Why don't Westerners romanticize Byzantium?

Or at least, to the same extent that we romanticize Rome?

I’m an American. I live in a continent-spanning Republic that very consciously modeled its institutions upon those of Rome. Loosely modelled, granted - but we’re governed, in part, by a Senate that sits upon Capitol Hill. The eagle is one of our most potent national symbols, and our national buildings would scarecly be out of place in ancient Rome (though the Romans would probably think we needed some paint jobs.) None of this is a coincidence - the Founding Fathers conciously chose to evoke the power and majesty of ancient Rome in their design for the fledgling American state. And it worked - against all reason, to this day we feel a deep kinship with Rome. American history education is notoriously spotty, but Rome is always given full and deferential treatment.

What’s Byzantium, chopped liver? The Byzantines, for a long time, thought of themselves as Roman - sure, they spoke Greek, but so did the leadership of the Western half of the Empire for centuries before the end. Byzantium endured, for centuries after Rome itself had fallen, preserving much of the learning and culture of the anscient world. It was a great power - feared and respected by its enemies, frequently placated (at least in name) even by those beyond the reach of her armies. A nation could do a lot worse than aspire to Byzantine endurance and power. So, why don’t we?

Not well enough known, and all the sexy Roman Empire and Roman Republic happened over in – well- Rome. There’s plenty of historu in Byzantium, and it deserves more and better treatment. It gets it in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and in some fiction (like Robert Silverburg’s time travel novel Up the Line), but not enough to give it the boost it needs.

I think the reason America at least does not romanticize Byzantium is that the Roman Republic happened in Rome. Byzantium was always an empire. Granted, when people today think of ancient rome they usually think of the “Bad Emperors” or the transrepublican times of strife, but I don’t think that is what the founding fathers had in mind when they consciously shaped part of our culture on it. After all, up until that point in time the Roman Republic was one of the better examples of democracy the world had known (the other being Athens which was also an inspiration, despite the flaws of both.)

GIbbons gives Byzantium a pretty harsh going over in his Decline and Fall, and since I suspect that was the main source of knowledge about it for most early educated Americans and Europeans, it usually was seen as too dysfunctional and decadent to be of interest to early scholars.

Pretty much the entire time. The name “Byzantine” was adopted ( by outsiders ) only post-fall of Constantinople.

I think CalMeacham and Ludovic are both right - it is a somewhat more obscure entity as a rump state and it was more to the Roman Republic that the founders hearkened.

But beyond that, as powerful and wealthy as it was at times, it was also still a rump state with nowhere near the giddy scope of old Rome ( especially since as a “discrete entity” it is usually artificially split off post-Arab conquests, beginning with Heraclius ). Moreover it was one with a troubled history vis-a-vis western Europe, especially in terms of the growth of the Orthodox faith, a tradition scarcely represented in the U.S. until the 1900’s and not very prevalent even now. Old Rome, with its implicit ( if arguable ) universalism works rather better as an exemplar.

The US founding fathers were inspired by the French Revolution. Thinkers of the French Revolution sought non-Christian ideals, so they reached back to Rome. Ancient Greek wasn’t so widely known and Byzantium was Christian.

I think there’s a little bit of innocuous ethnocentrism going on here, too. (no, I’m not being all post-modern when I say this - i’m just rather using that term as shorthand for “learning about people closest to us”)

You learn about Rome because, well, that’s all there was in Europe at the height of the empire (and I use that loosely, not in the strict “empire” period of Rome)

From Rome’s decline, you have the “dark ages” in Europe, with the Byzantine Empire basically preserving western culture for Europe until the Renaissance. Which would sound like it’d be important to learn about - along with the rise of the Muslims.

But no. You learn about wizards and knights and feudalism and shit in good old anglo-saxon land. I think a large part of that is because it’s more immediately traceable to the heritage of this country - Britain. Movies are made about King Arthur and William Wallace - they’re not made about Justinian.

That’s ridiculous. The French Revolution wasn’t until 1789. We inspired them.

