Late 1912, in a stormy Aegean lately thundering with the cannonades of the Greek and Turkish flotillas, a victorious Greek squadron sends marines ashore to the island of Lemnos, only recently under Turkish rule. With very few Turks on the island save officials, the local population rejoices in its liberation and its likely union with Greece. A group of boys approaches the hardy Greek soldiers and sailors, looking at them intently:
Soldiers: What are you looking at, children?
Children: We wanted to see Hellenes.
Soldiers: Are you not Hellenes yourselves?
Children: No, we are Romioi.
Romioi-Romans-Byzantines. This word, this identity marker, encompassed the civilization of the 1000-year Byzantine Empire, a fusion of Greek and Roman civilization, and Orthodox Christianity. It covered the entire Greek world, and yet was also larger than Greece of today, and it was the foundation of the identities of the other Balkan peoples, and even, to a degree, of the Turks themselves.
Even the destruction of the Byzantine Empire, officially in 1453, did not end Byzantium. The Turkish Sultan assumed many of the roles of the Byzantine Emperor, including, crucially (with implications to the present day) the appointment of the Ecumenical Patriarch. All Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire, from Belgrade to Beirut, were part of the Rum Milleti, the Roman-Byzantine Community, with the official language being Greek, and existing for another 500 years of Ottoman rule as a parallel “Byzantine” society.
From this Byzantine milieu, Greece and the other Balkan states emerged, from 1830 to 1913. Greeks post-independence retained the Byzantine identity in their collective consciousness, but now emphasized their ancient, Classical Greek identity, with the encouragement of Western European Romantics such as King Otto, Greece’s first monarch, and his Franco-British sponsors, who preferred a resurrected Classical Greece (under their “protection”) to a neo-Byzantine state with the possibility of altering the balance of power in Europe. As Western Europeans, the British and French were descendants, literally and figuratively, of the Crusaders who stabbed Byzantium in the back in 1204. The bias against Byzantium was real, and the sponsored Greeks took note – dividends could be obtained as sons of Pericles, not of Constantine.
Though the Megali Idea, Greece’s national irredentist goal, was clearly a reference to Byzantium, the Greek state nurtured an identity primarily as the resurrection of the Ancient Greek polity, rather than the Byzantine. While the Greek-speaking Romioi of islands like Lesbos and Asia Minor readily adapted themselves from Romioi to Hellenes, it meant that the Greek state had a harder time bringing in Romioi of different ethnolinguistic backgrounds, such as the Balkan Slavs. Rather than a resurrected Byzantium, each Byzantine successor state stayed separate, and in competition with one another. The competition was both over territory and over this common Byzantine legacy; see the Macedonian Issue of today as one of the manifestations of post-Byzantine states squabbling over the common identity and geography.
The Lemnian children by the quayside in 1912 or the wave of Asia Minor Romioi dumped on the shores of impoverished Greece a decade later, after their expulsion from Anatolia, quickly enough became Hellenes. The school system and the army – the “School of the Nation” – saw to that. A Classics-heavy Hellenic identity emphasized the Parthenon over Hagia Sophia, and the image of Greece, both its self-image and that the world accepted, was of a resurrected Athens, though a poor replica it was.
As these Romioi-Hellenes then poured across the globe, most specifically to the Anglo-Saxon countries of the US, Canada, and Australia, the immigrants continued the story of descent from Pericles to the present. Greek schools were full of stories of the ancients, followed by the heroes of 1821, but never the stories, accomplishments, and heroes of Byzantium, that vast interim of over a millennium, and a period far closer to modern Greece chronologically and culturally, than that distant Classical past.
This silence, despite the centrality of the Greek Orthodox Church, dances and traditions readily recalling our Byzantine heritage, and the bonds across the Balkans which were never severed though rarely cultivated, never made sense to me. Our Greek acculturation abroad – and in Greece – was heavy on the Classics, on Alexander-the-Great-as-why-Macedonia-is-Greek, and on the heroes of 1821. Justinian, Hagia Sophia, the Akrites, Cyril and Methodius, the Byzantine contributions to the Renaissance and multiple stemming of the Muslim tide in Europe, the heroism of the last Emperor, these all fall by the wayside. We don’t talk about it, and neither does the West, which prefers to ignore Byzantium.
