May 18, 2010

We Are All The Children Of Byzantium

Professor Judith Herrin of Princeton University and King’s College delivered the 18th Runciman Lecture in London in February of 2009.

Despite the snow and the transport problems, the annual lecture in honor of the great scholar of Byzantium, Steven Runciman, was held as scheduled at King's College in London on Thursday. In the university amphitheater, after vespers in the chapel, Professor Judith Herrin of Princeton and King's College delivered the 18th Runciman Lecture on the subject «We Are All Children of Byzantium.»

The lecture coincided with the Byzantium 330-1453 exhibition which is being hosted by the Royal Academy in London. Below is an abridged version of Professor Herrin's lecture.

Tonight my aim is to celebrate Byzantium and its great civilization. My title has been chosen to follow in the well-laid paths of allegory - and initially I did not intend to suggest that «we» are in any biological way «children» of Byzantium. But in fact, many in this audience really will be descendants of Byzantine families, who can trace their genealogies back to the dynasties of Palaiologos, Komnenos or Laskaris. In addition, many contemporary Greek names reflect Byzantine origins: Xylis, Dragazis, Kedros or Lemos, others are identified as descendants by an addition to their names, the Costopouloi, Dimopouloi and Stathakopouloi, and yet others declare their proud ancestry in the Levant/Levent.

And together with these natural descendants, an even larger number might be adopted or spiritual children. Spiritual kinship, a prominent feature of many societies, ancient, medieval and modern, was widely practised in Byzantium as well as Islam and the medieval West. Children were regularly sponsored by godparents, linked to a particular teacher by a tradition of learning, to a master by service, or were simply adopted by other families.

In a lecture named after Steven Runciman it might be appropriate to suggest that he was a child of Byzantium by adoption. He adopted the identity of Byzantinist as a sort of self-definition, and many of us are proud to follow in his footsteps. On such an occasion, it hardly seems necessary to repeat our great debt to Steven, but this is an opportunity to thank our patron, Nicholas Egon, who set up an annual lecture in his name while Steven was still alive. Many will recall the times he sat in the front row and enjoyed the lectures by my distinguished predecessors and asked a penetrating question. This evening I would like to draw attention to one of Runciman's less well-known dictums - «I often wonder if it was the strength of Byzantine women that kept the empire going for so long.»

Thanks to the efforts of many scholars the epithets traditionally associated with Byzantium are being rolled back; the bad old stereotypes are being countered by substantive demonstrations of what the empire achieved in its millennial history, and what that means for us today… It's now possible to stress that from its inception the newly Christianized empire of Rome in the East Mediterranean was in contact with a vast range of other forces, initially Persian, Turkic, even Chinese, and later Islam, pagan Russia, the Slavs, Vikings and Jewish communities among others. These contacts were military, diplomatic, theological and sometimes involved intellectual debate. Not only did Byzantium define its character and role in relation to this wider world, but it also influenced even distant countries in the process. Its ancient Greek heritage as well as the formative Eastern, Roman and Christian features all played a part in the shaping of Europe, the Balkans and the medieval Mediterranean world.

Model for empires

Sometimes we may only find these influences at second hand, for instance, in the coronation ritual of European monarchs or the adaptation of Roman law to serve a medieval Christian society. But its examples still echo, for instance in a proud monarchy that was also linked to a most unusual cosmopolitanism. In this particular association, Byzantium set a model for most subsequent empires (the Hapsburg, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian). These were, in the main, true children and descendants of Byzantium. And today, a similar model of acceptance and toleration of difference may be cited as a guiding principle for contemporary metropoleis, like our own London.

In terms of imperial philanthropy, patronage of the arts, diplomacy and military tactics, Byzantine practice informed and helped to form its neighbors. And in the context of preserving and transmitting ancient wisdom with detailed commentary and explanation, Byzantine scholars excelled in many fields: medical, astronomical, historical and literary. Without making an excessive claim for the Byzantine contribution to world civilization, if we look at it more closely, we can see that Byzantium also continues to be our cousin

In this process of recognizing Byzantium as an integral part of our world, rather than the dead zone between us and the Greco-Roman world as Voltaire and Gibbon perceived it, many benefactors have helped - particularly in the mounting of great exhibitions - the recent ones in New York and London, supported by the J.F. Costopoulos, A.G. Leventis and the Stavros Niarchos foundations. In addition to whatever else they do, these major shows have attracted large crowds to admire the artistic products of Byzantium, and this wider appreciation is another factor in ending the received stereotypes. So building on that greater awareness, I would like to look at specific issues, individuals and objects, which help us to celebrate the many «children of Byzantium.» Recently, this term was also used by a politician - I will tell you which one at the end of my lecture. But now I propose that we all imagine ourselves «children of Byzantium» for the next 45 minutes or so, while I use the epithet to trace out some of the less obvious ways in which Byzantium continues to have an impact on us today.

