Archive for January, 2011

Did the Byzantines speak bad Greek?

Jan 27 2011 Published by under Byzantine,Greek,Voltaire

Brian asks why the Enlightenment scholar Voltaire famously quipped that the Byzantines spoke bad Greek.

He was referring to the convoluted style of writing that the Byzantines preferred.  They considered the classical Greek authors to be the gold standard and did their best to ape the style.  Not only would they constantly reference snippets of Homer or Aeschylus to prove their erudition, but they tried to jam medieval Greek into the metrical and grammatical schemes of ancient Greek.  The result was an appropriately ‘byzantine’ mess of often tortured prose. (presumably like that last sentence)

Voltaire was also engaging in a bit of dripping condescension toward the spoken word.  Medieval Greek had changed in the thousand years since Polybius was writing and frankly it didn’t measure up to his standards- much the way King James English or Shakespeare sounds more majestic than our own vernacular.

Someone should have pointed out how barbaric his version of Latin sounded.

10 responses so far

When did Turkey become Turkish?

Jan 21 2011 Published by under Byzantine,Ionian,Turkish

Joost asks when exactly Turkey became Turkish.  Or to put it another way, when did Byzantine (Greek) culture vanish from Asia Minor?

It’s hard to emphasize just how deeply Hellenic roots run in Anatolia.  Ionian settlers reached the western coast of Turkey as early as the 9th Century BC and made up a sort of Magna Graecia in Asia.  Some of the most famous names in Greek history and mythology are associated with this area in what is now Turkey.  Homer was supposedly born in Smyrna (Izmir), Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus (Bodrum), and Jason’s pursuit of the Golden Fleece took place on the Turkish coast of the Black Sea.  These Ionian cities were instrumental in sparking the Persian Wars which ultimately resulted in Alexander the Great welding everything between the Balkans and India into a massive Hellenistic state.  In 133 BC king Attalus of Pergamum (one of the last splinter kingdoms of Alexander’s empire) willed his territory to Rome and Anatolia entered the Roman Empire.  It stayed in imperial hands from the 2nd century BC till the 11th AD without a serious break.  In 1071, when the Byzantine army suffered a catastrophic defeat  at Manzikert, parts of Asia Minor had been Greek for nearly two thousand years.

The most Hellenized regions were the coasts, and Byzantium recovered enough to retain control of them but the interior was officially abandoned.  Once it was clear that the Crusades wouldn’t change the situation, the emperor Alexius Comnenus agreed to a treaty with the Seljuks allowing Christians to peacefully emigrate to imperial territory.  This ensured the effective end of the Greek presence in the interior and its ultimate Turkification and Islamification.

The change, however, was relatively gradual- a slow eroding over the centuries.  The Muslim authorities in Asia Minor referred to the Greek population as ‘the emperor’s church’ and as late as the fifteenth century were afraid that it would act as a fifth column in a Byzantine counterattack.  Thriving Greek communities with their own schools, churches, and customs dating back to when Xenophon was marching ‘up country’ remained in place throughout the Ottoman Empire.  What finally extinguished them was the great population exchange of 1923.  Half a million Turks who had settled in Greece during Ottoman times were relocated to Turkey, and in exchange 1.5 million Greeks from Asia were transplanted in Greece.  (Many of the homes they inhabited are still ghost towns today as the Turks refuse to live in them).  We are in the very end stages of the complete disappearance of Greek traces from one of its ancient heartlands.

Istanbul was still a cosmopolitan city because it was exempted from the exchange, but in 1955 there were terrible racial pogroms that drove most of the Greeks away.  In 1924 there were 200,000 Greeks living in the city and the last time a census was attempted (2006) there were barely 2,500.  (Interestingly enough the opposite is true in Greece.  The Turkish population of Thrace has had a growth rate of about 2.8% since 1951)

There is still one remnant holding on though.  They are a group of ethnic Greeks living on the Black Sea coast near the Byzantine city of Trebizond.  As Muslims they were exempted from the population exchange and they still speak an archaic form of Greek.  It has the structure and grammar of medieval Greek- in other words it’s the one place on earth you can still hear the language of fourteenth century Byzantium.  Ben Atlas provided a youtube clip:

7 responses so far

Did Justinian help Islam to spread?

Jan 08 2011 Published by under Islam,Justin II,Justinian,Maurice,Phocas,Tiberius II

Matthew asks if Justinian unwittingly aided the spread of Islam by exhausting the resources of the empire with his conquest of Italy.

Byzantium was certainly weaker at Justinian’s death than it had been at the start of his reign, but that was not entirely his fault.  Invasions are expensive, but Justinian had good reason to think that on balance the empire would be enriched with the addition of Italy.  After all the capture of North Africa was lucrative enough to pay for itself within a few years, and it soon became the wealthiest province of the empire.

Italy turned out to be a different proposition- mostly because the emperor couldn’t bring himself to trust Belisarius or fund him appropriately.  This vacillation extended the length of the war but it wasn’t what doomed his conquests- given enough time Italy almost certainly would have become a productive imperial possession.  What destroyed the Justinianic renaissance was the plague which hit in 541 and killed a quarter of the Mediterranean population.  The empire was left reeling with longer boarders, fewer soldiers to patrol them, and fewer taxpayers to pay for it all.

