Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Byzantine Logic, an Introduction

So the casual observer of this blog (you know who you are) might have noticed that I’m not really posting much these days.  I’ve encountered a weird form of writer’s block.  The problem isn’t writing.  I can sit down and write a bunch of stuff, but it’s all formless crap, mostly because I find myself devolving in to random tangents and rants about stuff that I’m 99% sure no one else gives a crap about.

There’s really only one solution to this issue.  I’m shutting this blog down.

I mean, when you run out of gas you buy a new car, right?  That’s what I do.

Actually, I’ve decided to stop delaying the inevitable and start in on my multi-billion-part series on religious infighting in Byzantium.

The problem I’ve had with this project, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, is scope.  It needs to go from Constantine I hisownself to Constantine XI Palaialogos.[1]  This period of time stretches across a period of more than 1100 years.  In their own ways, the differences between Constantine the Great’s world and Constantine XI’s world are at least as legion as the differences between Constantine XI’s world and ours.

I’m only looking at a sub-set of Byzantine life, but that sub-set is religion.  It is, quite literally, inextricable from the larger scope of Byzantine life, precisely because there has probably never in history been a more theologically-minded society.  And there has never been more focus on more subtle and nuanced[2] theological points than there was in Constantinople.  There were dozens of times in Byzantium’s history where Empire was crumbling around their heads while the people squabbled over whether Jesus was wholly god or wholly man.

It’s telling, I think, that Mehmet II took the city 557 years ago and the issue of Jesus’s divinity still hasn’t been fully settled.[3]

But in order to discuss the religious kerfuffles that ripped Byzantium apart, we must discuss the kerfuffles themselves.  That means we need to talk about monthelitism and the Monophysites.  We probably need to touch on the Nestorians.[4]  I have to talk about the iconoclasts and the iconodules.

And, of course, I have to talk about the Great Schism.  The East-West split in the Christian Church did far, far more damage to Byzantium, and the West as a whole, than even that most disastrous battle at Manzikert.  In the end, too, the entire conflict was about three things: priestly celibacy, the use of unleavened bread, and the Filioque, a single word inserted in to the Nicene Creed by the Western faction of the church.


Certain parts of this particular series of posts worry me in ways that extend far beyond questions of scope.  The big one is that the question of Byzantium necessitates a discussion that basically boils down to East v. West in general and Muslim v. Christian in specific.  Such is the nature of the struggle to keep Constantinople in Christian hands.

To many modern American eyes this question is, sadly, cut and dry.  To most, Muslims are seen as a rapacious horde bent on the destruction of all that is good and noble and true.  There are others, who generally constitute a small but extremely vocal minority, who would like to paint this issue as being just as black-and-white, but in the opposite direction, with an evil horde of Christian Crusaders descending on a formerly peaceful Middle Eastern world and setting off the ensuing wars that have lasted a thousand years.

Both of these views are wrong.  Period.  Full stop.

The Medieval world was both more tolerant and more brutal than we can imagine.  That description applies equally to both sides.  Plunder, pillage, and rape after a successful siege were a fact of life and the religious affiliations of the people who were on the inside of the walls mattered not a whit to those on the outside.  Christians and Muslims often lived cheek to jowl, peacefully coexisting at some points and fighting violently at others, especially in place like Anatolia, Greece, and the Levant.

As the noose around Constantinople tightened the final few Emperors desperately looked for help from the West.  The math was quite simple.  The only help they could receive would come from the Catholic nations.  The only way to get that help was to heal the Schism.  Yet there were many in Constantinople who said that they would prefer submission to the lordship of a Sultan to that of a Pope.

In all honesty, I find myself hard-pressed to disagree.  But I am not here to discuss whether Constantinople was better off as part of the Christian West or Muslim East.  I am here to discuss why it fell.  And in discussing why it fell the default assumption must be that the Byzantine Empire was better off as an independent Christian Empire than as a vassal and eventual conquered territory of the Ottoman Empire.

Furthermore, I am specifically looking at what the Byzantines were talking about when they should have been shoring up their frontiers and maintaining a strong command structure.  This is the second big problem.  We know what happened because history has already been written.  We can also make judgment calls on whether something was worthwhile or not because we know that history and we can extrapolate cause and effect.

But those extrapolations and judgment calls are not the ironclad truth of the universe.  We cannot reset history to the Council of Constantinople, remove the Filioque, and say, “Okay, now what would happen?”  We cannot remove a certain treacherous Doge from the planning for the Fourth Crusade and then see how long the Byzantines manage to hold out with a unified front and an Anatolian heartland occupied by bickering, weakened Turkish tribes.  We just have to guess.

That’s what makes history so frustrating.  But it’s also what makes history so damn much fun.  There are as many what ifs in history as there are empires, people, and days in the calendar.

And the bigger the project, the more those what ifs pile atop one another.  It’s daunting, but it’s exciting.

At the very least, it’s a damn good cure for writer’s block…


Oh, I totally forgot about part three.

What, precisely, is my goal in doing all of this?

Whenever this sort of thing gets on to the internet the concern trolls get extremely concerned.  I'm generally insulated from this sort of thing due to the fact that I have a small circulation of readers who aren't, y'know, idiots.  But I still need a thesis statement for this project.  My desire to write a proper thesis statement is exceedingly low and I feel the need to be direct.  So here we go.