Systematic endogamy

Young princes and princesses were regularly employed in political alliances. Sons, normally crowned as co-emperor by their fathers at a tender age, were often married to foreign princesses who arrived in Constantinople to be trained in Byzantine customs. Daughters had a harder role, because they might be sent abroad to reinforce peace treaties with the empire's enemies. In anthropological terms, Byzantine rulers practiced a systematic exogamy, marrying out, moderated by endogamy, when partners were chosen from among imperial subjects. But it was a gendered form of exogamy where females did all the moving, whether they were imperial princesses going out or outsiders coming in. This should remind us that women are bearers of meaning; they change their names at marriage, and carry their natal cultures from one social group to another. In the case of outgoing princesses, this responsibility was very strong; for incoming brides, however, acquiring Byzantine traditions was the more pressing need.

Yet imperial children, girls and boys, had no choice in the matter: Their marriages were arranged with a view to consolidating imperial policy, as were the marriages of most children of medieval rulers. The tradition was inherited from Rome and had become more developed as non-Roman forces pressed into the empire in the West during the 5th century AD. Political alliances, reinforced by marriage, became a more common way of trying to sustain foreign relations without constant fighting. In Byzantium, as dynastic monarchy became stronger, it was symbolized in the purple chamber, constructed to guarantee the legitimacy of imperial offspring, a notion that no other empire was able to emulate. The principle of «sacrificing» a high-born or imperial young woman to the wishes of a non-Roman ruler was clearly appreciated by the outsiders. But also perhaps by those women locked within the imperial system.

Let's start in the 5th century with the case of Galla Placidia, daughter of Emperor Theodosius I. After the sack of Rome in 410, when she was aged between 17 and 22, she was carried off as a prisoner by Athaulf, the Gothic leader. He took her to Gaul where in 414 they celebrated their marriage in great style and later she gave birth to their son, who was named Theodosius after his Roman grandfather. To their sorrow he died early in 415 and Athaulf was murdered. Galla was brought back to Rome as part of a new treaty concluded between Visigoths and Romans. In 417 she was married to a Roman general Constantius, and they had two children: Honoria and Valentinian. And then Constantius died.

Having experienced the loss of her two husbands, Galla seems to have determined to take her fate into her own hands. She must have played a part in her 5-year-old son's promotion to Caesar in 424 and assumed a major role as regent and mother of the future emperor of the West. For the next 25 years she dominated the imperial court at Ravenna, promoting the orthodox Christian cult through new churches designed to rival the Arian Christian monuments. Galla Placidia died at Rome in November 450 and was probably buried there. What is called her mausoleum at Ravenna was probably an oratory dedicated to St Lawrence. She exemplified a pattern of female authority that was to have a long life in Byzantium. It may also have inspired her own daughter, Honoria.

When Honoria was about 8 years old she was appointed empress. This was highly unusual. She therefore grew up as a woman accorded the highest authority in the Roman world and coins were struck in her honor. Instead of marrying, however, she lived in her own palace in Ravenna and began to plot against her brother Valentinian III with her steward Eugenius. When their schemes were discovered, Eugenius was killed and Honoria was exiled and forcibly betrothed to a wealthy senator. She then conceived a daring plan to avoid marrying him by calling on none other than Attila the Hun, to rescue her. She was able to do this by sending her trusted eunuch servant Hycinthus to the dreaded enemy of Rome with gold and, more important, her own ring. Attila interpreted the message as a declaration of her desire to marry him and quickly took up her cause - he demanded that Theodosius grant him «his bride» and half the western territories ruled by Valentinian (as her dowry) - and then set out to make good his claim. Curiously, in Constantinople this outrageous demand was considered more sympathetically than in Rome, where Valentinian was horrified.

