Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Steven Runciman's interview about Byzantium

Steven Runciman

In an tv interview that eventually was cancelled by the channel due to technical problems the famous Byzantinologist reveals many aspects of the Byzantine history. The interview is taken by the journalist Chrysa Arapoglou  and Labrini Thoma. The interview took place in Scotland in Runciman's homeland. These extracts are published by the site flash.gr. I couldn't find the original dialogue, thus i had to re translate this.

Sir Steven Runciman(1903-2000) was a historian specialized in Byzantium.He taught Byzantine history in many universities and one of his great successes was to change the point of view that the west had about the Crusades. It's not an exaggeration if we say that he is the person who has undusted the Byzantine history from the library and made the world turn its head towards Byzantium which had as a result the revival of Byzantine studies.

How feels  somebody who studies the Byzantine history for so long time? Is he tired?

R:It's difficult to answer. My interest never wained. When i began studying Byzantine history only a few people in Great Britain knew something or studied  the Byzantines. I want to believe that i created some interest on Byzantine history.That what satisfies me a lot is that there are plenty good representatives of Byzantinology in Britain. I am happy that i chose to focus on Byzantine history.

Was the history of Byzantium attractive for you all these years?

I believe that if any fact in history  is studied in depth then it can become fascinating. I find Byzantium fascinating because it was a unique civilization.In order to study Byzantium you must study its religion its art and the lifestyle which was completely different from nowadays.

Better or worse?

Well, i am not sure if i would like to live with the Byzantines. For instance i wouldn't like to have a beard. However the Byzantine society had a better structured lifestyle. Besides, when you have a very strong religious sentiment your life is  "modified"  and your reality becomes more satisfying comparing to nowadays where people believe in nothing.

Was it just a Theocratic state?

It was a civilization in which religion was playing an important part.

This was the same for all the 11 centuries of Byzantine history?

I think that the people are talking about Byzantium like it remained the same , a civilization unchanged for many centuries.Except from the religion all the other things changed during the Byzantine history.The Byzantines may had many clashes for theological matters but still they all remained faithful. Even though that the fashion ,the economic conditions and the political situation were changing there was an integral part in the Byzantine empire(religion)

You are talking about religion and morality. Many historians consider Byzantium as an age of wars ,assassinations ,political machinations otherwise called as "byzantinisms" and had no relation with morality

Murders happen all the time, there's no period in history that didn't have murders.One day i was making a lecture and among the attendants was also the daughter of the U.S president Johnson. She came to to the class with two bodyguards. She told me that she liked the Byzantine history because it was full of murders.I hold myself not to tell her that the percentage of American presidents who had been assassinated was bigger in relation to the existence of U.S.A comparing to years of existence of Byzantium.People still murder people nothing has changed.

You have written that there is no death penalty in Byzantium

Indeed they were not killing.The basic difference was made during the conversion of Rome to christianity. During these times all the arena spectacles like battles of gladiators and eating of people by wild animals were stopped. The empire became more human-centric. There are only a few incidents of death penalty ordered by emperors but it was about really extreme situation. Most of the emperors were using as an extreme way of punishment the mutilation of a body part.A really gruesome process but still not worse than death.

For a long time there is an open dialogue in Greece. There are some Greek scholars who say that Byzantium produced nothing. Its scholars just produced comments for ancient texts but nothing original. Therefore it's useless to study Byzantinology cause they left nothing worth to remember.

I believe that these scholars are very unjust with their ancestors. No Byzantium was not a society without scholars.You just need to take a look for instance at the progress of Byzantine medicine. Someone may not like the religious scripts so much but the works of some religious leaders like the Cappadokian fathers and Gregorios Palamas were of unique spirituality. There spiritual and intellectual life was very active in Byzantium. Especially towards the late centuries during the dynasty of Paleologos.It's really an irony that during the times that the empire was crumbling the Byzantine culture began to flourish.

Some other scholars state that Byzantium had no arts.

Well then maybe these scholars no nothing about arts.The Byzantine art is one of the most influencing arts in the world.No ancient Greek would be able to build Aghia Sofia. It needed special architectural knowledge.Some other scholars say that the Byzantine art was static. No it was not static but an artistic movement that as the time passes becomes more and more aknowledged .Those Greeks who say that Byzantium left no heritage are just blind.

