Author Topic: Byzantium & its reception  (Read 1111 times)

dubsartur

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Byzantium & its reception
« on: February 28, 2024, 02:17:08 AM »
A collection of short essays on the eastern Roman empire https://www.historytoday.com/archive/head-head/what-do-we-get-wrong-about-byzantine-empire  I have to say that paragraphs like:

Quote
Emperors routinely announced that tax revenues would be used for the common good and public interest, not for private advantage. They made good on this by spending most of their money on a pan-Roman army for the defence of all provinces. Furthermore, they welcomed petitions and appeals from their subjects on matters legal and fiscal – and answered them. They issued laws that enabled those subjects to bring formal complaints against the abuses of officials. Emperors presented themselves as protectors of the weak and poor against the oppression of ‘the powerful’. Overall, I believe they persuaded their subjects of their sincerity. As a result, subjects paid taxes, generally followed the law, and did not seek to break away from central control.

make me think they should read some Achaemenid or Chinese history (ie. they are calling Central Casting, they make a request that they think is specific, and Central Casting puts down the phone and says "secretary, get five agrarian empires in for an audition").
« Last Edit: February 28, 2024, 05:15:38 PM by dubsartur »

Jubal

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #1 on: February 28, 2024, 10:20:43 PM »
I don't know if I'd read that paragraph as suggesting that this aspect of the system is in any sense unusual? Only that it's poorly understood by the modern public, which I think is true - the thing that really stands out to me is that none of them address the points "really almost nobody has heard of Byzantium" or "Byzantium is, like most medieval history, frequently coopted by certain sorts of fascist", which I think would be much higher on my list of Byzantine related misconceptions for any kind of semi-public-facing outlet.
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dubsartur

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #2 on: February 28, 2024, 11:34:02 PM »
"Byzantium is, like most medieval history, frequently coopted by certain sorts of fascist", which I think would be much higher on my list of Byzantine related misconceptions for any kind of semi-public-facing outlet.
Wait, what?  In 25 years of being aware of far rightists I don't think I have seen that one.

Jubal

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #3 on: February 28, 2024, 11:49:24 PM »
Yeah, it's a whole thing. A short summary:
https://theconversation.com/why-white-supremacists-and-qanon-enthusiasts-are-obsessed-but-very-wrong-about-the-byzantine-empire-154994

In my experience, it's a bit multifaceted, but there's clear reasons for the appeal on the extreme right: for people who want a Roman but explicitly Christian idea of "cultural purity", and want to blame Islam for the world's problems, then a wildly oversimplified notion of Byzantium works as a template. It also lets those people give deep historical roots to the idea that the west has lost something or moved away from something for which it needs to be purified. And in the modern context it's very appealing to those who want to tap into "Third Rome" ideas of Russia as the pure and good land power (who will destroy the bad corrupt sea power of the US).
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dubsartur

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #4 on: February 29, 2024, 03:31:50 AM »
Does it overlap with the people who invoke the Continental Races Theory to say "Syrians and North Africans are totally white, someone from Roman north Africa is not a person of colour?" then go back to being bigoted against anyone who looks like their ancestors didn't drink beer and eat butter?

The post could spell out that the QAnon posters are alluding to a Russian crank theory that all history before the foundation of the Russian state was made up.

Jubal

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #5 on: February 29, 2024, 10:57:33 AM »
Possibly, though I suspect that it doesn't very much because the Byzantine stuff tends to be very Christian-tone and go along with sentiments like "Constantinople should be reclaimed for the Greeks" - so Syrians and North Africans tend to get written into the picture as part of The Other because they're mostly not Christians.

Also, as this is becoming a longer discussion, I've snipped it into its own thread. Moderator powers!
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dubsartur

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #6 on: February 29, 2024, 05:26:34 PM »
But Syrians and Egyptians before 1071 and arguably 1204 were mostly Orthodox Christians!  For a long time, Moslems were just a thin ruling class and Jews, Christians, Manicheans, Mandaeans, and so on provided most of the white-tunic professions.

This series of posts https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2024/01/24/from-%cf%84%e1%bd%b0-%cf%86%cf%85%cf%83%ce%b9%ce%ba%ce%ac-ta-physika-to-physics-xiv/ and Wiki on Ibn Butlan talk about one aspect

And of course when you get into it Protestant nuts don't think Catholics are really Christian, Catholic nuts don't think any of the Orthodox churches are really Christian, etc. - if you argue that Christianity Caused the Rise of the West, but the Eastern Roman Empire fell, its very tempting to argue that the Orthodox churches had something wrong with them.

And the appetite among PEGIDA types for "lets let in all the oppressed minorities of the Islamic world!  Palestinian Christians, Syrian Yazidis, Iranian Baha'i, as long as they are not Moslem we want them in our shops and our schools." seems basically zero.  Talky members might raise the idea as a gambit, but I can not imagine any Xenophobe Party franchise voting for it.
« Last Edit: February 29, 2024, 06:26:36 PM by dubsartur »

Jubal

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #7 on: February 29, 2024, 09:33:28 PM »
Quote
Syrians and Egyptians before 1071 and arguably 1204 were mostly Orthodox Christians!
Well yes, I know that, but I think generally that fact gets ignored by most of these people, or gets written in with the usual "well there were Christians there then, and aren't Christians there now, so Christians should be able to take that land back really".