And the threat was real enough; in 451 and again in 452, Attila advanced against the West, to rescue Honoria and take over Gaul, the part of the empire which he coveted. On both occasions he was held off. Only his unexpected death in 453 released the Roman world from the Hunnic threat. While this story is well known, there is another tantalizing possibility. Could it be the case that when Attila was held hostage in the Roman court he may have seen the young Honoria, who also spent a short time in the eastern capital with her mother Galla Placidia in 423? As a 12-year-old, Attila arrived in Byzantium in 418 as a guarantee for his uncle's good behavior. Huns were frequent visitors to the imperial court… In 423 he would have been about 17 years old, while Honoria was 5. Did she notice him? Did Attila see the young princess from Ravenna? We can imagine this wonderful moment, which may have occurred: two parties of hostages, Huns and imperial women from the West with Gothic connections - they could have met. They had both shared the «gilded cage» as unwilling guests of the imperial court, exposed to the same Byzantine traditions. If true, this would have given Honoria an additional reason for appealing to Attila 25 years later, as one royal hostage to another!

I have dwelt on these two well-known examples because they typify the Byzantine attitude to imperial children: The notion that princes and princesses could strengthen alliances, induce warmer relations with aggressive barbarian leaders and bring them into the civilizing fold of Byzantine influence continued till the very end of the eastern empire. It was realized in 731 when Leo III betrothed his son to the daughter of the Khazar leader, attempted several times in the late eighth and ninth centuries and successfully negotiated in 927. After making peace with the Bulgarians, Romanos I sent his granddaughter Maria to marry Tsar Symeon's son, Peter, in a union designed to secure the political alliance. Maria, who was renamed Peace in honor of the union, seems to have established a pro-Byzantine faction in Bulgaria which was not appreciated by Symeon's other sons, but it persuaded Peter to remain an ally of her grandfather and his successor Constantine VII. She kept in touch with her natal family, making visits back to Constantinople until her death in about 963.

'Invented tradition'

Although the policy appeared to have worked, Emperor Constantine VII later denounced his father-in-law for sending Maria off to Bulgaria, using the specious argument that Byzantine princesses should never be married to barbarians. Only the Franks in western lands might be permitted this privilege, because Constantine the Great had come from those parts. In 944 Romanos I had married his grandson to another western bride, Bertha, daughter of King Hugo of Provence. When he condemned the Bulgarian marriage but praised the Frankish one, Constantine was confirming an «invented tradition» that involved his own son.

The outstanding example of these unions is Theophano, niece of John I Tzimiskes. For several years the German emperor Otto I had wanted an imperial princess, born in the purple, for his son and heir, and sent Liutprand of Cremona to negotiate such a union, without success. But after a change of emperor, Theophano was finally dispatched to the West in 971. Some commentators noted that she was not a porphyrogennetos, a child born in the purple, but merely the niece of John I. They all, however, described the magnificent gifts she brought with her, and observed her numerous attendants and gifts with curiosity. She is the key instance of a pro-Byzantine plant in Western Europe through her marriage in 972 to Otto II, which was also recorded on an imitation Byzantine charter. She bore Otto three daughters and finally a son Otto III. The half-Byzantine prince received Greek education and displayed himself in imperial style. Theophano tried to arrange a Byzantine bride for him, and after her death negotiations were successfully concluded. The emperor's daughter, Zoe, was selected to perform the role. But in 1002 just as Zoe landed at Bari, Otto III died, so she had to turn around and go back to Byzantium where she then had a brilliant career. As a true born in the purple princess, she married three times and raised another man to the position of emperor, but to her sadness she never became a mother. This brought the Macedonian dynasty to an end.

Theophano, meanwhile, exercised considerable power in the medieval West, signing charters for her young son while she was regent, and on one occasion even adopting the masculine form of emperor, imperator, rather than the feminine. But two generations or so later, when most people would have retained only a slight memory of her ecclesiastical foundations and patronage, she gained notoriety from the condemnations of clerics like St Peter Damian, and this indicates why such aristocratic ladies from Byzantium were not appreciated in the West. They criticized Theophano for introducing diaphanous silk dresses, which they considered indecent, and extravagant jewelry (which made western women jealous), and for taking endless baths and washing, which they considered unnecessary.

Peter Damian also associated her with another Byzantine princess, Maria Argyropoulaina who married the son of the Doge of Venice in 1004. He complained that she used eunuchs to cut up her food, and then ate with a little two-pronged gold fork; insisted on washing in rainwater, and burnt many sweet smelling herbs in her rooms in Venice. Finally, he prophesied that Maria would end up in hell for such indecent and wicked actions. Later we shall see how this marriage formed a link in the ongoing connections between Constantinople and Venice.

These children of Byzantium, who impressed their husbands and appear to have performed an ambassadorial role to great effect, also upset celibate clergy in the Western church - an early example perhaps of people in the West projecting onto Byzantium the anxieties of their own society.

