Posts Tagged ‘Byzantine Empire’

Inspirations and Repercussions

Posted in General on December 28th, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – 5 Comments

1st US museum dedicated to Greek culture opens: 


December 28, 2011 (CHICAGO) — There is still plenty to see: shelves filled with items from a Greek family in New York, a wall of black and white pictures that chronicles the story of Greek immigrants in America and an area to learn the Greek alphabet. Visitors can watch a short introductory video narrated by, who else, George Stephanopoulos.

Museum curator Bethany Fleming hopes to travel to Greece and make casts of columns, gates and parts of temples to bring back to Chicago.

Downstairs the temporary exhibit space is home to “Gods, Myths and Mortals: Discover Ancient Greece,” an exhibit on loan from the Children’s Museum of Manhattan until August. It’s a child’s view of the daily life of ancient Greece and its legends and heroes, like Aristotle, Odysseus and Cyclops.

There’s a kid-sized recreated Greek temple, and children can dress up in togas in front of a mirror or crawl into a jungle-gym Trojan horse. Interspersed are nearly three dozen Greek artifacts, including coins, pottery and figurines. One Macedonian drachma coin dates to 336-323 B.C. and is about the size of a dime.

“So much of our world is inspired by the ancient.”

From Aristotle to Nick’s’ Coffee Shop—and nothing in between?  The Hellenic museum doesn’t seem enamoured with its medieval heritage.  The Byzantines, however annoying, were also significant and certainly deserve their own exhibition. We can call it   “Dogma, Bureaucracy and Arrogance:  The Unbearable Genius of Byzantium.”

Children can experience the fun of being a medieval Greek.  We can have contests to see who can come up with the most convoluted definition of the Trinity.  (There is never a right answer, at least for more than 30 minutes.)  The little Byzantines can then use their rhetorical guile to avoid being beaten up by bigger German and Slavic kids.  Being the brightest kid in the class–in fact, the only literate one–be sure to help the biggest Slavic kid with his homework.  You will make a lasting friend, one who will be nursing your grudges when you are long gone.

However, as a little Byzantine, you don’t have to nice to the Italian kids.  Slap them around, take their lunch money, threaten to break their crayons, and dare them to start their own church.  Be sure to bully the Egyptians and Syrians, too; it is not as if they would defect the empire and convert to another religion.

To avoid lawsuits from the Art Institute, we won’t teach the children about Iconoclasm.  Nonetheless, our exhibit will give visitors an appreciation of our Byzantine legacies–religious schism, the Middle East and the Cold War.  Our world may be the heir of Athens, but it is also the repercussion of Constantinople.

Losing Face

Posted in General on August 12th, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

A friend sent me an article on the incidence of abrupt mortality among royalty.  According to a professor at Cambridge (the real one, not Harvard), between A.D. 600 and 1800 approximately one in four European monarchs were killed by someone other than their doctors.  So the professor’s list would count the decapitated Charles I;  however, Charles II was treated for a minor stroke with frequent bleedings, induced vomitings and repeated purgatives.  Which of the two had the more violent death?  But, as always, I digress.  (You wouldn’t want me as a lifeguard in your stream-of-consciousness.)

Selecting as its most gruesome retirement, the article cited:

Andronikos I Komnenos – a 12th-century Byzantine emperor, whose death was spread over three days and included having his teeth and eyes gouged out, being suspended by his feet and gradually being hacked to bits

Since I am widely acknowledged as our foremost Byzantine raconteur, my friend wrote, “Now, my question for you is what the hell did Andronikos I Komnenos do to deserve what he got?”

He was such a disappointment.  Andronikos Komnenos (or Andronicus Comnenus to his Episcopalian friends) should have been the Emperor from Central Casting.  He (1118-1185–explicitly)  was handsome, charming and an excellent soldier.  Charisma is a Greek word.  And whatever the Greek equivalent of Kosher, Andronicus was.  By contrast, his cousin the Emperor Alexius was half-French; to the Byzantines, that was half-barbarian.  Worse, since Alexius was a child,  his mere was the regent.  The Greeks didn’t have to be suspicious of her; she really was pro-Western.  Thanks to her trade concessions, the Venetians and Genoese were taking over the wharves and markets of Constantinople.

