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The Eastern Empire

Alex and I went to a lecture at the Smithsonian about the Byzantine Empire by Lars Brownworth.  It was a good lecture and the guy had very good humor timing but he also made some excellent points.  

Lecture at Smithsonian 

One of the key points is how the Byzantines have been disrespected for centuries.   Even the name “Byzantine” is pejorative.  The Byzantines referred to themselves as Romans, which made sense since they were indeed the heirs to the Roman Empire in an unbroken line of history.  Some of it is the responsibly of one man – Edward Gibbon, whose monumental book “the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” has set the concept of Rome for more than 200 years.   But in many ways he was merely reflecting a general Western prejudice against the East.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

It seems to make sense that we could call the end of the Roman Empire when the city of Rome fell, but this is not the case.  By the time the actual city of Rome fell to Barbarians in 476 it had no longer really been the capital of the Empire for some times.  The Western Empire was ruled from the more defensible Ravenna.   The more important Eastern part of the Empire was ruled from Constantinople.  By that time also the Roman Empire had occupied the Mediterranean world for more than 600 years.  It had become a single cultural entity a lot like the U.S. in North America.  California or Nebraska is not less American than Virginia or Massachusetts because. 

Take that back in terms of our own history and we are back to 1409, almost a century before the European discovery of America.   Henry V had not yet become king of England and – BTW – the Eastern Roman Empire was still in existence.   That was a long time ago, so you can imagine that a citizen of the Roman Empire had no real concept of anything before Rome, or maybe had about the same feeling as we would about Henry IV (for most people i.e. none). 

Fresco in Byzantine church 

Anyway it was one cultural region and the Mediterranean united the region, not divided it.   North Africa was as much part of this Roman world as Italy.   We forget about that today because we think in terms of East and West and we think of the Muslims in the Middle East as natural and native. BTW, many mosques are pattered after Byzantine churches (especially Hagia Sophia, that you see in the picture) and the Muslim world owes a lot to the Eastern Roman Empire in general, as we do. 

If you read other parts of my blog, you know I am a fan of the great empire of Rome.   The Byzantines preserved and transmitted the ancient heritage to us.  Byzantine texts and scholars helped spark the renaissance.  We should pay more attention to their history.

I think it is great that Smithsonian sponsors these lectures and that hundreds of people come to listen to them.  


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