He’s right next to the palace of the emperor, and so can be intimidated by the emperor. It is in the tradition of the Orthodox Church that there is less resistance to state authority on the part of the Church, more collaboration with state authority, and less controversy. This is the way it’s normally taught, is that the emperor functions kind of like the Pope in the West. The emperor defines doctrine.

But actually, however much deference is paid to the emperor, and however much the emperor tries to define doctrine, the real story, certainly for our period, is of the lack of success of the emperors. The emperors constantly come down on the wrong side or come up with compromises or doctrines that don’t work. They propose what in a sense seems like a rational compromise over Monophysitism, but theology doesn’t work that way. Just because you come up with a compromise doesn’t mean everybody’s going to accept it. In fact, often compromises mean that nobody accepts it. It’s not like a negotiation over political trade-offs. This is a theological truth.

So the emperors then create their own theological position. Iconoclasm is very much an imperial demand. And for a time, they succeed in imposing it. They succeed in imposing it for 120 years, off and on. Sometimes there will be an emperor who is a moderate iconoclast, but lets the icons come back. Sometimes there’s an emperor’s who’s a moderate iconodule or iconophile.

But the emperors, even in the East, even where the emperor is so heavily involved in religion, have limitations on their ability to define doctrine. Nevertheless, clearly, they are the leaders of a besieged people who sees itself both as Christians against pagans or Muslims, or at least infidels, and as a religious people and as a secular population.

Survival of the Byzantine Empire


Solidus (coin) of Constans II, crowned and draped with a frontal-facing bust, holding the globus cruciger / Wikimedia Commons

So with all of these crises, sieges, invaders, how did the Empire survive? We can see some of the plans of the emperors. One plan was simply to get out of Constantinople and rebuild a kind of Western empire based in the West. So Constans II– you’ll remember I said in 661– moved his capital to Syracuse in Sicily. This was intended in part to guard the possessions in Italy and in part to hold onto North Africa. Constans was murdered in his bath in 668. The capitol was moved back to Constantinople, and within thirty years, all of North Africa had been lost to the Arabs.

Constans is very important, though, even though his plans come to naught. Because it seems to be under his reign– not exclusively, but very much forwarded by him– that two things develop that are crucial for Byzantine success. One is the practice of deporting whole peoples and settling them on new lands.

This extremely brutal practice– you can imagine what it’s like at any time. Of course, this is practiced a considerable amount, for example, in the former Soviet Union, where you just tell people to get up and you’re going to move them 2,000 miles away. They’re going to have better opportunities there or whatever. But in the meantime, some of them are going to starve. Many of them are going to fall to disease. This is a brutal kind of transporting of peoples, manipulation of peoples from one area to another.

The peoples manipulated in this case were often Slavic prisoners or groups taken over as the Empire expanded, and often sent to Anatolia to resettle lands that had been deserted in the Arab invasions and now seized back from the Arabs. This policy, against what one might expect, actually seems to work, to the extent that it does increase the population of these key frontier regions in the East with militarized forces transported from the Balkans.

Related to this is the organization of the army by locality instead of as a mobile and very large force. And this is related to the problems of paying the army. As far back as the beginning of the course, we said that a lot of imperial policy, just as it’s true of the state today, is dictated by the need to pay for troops. The most expensive thing that most states, including the United States, does [correction: do] is maintain an army and use it. For a number of reasons, this is just a very, very expensive thing, and clearly a necessary thing, something that is not easy to dispense with.

Diocletian’s reforms, indeed, the whole restructuring of the Empire in the late third century and early fourth century was oriented around increasing the size of the army– basically, doubling it– and figuring out a tax regime to pay for it. This no longer works in the post-Justinianic world, in the crucial era here and beyond. Because the state does not have enough money to pay these. It does not have a tax base. It cannot raise the money for a large army to operate in the Balkans and to oppose the Arabs without the tax revenues from its richest province, Egypt, and from other very wealthy and important provinces such as Syria.

How, then is, it going to have an army at all? To some extent, it is going to do this by creating local armies paid for not so much money as by kind– that is to say, grain, leather, weapons, and things manufactured locally, harvested locally, and that stay locally. This is the so-called theme system. And Wickham doesn’t talk too much about it because historians are in the process of drawing back from this. This is one of those frustrating things about progress in history. A lot of progress in history is the dismantling of convenient kinds of formulae.

So when I started teaching this, the themes were everything. I would have spent sixty percent of this lecture talking about the theme situation and how it saved the Byzantine Empire. The themes look like soldiers who are peasants. In other words, to some extent the deal that’s offered to these troops is, we will give you land, and we will allow you to keep most of what you produce, rather than paying it as tribute to a landlord. But you’ve got to be willing to fight for it. You’ve got to owe military service. You’ve got to be ready for military service. And indeed, the land was often in places that were dangerous, places that were liable to invasion.

This is to some extent true, but it’s a little less of a kind of Homestead Act deal. If you look at the map number three, the year 1000– see the things that are in italic capitals like Opsikion, Armeniakon, Anatolikon? These are themes. They are large agglomerations of provinces. They are what might be called “military provinces”. And as such, they combine civilian and military rule.

The Empire is now divided into military provinces. Nothing terribly new about that, even though the shape and the size is different. What’s new is that, rather than the revenue being raised in cash from taxes paid all over the Empire, and then transported to Constantinople, and then disbursed to mercenaries or to standing armies, the money that’s raised in the Opsikion tends to stay in the Opsikion. These provinces tend to be responsible for their soldiers and for paying their soldiers.