Outraged and dispossessed, the Byzantines looked to that magnificent Andronicus to rescue the throne from all these foreigners.  The old charmer could boast of many seductions, but this probably was his easiest.  The Empire was begging for him.  Announcing his intention to be the Regent, in 1182 he marched on Constantinople.  The Imperial navy and army offered homage rather than resistance.  He entered the capital acclaimed.  The supporters of the Regent, including the Italian traders, were somewhat preoccupied being massacred.  Did Andronicus say he would be the new Regent?  He meant co-emperor.  Hagia Sophia was available for a coronation; it also could oblige for funerals.  The Dowager Empress and members of the Imperial family were suddenly dead.  No one asked any questions.  Indeed, the public was grateful.  Andronicus had impeccable taste in murder.  The following year, the Emperor Alexius was dead, too.  That was a little more awkward; Alexius was all of thirteen.  But it was reassuring to see how efficient Andronicus could be.  Unimpeded and undisputed in his rule, who knows what the Emperor would accomplish.

It turned out to be just more murders.  To remedy genuine economic and social problems in the Empire, Andronicus believed in the salubrious effects of executing aristocrats.  Kill enough of them and you certainly end Feudalism.  Of course, the aristocrats preferred to stay alive and so they would plot against the Emperor.  Such selfish disloyalty offended Andronicus and you can imagine his response.  All this blue bloodshed initially might have pleased the public, and the serfs certainly should been grateful; but it was not the winning charm that people had expected of Andronicus.  Besides, the serfs weren’t in charge of the regiments.

In 1185, one treacherous but trivial aristocrat named Isaac Angelos finally made it to be the top of the condemned list.  Evading arrest, Isaac fled to the sanctuary of Hagia Sofia and urged the public to revolt.  The aristocrats didn’t need any encouragement, and the masses just liked the idea of rioting.  Andronicus attempted to flee the city with his wife and his mistress (apparently he still had some charm left), but he was captured.  Isaac,now the new emperor, turned his ousted cousin over to the mercies of the public.  People seemed to take particular delight in maiming the handsome face of Andronicus.

You know the coroner’s report, but what is history’s verdict of Andronicus I.  He obviously was a mad emperor; unfortunately–unbelievably–he still was a better ruler than Isaac, Isaac’s brother or son.

For further details:




On This Day in 1014

Posted in General, On This Day on July 29th, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

July 29th

You probably have never heard of the battle of Kleidion, but you may know of its aftermath. The Byzantines generally hated war: it was costly, unpredictable and vulgar. They preferred to charm, bribe or undermine their opponents. Give the semi-barbaric kinglet a tour of the splendors of Constantinople, present him with a few bolts of silk and the overawed warlord usually would behave himself. (At the same time, encourage his ambitious younger brother.) The Byzantines also used Christianity as a form of diplomacy. Converting to the Orthodox Creed was a submission to the spiritual leadership of the Patriarch of Constantinople–and guess who controlled him. (No, not Jesus.)

But Byzantine subtlety was lost on the Bulgarians. Since the Bulgarians had first crossed the Danube in the 7th century and made the once Greek Thrace irretrievably Slavic, they had been at odds with the Byzantines: sometimes a danger, always a threat. At times, the Bulgarians controlled more of Greece than the Byzantines did. The street signs of Athens could have been in Cyrillic. Forced to fight, the Byzantines experienced all the vagaries of war. The skull of one Emperor became a drinking goblet for the Bulgar king. That particular king was a pagan; Christianity may have improved the table manners of Bulgarian royalty but not their aggressiveness. The wars continued. However, Constantinople was impregnable, the Byzantine navy was unchallenged, and the Empire’s Asian provinces had the wealth and manpower to equip more armies that would eventually push the Bulgarians back.