I think your points about Christianity and the ERE are very true - but you can also flip that on its head and say "Christianity and Rome are both the Good Pure Culture and the rest of the world betrayed Christianity and the West betrayed Rome, leaving only the purity of Byzantium to strive for" which is a position some people apparently hold.
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dubsartur

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #8 on: February 29, 2024, 10:32:52 PM »
Anyways, I guess my point is that xenophobes who cry "Christian Constantinople is threatened by the oriental Islamic hordes!" never actually want to see more Ethiopian Christians or Syrian Christians in their country, so they don't really feel fellowship with all Christians.  And their inclusion of live Greeks or Neapolitans or Bulgarians in their imagined community is often provisional and tactical.

Jubal

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #9 on: March 01, 2024, 11:20:50 AM »
I think that's true - though with the caveat that there's a fair number of those people who are themselves live Greeks, Neapolitans and Bulgarians. As well as the US far right adoption of Byzantine imagery, there's definitely a streak of it in the southeastern European far right as well which I suspect does end up having some cross-fertilisation in various online spaces. I'm no expert on the current landscape of Greek fascism but given parts of the US far and religious right have had connections with the far right in Georgia, I'd be surprised if they didn't have similar connections in Bulgaria, Greece, etc too.

I think also the not wanting to see those people in their country isn't something they'd see as logically inconsistent - because they might very well say that what they want is for the Christian populations elsewhere to be ruling those countries. In that framework, they can justify refusing refuge because if someone is trying to flee from their proper place fighting for the reestablishment of an imagined Christian-fascist world order, that means they're a coward and can be disregarded. One saw a lot of this in wider popular discourses with Syrian refugees in Europe, the general sentiment of "well why don't they just stay and fight" was very common among a certain segment of the right.
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dubsartur

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #10 on: March 07, 2024, 12:36:30 AM »
Moving on, other than "A Memory Called Empire," Edward Gibbon, and the Harry Turtledove Videssos novels and Agent of Byzantium stories, can we think of any examples of East Roman culture in pop culture?

They don't have a counterpart in the Warhammer Old World, you can argue about Gondor in LotR.  Someone generated LotR art in the style of a late Byzantine icon with one of those generative AI programs.

Classic sci fi was obsessed with the decline and fall of the western Roman empire, the east not so much.

Jubal

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #11 on: March 07, 2024, 04:30:18 PM »
Depends how pop is pop, but a few other examples:

  • Lots of computer games include Byzantium because anything with a map that wants to do Europe & the Levant has to include it. So I suspect we're seein a generation for whom Crusader Kings and the medieval entries in the Total War games, and to a lesser extent (lesser because they provide less detail) Civilisation and Age of Empires 2, are quite big entry points.
  • Mount & Blade: Bannerlord also has to be a fairly big recent heavy hitter here, in which its faltering Calradic Empire is very explicitly Byzantine in its theming.
  • Kitfox Games have an upcoming Byzantine themed game too.
  • I think there's some other relevant books - The Sarantine Mosaic for example which I keep meaning to get round to reading.
  • There may be more once you get outside English-language stuff. Turkish TV drama definitely has a fair bit of Byzantine stuff for example. I get the impression that Rise of Empires: Ottoman was quite popular, and a quick bit of googling suggests Alparslan: Büyük Selçuklu and Uyanış: Büyük Selçuklu as other recent Turkish productions set in the period.

There isn't a huge amount in total though, it's true. I'd be really interested to get some stronger findings on how people who are enthusiasts for the period in whatever sense actually find their way to it.
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Glaurung

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #12 on: March 07, 2024, 06:45:13 PM »
  • I think there's some other relevant books - The Sarantine Mosaic for example which I keep meaning to get round to reading.

I'd recommend the Sarantine Mosaic books - they're what fired my interest in the Byzantine Empire, and Justinian specifically. The books are set in a thinly-veiled Byzantine Empire, shortly after the Nika Riot when Justinian was having Hagia Sophia rebuilt. I'm not sure how they'd work for someone who has a detailed knowledge of the period, though, since the plot deviates somewhat from the actual history, especially in the second book.

dubsartur

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #13 on: March 07, 2024, 07:23:01 PM »
Computer wargames are excellent examples!  There is probably something by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Medieval: Total War had the problem that they did not have historical Byzantine units from the later middle ages to draw on.  I played a long Byzantine campaign but some people found their armies got underwhelming after about 1200.  Of course Mongol armies were underwhelming too because the AI did not know how to use horse archers and the game had no way to represent their overwhelming strategic mobility and C3I advantages.

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Re: Byzantium & its reception
« Reply #14 on: March 07, 2024, 08:17:30 PM »
There is probably something by Guy Gavriel Kay.
That would be the Sarantine Mosaic books mentioned in Glaurung and my posts, he's the author of those :)

I've posted a straw-poll thread on a popular nonspecialist Facebook group about the period asking people there how they got interested in the period: obviously not a way to get good broad ranging information but I'll be interested to see what the answers are all the same.

It's a long time since I played much Total War: I've played Byzantine factions in CK3, but I mostly just sat my dukedom in Chaldia and spent the whole game sitting around trying to avoid getting involved in the repeated civil wars, which was largely successful and probably led to one of the most chill games I've had. That said, CK3 does a pretty bad job at present of modelling the Byzantine system, because it treats a lot of stuff as hereditary which very much wasn't, such that you can just hold your region for generations without some petty Emperor deciding to try and recall you for not sending enough fruit baskets to the capital or whatever. I think recent updates to the game are going to make playing landless characters possible for the first time, which is basically a prerequisite for being able to properly play out the politics of Byzantium or of, say, a city-state Republic.
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