Archive for December, 2010

Are the ‘Sons of the Eagles’ Byzantine?

Dec 30 2010 Published by under Albanian,Byzantine,Dacian,Illyrian,Skanderbeg,Thracian

Boris asks if the Albanian people have their roots in Byzantium.

The Albanian flag prominently displays the Byzantine double-eagle and Albanians refer to themselves as “Shqiptaret” which means “Sons of the Eagles”.  So at first blush it would seem natural to assume that the Albanians- like so many peoples in the Balkans- draw their cultural identity from Byzantium.  But is it ever really that simple?

There are hints that the Albanians are quite a bit older than they seem.  They speak an Indo-European language that is based on an ancient Balkan tongue.  Aside from Greek, it is the only modern survivor- though no one seems exactly sure which paleo-Balkan language it comes from.  The problem is that Balkan history is notorious for its invasions.  The Romans called the original inhabitants Illyrians, and they were joined by waves of Dacians, Thracians,  Slavs, and Greeks among others.

So who are the modern Albanians descended from?  This is where politics enter the mix.  The communist government after World War Two pushed the Illyrian connection to increase its prestige.  Unfortunately for the communists there are some problems with this pedigree.  The Roman writer Polybius claims there was a city called ‘Albonopolis’ in Illyria (hence the name ‘Albania’), but the original inhabitants were extinct by the time of Justinian.  The first mention we have of ‘modern’ Albanians is in 1079 when a Byzantine author referred to certain ‘Albanoi’ who took part in a revolt.  Anna Comnena mentions them rioting again during the early part of her father’s reign, and says that they were under the control of the nearby city of Dürres.

Written Albanian doesn’t appear until 1462, and appears to be more influenced by eastern Romance languages than classical Latin- meaning that the earliest it could have come into the area is late antiquity.

Of course as with any charged debate, there are plenty of dissenting voices.  Some linguists believe modern Albanian has loanwords from the time of Augustus- 85 of which don’t appear in any other Romance language.  The truth is that modern Albanians probably don’t have a single origin but are a mix of things- a microcosm of Balkan history itself.

In a way their flag is a perfect symbol.  Its Byzantine imagery hints at a deep Orthodox history but it’s really a glorification of something else entirely.  In 1443 the national hero Skanderbeg adopted it as his coat of arms and briefly managed to throw off the Ottoman yoke.  When the modern nation repeated the feat permanently in 1912, they could think of no finer symbol for their freedom.

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Did the Armenians control Byzantium?

Dec 18 2010 Published by under Armenia,Armenians,Basil,Narses,Romanus Lecapenus

Hovig asks how influential the Armenians were in the Byzantine Empire.  The short answer is ‘very’.

Armenia provided some of Byzantium’s best soldiers (there were Armenian contingents fighting in Justinian’s armies), and some of its leading early generals (most famously Narses).  The Byzantines- like the Romans- were always a heterogeneous people.  What counted was not so much ethnic origin but culture.  They would look down their noses if you dressed like a provincial or spoke with an accent, but  inject a little schooling and your children could be mixing with the blue-bloods.  The fact that Justin was a poor, uneducated peasant from the Balkans didn’t stop later emperors from claiming to be descended from his nephew Justinian, and the only reason the pathetic Zoë was allowed to rule as empress was because she was directly related to Basil I- a rough ‘hick’ from the country who murdered his way to the throne.

But to the Byzantines, Armenia marked the limits of civilization (ie Hellenism).  There were parts of Armenia where Greek never displaced the native tongue, and it was the spot where classical Greco-Roman culture faded and Persian influences (and later Arab) began.  Christianity exerted a pull toward Constantinople, but the Armenians were always fiercely independent people.  They were so stubborn that one emperor (Maurice) got fed up with dealing with them and made an agreement with the Persian Shah to deport the entire population.  Fortunately for Armenia the Shah didn’t follow through, but imperial policy for the next several centuries concentrated on deporting Armenians as a way to control troublesome spots, repopulate others, or to bolster military numbers.  Courtesy of the imperial government Armenians were settled in Cyprus, Calabria, Sicily, Crete, North Africa, and Sparta.

In the 8th century, however, things began to change.  The Arab advance had pushed the imperial army out of Armenia and a stream of refugees had come with it.  An Armenian colony had already been founded in Pergamum and in 711 a member of the colony named Bardanes managed to overthrow the emperor and for two years reigned as the emperor Philippicus.

This first experiment in Armenian emperors was not successful (Philippicus was quickly overthrown and had to serve as his successor’s footstool in the Hippodrome), but it was soon followed by a better one.  The Bulgars were raiding Thrace, and to protect Constantinople’s flank the emperor Leo IV settled a few thousand Armenians right in their path.  So many were taken prisoner back to Macedonia that the Armenians remaining in Thrace were given the nickname ‘Macedonian’.  In 867 one of them- a man named Basil- made his way to Constantinople and killed off the reigning emperor (who was actually half-Armenian himself).   Basil founded a new dynasty (the so-called “Macedonian” Dynasty) which ruled for the next 190 years.  During that time Armenians dominated the government.  The important generals, administrators, governors, bureaucrats, and at least one major historian (Genesius) were all Armenian.  Even the usurper Romanus Lecapenus who briefly elbowed aside the legitimate ‘Macedonian’ emperor was an Armenian.  It was a period of brilliance in nearly every field, and it witnessed a renaissance of learning overseen by three of the most educated men Byzantium ever produced- the Patriarch Photius, John the Grammarian, and Leo the Philosopher- all Armenians.