Given that the Tennis Court Oath did not occur until one day short of a year after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, (and the Bastille did not fall for another three weeks and the real revoultion still did not get off the ground for a couple of more months), I doubt that there was a strong element of inspiration in the French Revolution for the founding of the U.S.

Now, there were some founding fathers who were already re-evaluating ideas of religion, following on Roussseau and others, but there were also founding fathers who were srtrong adherents of their religious beliefs and “atheist” was a common insult hurled at the former group.

I don’t think that there was a strong element among the founding fathers who wished to deliberately emulate pagan Rome over Christianity–particularly not as inspired by the French Revolution.

Indeed the American revolution was inspired by the Dutch.

If I dare speak for the poster of that, I think he’s referring to more of the political ideas of Enlightenment philosophers. They came up with the concepts, the U.S. was the first to implement them, and then the French.

I mean, he’s still wrong, but…

Funny how I never even heard the name “Oliver Cromwell” until I was in college. Nope, the American Revolution was presented as a bolt out of the blue. Nothing about shortening kings by 8 inches.

Steady there, the Dutch Revolution started in 1568.
A good 30 years before the birth of Cromwell.

If we’re going to rank previous revolutions as sources of “inspiration” for the American colonials, I would rank (1) the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89; (2) the establishment of the Commonwealth under Cromwell; and (3) the long war of independence of the Dutch.

The Glorious Revolution didn’t establish a republic, but it confirmed parliamentary supremacy and served as the basis for the Bill of Rights. The Commonwealth was even more important in checking the king, but its deterioration into military dictatorship was regarded as something to avoid.

The Dutch achievement of republican independence was certainly inspiring, but again the institutionalized squabbling among the provinces, the conflict between the hereditary stadholder and the Estates, and the long economic decline was regarded as something to avoid.

As for subsequent reaction to the French Revolution–almost all Americans applauded it in 1789, but by 1793 reaction divided. Federalists were horrified by the decapitation of the king, the promotion of atheism, the guillotine, and mob rule. Republicans in general, especially Jefferson, still thought it was cool even if a little excessive.

Since one’s attitude toward the Revolutionaries colored one’s reaction to the violations of American neutrality by Great Britain and France, the difference of opinion poisoned politics for a generation to come.

That’s nobody’s business but the Magisterium.

[sub]sorry, good rhymes for Byzantium are hard to come by[/sub]

Not only was Byzantium an empire, but its history is largely the history of a heroic but ultimately failed eight hundred year struggle to defend their slightly alien version of Christianity against Islam. I wouldn’t be surprised if people who are all gung ho for a clash of civilizations do start idolizing Byzantium, but the fact that the Turks finally handed them their buttocks on a plate makes them less than ideal role models.

Then also, we already romanticize the Crusaders; romanticizing Byzantium as well would lead to embarrassment when we consider that the Crusaders sacked Byzantium’s capital in the 13th century.

As **Simplicio **points out below, Gibbons was pretty hard on Byzantium, describing the eastern Empire as decadent and corrupt.

I’d recommend, to anyone who is interested, Steven Runciman’s histories. Also Anna Comnena’s Alexiad, written by someone who was actually there for some of the most crucial events in Byzantine history.

The 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast is also excellent, if you like podcasts. It’s basically the only decent history podcast I’ve found on any topic. And he talks briefly about how Gibbons take on the Byzantines hurt their current reputation in the west.

Also worth noting that Byzantium was romanticized in Eastern Europe and Russia, where the Greek Orthodox church was dominant, and the Tzars billed Moscow as the New Constantinople. However the rise of Communism and the squashing of the Church there presumably put an end to that tradition.

That’s a pretty simplistic evaluation of what forms by far the largest portion of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall. That may perhaps be his overall assessment (to tell the truth, I don’t recall – it’s been many years since I read it), but more than half of his multi-volume work is not devoted to sneering at the Eastern Empire. If he felt that way about it, he probably wouldn’t have written it. Having slogged through the work, I ca n attest that it’s not a catalogue of condemnations running over a thousand years of history.


Though in answer to the OP, the term “Byzantine” is used, and rarely as a compement.

Also, eyeball gougings.