Byzantium, the Underappreciated Empire IV: A Legacy Undone

by northernbeholder

Despite the great individual skill and training of the Byzantine soldier, despite the intelligent and competent leadership and tactics that allowed them to score major victories, the culture clash between the Byzantine manner of fighting – ambush, misdirection, guerrilla-style strikes – and the more straightforward, honour-based mindset of the knights of western Europe who made up the First Crusade meant that the impression carried back to the feudal kingdoms which became world conquerors was a thoroughly negative one. Byzantium would generate no martial legends like Rome before it, and its legacy would be largely forgotten, because of what amounted to bad P.R.

In fairness, though, it’s not quite that simple. While the negative impressions recorded by the chroniclers of the Crusades would go on to form the basis of Western opinion on Byzantium for centuries, there were other factors that deserve mention.

First, and most obvious, is the Ottomans.  Although the Catholic kingdoms briefly controlled parts of Byzantium’s territory following the Fourth Crusade and the establishment of the short-lived Latin Empire (1204-1261 AD, overthrown by the Byzantine successor state of Nicaea, which then proclaimed a reformed and much smaller Byzantine Empire), the Byzantine state was overcome and occupied in the end by the Turkish warriors of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople itself famously falling in 1453 AD. The diplomatic relations between the Ottomans and Europe for much of the following five centuries can be generously described as “unfriendly”, with internecine warfare first bringing the Ottomans to the very gates of Vienna, then seeing them pushed back beyond the peaks of the Carpathian mountains, the fighting often conducted with religious zeal.  The result of this was that, despite the flight of a good number of the Byzantine elite to Italy (incidentally helping to begin the Renaissance), much of the empire’s accumulated knowledge, particularly historical documents, remained beyond the reach of the European writers penning the pages of their historical missives, leaving them in large part only with the impressions of their forebears upon which to base their opinions of the now-dead empire.

There was another, more subtle force at work as well.  When the Germanic tribes that ended up sealing the demise of the Western Roman Empire arrived at the borders on the Danube, they did not do so with the intent of destruction.  Fleeing the depredations of the Huns, they begged for entry into Roman lands for their own protection.  Rome had become a mighty legend, a place of wealth and power, a great haven of safety in an often savage world.  They were enamoured with Rome, and though they ended up destroying it, their love for it continued.  The Gothic kings who set up their states in Italy and Gaul (modern France) used Roman officials, incorporated Roman laws, struck Roman-style coins, and many claimed to rule “in the name of Rome”.  Some even tried to maintain contacts with the Eastern Roman Empire to support their legitimacy, though this ended when the Byzantines made clear their opinion of the Gothic kings through the reconquest of Italy.  Nevertheless, all signs of power and authority came through a Roman lens.  It is no coincidence that thes vast, if transient, kingdom uniting Gaul and Germany under Charlemagne (742-814 AD) was named “the Holy Roman Empire” – Holy through its blessing by the Catholic Church, Roman because of the desire to hold to the dead empire’s legacy.

Think of the European empires that rose from those squabbling kingdoms, all of them aping Roman-style buildings, all of them full of important men of power comparing themselves and their world-spanning empires to Rome.  The scholars faithfully scribing their achievements, the pride when they consider themselves to have finally surpassed what they claim as their predecessors.  The kingdoms of Europe considered themselves Rome’s successors, which made the existance of an actual Roman state (Byzantium), eventually overwhelmed and succeeded by a non-European, non-Christian force (the Ottomans) an extremely inconvenient flaw in the narrative they had constructed for themselves.  Fortunately, they had on hand the words of their forebears, decrying Byzantine cowardice, Byzantine greed, Byzantine timidity – surely, no such people could ever be true Romans.  Not Byzantium.

And so the legacy was lost.  Although Byzantium is enjoying a resurgence in scholarly circles, in the public mind, popular culture, it remains a relative unknown.  For the kingdoms and empires of Europe to fashion themselves as successors to the Roman Empire, Byzantium – whether deliberately or subconsciously – had to be shunned and swept aside.  As a result, there are no major motion pictures dedicated to its exploits.  There are no games that promote or fantasize about the facets of Byzantine society as there are for Rome.  You will only find Byzantium in strategy games that happen to take place in the right time period and the right geographical setting such that to not include it would be a significant oversight – and never as the star of the show.