Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Rome never fell - it simply moved five hundred miles East - to Byzantium

As a lover of all things Byzantine, the title of this post comes as no surprise to me. But it would still surprise many people.

The Roman Empire did not fall when the city of Rome fell in AD 476. A second capital of the empire, what would become known as Constantinople, was established in the Greek speaking East over a century earlier in AD 330.

As I understand it, the name Constantinople was actually a nick name for the city based obviously on the name of its founder, the Emperor Constantine. Officially, it was New Rome (which is still used in the official title of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church).

To its inhabitants it was simply The City. Even its modern name of Istanbul is apparently the Turkish equivalent of this.

And while Latin remained the official language of the Byzantine court for centuries, in effect you had the strange phenomenon of the capital of the Roman Empire (at least clearly so with the fall of the western part of the empire) being a Greek speaking city.

I remember seeing an icon of a Byzantine emperor years ago with the Greek inscription Basileus Romaioi - king of the Romans.

For a thousand years the Greeks thought of themselves as citizens of the empire and as Romans.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, in his book Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece, tells an interesting little story of running into the historical memory of this well into the 20th Century, in Panama City of all places.

Stopping late one night at a bar, he noticed the people running it taking orders in Spanish, but shouting them back in Greek.

Upon ordering his drink in Greek he was asked if he was Greek - Romios eisai?

Though of course the Roman Empire did finally fall, but not until that terrible day in 1453 when the Ottoman Turks finally succeeded in taking The City, and the sultan assumed the title of Roman emperor. As Fermor observes, the eastern empire "outlived its amputated western half by twelve dynasties, eighty-four emperors and just under a thousand years."

From the Amazon page:

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly
The once common idea that the lights went out on classical and Western civilization when Rome fell in 476 C.E. has long since been debunked, but Brownsworth weighs in to illustrate that the Roman Empire's center of power simply shifted to Constantinople. In a narrative by turns spellbinding and prosaic, Brownsworth marches us through centuries of history, beginning long before the fall of Rome, and introduces the successive rulers of Byzantium, from Christian emperors to Muslim sultans, detailing a culture he describes as both familiar and exotic. He follows religious, political and cultural change up through the Islamic conquest of 1453. Christian refugees fled Byzantium into Europe, taking with them their longstanding love of ancient culture and introducing Western Europe to Plato, Demosthenes, Xenophon, Aeschylus and Homer, fanning the flames of the renaissance of Hellenistic culture that had already begun in various parts of Europe. Although Brownsworth admirably illustrates the ways that the Byzantine Empire lives on even today, Judith Herrin's Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire offers a more compelling and thorough history of this empire.

“Captivating…In Lost to the West Lars Brownworth shows a novelist’s eye for character, bringing to life some of the most fascinating — and yet little known -- figures of the Byzantine era. But it is as a researcher into the obscurities of palace intrigue, treachery, and battlefield carnage that Lars really shines. With dry humor and a palette of vivid images, he recounts the dizzying game of musical chairs that placed one usurper after another on the Byzantine throne, only to be pitched off in a gaudily macabre way. In the end, one is left agog by the irony that the upshot of this centuries-long scrum was the preservation of nearly all that the Greeks have bequeathed to us.”
—Steven Pressfield, author of Gates of Fire

“Rome never fell -- it simply moved five hundred miles East -- to Byzantium. For over a thousand years the Byzantines commanded one of the most visceral and vivid empires the world has ever known. And yet their achievements are consistently underplayed; written out of history. Lars Brownworth is a rare talent. His contagious passion brings murderous empresses, conniving eunuchs, lost Greek texts and Byzantine treasures of fairy-tale proportions blinking back into the light. Confidently striding through time and across the mountains and plains of the Eastern Mediterranean, Brownworth puts this theocratic superstate slap-bang in the center of mankind's global story; back where it should be. The Byzantines made our world what it is today. Lars Brownworth matches their verve and brio in his seductive and gripping account.”
—Bettany Hughes, PBS host and author of Helen of Troy

Posted via email from Garth's posterous

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