At the beginning of the 11th century, the Byzantines were led by one of the greatest warriors of his time: Basil II. Indeed, he was such a committed soldier that he never bothered to marry. Ahem. Basil had decided to destroy the Bulgarian Empire, and he had the ability and resources to do it. On this day in 1014, the invading Byzantines outflanked the Bulgarian army, capturing almost the entire force.

Basil had 15,000 prisoners and a pointed message for the Bulgarian king. The captives were blinded. Out of every hundred men, one would be spared (only losing one eye) to guide his blind comrades back home. So, through the Balkans staggered this horrid procession, one blind soldier clutching the shoulder of the blind man ahead him, with an one-eyed man leading them. It took this blind army two months to reach the Bulgarian capital. At this wretched sight, the Bulgarian Tsar died of a heart attack.

Bulgaria would soon be part of the Byzantine Empire. Basil certainly earned the epithet “the Bulgar-Slayer.” Ironically, history looks at the Emperor with a certain respect and even approval. After all, the Byzantines were more erudite and sophisticated than the Bulgarians. The more civilized are always the good guys.

Another of My Byzantine Tales

Posted in General, On This Day on October 20th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

October 20, 460:  Charisma Has Its Limits

The Byzantine Empress Eudocia may well have been Arianna Huffington in a previous life.  A classical scholar originally named Athenais, in 420 she converted herself into a Christian in order to marry the dull-minded Emperor Theodosius II. The marriage and crown did not give her complete control of the empire, however.  Athenais/Eudocia had to contend with her belligerent sister-in-law Pulcheria.  The older sister of Theodosius, Pulcheria was a very political nun and resented the secular, dubiously Christian empress.

You could count on the two women to be on opposite sides of every issues.  Since Pulcheria had one view of the Trinity, Eudocia felt obliged to disagree.  If the Imperial Nun wanted to persecute Jews and heretics, guess who protected them.  In this duel, Eudocia might have had an amatory advantage with the Emperor, except that she was only producing healthy daughters.  (No one thought of blaming the Emperor.)  Torn between two domineering women, Theodosius actually arrived at a Solomonic decision.  After two decades of this girl gang warfare, he let an eunuch run the Empire, and the eunuch expelled both women from court.  Pulcheria retired to a convent near Constantinople where she brooded and plotted.  Eudocia went on a grand tour, charmed them in the provinces, and awaited her comeback.

Now having only to worry about the Huns and the Persians, Theodosius should have enjoyed the respite.  One day in 450 while out riding, he apparently decided to land on his spine.  In the succession sweepstakes, Eudocia may have had  charisma but Pulcheria had proximity.  She was back at court and quickly allied to a general; the two even got married, giving a dynastic advantage to the general’s claim to the throne.  (The general, now emperor, deferred to Pulcheria’s continued vow of chastity; but since she was 51, he couldn’t have felt that deprived.)

As for the eunuch who had exiled Pulcheria, he did not enjoy a peaceful or long retirement.  And for some reason, Eudocia decided to stay in the provinces, devoting herself to writing and charitable works.  The contemplative life proved healthy; she outlived Pulcheria by seven years and died this day in 460.

However, the dynasty and the turmoil did not end with her.  Eudocia’s daughter, Eudoxia, took after her mother: a wily, political creature. Unfortunately, Eudoxia was in a far-less stable environment. Her husband, Valentian III of the Western Empire, was mercurial rather than docile; in a tantrum, he killed his best general (at a time when Rome had a real need for any competence.) Valentian was soon dead and Eudoxia was coerced into marrying the usurper. The historians and gossips of the time claimed that Eudoxia invited the Vandals to liberate her. If Genseric even needed an excuse to sack Rome, he certainly would have accepted Eudoxia’s offer.

Eudoxia and her daughter Eudocia (originality was not a trait in that family) were part of the Vandals’ plunder. The dowager Empress was allowed to return to the Eastern Empire. Her daughter, however, was obliged to marry the son of Genseric, Hunneric. In time, the resulting offspring became king of the Vandals.

It certainly was not quite the throne that Athenais had in mind.