Different problems were faced by other princesses sent to newly evangelized territories of Bulgaria or to pagan Russia, e.g. Anna, sister of Basil II, who had the harder task since her husband Vladimir was hardly Christian and had developed a clear military rivalry with Byzantium. But since she represented the faith that the Russians were obliged to accept in order for the marriage to go ahead, she could at least act as a patron of Orthodoxy. Anna founded churches and monasteries to spread the new faith. And the founding saints of the Russian Church, Boris and Gleb, are sometimes traced back to Vladimir and Anna.

During the 11th century this tradition of out-marriage fell into disuse not because of a change of Byzantine policy but because Basil and Constantine failed to marry the three purple-born princesses of the Macedonian dynasty. Other generals from leading families took over power until Alexios Komnenos established his authority. At his accession, the Byzantine family hierarchy was re-established with a vengeance and continued through five generations. Despite Constantine VII's advice, an increasing number of western brides were sought for imperial princes. And in the 13th to 15th centuries, Byzantine princesses were even more frequently sent abroad to sustain alliances with the foreign powers that now encircled the capital.

'Family of kings'

One consequence of this marriage policy was the creation of a «family of kings» based in Constantinople, where emperors devised a virtual system of relatives with titles and ranks to form a hierarchy of precedence. At the time of the conversion of the Bulgar Khan Boris, emperor Michael III performed the role of godfather and gave the newly Christian ruler his own name, a clear example of spiritual adoption. This connection also implied a father to son relationship between the two rulers although it did not prevent serious challenges to Byzantine influence in Bulgaria under Boris-Michael's son Symeon.

Nonetheless, the conversion of the Bulgars, their closer relationship to the empire and the patriarch of Constantinople, and the marriage of Maria to Tsar Peter helped to prevent further outbreaks of war. Such informal family relations were not always understood, and many foreigners felt themselves slighted (and their masters insulted) when they were not seated close to the emperor's table at state banquets. In 963, when Liutprand, ambassador from the western emperor Otto I, realized that the Bulgarians were given places of honor, he felt this as a direct snub and complained. But according to the principle of «the family of kings,» the «barbarians» who represented the Bulgarian Tsar, that is the emperor's «brother» naturally took precedence over the envoy of the German ruler.

As in real families, the various «children» of the «father» often quarrelled over their honorary titles and costumes, possessions and access to the head of the family. But the emperor attempted to sweeten their differences in a fatherly fashion. He also demanded that his relatives abroad send their own young children to the Byzantine capital as hostages for good behavior. This was a typical Roman ploy to secure military negotiations: After a victory, the defeated enemy was obliged to let the emperor take his young sons and even daughters off to Constantinople. We have already seen how this may have affected Attila the Hun, back in the early fifth century, and an even more striking instance is the Ostrogoth, Theoderic, who spent almost a decade in Constantinople during the 460s, as a guarantee of his father's loyalty. In numerous cases, the result was a very curious mix of influence and resentment.

In this way, some filial respect was induced among the barbarians - Symeon, grandson of Boris/Michael acquired such a deep knowledge of Greek that he was called half a Hellene, though this didn't prevent him from challenging Byzantium and claiming the title basileus. Later in the 11th century the young Georgian princess Marta/Maria was sent to Constantinople as a hostage for the good behavior of her father. The imperial court must have had special facilities for these foreigners who had to be looked after and attended the court on every ceremonial occasion. I think we have to imagine classes for a mixture of children: Education in Greek language, Roman history, verses of Homer, military tactics and all the other aspects of medieval culture, taught by court eunuchs whose loyalty to imperial ideology was beyond question.

Finally, who also said we are all children of Byzantium?

In November 2004, in connection with Turkey's application to join the EU, Jacques Chirac addressed a student conference in Marseille, the day after a large demonstration against Turkish membership. His use of the phrase is interesting on many counts, not least the fact that some Turks are indeed also claiming to be children of Byzantium: They emphasize how firmly the Ottomans maintained imperial traditions into the modern era, preserved Byzantine chancellery habits, tax-keeping methods, and continued the multicultural and polyglot culture of Byzantium. This is claimed in the spirit of inclusivity and cousinhood, not of bickering and competition.

So in addition to the Balkan countries, and states emerging from the Russian and Soviet empires, Georgia and Armenia (distinctly different but orthodox), Syria and Lebanon with their ancient Christian communities, other groups such as the Copts in Egypt, can also claim to be children of Byzantium. In this larger family, Greece is our elder brother and sister. But it is also part of a wider group of siblings that is just beginning to be discovered. By drawing attention to the real, symbolic and imagined children of Byzantium, I think we can expand and enrich our sense of that great civilization.