The state is very heavily involved. This is not a militia in the sense of a bunch of trusty guys getting their muskets or whatever they used off the wall. This is not Paul Revere, or something like that. But it is an army that is closer to the population and in which the male population is largely involved in the military forces. Another word that I don’t particularly care for in its modern use: “stakeholder”. They’re stakeholders in the sense that it makes a big difference to them. They’re not just civilians in this case.

This is, then, a militarization of society. It is a new way of paying for things in an economy that is less productive of revenues, at least of taxable revenues. And it is, above all, whatever its exact nature, an innovation that works. The basis for this expansion that takes place after 843, and indeed for the stabilization of the frontiers that proceeds it is a reorganization of the army, the theme system, a reorganization of revenues, and a kind of strategic plan to define the Byzantine Empire in a way that is ultimately feasible and defensible.

From 717 to 843, the Empire recovers slowly. We choose 843 because that’s the end of the iconoclast controversy. The Empire continued to have to fight on both fronts against the Arabs and the Bulgars. But it had a viable state, a viable military structure, and some capable emperors.

Expansion of the Byzantine Empire

Byzantine Empire 1000-1100 / Wikimedia Commons

After 843, we see a real rebirth and expansion. From 843 to 1000, the Empire grew by about one third. Even though that map, the third one, for the year 1000, doesn’t seem very imposing, if you take a look at it, you’ll see that its frontiers with Islam are much more secure than they have been before.

The Empire extends eastward as far as Armenia, for a long time a frontier province, and it is on the borders of Syria. It has the great city of Antioch again. It has all of Anatolia. It has the islands of Cyprus and Crete, which had been occupied by Islamic forces for years. It has control over all of modern Greece and has held onto some possessions in Italy.

This is an era of great splendor, ceremony, the restoration of education, and of learning. The Bulgars will be defeated definitively by 1019. Constantinople would be besieged by them twice. You can’t have a century without a couple of sieges of Constantinople. The Abbasids are defeated, and the expansion of the Byzantine Empire, as you see, as far south as modern Lebanon and as far east as modern Armenia– well, historic Armenia.

This is a society that is still involved in religious controversy. This is– in the ninth century with the Carolingians, there would be a controversy over the holy ghost in relation to the son and the father, the so-called “filioque controversy”.

But it is a world of great energy: artistic, cultural, and actually religious. Perhaps the most lasting and significant accomplishment of this era is the conversion of the Slavs and the conversion of much of Eastern Europe– conversion to what would become the Orthodox as opposed to Catholic form of Christianity.

The official split between the Orthodox world and the Catholic world won’t occur until 1054. In 1054, the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated the Pope and the Pope excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople. I think they’ve taken it back, but obviously the Churches are not joined.

They have differences already, however, that are visible in the ninth and tenth centuries. Orthodoxy is less politically centralized. If, as we just said, it’s very dependent on the ruler, if the ruler is different, then the Church has a sort of national identity. Thus, there is no Pope in the Orthodox Church. The Bulgarian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox essentially form a confederation under their own patriarchs.

They also have their own languages. The Bible could be translated into vernacular, and the liturgy was not in one language necessarily. So Slavonic, the ancestor of modern Slavic languages, would be instituted as the liturgy in many of these converted places. Priests are allowed to marry in the Orthodox Church.

There were just, sort of, questions of style. For example, the Orthodox Church, even when it has admitted icons back, does not have statues, does not have three-dimensional statues, whereas the Catholic world, of course, does. Think of Notre Dame of Paris and its sculptural program or Chartres or the Michelangelo and Bernini sacred sculptures. This is partly because, while icons are OK because they’re two-dimensional, statues were thought of as being too much like the idols denounced again and again by the Old Testament. Greek Orthodox priests have beards; Catholic priests don’t.

They’re different styles of worship. In Orthodox churches, you stand; there aren’t seats. Some of this is style. Some of this is theology. Some of this is just culture. But of course, this would be in the ninth century and remain a very strong difference. So you can see that those countries converted by the Catholics have a Latin liturgy and a Western or Latin or Roman orientation. Poland is Catholic. Russia, on the other hand, would be converted to Byzantine Christianity.

The division is clear and unfortunately tragic in the former Yugoslavia. Serbian and Croatian are almost the same language. Serbian is written in Cyrillic, Croatian in Roman. The Croatians are Catholics; the Serbians are Orthodox. Their hatred for each other, and then of course the complication of having an Islamic people, the Bosnians, was the background to the tragic Yugoslav Civil War of the early 1990s. So these religious boundaries, which sort of correspond to ethnic boundaries– even though those ethnic definitions are themselves invented, to some extent– these religious boundaries continue to be very meaningful and to define culture in Europe.

The conversion of this world is, then, one of the most important events of the renascent Byzantine Empire. The coronation of the king of Russia, the king of Kievan Russia, in 989 at Cherson on the Crimean Peninsula, presided over by emissaries of the Byzantine Emperor is one symbol of this. The conversion of the Bulgars. The conversion of many of the peoples of the Balkans.

And indeed, there is a kind of aftermath of Byzantine civilization. The closest heir to the Eastern Roman Empire is the Russian Empire. The look of Orthodox worship, the look of the Russian churches, the icons, the gold, the imperial style is very closely related, self-consciously, to the model established by the Byzantine emperors. Indeed, in the sixteenth century, after the fall of Constantinople, Russian monks claimed that there had been three Romes: the Rome of the West, the original one, had fallen in the fifth century; the great Eastern Rome, that of Constantinople, had fallen in the fifteenth; and the third Rome was Moscow.

I don’t think that outside of the Russian orbit most people think of Moscow as the third Rome for a number of reasons, whatever its power and its own form of splendor. But the degree to which Russia in its history is the heir to the world that we have briefly described cannot be denied, even if to some extent it is a self-formed or self-conscious manifestation.

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