Urban Renewal, Byzantine Style

Posted in General, On This Day on January 13th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

January 13, 532:  Green and Blue Clash With Purple

Hagia SophiaOn this day in 532 the citizens of Constantinople protested against a corrupt and tax-loving government by burning down half of their city. The rioters displayed a remarkable unity; they were composed of two political factions–the Greens and the Blues–who usually hated each other. These two parties had evolved from the fans of two competing chariot racing stables; green and blue were the identifying colors of the respective teams.

However, the Byzantine personality (Greek pedantics + Christian theology – Hellenic charm) would not be content with just rooting for a sports team. The fans organized into political parties with vying interpretations of the Trinity. Of course, each interpretation of the Trinity would have a militia to expound it. Between the Greens and the Blues, Constantinople was always on the verge of a riot; but the Imperial government was usually adroit at balancing the factions, playing one off against the other.

The Emperor Justinian should have been a master of this statecraft. He had an amused contempt for mankind and had a genius for cultivating the vices in others; he literally brought out the best in your worst. Appreciating their “talents”, Justinian would appoint thieves to be treasurers, hucksters as diplomats, and elevated an actress to empress. Yet, this wily Emperor misjudged the temper and the patience of Constantinople’s factions.

The two rivals joined forces, and they gave their alliance a name: Nika. It is the Greek word for victory. In a week of rage, half of the city was destroyed. Demonstrating their new-found ecumenism, the Nika rioters even burned churches. Yet, the rioters did not attack the Palace. Since the Imperial Guard was content to hide in the barracks and avoid any dangerous exertions such as defending the city, the rioters respected the army’s privacy.

Reveling in their power the rioters now proposed a new emperor, a reluctant but pliant noble named Hypatius. The “old” emperor was free to flee the city: the rioters had left him unimpeded access to the port. Indeed, Justinian was about to take that itinerary. He had called an imperial council of his few remaining supporters to plan the evacuation. However, this ignominious flight was scorned by the Empress Theodora.

Still very much the actress, she declaimed, “For one who has been an emperor it is unendurable to be a fugitive. May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty. For we have much money, and there is the sea, here the boats. However consider whether it will not come about after you have been saved that you would gladly exchange that safety for death. For as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud.”

If the Empress was prepared to fight and die for the throne, the men of the court were shamed into being just as heroic. (The court eunuchs probably were still eager to leave.) Although the Imperial army was unreliable, several of the loyal officers had personal retainers who would follow orders. These troops numbered no more than a thousand, but they were an elite force of veterans. The rioters were in the tens of thousands but they were an undisciplined mob and, worse for them, oblivious to the danger. The Nika rioters had gathered at the Hippodrome, the social center of the city. It was a great place for a celebration but an even better place for a massacre.

The Hippodrome’s entrances were all at one end of the stadium. The troops seized the gates and then proceeded to scythe the trapped mob. Thirty thousand were killed; the Nika Riot was crushed. The hapless Hypatius was captured. He pleaded his innocence and Justinian believed him; however, Theodora still insisted on an execution.

As for Justinian, he did not view the riots as a warning but rather as an opportunity. First, he would have to raise even more taxes to rebuild the city. More importantly, Constantinople now would be rebuilt his way. For example, the rioters had destroyed the old church of Hagia Sophia. Justinian envisioned the new church to be a monument to him.

And it still is.

Byzantine Eugenics

Posted in General, On This Day on July 26th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

July 26, 811:  The Emperor Nicephorus Should Have Stuck to Accounting

Have you ever wondered why the Greeks don’t look like Colin Farrell, Val Kilmer or anyone else in the cast of “Alexander”?

Of course, you could say that Oliver Stone is a lunatic; and that would end the argument. However, if you further added that Macedonians are not Greeks, then I would venture this correction. In antiquity, Macedonians were the equivalent of redneck Greeks. They would have fewer teeth than Athenians, and would probably paste hardware decals on their chariots. Nonetheless, they would have been–barely (over Demosthenes’ battered body)–included in the Hellenic world.