Justinian was forced to depend on his shrinking gold reserves to defend the empire- reducing the ‘bread and circuses’ to buy off the barbarians on every side.  His successor Justin II didn’t understand the political realities of the weakened state and slammed on the spending brakes- causing the collapse of the careful alliances Justinian had built up and triggering waves of invasion.  The disasters unhinged his mind and he spent the rest of his reign being wheeled through the palace in a golden wagon biting anyone who was foolish enough to come within range.  He recovered enough to appoint Tiberius II as successor and (given the circumstances) surprisingly offered him the following bit of wisdom: ‘consult the experience rather than the example of your predecessor.’

Tiberius was more than happy to abandon any hint of austerity.  In a bid to be popular he managed to blow through 29,000 pounds of gold in four years, tactfully exiting the stage just in time to leave his successor with an empty treasury and several wars brewing.  There was little the new emperor Maurice could do other than to raise taxes and divert everything to the army.  He managed to settle most of the wars but his cost cutting made him so unpopular that he was easily overthrown by a soldier named Phocas who promised circuses and free food for everyone.  Of course there was no money to do that so he concentrated on killing everyone who looked at him sideways, using his free time to start a war with Persia- the one enemy that had miraculously been at peace with the empire.  Phocas was thankfully replaced by Heraclius and the new emperor managed to claw his way to victory against Persia after 17 years of a bruising war.

It was at this point with the empire exhausted, demoralized, religiously divided, and impoverished, that the first Muslim army arrived.

Persia and Byzantium were like prize fighters who had knocked each other out.  Just how fatigued they were can be seen by the speed with which they collapsed.  Within four years the last Persian Shah was dead and his kingdom conquered.  Byzantine Jerusalem barely resisted, Alexandria voluntarily opened its gates, and North Africa put up only a sporadic resistance.

So how much is Justinian to blame?  Certainly some- the conquests of Italy, North Africa, and parts of Spain were a tremendous short-term drain of resources.  But even if he hadn’t gone west the plague would still have decimated Byzantium.  At his death the empire was stretched, but with capable leaders it could have been preserved.  Instead he was followed by the foolish (and insane) Justin II, the profligate Tiberius II, and the bloodthirsty Phocas.  If Heraclius had followed Maurice instead of Phocas, Byzantium and Persia would have been infinitely stronger.  The armies of Islam would have had to contend with the powerful buffer of Persia and if they had broken through they would have met Heraclius’ able grandson Constans II- who had the makings of a brilliant general.

Islam would have been contained within the Arabian peninsula, North Africa may have resembled Western Europe, and the world would be a much different place.  As it is Constans II was killed in his bath, Persia was submerged under a Muslim tide, and within half a century the Arabs were in Europe and poised to attack Constantinople by both land and sea.

3 responses so far

What’s under the Blue Mosque?

Jan 04 2011 Published by under Blue Mosque,Daphne

Norman asks what’s buried under the Blue Mosque.

Ever since Indiana Jones found that ‘X’ sometimes does mark the spot, Hollywood- and armchair historians everywhere- have been salivating at the prospect of finding some lost treasure hidden just below the surface.   Most of the time this is just wishful thinking.  Archeology is slow, painstaking work, not treasure hunting.  But Constantinople is more a city of ghosts than most- its modern custodians are the very people who destroyed it, and they show little interest in preserving or exploring an alien past.  So Byzantium keeps its secrets and provides a richer ground for future discovery than perhaps any other ancient megapolis.  The Blue Mosque is a perfect case in point.

Directly beneath it lies the oldest part of the Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors.  It was built by Constantine the Great as his personal residence and was nicknamed the Palace of Daphne because of a famous statue of Apollo’s nymph displayed on the grounds.  Some of the most prominent early Byzantine structures were within its walls- the octagonal bedchamber decorated with a cycle of mosaics of the imperial family, the subterranean walkway and stair to the imperial box in the Hippodrome, and the chapel of St. Stephen where on Christmas Day in 820 one of the most cold-blooded murders in Byzantine history was carried out.  (The previous evening, emperor Leo V had thrown his scheming friend Michael the Amorian into prison for a conspiracy, and sentenced him to die by being bound to an ape and cast into the furnace that heated the imperial baths.  Early Christmas morning Michael’s supporters snuck into St. Stephens disguised as monks, and dismembered their unarmed sovereign)

The Palace of Daphne was also the original coronation hall, and as late as the Macedonian Dynasty was still being used for imperial weddings.  The emperors of the eleventh and twelfth centuries preferred the gentler views of the Blachernae Palace in the nortwestern corner of the city, so Daphne gradually fell into decline.

It was still mostly intact (though partly in ruins) when the city fell to the Turks, but in 1606 after a sharp military defeat, the Ottoman Sultan decided to distract the population by building a huge mosque.  He pulled down a large section of the Hippodrome (including the lavish imperial box), leveled the Palace of Daphne and erected the Blue Mosque.  Only the walls above ground were destroyed, however.  The southern side of the mosque rests completely on the foundations and vaults of the Byzantine Palace.

Given the history of the building, even its ruins would be a gold mine of information.  Don’t count on seeing it anytime soon though.  Even if it wasn’t under a mosque, imperial remains aren’t exactly a high priority.  Justinian’s magnificent Bucoleon Palace was pulled down in 1873 to make way for a railway station, and the surviving part of the Blachernae Palace was converted to a tile factory.  Until Turkey discovers an appreciation of Byzantium we’ll have to settle for this virtual reconstruction from our friends at Byzantium 1200:

4 responses so far