“This book, it hardly seems too much to say, changed my life. It filled me with a fascination for Byzantium and the whole Byzantine world which I have never lost.”
—John Julius Norwich
Robert Byron believed that the very summit of ancient Greek civilization was not to be found in 5th century BCE Athens, as almost everyone believes. Instead it was to be found in post-classical Byzantium, also called Constantinople by the Romans. Byzantine civilization was truly glorious, as we see by looking through Byron’s fresh eyes.
Byron was a brilliant writer as well as an unashamed propagandist. In The Byzantine Achievement, he made his startling claim with verve and imagination. This is a young man’s work: sometimes brash and one-sided in its judgments, seeking the gaudy and brightly colored parts of history to the exclusion of the dull and prosaic. But the consequence is a literary classic that brings Byzantium and its achievements alive.
The introduction is by Richard Luckett of Magdalene College, Cambridge, Byron’s authorized biographer.
About the Author
A graduate of Eton and Merton College, Oxford, Robert Byron was famous for his books about Central Asia as well as for those about Byzantium. He died in 1941, aged 34, when the ship carrying him was torpedoed.
Part I: The Historical Image
1 The Historian
2 The Greeks
3 The Byzantines
Part II: The Anatomy
4 The Triple Fusion
5 The Imperial Chronology
6 The Substance of the State
7 Trade and the Bezant
8 The Quest of Reality
10 The Joyous Life
11 Battle for Europe
Chapter 1: The Historian
Pride of the masses in birth and circumstance, termed when racially manifest, patriotism, is habitually evoked in the defense either of institutions or ideas. Since his divergence from the lesser forms of creation, man has striven to maintain not only his social organizations, tribal, municipal or imperial, but also, on occasion, the less concrete principles of religion, honor, and mental freedom. Today, as a force in the second quarter of the twentieth century, patriotism is variously regarded. While it remains the opinion of many that immolation in the furthest desert to which their country’s sovereignty extends constitutes the highest form of human expression, there are others who, with parallel intemperance, dismiss every token of national existence as a kind of original sin dating from Louis XIV and George III. Mental patriotism, such as that which fought the Reformation and led England to declare war on Germany in 1914, is viewed by nationalists with less enthusiasm, by “little Englanders” with greater tolerance. But removed from these definitions is another form of pride in which the individual can permit the rest to share; a form seldom felt, more seldom given words, which transcends the consciousness of this or that tradition, the sunsets of an empire or the concept of a god; which surmounts the barriers not only of political, but of ethical, intellectual, and spiritual disagreement. World consciousness is a commonplace; European already a reality. But the supreme pride is measured not in terms of the existing earth, of temperament and social device, but in divisions of time, in terms of human development—that development, which, whether it prove ultimately progressive or retrograde, is continuous. The instinct is a pride, a patriotism in our age. Sons of fathers, fathers of children, we stand companion to a moment. Let the flag fly, not of lands and waters, morals and gods, but of an era, a generation.
In communion with this apotheosis of the age, this pride in the present’s relation to the past and future, there emerges from the furthest antiquity of every country and every race, the science of historical analogy. This process, commonly a mere embellishment of popular writers, makes it possible, by sorting the centennially and millennially repeated incidents and trends of history, to surmise the actual moment of our progress. Civilizations are uncommon phenomena. They are to be distinguished from transitory cultural epochs such as those enjoyed by Periclean Greece and the Italy of the Renaissance. Ours is barely come. But not only are we poised on the footboard of the encyclopedic civilization now being launched; in addition, we are gathered to the brow of infinity by the initial achievement of the scientific revolution. Thus, like Moses on Nebo, we occupy a vantage point: we look both ways: back to Darwinism, daguerreotypes and railway trains; ahead to mathematical pantheism, television and the colonization of the stars. And it is this increasing systematization of intuitive analysis, standardization of old form to produce new, and interconnection of place, which distinguishes the oncoming civilization from its precursors. Its vitality will endure, as theirs did not, from the scope and unity of its embrace.
Thus the historian, substituting for the methods of the pedagogue those of the scientist and the philosopher, is the high priest of the instant. To assimilate peacefully the forces of the advancing epoch, as yet but faintly discernible on its distant horizon, the world must revise its conception of the past, distilling from a recoordination of essential fact, the elements that have contributed to the immensity upon which it is about to lay hold. It is the day of historical stocktaking, when all peoples must bring their achievement into line with the one universal development of the future. (Until, when that is interrupted, some classic Melanesian golden age shall raise a tiny cultured head and start again.) In place of the presentation of an unpalatable sequence of incident, sugared with romance and molded to the bias of particularist writers—in the English language usually Protestant or Liberal—the function of history in this moment of rapid evolution resolves into a dual purpose: the general, to sift from the past a philosophic and scientific understanding of the present in preparation for the future; and in particular, to enumerate and render intelligible any series of events, the consequences of which are liable to affect ensuing generations in an immediate and perceptible manner. In the whole of European history, no moment offers more relevant comparison to our own than that in which Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. A new civilization was thus born, the nature and achievement of which have remained unintelligible in the centuries of Triumphant Reason that have followed its extinction. Hence, in a single, if yet uncompleted, enquiry, the alliance of Constantine’s foundation with such incidents in its legacy as the sack of Smyrna in 1922.