Which brings us back to our original question: why do Greeks look like Armenians? (Come on: you can’t tell the difference, either.) The fact is that they are Armenian, the descendants of a massive relocation program undertaken by the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I.

By the ninth century, Greece was largely unpopulated. Five centuries of barbarian invasions were not great for demographics. Those Hellenes who had not been massacred or carried off into slavery huddled behind the walls of the few remaining cities. Yet across the Bosphorus, Anatolia was thriving. (Visigoths, Huns, Bulgars and Slavs evidently couldn’t swim.) Emperor Nicephorus (r. 802-811), who was a financier by training, decided to redistribute Anatolia’s surplus population to Greece. The Armenian provinces had people to spare, and the Imperial coercion was mitigated with the promise of free and rich lands.

Of course, there still was a problem with Bulgarian invasions, but the Emperor intended to take care of that. He certainly tried; today is the 1208th anniversary of Nicephorus’ death and defeat of his army. Mountain passes in Bulgaria can be tricky. Nicephorus was a much better accountant than general. He apparently also made an excellent goblet. The Bulgar Khan used Nicephorus’ skull as a drinking vessel.

Nonetheless, Nicephorus’ head had thought of a way to stabilize and revive Greece. It is just that Greeks no longer look like Greek Gods.

Divorce, Italian Style

Posted in General, On This Day on July 16th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 6 Comments

July 16, 1054

Last Supper memeImagine the marriage of Arianna Huffington and Tony Danza.  Do you think that it would last?  She despises him as a  vulgar barbarian; he resents her as an effete, overbearing dragon.  (Well, they both are right.)  Yes, a divorce is inevitable.  In fact, it happened this day in 1054: the final schism between Byzantium and the Roman Catholic Church.

Constantinople and Rome had never liked each other; but that was not essential to the union.  “Honor and obey” would have been sufficient; alas, neither party was willing to be the supplicant one.  Each claimed to be the capital of Christendom.    For a few centuries, however, Rome had no choice but to defer.  A Byzantine garrison was there to remind the Bishop of Rome of his manners.  A few uncooperative Popes found themselves dragged to Constantinople.  (If it was any solace, a Byzantine dungeon was probably more comfortable than the Vatican during Dark Ages.)

In the middle of the eighth century, the couple had a vicious fight over interior decorating.  Rome liked icons; Constantinople didn’t.  From that point on, they were unofficially separated.  At the same time, Rome found a more appreciative partner–a muscle-bound parvenu named France.  While rich, sophisticated Constantinople had scoffed at Rome’s claims to primacy, rich, ignorant France craved the classy distinctions that Rome could confer.

For the first time since the Emperor Constantine, Rome felt like a capital again.  And it loved the attention and the power.  From then on, Rome was no longer the neglected domestic of Constantinople.  It was the rival.  The pagans of Eastern and Northern Europe found themselves the subject of competing Christianities.  Would they be converted (and subservient) to Rome or Constantinople?  Rome turned out to be quite adept at hustling, one of the advantages of vulgarity.  It had missionaries who promised anything to make their quotas, and its armed adherents were never shy about swordpoint conversions.  (How else would you convert the Vikings?)

However, there were presumed limits to Rome’s marketing:  it was to keep out of Byzantine dioceses.  Greek Christians were not to be enticed or rustled.  But Southern Italy –or Western Greece depending on your perspective–became the focus of contention.  The area had long been held by the Byzantines, but in the mid-eleventh century Norman freebooters had seized much of it.  While hardly paragons of piety, the Normans gave nominal allegiance to Rome and let Latin practices be introduced into the Greek churches of Southern Italy.  The Patriarch of Constantinople, a quarrelsome bureaucrat named Michael Cerularius, publicly denounced Pope Leo IX as an accomplice to theft.   He further inveighed against the Pope for all sorts of theological failings including being “Judaistic”.  Popes really appreciate that adjective.

