Saturday, 30 November 2013

ABCs: B is for Byzantine: the Word



 Image From Wikipedia

 In the 1500s the historian Hieronymus Wolf coined the term Byzantine as a handy way to distinguish the great eastern branch of the Roman Empire from the Holy Roman Empire which had emerged much later in the west. The term has stuck but Greeks still refer to it as what in fact it was: the Roman Empire (Basileia ton Rhomaion) - after it moved east.
It lasted for over 1000 years (330-1450 AD).  Christianity became the state religion and slowly the Latin language gave way to Greek as the language of the court, the church, and intelligentsia. Its citizens would come to define themselves by their faith and their allegiance to the emperor, firmly believing they were God’s chosen people under the leadership of the emperor until the end of time: God arranged the Heavens and the Byzantine emperor, as his icon, the Oikumene (world).

Words matter and this one is about as loaded as a word can get: no matter that it originally chosen because Constantinople, the great eastern capital Constantine founded in 330 was built over a Roman settlement called Byzantium. Because of western historical perspectives, prejudices, and interests (and, to be fair, the behavior of some of the emperors themselves), the word Byzantine has the connotation of something slippery, convoluted, intricate, labyrinthine, and with more than a whiff of the sneaky and mendacious.

 And there Byzantium and things Byzantine have  has stayed, glimpsed in the corner of the West’s eye maybe, but neither understood or much missed until recently when there has been quite a revival of interest in all things Byzantine, its art in particular.(1)

Good to remember that for Greeks and the  Greek Orthodox Church, the  Byzantine world has always been the focus,  perceived by many as an unbroken historical and spiritual line leading from then to the here and now of modern Greece.

(1)  There is a website called www.byzantiumnovum.org  which supports the complete restoration of Byzantine sovereignty and culture. It even has a manifesto (and I was worried that my interests might seem arcane…) Among other unusual offerings, it has placed on line quite an interesting Byzantine cookbook. Worth a look!

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