Everybody in the blogosphere writes reviews of books by modern economists or academics, producing a lively discussion on the topics on vogue. That’s also how people like Yglesias or Tyler Cowen get good money also. Well I’m not going to participate in that, and I’m not reading any of these trendy books, in part because my fellow bloggers have done all the digestion necessary for me to know what the book is about without contributing to their chalupas eating budget.
All this doesn’t mean that I don’t read any books at all. It’s that what I read doesn’t usually interest anyone else. But to hell with it, I’ve got a blog and I’m gonna do a book review too.
I just finished reading the 1971 book, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century, by Speros Vryonis Jr.
The Byzantine Empire is one of the most interesting polities in human history, for many reasons. For one, it was the Roman Empire! Or so they called themselves, Romania. It was a Christian bureaucratic theocracy in a time where most of Europe was divided in tiny fiefdoms by uncouth German knights. Humans generally have a fascination for continuity, and Byzantium was a miracle of continuity in a world of violent upheaval. It survived the Goths, the Slavs, the Bulgars. Even the Arabs, although they did do a lot of harm, taking the southern half of the empire forever. Still the empire held to Greece and Asia Minor, and over time even had the energy to acquire (or reacquire, as being the Roman Empire means all land around used to be yours) some territories in Europe. By 1025 Byzantine emperors ruled over a handsome expanse of land.
Byzantium was a theocratic autocracy, whose emperor had absolute personal rule, and whose church held absolute control over the subject’s souls. Lately many in the alt-right blogosphere have been turning to monarchy (see here or here), and Byzantium really strikes one as the total opposite of the modern democratic, nanoslice-ic, hedonistic present. Bruce Charlton plainly stated that Byzantium is the ideal state.
Professor Charlton is entitled to his historical preferences, but there’s this little problem, namely that Byzantium fell, miserably, to Muslim enemies. See, we moderns live in a world shaped by the utter domination of European culture around the world. Letting modern white guilt and post-WW2 suicide apart, European countries since the 18th century have dominated the globe without real opposition. And HBD tells a simple story as to why it happened. Yet here you have Greece, the mother of Europe, losing its own heartland, 750.000 km² and 10 million people, lost forever to a by all accounts intellectually inferior nation.
The first Muslim wave of the 7th century had its explanation in that the Coptic and Syrian Churches were non Chalcedonian, and deeply resented how Constantinople treated them as heretics to be converted. They mostly welcomed the Arabs. That happens with multi-ethnic empires. But that wasn’t the case with Asia Minor. What remained of the empire after the Arab invasions was the Greek core of the empire, a uniform nation united by one language and one church. By far the biggest in Europe. What happened then? What did the Turks do that the Arabs didn’t?
I will elaborate in a further post, but in short, as Arnold Toynbee said, Byzantium died from suicide, not murder. Infighting between the army and the bureaucracy in Constantinople ended with the victory of the capital and the hollowing out of the Anatolian army, leaving the territory undefended. The reckless absorption of Armenia scattered its people on the eastern frontier, where in revenge for the loss of their kingdom they exerted themselves in causing all the trouble they could. Palatial intrigues were so bad that the Emperor itself was betrayed and given away to the Turks at Manzikert in 1071, by his own men.
The result was unleashing the biggest and most destructive nomad invasion of civilised territory in history. Millions killed and enslaved (so much for the myth that medieval war was a mild business). Scores of Christian cities razed to the ground, never to recover. The decimation of the Orthodox Church and the Greek nation. All this happened to the most rationalised and experienced theocratic kingdom on Earth. In my next post I’ll explain further how it happened and what lessons we should learn from it.