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Byzantium - the spoiled rich kid of medieval Europ

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    Posted: 04 Sep 2013 at 13:29
We've all met one. Usually in school. They tolerate the time in class just barely and have no interest in the subject matter. Their minds are turned to what accessory (if a girl) or new boys' toy (if a boy) they can buy to impress their peers. Or the party they have on this weekend - not to bond with one's fellows but to act as a platform to project one's importance. Indolent, incapable of sustained motivation, prone to myopic and egocentric behaviour - I'm sure we have all at one point or another attended class with a student born into privilege, but decayed by it instead of being strengthened.

This was Byzantium. She was the spoiled rich kid of the medieval world. Her Roman parents had given her pretty much the best of everything. An impregnable capital situated on the best site on the planet, vast wealth, armies with centuries of tradition, millennia of ancient intellectual wealth held in her vast Mediterranean libraries, and inherited prestige and awe recognised throughout the known world. She was a planned birth, and her parents had predicted she would be endowed with the best aspects of her mixed heritage: a strong Western body, a brilliant Greek mind, and a deep Near Eastern soul. But somehow, it all went horribly wrong.

Before even coming of age she was persecuting intellectuals, tearing down universities, and closing her mind off to new ideas in preference for the quaint and comfortable monotony of religious chantings. So complete was her departure from the intellectual pluralism of the ancients that she persecuted her own people for trivial differences of opinions concerning such unknowables as the composition of Christ's nature. For a nation that could rightly be predicted to produce the most innovations of the post-Roman world, she was remarkable for her blinkered conservatism - she enriched the world with few inventions in her thousand year lifespan.

Politically her society was meant to be a reflection of Christian heaven, with all people absolutely obedient to an all powerful emperor. But such an organisation is predicated on an all-powerful, all-loving, omniscient ruler - and most men cannot even resemble such a figure. In contrast to the more legalistic societies emerging in the west, Byzantium's performance rested upon the individual man in charge to be a kind of superman. Things depended on a person, rather than a system. Checks and balances were few. Land was grabbed from peasants by absentee avaricious nobles, bureaucratic offices sold based on the bidder's purse instead of their competence, the commoners and merchants were crushed with taxes to pay for the unnatural pomp and self indulgence of the palace. How shocking is it for your own people to abandon you for a foreign conqueror speaking a different language and following a different religion? And yet it happened again and again, as even the most foreign alternative appearing at the head of an army sparked the consuming desire for change amongst ordinary folk.

After many centuries of existence, Byzantium was conquered outright. Some might argue that lasting a thousand years before nearly totally vanishing under the weight of a more vigorous civilisation is an accomplishment. I wouldn't. Many poorer and less advanced medieval Christian peoples also fought off existential aggressors. The Germans fought off the Magyars and Slavs, Christianising them in the process and bringing them into the religious/cultural sphere of Christendom, then creating an advanced and prosperous territory out of the woods and marshes that had once been their home. The Spanish, starting out very much as the underdogs, fought off the conquerors of Andalusia and later their north African reinforcements. Then they went on to conquer an empire beyond the sunset. Even Russia, inheritor of the Byzantine theological outlook, would summon the toughness to defeat the Mongols and Turks and then establish their dominion over much of Eurasia. These three countries are still with us today as culturally and militarily significant powers which have made weighty intellectual and technological innovations to enrich mankind.

And just to drive the point home, do a comparative study of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Both centred on the same region and largely ruling many of the same people. With what Byzantium once possessed, the Ottomans far excelled her in every field imaginable. Science, wealth, territory... the Ottoman state in every way trumped the Byzantine.

I started out being fascinated by the Byzantine state as a continuation of the Roman Empire. Initially my judgement was a sympathetic one. But the more I've studied what it must have been like to live under such a polity, the more I've come to agree with the traditional intellectual stereotype that the Byzantine state embodied so many of the very worst aspects of human nature.

Thoughts, ideas, opinions?
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Joined: 18 Oct 2011
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Paradigm of Humanity Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06 Sep 2013 at 17:33
As far as I can tell, internal power struggles (which religius issues was indeed part of it but main motivation was personal ambitions) was main reason for downfall of the Eastern Roman Empire. I inherited this opinion mainly from a friend of mine who very deeply involved with Byzantine history. The Empire also benefited and suffered from classic monarchy paradigm, the empire thrived under competent rulers and fallen into decline under imcompetent rulers very much like the Ottoman Empire... At least they didn't had boredom and mediocrity of democracies Tongue
the single postmodern virtue of obsessive egalitarianism
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Guests Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 07 Feb 2014 at 09:27
Constantine awesome post. Thanks for the insight man. I gotta agree that they kinda were just lazy and not motivated
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