KHG0W9 Mosaics of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

Heirs to Byzantium

Unlike Putin, the British have never really understood the central importance of Constantinople to European history

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Like the tsars that preceded him, Vladimir Putin regards Russia as the heir to Byzantium, the Orthodox Christian empire that dominated much of Southeastern Europe and the Middle East for a thousand years. He has spoken of Moscow as the Third Rome, the successor to the Second Rome — Byzantium’s capital, Constantinople. 

The connection began with an earlier Vladimir, a tenth-century Grand Prince of Kiev, who received Christian baptism along with the hand in marriage of the sister of the reigning Byzantine emperor. Vladimir had ruled at Novgorod before Kiev, and his realm stretched from the Baltic Sea to Crimea. 

Half a century later, a cathedral church was established at Kiev, St Sophia, named after the Hagia Sophia, Church of Holy Wisdom, at Constantinople. In 2019, that church in Kiev (Kyiv) became the cathedral for an autocephalous (independent) Orthodox Church of Ukraine, no longer subordinate to the Orthodox Church of Russia.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and 2022 invasion of Ukraine, have been described as part of Putin’s spiritual quest, inspired by his confessor Tikhon Shevkunov, to reunite an Orthodox Christian empire and reunify the Churches. Putin is a lover of Byzantine art, and in particular icons, ensuring that treasures from annexed territories end up in Moscow. 

Arhimandrite Tikhon is also a filmmaker, writer and narrator of The Fall of an Empire — The Lesson of Byzantium, widely understood as an allegory for the situation in Russia that Putin inherited. The film attributes rather more blame to oligarchs and western interventions than most accounts of the end of Byzantium.

Byzantium has been a Russian obsession for centuries. From Constantinople’s fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 until the end of the First World War in 1918, Russia dreamed of capturing Constantinople and restoring it to a Christian realm. The first Tsar to fantasise about moving his capital to the ancient city was Ivan III, in 1472, after he married the niece of the last emperor, Constantine IX Palaiologos. 

It was Ivan who adopted the double-headed eagle of Palaiologos as the symbol of Russia. Marching under that symbol, Russian armies confronted the Ottomans over centuries. In 1787, Catherine the Great made a procession through the captured Crimea, passing beneath a triumphal arch inscribed “This way to Constantinople”. Russian forces reached the walls of the city in 1878, before British intervention enforced a treaty. 

The dream might have been realised but for the Russian Revolution, for under the terms of the May 1915 Constantinople Agreement, the allies agreed to cede the city to Tsarist Russia once victory was secured. The Bolsheviks’ seizure of power and their Treaty of Brest- Litovsk of 1918 with the Central Powers nullified that agreement.

The British have never entirely understood the dream

The British have never entirely understood the dream, but on several occasions sought to benefit from it. At the same time, we have forgotten almost all that we knew of Byzantium, which was once a very great deal. We once knew that Byzantium contributed far more to the art and culture of medieval Europe than any of the sub-Roman kingdoms that emerged in the West, even if its influence rarely reached our Anglo-Saxon shores. 

When Rome fell to the Goths in AD 476, New Rome endured in the east, surviving an existential war with the Persian empire and then the rise of Islam. As the great cities of antiquity fell, Constantinople stood firm, its walls renewed in the face of repeated assaults and sieges by land and sea. It was sacked only twice in more than a thousand years — the first time in 1204 when it was looted by Christian forces participating in the Fourth Crusade (which is why Venice, whose ships ferried the crusaders to the East, is so richly adorned with ancient artefacts). 

The sacrilege horrified the Orthodox Christian world and left the Byzantine Empire greatly weakened. On the second occasion, Constantinople fell to Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. Rather than destroy what he seized, the Ottoman sultan collected what he could and stashed it in his new palace (now the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul).

While Orthodox Christians perpetuated a memory of a sacred city defiled, the British view of Byzantium was shaped from the late eighteenth century onwards by Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His impression was not positive. For Gibbon, Constantine the Great’s conversion to Christianity condemned the grandeur of Rome to a millennium of decline, to empty Orthodox ritual and monkish obscurantism, and to imperial decadence as Constantinople waited sybaritically to succumb to the vigour of the western Crusaders and the backlash of the Muslim Turks.

Byzantium is far better approached through its magnificent art, which exposes the weakness of Gibbon’s thesis of a millennium of decline. Alas, major exhibitions take place only once in a lifetime. In 1958, Byzantine art was displayed at the Edinburgh Festival, and then for several months at the V&A. After this, we waited half a century until, from October 2008 until March 2009, a magnificent Royal Academy exhibition offered us an opportunity for re-evaluation. 

Byzantium 330-1453 drew large crowds to marvel at the artistic riches of that Second Rome. The exhibition’s patron was Charles, the then Prince of Wales, whose foreword in the catalogue welcomed readers with the reminder that “the continuity provided by Byzantium and its empire was felt across a great expanse of the world through Europe, the Balkans, Anatolia, and the Middle East”. Charles felt a personal connection to Byzantium, through his father’s birth and faith. He has travelled many times to Mt Athos, now the spiritual home to Eastern Orthodoxy. 

There followed two more forewords, offered by the then British and Greek prime ministers (the exhibition was a collaboration between the RA and the Benaki Museum in Athens). Gordon Brown considered the exhibition “a timely reminder of our links with the peoples and the nations of the past”. 

