03 November 2007

Guide to a golden age

Guide to a golden age

Patrick Comerford

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
By Judith Herrin
Penguin/Allen Lane, 392 pp. £20

WHEN WB Yeats visited Ravenna in 1907, he was taken aback by the beauty of the Byzantine mosaics. More than two decades passed before he published Sailing to Byzantium, in 1928:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

For Yeats, the holy city of Byzantium – especially the Byzantium of Justinian – represented a golden age that produced lasting cultural monuments: the Justinian Code, which provided the basis of European law, and so many works of art and architecture, especially Aghia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, which was the model for his “Monuments of unageing intellect” and “magnificence”.

Yeats’s image of Byzantium as the height of European civilisation and culture is in sharp contrast to the modern use of the word “Byzantine” to denigrate corrupt, opaque and hypocritical politics. But without Byzantium, Western Europe might never have had a Renaissance or a Reformation. And it is this common misunderstanding of Byzantium and misuse of the word Byzantine that first inspired Judith Herrin to write her latest, masterful account of life in the great city.

Judith Herrin stands alongside John Julius Norwich and the late Steven Runciman as one of the finest Byzantine scholars of our day. Like Yeats, she was first enthralled by Byzantium during a visit to Ravenna. As a teenager on holidays with her mother she was smitten by the mosaic portraits of the Emperor Justinian and his wife, the Empress Theodosia. She was left with lasting questions of why these portraits were in San Vitale when the imperial couple had never visited Ravenna. The pursuit of an explanation was the beginning of a quest that established her lasting reputation as a Byzantine scholar with the publication of Women in Purple, a study of Irene and Theodora, the two female rulers who restored the veneration of icons in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Those religious and feminist perspectives inform Herrin's approach to Byzantium in her latest book. She has sailed not only to Byzantium (Constantinople or Istanbul) but travelled to Athens, Thessaloniki, throughout central Greece and the Peloponnese to Sparta and Mystras, to the islands of Crete, Kythera and Cyprus, to Ravenna and Venice, and she has climbed Mount Sinai in search of the legacy of Byzantium. As a woman, of course, she was unable to visit the very heartland of Byzantium as it remains today – the holy mountain of Mount Athos – and we might have benefited from her visiting Alexandria, the Byzantium of Cavafy. But in neither instance has her comprehensiveness been diminished or her enthusiasm dulled, and her account of Mount Athos, though succinct, is inviting.

Rather than providing one continuous narrative account of the history of an empire, Herrin offers a concise summary of this story in her first chapter, and confines the long lists of emperors to an appendix, allowing her to make the rest of her book accessible as she explores and examines Byzantium thematically. Her special emphases are the religious and the feminine, which enrich her painting of a magnificent panorama of the empire that lasted for over a thousand years, an empire that remains Europe's most stable and longest-lasting political society.

IN HER GRAND sweep, Herrin introduces some of the enchanting legacies of Byzantium. The architectural legacy includes the dome from the great church of Aghia Sophia; the artistic legacy was secured with the victories of Irene and Theodora over the iconoclasts. Naturally, there is a full chapter on Ravenna and its mosaics, her “first and most exciting introduction to Byzantine art”. There is a charming chapter on the introduction of silk production from China through Byzantium to Europe. And there is a beguiling chapter in which she entertains us with the story of how the fork was invented and popularised. From the moment sometime in 1004 or 1005 when the Byzantine aristocrat Maria Argryopoulania first used a dainty, two-pronged golden fork in Venice, western dining habits were changed for ever.

The plates, although difficult at times to follow in sequence with the text, include many of her own photographs. There is a weak reliance on Byzantine collections in London and Dumbarton Oaks, missing the rich material available in Greece at the Benaki Museum, the Byzantine Museum or from the collection from Mount Athos displayed in 1997 when Thessaloniki was the European City of Culture.

This is the story of Bulgar-slayers and eunuchs at the court, the narrative of the missionary brothers Cyril and Methodius, the account of the Great Schism and Europe’s shameful plunder of Byzantium during the fourth crusade in 1204, the explanation of why Western Europe and Eastern Europe have been separate and yet inseparable since Constantine the Great first divided his empire. Throughout, Herrin is attentive to detail but is never pedantic and never irrelevant. She challenges prejudices from the past and about the present, and allows Byzantium to ask the questions about the place of Istanbul and Turkey in today’s Europe.

She delightfully counters the modern stereotype of a city of tyrants, despots, cowards, eunuchs and effeminates, obsessed with hollow rituals and perpetuating a complex and incomprehensible bureaucracy. Instead, she restores Byzantium as a creative and surprising empire that gave the world not only an imperial system of government but gave us government built upon a trained civil service, a transparent tax system and an enduring legal code. It preserved classical learning and Greek philosophy. It gave us the richness of the liturgy and spirituality enshrined in today's Orthodox Church. It gave us the Creeds, the bezant and the fork, it introduced us to both silk and caviar, which was once a poor people’s food. And without all these, without the ability of Byzantium to stand against the march of Islam for the best part of seven centuries, what would Europe be today?

The photograph shows a modern icon of Christ in a monastery on the island of Corfu. The Byzantine tradition of iconography continues to this day in Greek churches. Photograph (c) Patrick Comerford

Canon Patrick Comerford is director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. He is a contributor to the forthcoming volume, The Lure of Greece (edited by JV Luce, C Morris, C Souyoudzoglou-Haywood).

This review was first published in The Irish Times on 3 November 2007.

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