The concern trolls generally pop up with one of two objections.

1.  "You're trying to destroy Christianity by pointing stuff out!  Stop offending me!"


2.  "Just because Christians argue about things, that doesn't mean Christianity is wrong.  And you'd see this if you just interpreted Christianity my way."

To be clear, I'm not trying to destroy Christianity.  I don't possess that kind of influence and never, ever will.  The scope of this project is actually quite limited.

There are a lot of people out there who believe that religion is an inherent force for good in the world.  The argument basically goes that religion ties us all together and, therefore, if there was no religion the world would fall apart.  If the person making that argument is doing so in favor of a wishy-washy "spirituality" and has the attitude that all religions are basically the same then it stops there.  But there are those who take it to the next step, which is to say that if everyone adopted my particular religion, then there wouldn't be any fighting, because it's all the damn infidels that are the problem.

Religion is, however, inherently entrophic.  The longer a holy book sticks around the more people pile on their own correct interpretations of it.  The more interpretations there are, the more likely people are to fight each other over them.

The story of the Byzantine Empire illustrates that beautifully.  From the Great Schism over a single word and a question of yeast to a century worth of infighting over whether or not religious icons were a good idea, the Empire illustrates time and time again that religion can be a tremendously fractious force in society.  My goal is to point that out.

Further, since the idea for this project has come about because of modern arguments about the validity of religion, that means that I have to draw parallels.  So if I see something a Byzantine Emperor, Catholic Pope, or Ottoman Sultan did that looks a lot like something that's happening today, I'll point it out.  History repeats itself, after all.  We're terrible at learning from it and correcting our actions, mostly because we either don't learn or learn the wrong lessons.

So will Christianity still stand when I'm done with this?  Almost certainly.  Will the people who most need to learn from the lessons history can offer learn anything?  Probably not.

Do I care?  Not really.


[1]This is my least-favorite family name ever.  There are two versions: the Greek and Latin.  Neither one is particularly easy to spell and both are commonly used.  The one I use above is the Greek spelling, but I’ve tended to use the Latinized version.  Technically speaking, I should use the Greek…

[2]I originally wrote “piddling, esoteric.”  The point stands, but I decided to be charitable.

[3]Of course, growing up in Evangelical Christian circles I knew the answer: Jesus was wholly god and wholly man.  It was so very simple and obvious.  But not everyone agrees with the Evangelicals.  And since they’re using the exact same text the Byzantines were (and are, as a whole, significantly lower-quality theological thinkers), the fact is that we can have the same arguments today.  And some do.

[4]Maybe.  I’m not sure.  The Nestorians actually rose under Sassanid Persia, but the Roman Church did attempt to tell them what to do.  This was post-Constantinople but pre-Schism.  And, again, this is where this particular issue gets so damn confusing.  It was a theological conflict during the Byzantine period that had a far-reaching effect on Byzantium, but wasn’t a particular issue in Constantinople itself.  So how do I handle it, if at all?


Fiat Lex said...


This is gonna be awesome.

bluefrog said...

Sounds like great fun. Have at it; I'll be right here.

Geds said...

In case anyone's wondering, I'm one page in to the first official post and I'm already wildly off track. The topic is Byzantium. I'm currently on Alexander the Great's conquest of the Persian Empire.


Fake Al Gore said...

When I first read "Nestorians" I thought, "Why would a Christian sect be named after a Greek Argonaut?"

Now I know that they aren't named after Nestor but Nestorius. Good to know!

Michael Mock said...

And how, exactly, were you planning to cover a topic like this without going wildly off track? I doubt you could do it justice and keep it simple at the same time... Or if you can, you're a better writer than I'll ever be.

Geds said...


Crap. So now you're telling me I have to talk about the Nestorians, aren't you?


That's why I kept delaying. I was trying to work out how to create that intersection.

Yesterday I realized that it was a losing battle and decided to give in to the history. It's gonna be a bumpy ride.

Michael Mock said...

Yeah, but fun and interesting. Who'd want to ride on a roller coaster without any bumps?

DagoodS said...

I am so looking forward to this.

MTimonin said...

As a fellow historian, I find that I enjoy histories which tell a good story. If the thesis is supported, that's bonus extra good. This sounds like the mother of good stories; I have only the barest of ideas of what the story is going to be about (I specialize in US history, especially that which happens after the Civil War, and especially especially that which happens after WWII. To me, byzantine is just an adjective to describe the politics of the department.) but it already sounds good - there's a Schism, and a bunch of guys with funny names, and a number of very long wars, some esoteric religions - hey, bring it on!

Claytonius said...

I'm excited for this. I read the AtF posts, but I don't take Cooper seriously enough to really care. I skipped the battleship posts. But this, this is right up my alley. Historical theology is my world. Even if I am counted among "the people who most need to learn from the lessons history," I'm looking forward to hearing you tell this tale.

Geds said...


Oddly enough, you're describing exactly why I've been content to not move on to higher level degrees. I love being able to say, "Y'know what? I want to learn about Byzantium today," and then go to the Industrial Revolution or something tomorrow.

I have all the respect in the world for specialists, but I just don't have a clue what would hold my interest long enough to become one. I mean, I went from battleships to Byzantium here...


You're in for a wild ride, my friend...

But be prepared. History is messy and I'm wildly speculative about it. That's what gets me in so much trouble...