Kostas Karamanlis was more didactic, suggesting that an “unfair omission” of Byzantium in the “story of Europe” must be addressed: “After centuries of division and conflict, Eastern and Western Europe can look forward to a common, promising future within the framework of the European Union and celebrate their shared cultural roots. As Europeans seek to define what our continent stands for, the study of Byzantium is becoming of paramount importance. Its heritage, shared not only by Europeans, but also by citizens of nations in the three continents over which it once extended, can help us foster the common values that bring us together and understand the causes and natures of our differences.”

That last appeal was optimistic. Still, let us imagine that Karamanlis had a point: that the legacy of Byzantium should be embraced by Europe, and not meekly ceded to Russia.

In 2008, Europe seemed about to become far more Byzantine. Cyprus had been admitted to the EU in May 2004, only the second Byzantine heir, after Karamanlis’s Greece, admitted in 1981. Bulgaria and Romania followed in January 2007. Free movement of workers then brought Byzantium deep into Charlemagne’s realm and beyond. 

Since 2008, EU expansion has stalled

Since 2008, EU expansion has stalled. Yet the Byzantine potential remains. Croatia, the only candidate admitted since 2008 (in 2013), is inclined to look west, but the importance of Byzantium to its history and culture is well established. More than that, all of the current EU candidate nations are heirs to Byzantium. Consider the list: Turkey (which submitted paperwork to become a candidate member in 1987), North Macedonia (2004), Montenegro (2008), Albania (2009), Serbia (2009), Bosnia and Herzegovina (2016), Moldova (2022), Kosovo (2022), and Ukraine (2022). 

Karamanlis was making a political point about how the “official view of European history” had overlooked Byzantium. This was true at the time and remains so today. For two decades before 2008, generous funding from the EU had supported and united scholars in a quest to recover their common heritage. “The Transformation of the Roman World”, a flagship European Science Foundation research project that ran for five years from 1993 to 1998 is a good example. It supported exhibitions across five EU countries and sponsored well-funded university projects and a book series. Where once Rome was thought to have declined, plunging us all into the “Dark Ages”, now proto-Europe was seen to emerge in a world transformed. 

This re-evaluation of Rome’s decline was inevitable. In the postcolonial academy of the 1980s and 1990s, the notion of decline was unwelcome. Decline suggests that one society is worse than another (its former self), when they are merely different. It was better to speak of “transformation” and betray no value judgments. 

At the same time, the barbarian tribes that sacked Rome were rebranded. They were no longer barbarians, certainly, and also no longer tribes. Instead, we studied the “ethnogenesis” of the Goths and Huns, loose confederations held together mainly by an interest in negotiating their identities. Vandals (ethnicity not assigned at birth) were more concerned with a good origin story than, well, vandalism. 

Post-Roman transformations and fluid identities were lucrative avenues for research, but immigrants from the East such as Attila and Alaric carried a lot of baggage. Unsurprisingly, therefore, scholars identified Charlemagne as the “Father of Europe”, a millennium after a court poet had coined the phrase (pater Europae). 

He was a ruler of Germans and Franks, crowned emperor in Rome, who besides modern-day Germany and France ruled over modern Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, parts of Austria, Spain and Italy, and took a strong interest in lands that would become Poland, Hungary and Croatia. However, the closest Charlemagne came to Byzantium was an aborted suggestion that he marry Irene, who having seized power in Constantinople had begun signing documents herself as “Emperor of the Romans”.

A golden coin, left, struck by Irene in her own name was displayed at the RA in 2008. On it she was shown holding a globe, symbol of her world dominion, and a processional cross, emblem of her faith. This strong woman who held onto power for five years might have been a better choice for “Mother of Europe” had she not risen to power by mutilating her son. 

If not Irene, why not a Byzantine emperor as ο πατέρας της Ευρώπης, “Father of Europe”? We know enough about Justinian to ask the question. Born into an obscure Balkan warlord’s extended family, a speaker of a few languages, Justinian was an immigrant who changed his name to fit in. He made his mark in sixth-century Constantinople through nepotism, as the power behind the throne his illiterate uncle had seized, then reigned himself for four decades. 

In that time he deployed vast resources in pursuit of a grand dream of empire. He compiled an immense body of law, which constrained almost every aspect of life in his empire, except his freedom to do as he pleased. He survived a global pandemic — the first recorded outbreak of the bubonic plague, which swept Europe and the Middle East in the 540s — and emerged from it with new powers. 

Like Charlemagne, Justinian was militaristic and theocratic, rather than diplomatic and democratic. But he did not fight his own wars, preferring the comfort of his palace and the devoted attention of his courtiers. Justinian’s crowning achievement was the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (see page 43). On entering it for the first time, Justinian announced, “Solomon, I have outdone you!” 

He was right. Five hundred years later it inspired the multi-domed Church of St Sophia in Kiev. More than 1500 years later it served as an inspiration for the majestic mosques around it, built by the Ottomans. Today every domed site of worship across the new Europe draws its form from Hagia Sophia.

We can understand Justinian’s appeal to Putin: a devout autocrat unafraid to eliminate rivals or send his own people to their deaths by the thousands. We can also understand that Byzantine court politics, complex bureaucracy, and legalism might have resonance in Brussels. But it would be better still to understand that Justinian is compelling because he embodies the contradictions of a civilisation that compels our attention regardless of any imagined connection to it. 

Byzantium is, as the then Prince Charles described it in 2008, “a world that has in many ways been lost to us”. It exists in the past, untouched by any modern concern we may wish to project onto it, and it is all the more fascinating because of that. We need not claim to be heirs to Byzantium to see the beauty of its art and the importance of its culture. Indeed, staking a claim to its legacy prevents our appreciating Byzantium’s profound difference. 

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