If Leo was ever good natured about being slandered, this was not the time.  The Pope was dying, and his temper was as short as his life expectancy.  He wrote a scathing letter back to “Bishop” Cerularius but refrained from sending it when he received a conciliatory letter from the Byzantine Emperor.  The Emperor had seen where this quarrel was heading, and was hoping to avert it; after all, while trying to retain Southern Italy, he did not need another enemy.  A Papal delegation was invited to Constantinople, where any disputes would be diplomatically resolved.  All that was required were men of good will.  But the Pope’s delegates were anything but; the two cardinals and an archbishop hated the Byzantines.  They went to Constantinople, looking to be outraged and freely giving offense.  Of course, the Patriarch did not disappoint them; he snubbed them.  They responded by translating and distributing the Pope’s attack on the Patriarch.  This did not win them friends in Constantinople; do you think that they cared?

While fomenting a schism, the Roman delegates received word that Pope Leo had died.  They no longer had any authority but that did not stop them by from committing one final, definitive offense.  Dressing in their full canonical regalia, the three entered Hagia Sophia–on this day in 1054.  The church was crowded; the Eucharist was being celebrated.  There would be no lack of witnesses.  The Roman delegation walked up to the High Altar and left there a Bull of Excommunication for the Patriarch.

In fact, the Papal Bull had no validity.  The Pope was dead, and his legates had lost any authority to issue an excommunication.  The Bull could have been ignored.  But the Byzantines chose not to.  Yes, the Roman delegation had infuriated them, but it was only the culmination of Rome’s endless pretensions and affronts.  If that meaningless parchment was an excuse for a schism, the Byzantines were glad to have it.

Memorial Day, 1453

Posted in General, On This Day on May 29th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 8 Comments

ConstantinopleMay 29th: Memorial Day, 1453

Greeks are in a bad mood today, and the reason has nothing to do the economy.  This is the anniversary of the Fall of Constantinople and a day of mourning.

By 1453, Byzantium was an empire in name and memory. It once had been the greatest power in Christendom, extending from Italy to Mesopotamia. Now, it was reduced to a ruined city and a few remnant outposts on the Greek mainland. Its emperors bore a revered title that dated to Constantine, but they wore crowns with paste jewels. Yet, built on an easily defended peninsula , and guarded by the most formidable walls in Europe, Constantinople had defied attack for 1000 years. The Ottoman Turks had conquered the Balkans, but they had learned through past failures to avoid Constantinople.

Mehmed II wanted the imperial city for his capital.  The Ottoman Sultan gathered an army of 80,000 men, nearly twice the size of the population of Constantinople.  His siege equipment included the largest cannons in the world. Furthermore, he created a navy to blockade the port city. Against this force, Constantinople had a garrison of 7000 men, Greeks and their Genoese allies.  Christendom was prepared to mourn Constantinople but not help her. 

Nine years earlier, a Christian army led by the King of Poland embarked on a crusade against the Turks.  This crusade ended at the battle of Varna, when its 20,000 men confronted the Sultan’s 80,000.  By the end of the day, the King’s head was on a pike, and the rest of his army did not look much better.  Catholic Europe could barely defend herself against the Ottomans; she could not help the Greek Orthodox of Constantinople. 

Yet, however much in decline and decay, the city defied conquest.  Its formidable walls withstood the Turks’ onslaught and eight weeks of siege.  Four times the Turks, with their overwhelming numbers, attempted to storm the city; and each effort was a bloody failure.  You can still see headstones of the fallen Janissaries outside the walls of Constantinople.  The Sultan’s engineers attempted to mine the walls; the Byzantines mined the Turkish mines.  You can’t outfox a Byzantine.  In his frustration, and quite contrary to his nature, Sultan Mehmed offered to negotiate.  To us, his terms were not all that generous; he would spare the city if it surrendered.  Keep in mind, however, that his soldiers expected to loot the city.  Sparing Constantinople, the Sultan would be paying off his disappointed horde out of his own coffers.

But Constantinople refused to surrender.  Despite its decline, the old capital still trusted in Heaven’s protection and its imperial destiny.  The Turkish war council was starting to come to the same conclusion but then Heaven seemed to show a Moslem bias.  On May 23, 1453, there was a lunar eclipse, and the Turks were heartened to see a crescent moon matching the one on their flags. 