Basil II- the last of the “Macedonian” emperors- did start an Armenian colony in Macedonia, but that turned out to be the apogee of both Armenian influence, and imperial strength.  46 years after Basil’s death a Turkish army engaged a Byzantine one in the little Armenian town of Manzikert and the disaster led to the permanent collapse of Byzantine power.

As a final postscript I should point out that terms like ‘Armenian’ and ‘Byzantine’ are a little anachronistic.  Today we tend to think in terms of nationalities or states- the term ‘Armenian’ for instance is tied both to ethnic origin and a citizen of the country of Armenia.  This was not the case a thousand years ago.  There was no Armenia, just a collection of princes, a population sharing common dialects, and vague, shifting borders.  As for the Byzantines, their identity was tied to culture, traditions, religion, and civilization.  In other words, if you crossed yourself from right to left, dipped your bread in olive oil, and knew your Homer, than you qualified as a Roman.

If you had walked into the court of Basil II and asked him what he was, he would have given you the same answer as every one of his predecessors since Augustus.  Roman.

Then knowing Basil, you’d have your eyes put out.

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Movie Review: “Agora”

Dec 01 2010 Published by under Agora,Cyril,Hypatia,Movie Review,Orestes

David asks what I thought of the movie Agora.

Hollywood usually churns out bland (and increasingly re-fried) fare, consistently light on content or imagination, but this one promised to be different.  It had so many attractive points for a history nerd- the early fifth century, the ‘Byzantine’ half of the Roman Empire, the most famous library of the ancient world, and the tension between the fading classical and emerging medieval worlds.

The movie re-tells the tale of the brilliant Hypatia, a female scientist/philosopher from Alexandria who was lynched by a mob in 415.  It bases its account on Edward Gibbon who elaborated how the pagan Hypatia clashed with Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria who whipped up his followers into a superstitious fury and killed her- burning the great Library of Alexandria in their rage.  Hypatia comes across as a virtuous defender of secular rationalism (desperately gathering scrolls to save them from destruction) against the rising tide of Christian intolerance and ignorance that was drowning classical culture.

The only problem is that the story is complete nonsense.  Beyond the fact that Hypatia was indeed a philosopher who was lynched in 415, there is barely a reliable detail to be found.  Hypatia was a neo-Platonist who was hardly an opponent of the Church.  Many Christians attended her classes and she had several very prominent bishops among her inner circle of friends.  This was only natural since the heavyweights of Christian theology- Augustine, Ambrose, and Origen among others, enthusiastically supported neo-Platonism and viewed the pre-Christian philosophers as men who pointed the way to Christ without having all the details.  In a sense they had come as close to the truth as possible without the benefit of revelation.  In the fifth century Christian view the classical texts of Plato and Plotinus were valuable and needed to be preserved (that’s why we still have them today).  To portray Hypatia as the noble champion of secular reason against the dark forces of religious superstition is just silly.

But the movie seems to want to specifically push that stereotype.  It parrots Gibbon- who was deeply anti-Christian and eager to believe any smear.  He was the first to turn Hypatia’s death into a lynching by a Christian mob and he threw in the burning of the Alexandrian Library as the coup d’état of Christian ignorance.  In fact, Hypatia was killed in a turf war between the two most powerful figures of Alexandria- Orestes (the Roman governor of Egypt) and Cyril (the newly-appointed bishop).  They were feuding over ecclesiastic encroachment on secular authority and Hypatia was unlucky enough to be caught in the middle.  After some of Cyril’s supporters were killed by Orestes’ henchmen, Hypatia (a vocal supporter of Orestes) was killed in retaliation.  A terrible injustice, but hardly the victory of superstition over rationalism that the movie would have you believe.

Most egregious of all, however, is the slanderous accusation that these ignorant Christians then pillaged the great Library of Alexandria.  This unfortunate bit of mudslinging by Gibbon has been copied by nearly every anti-Christian polemic since, despite the lack of a single shred of evidence to back it up.  Though it was one of the wonders of the ancient world, the Library of Alexandria didn’t even survive the Roman Republic.  Half a millennium before Hypatia’s birth, it was destroyed by Julius Caesar when he was fending off Cleopatra’s brother/husband in 48 BC.  A temple to the Egyptian god Serapis was built on the ruins and if it housed any scrolls they were destroyed in the riots of 391- a full 21 years before Hypatia’s death.

Agora could have been a fascinating story- certainly the time period is interesting enough.  Instead, it is yet another tired example of a progressive agenda that was already worn out in Gibbon’s time.

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