Why is this important?
There are several reasons, but I will enumerate just a few.
Socrates, perhaps the greatest mind of Classical Greece, admonished the student to “Know Thyself.” We are collectively lacking in knowledge on this key area of Greek history, the one that gave us our Christian faith, and the cultural foundations of modern Greece. Many of the conflicts in Greece today have virtually nothing to do with Ancient Greece and everything to do with the Byzantine, post-Byzantine, and post-Independence eras.
We can argue about the Macedonian Issue based on the Greekness of Alexander the Great, but the actual issue and its complexity has more to do with the Byzantine era and the division of the Romioi population of Ottoman Macedonia into Greek and Slav linguistic groups, than the legacy of the Ancient Macedonian kingdom.
We are devout Orthodox Christians but without understanding Byzantium and the governing structures of the Ottoman Empire, we can hardly explain to ourselves -or to others – why we are Orthodox Christians and the centrality of Orthodoxy to the Greek identity. Without Byzantium it is hard to explain why we Greeks in the Diaspora are under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and why the Patriarchate is bound by agreements dating from the Ottoman conquest in 1453. I fear that far too few of our Greek American laity – or clergy – understand this.
So many of our conflicts with Turkey or other neighbors have their origins in the Byzantine and post Byzantine era. Knowledge of Classical Greece will do nothing to explain the centrality of Constantinople in the Greek psyche, nor will it explain the complexity of issues in the Aegean, in Thrace, or in Cyprus. To talk about these issues with any effectiveness, you have got to know about Byzantium or post Byzantium. Saying the islands are Greek since the Classical Era or before is not going to cut be a sufficient argument or provide a sufficient understanding.
And outside our community?
In the wider Western world, Byzantium might as well not exist. When I went to high school in Utah, it was never mentioned, though Charlemagne was given full tilt, as were the Crusades, without mention of the atrocities. We would learn about Western Europe, rising from the ruins of the Roman Empire, but not about the continuation of East Rome in Constantinople, which preserved Greek and Roman learning and civilization while Western Europe succumbed to barbarism.
We learned about the role of the Frankish King Charles Martel in saving Europe from the Muslims in the 700s, but crickets are heard about the efforts of the Byzantines in blunting the Arabs’ advance on Europe during the same century. The record is largely quiet, and so are we, the successors of Byzantium.
Later, in a more revisionist era, Crusader atrocities against Jews and Muslims were acknowledged, but not against fellow European Christians. We also learned, in a more revisionist era, that the Renaissance was the result of Arab scholarship flowing into Europe via Muslim Spain or from the Crusaders’ contact with the Arabs. The role of Byzantine refugees flowing directly into Venice simply does not exist in conventional wisdom.
If Byzantium does not exist in conventional wisdom, it is easy to ignore its achievements, or for others to usurp them as their own. How many people know that Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, was not built by Turks? How many know enough about the Byzantines to explain who they were and what they accomplished? Absent this historical and media record, it is easy for the Turks to assimilate the history and architecture on their territory. Nobody is there to stop it, and most of us Greeks do not know enough about Byzantium to prevent it.
Even the recent conflicts in Yugoslavia have a direct link to Byzantium. With plenty of blame to go around inside and outside Yugoslavia for its violent demise, the onus was on the Byzantine Orthodox Serbs. The bias in the media against the Serbs from Day One of the conflict was palpable. Here too the Serbs, like the Greeks, get it from both ends. The West preferred the Catholic Croats and Slovenes because they were “Western” not Byzantine, and the Bosnian Muslims and Albanians, because, presumably, they were Muslim, and the West was anxious not to seem biased.
Our sins of omission, forgetting about Byzantium, has and will continue to beget actions of commission against Greece and other Byzantine successors. Time to think about and to learn about our full heritage.