The fifth attack was on this day, May 29th.   Constantine XI, the last Emperor of Byzantium, removed his imperial insignia before leading his men into their last battle.  He would deny the Turks any way of identifying his body and making a trophy of it.  The Sultan attempted to curtail the rampage of his victorious soldiers, protecting the city’s major churches and buildings.  As he instructed his soldiers in the etiquette of looting, “the people are yours but the city is mine.”  Even then, he only allowed his men a full day of looting; after that, Constantinople–and any surviving citizens–were under his protection.

The Sultan was only 21 and he would go on to conquer Serbia and Romania, and he was beginning an invasion of Italy when he died in 1480.  But he is remembered chiefly for conquering a decaying old city and then restoring it to its grandeur.  Constantinople indeed did have an imperial destiny, and for the next 450 years it would be the capital of the Ottoman Empire. 

Today the city is known as Istanbul, except on Greek maps.  There the name defiantly remains Constantinople.

The Art of Saving Souls

Posted in On This Day on May 24th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

Today–May 24th– Orthodox Christians honor the Saints Cyril and Methodius.  Roman Catholics would try to be politely indifferent to the hallowed pair, masking a genuine annoyance.  Ecumenicalism has its limits, after all.  Coke does not honor Pepsi. 

In the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, there was a competition between Rome and Constantinople to see who would convert the pagan Slavs to Christianity. The vying missionaries couldn’t always produce miracles on schedule to win converts, so they often used means that we might find nauseatingly familiar.

The Byzantines tried advertising. However, going door-to-door, they noticed that no one would read their Greek Orthodox religious tracts. The Slavs were illiterate and, even if they weren’t, it is not likely that they would want to read a foreign language. A pair of Byzantine marketing wizards, Cyril and Methodius, made their ad campaign more intelligible by modifying the Greek alphabet to the Slavic tongues. (Cyril and Methodius received sainthoods but Cyril got the glory; the Cyrillic Alphabet is named for him.)

Both Rome and Constantinople sought celebrity endorsements. Their respective salesmen appealed to the local kinglets and chieftains, who would then coerce their respective tribes to salvation. In wooing the petty royalty, the Byzantines had the advantage when it came to bribes: silks and crafted goblets, craftsmanship beyond the ability of those benighted western Europeans. To many a Slavic chieftain, the Byzantine luxuries were unearthly delights and easily seemed proof of Constantinople’s superior faith. That approach sold Russia.

Of course, Rome’s missionaries had their unique offers as well. They often could point to an army of Catholic Franks or Germans just across the border, and who were more than eager to proselytize in their own way. That proved very convincing as well, perhaps even more than silverware and a designer wardrobe.

How To Achieve Infamy

Posted in On This Day on January 26th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

January 25th:

GensericIf “Only the good die young,” that would explain Genseric’s long life. He died this day in 477 at the age of 87 or so. We are not quite sure of his actual birthday; being the illegitimate son of a chieftain of a minor barbarian tribe, who noticed? His departure was more conspicuous. After all, by that time he was the King of North Africa, the terror of what was left of the Roman world, and the scourge of the Church. Even today, his legacy lingers. Through his deeds, his tribe is remembered as a felony: Vandal.

Genseric’s career would make a suitable case study for any MBA program. If anyone deserved to be named Entrepreneur of the Fifth Century, it certainly was him. Of course, the early fifth century was a great time to be a barbarian. The Rhine River was all the defense that the Roman Empire had in the West, and it was hardly impassable. (The Germanic tribes waded into the Empire or–to use the Latin pronunciation– in-vade.)

Most of the tribes were competing with one another as to who would loot Gaul. The Vandals, led by Genseric and his annoyingly legitimate half-brother Gunderic, decided to avoid the mob and a losing battle by moving on to Iberia. They were among the first German tourists there. Unfortunately for the Vandals, the Visigoths also heard about Hispania and migrated there, too. Preferring to be the sole barbarians on the peninsula, the Visigoths began wiping out the Vandals. Half of the tribe was gone, Gunderic was dead, and Genseric was now the king of this sorry remnant; in 429, however, the Roman governor of North Africa saved the Vandals. The governor was rebelling against the Emperor and needed mercenaries, so he transported the entire tribe to North Africa.

