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Byzantium: Hidden in Plain Sight

By on June 26, 2016
Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis

Today, when I am writing this, is May 29. For many Greeks, and other successors of Byzantium, the date’s significance is self evident. The seismic event, the final fall of Constantinople to the Turks, on this day in 1453, is an event that should be noted, and mourned, by all Westerners, yet it is barely a footnote in the history books. Though the siege is worthy of a epic blockbuster, it is strangely absent from the celluloid (ok, now, digital) record.

To the best of my knowledge, the only high budget film on this pivotal event in world history has been produced by the Turks themselves, and recently. “Fetih [Conquest] 1453,” which I reviewed a couple of years ago, is a cinematographically extravagant hagiography of the Turkish conquest of the city, with a melodrama typical of Turkish soap operas but world class special effects of a massive and horrific siege. That no Western or Balkan version has been produced is symptomatic of a general silence about Byzantium, even among its successor states.

I have to ask a simple question: Why?

When most of Europe was in the Dark Ages following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, East Rome (what we refer to as Byzantium), survived, preserving its dual legacy of Greco-Roman Civilization in a Christian setting. Its art, architecture, medicine, science, and culture were far beyond anything further West. Byzantines’ tolerance and respect of learning allowed them to absorb wisdom from the Near, Middle, and Far East.  When you sit at your table and eat your food with a fork, you have the Byzantines to thank for it.

In an era of religious intolerance, when Western Christians were highly rigid and dogmatic, believing that God’s Word could only be expressed in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, the Byzantines invented an alphabet and a liturgy for the Slavs, prefiguring the reforms that Erasmus and Luther sought, nearly a millennium later, to bring to Catholicism. The Byzantines were no saints, but their sins in the name of God generally paled in comparison to the Inquisition.

Constantine Paleologus, Last Byzantine Emperor

Constantine Paleologus, Last Byzantine Emperor

Byzantium guarded the eastern approaches of Europe from the barbarian hordes to the north and the Arabs to the south. While Western historiography lauds the Franks under Charles Martel for stopping the Arab invasion of France from their Spanish base, one needs to search quite a bit harder for accounts of Byzantium’s role in stunting the Arabs’ eastern invasions of Europe. While a more politically correct and inclusive Western historiography gives Islamic Spain and Sicily its due, the same is withheld from Byzantium. This same school of history suggests that the Renaissance developed in Western Europe via Arab scholars of the ancient Greeks, while neglecting to remember that Byzantium spoke Greek and that their libraries contained most of the great works of ancient Greece and Rome, which were discussed among intellectual circles. Apparently, under a politically correct model, as a European Christian civilization, Byzantium can be pilloried by Western Europeans without the stigma of racism. Byzantium suffers from Western biases without any of the protections of political correctness, the worst of all worlds.

While the Crusades are now viewed as a vicious attack on the Muslim world, the Crusaders’ horrid decapitation of the Byzantine Empire in 1204 is again a footnote overlooked, and if addressed, somehow one gets the impression that the Byzantines, with their duplicitous, conspiratorial, “other,” “byzantine” ways, had it coming. The divisions sowed by this event resonate even today; the hatreds conjured could be seen in the Serb-Croat conflict, and the way the Western media, mirroring Western historians, had no problem obscuring the Serb position and supporting the Croatian. After all, the West had almost 1000 years of bias from which to draw.

Successor states of Byzantium—Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania—read these tea leaves and in their own way, absorbed the bias against their own civilization. Greece emphasized Classical Greece, which the West admired while despising the Medieval Greeks. Serbia attempted Yugoslavism, which ended in tragedy, fueled, in part, by the Western bias against Byzantium and the sponsorship of Croatia as a Western bastion against the “Byzantine” Serbs. The West conveniently ignored Serbia’s wartime alliances with the West; culture trumped the historical record. Romania emphasized its Latin linguistic roots to forge a tenuous link with Italy and above all France. The goal was to improve their cultural cache as Western states by forging links with the West, while still remaining Orthodox and Byzantine (and Ottoman) in culture and politics.

This attempt to find the best of both worlds, logical enough, has resulted in the worst of both. The Balkan countries are shirttail relatives to the West, their history is ignored and obscured, while, like all Western countries, they are also under a Politically Correct assault. The post Byzantine states have always been divided against each other, making them easy prey, as in the age of late Byzantium, for conquest from the East and the West. The record on Byzantium is silent, and we, as its descendants, whether in the homelands or the Diaspora, maintain the silence.

This is a bad thing, not only for those of us for whom the historical record is something sacrosanct in itself. Nor is it that, as a Greek, I resent the absence of Byzantium from general historical knowledge. I do, but the biggest problem is that the same area today is in an eerily similar state of seismic turmoil. The Balkan Orthodox states, the most direct successors of Byzantium, are in varied states of social, economic, political, and, most importantly, demographic decay. Europe as a whole faces less acute, yet similar problems. Unfortunately, by not understanding the mistakes of the past, we risk running the same script in the present and future.

What Can We Do?

Greeks in their key Diaspora locations are now well established economically, culturally, academically and in the media. We monitor chairs of Turkish Studies in universities, denials of genocide, the Macedonian Issue, et cetera. We have not shown even near the same vigor in promoting and defending Byzantium, though its civilization is key and core to our modern Greek identity, and it is falling victim to Turkish revisionism, both in academia and on the big screen. This combination of revisionism and obscurity has resulted in burned out Serbian monasteries in Croatia and Kosovo, or Cyprus. The whole of Asia Minor is a necropolis of Hellenism full of monuments that, to paraphrase President Obama, “They [the Turks] didn’t build.” If it is not talked about, or presented, or promoted, it effectively never happened.  Nobody will give these historical memories even a mere fifteen minutes of fame if we do not do it ourselves.

I must ask how is it that Greeks are so strongly represented in Hollywood in all parts of the cinematic value chain, and yet no film covers the Fall of Constantinople, the works of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, or any number of sagas and stories from a thousand year history. Not one. We can entertain with the self-deprecating, uber-stereotyped humor of Big Fat Greek Weddings, or set the beauties of Skopelos to ABBAs beautiful ballads. And this is great fun, mass entertainment. Major historical events are harder to portray for a mass audience, but it has been done before. Think of “300” or “Troy” or “Braveheart”; granted, these stories are better known, but the fact that so much of Byzantine history is virtually hidden in plain sight is in itself an opportunity.  Should we fail to promote Byzantium, its legacy will be usurped, perhaps by its conquerors, and the lessons from the tragic errors in the years leading up to 1453 may be unlearned. If pride in our ancestry and legacy is not enough of a reason, perhaps the words of Spanish-American philosopher George Santyana may be more persuasive: “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

About Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis is a writer and lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. He and his family returned to the US after nearly a decade in Greece, the UK, and Serbia. He writes prolifically on Balkan topics. His books, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, and Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, are available from Amazon.com.