On a recent chat forum which I follow the discussion leader asked the simple but profoundly complex question: why did Byzantium collapse?
At this time I happened to be watching The Fall of the Roman Empire, the last of the grand old Hollywood epics, and the answer was there, pure and simple: Empires crumble from within.
Should we try to map the beginning of the end? No, I would say – it is a futile task. You will point to some event (for example - the great sacking of Constantinople in 1204 at the hands of the Fourth Crusade and the Venetians) and I will find something earlier (the constant and debilitating onslaught of the Normans after the Arab threat had receded – I'm talking about the beginning of the 10 century).
Instead let's talk about the evolution of Rome – or rather how it stopped evolving.
As I have said elsewhere on these pages, contrary to popular mythology Rome never fell in quite the way we think it did. In fact it lived on for centuries (from roughly 313 BC to 1453 AD) and transformed itself into what we modern folk call Byzantium (the Byzantines themselves would never have used this word – indeed they called themselves Romans). So why did it live on?
Firstly, we must never forget about the deeply embedded and highly evolved administrative systems and culture that were the legacy of ancient Rome. I refer here to the civil service, trade, law, foreign policy, you name it. The Romans were simply the best at just about anything to do with public administration and war.
Initially Christianity played an important part in preventing Rome from collapsing. The decision of Constantine to turn the pagan worship of ancient Rome into the state religion of Christianity sorted out a big administrative headache by absorbing a large and powerful rabble (the early Christians) which had erected a parallel administrative structure (bishops etc.) and it extended his power base. This rabble was not only potentially subversive by its very existence, but also promulgated that message whenever possible. Sadly, I believe that by incorporating that message Constantine also completely undermined it, turning it into a tool of the state and burying it in ritual and observance (I discuss this in my other blogs here, here and here).
I claim that the long term result of this adoption of Christianity was a loss and fear of innovation (which was a dirty word in Byzantium as pointed out by Judith Herrin in her wonderful book “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire”).
And then it became more extreme through the influence of yet another organised monotheism in the Arab world – Islam. But contact with Islam brought a mixture of benefits and costs,for example Iconoclasm, the destruction of the Icons, was partly fuelled by a desire of the Byzantines to emulate Islam's fierce monotheism and its contempt for the sacred image. But more (especially on the benefits of contact with Islam) later.
But not all innovation was dead. The 9th Century Patriarch-scholar Photios is responsible (along with his students Methodios and Cyril) for arguably one of the greatest innovations to come out of Byzantium - the development of the Cyrillic alphabet. (A great blog post on his life is here).
The idea of adapting the message to the 'customer' is breathtakingly modern and completely transformed the pagan slav cultures of middle and Eastern Europe from the 10th century onwards (read more about it on my novel page) here.
Over the next few blogs my aim is to develop this theme: that Rome/Byzantium limped on rather than adapted, and then crumbled, through the oppressive imposition of state-driven monotheistic religion. Are there any Mayan scholars out there who would care to contribute to this discussion?