Ironically, the Roman governor called off his rebellion, but the Vandals didn’t. Genseric liked North Africa; in those days the land was fertile and had not become yet an extension of the Sahara. Prosperous provinces but with meager defenses–what more could Genseric ask! Within ten years, the Vandals occupied the territory extending from Libya to Morocco. (Yes, Rommel’s Afrika Korps was actually the second German invasion there, and the less successful of the two.) Carthage, the capital of Roman North Africa surrendered without a fight; the Vandals occupied the city while most of the populace was at the chariot races.

Genseric’s next venture was piracy. The Vandals proved quite adaptive and quickly developed a fleet that terrorized the western Mediterranean. They conquered the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. What could Rome do but flatter him. In 442 the Emperor Valentinian III recognized Genseric as the King of everything he had seized; the official title was supposed to make him behave with regal decorum. Genseric would be further placated by a marriage into the imperial family. The Emperor’s three-year-old daughter was betrothed to Genseric’s oldest (and adult) son; it would be a long engagement. So for the next 13 years Genseric seemed content to administer his realm, restoring to North Africa the stability and prosperity that the disintegrating Roman Empire had failed to maintain. He did tax the patrician landowners and the Catholic clergy (who usually were one and the same) but most of the populace found Vandal rule an improvement.

And Genseric was bored! Although now was in his sixties, he definitely had not mellowed. Yet he felt constrained by his treaty with Valentinian III and the western half of the Roman Empire. True, he was free to attack the Byzantines or his old enemies the Visigoths, but they had the inconvenient capacity to defend themselves; and Genseric really did not like fair fights. However, the life expectancy of a Roman Emperor was rarely long, and Valentinian III made enemies. He was assassinated in March, 455, and two months later Genseric was at the gates of Rome, proclaiming himself the avenger of Valentinian and the protector of his family.

For all his lofty proclamations, his basic demands were “give us everything and no one will be hurt”. Two years earlier, Pope Leo I had persuaded Attila the Hun not to sack Rome; the Pope would not find Genseric to be such a softie. The Visigoths in 410 had sacked Rome, indulging in murder, rape and pillage; but they had refrained from looting churches. The Vandals lacked that sense of etiquette; of course, after the Visigoths, Rome had little left to loot except the churches. Genseric’s sack was bloodless and platonic, but his irrreverent attitude to church property would earn the Vandals their lasting infamy. The medieval monk chroniclers would not forgive the Vandals’ transgression, and their animosity became our perception: VANDALS!. Although usually left to the victor, history is always written by the literate.

Furthermore, despite his agreement with the Pope, Genseric did not strictly observe his pledge of good behavior. Apparently kidnapping was still permissible. No, Genseric was not tacky enough to seize the Pope; but he did take the widow and two daughters of the late emperor. The dowager empress was a Byzantine princess, so Constantinople would be sent the ransom note. Genseric was only offering the widow and one daughter; the other–now nubile–girl was going to marry his son. The ransom negotiations lasted six years. In that time, the Byzantines were hoping that Genseric would succumb to enemies or old age. Both were reasonable expectations but he proved equally adapt at outfoxing his foes and time itself.

In 468, the Byzantines amassed an overwhelming force to crush the Vandal kingdom. More than 1100 ships, with 100,000 soldiers, ascended on Carthage. Unfortunately, the Byzantine emperor appointed his brother-in-law the commander. Genseric offered to surrender and, while the peace terms were being negotiated, the Vandals attacked the lulled Byzantines. Half of their fleet was lost. The idiot brother-in-law returned to Constantinople where he sheltered in a church until the emperor agreed only to exile him.

And the 80 year-old Genseric would outlast another two Byzantine emperors, five Roman emperors and the Western Empire itself. But his kingdom would only survive him by 57 years; he had left his sons an empire but none of the vision or the abilities to preserve it.