Therefore those who consider Byzantine art as simple mimicry 

If you can understand something in the best way then you can reproduce it the best.However there was always differences. For instance just looking at a Byzantine icon can give us enough clues to set its date of creation.If all the icons were same then we wouldn't be able to do that.Yes there are particular traditions maintained but Byzantine art shows many differences over the time. Byzantine art fell into a stalemate during the Ottoman conquests because of lack of funding.The art of the Paleologian age was different from the time of Justinian. Of course they had some analogies but it was not mimetic.I believe that many people have stereotyped negatively the Byzantine empire because they haven't studied it in order to learn what it had achieved.

It is alleged that the Byzantine empire was not at all Hellenic. It is by no means a continuation of ancient Greece as it lacked democracy and democratic institutions.

I don't believe that the modern Greeks are more Greeks than the Byzantines.Through the time and the centuries the nations cannot remain genetically clear  however some national characteristics survive through time.The Byzantines were speaking a type of modern Greek. The same language that the modern Greeks speak. The Byzantines were interested in philosophy and even though they were subjects of an emperor he had to give them some sort of freedom and social rights or else there would be civil uprisings.The Byzantine empire was a bureaucratic state but this is not a negative point as its bureaucrats was far more educated than the nowadays bureaucrats.
And what do you mean by saying democracy? Was all of the ancient Greece democratic ? I suggest those who are interested to read the history of classical Greece. They will find a lot of things to criticize. Personally i never understood what is the meaning of democracy. Nowadays in most of the countries democracy means to be governed by the media like the press and the television. It's correct to have the freedom to vote but from the moment that the people cannot make their own political opinion and thus convey the people's power to the media. The media instead of trying to educate the people take the easier way of manipulation.Democracy can only exist if we have a very high educated citizen.In a city like ancient Greece the men were educated but noone considers the position of women and slaves.

Was there a social policy in Byzantium?

The church was mainly helping the people.The state had full social awareness. They had hospitals and care facitilites for the elder people.Let's not forget than one of the high ranking officers was the Orphanotrofos(responsible for the empire's orphanages. The church was very active on social care.It was not just a regime of monks who lived away from civilization. There were also the city monasteries which were running the houses of the elderly people and produced teachers who educated young boys. The girls were educated at home.The girls received better quality of education as they had more private attention. I believe that the score of Byzantium in social care would be very high.

According to Basil of Caesaria the education of the Byzantines should be supported on Homer who was the teacher of principles.

The Byzantines were aware of ancient Greek literature.It is worth to note however that they were not fond of the Attic tragedies but they preferred  all the other poets.There is a story told by Anna Komnene about a very attractive woman who was a friend of an emperor.While she was passing from a street someone told her a verse from Homer's Iliad  about Helen and Troy. She understood the implication therefore it means that she had studied Homer. Every Byzantine boy and girl had studied Homer.Anna Komnene never refers that she has taken the extracts from Homer because all her readers were aware of that.

So there were no uneducated people in Byzantium?

The problems of Byzantine literature were other. Most of the authors tried to imitate ancient writers in style and also in language.This tragedy of Byzantine literature was its dependence on ancient Greek literature. Not because they didn't know enough but because they knew much more that it was needed for their own creative benefit.

Would you like to live in Byzantium?

I don't know if i could fit in that era.If i lived at these times i would be maybe an old monk living the life of an intellectual ,reading books of the monastery's library.Byzantine monasteries had some really marvellous libraries.If i was born an aristocrat i would prefer to live in 18th century England.

Does the situation in the Balkans concern you?

I am interested in the Balkans cause its a place that "accompanies" me all these years and i feel sad about what's going on there.What i am concerned mainly is about the future.I believe that Greece will proceed as Bulagaria too. However i am a bit desperate when i think of the future of Romania and Yugoslavia(the interview was taken in 1994)

Are the Balkans paying for the rich history they had?

In some way , yes. It's a big problem if you have a long history.Because you have much more memories that those you are able carry.Things do not work well in there because of the ancient memory.

Recently there were talks in your country about the possibility of a religious 3rd World war 

I am concerned about some religions. I am concerned about the extremist muslims who are a threat to civilization.Religion is needed. People will feel less lost and more happier with religion.The problem is that we cannot have a global religion and that the religions that have existed never had good relations with each other.Philanthropy is only limited to persons who have the same religion.Religion is not a salvation but i don't know anything else that may give salvation to human.With the increase of the population the quality of education will decrease. There will be never enough instructors. I am a bit pessimistic about that.

What's your opinion about Orthodoxy nowadays?

I have a deep respect on christian doctrines and specially in orthodoxy because it's the only doctrine that aknowledges that religion is a mystery.The Roman Catholics and the Protestants want to explain everything.It's purposeless to believe in a religion if you expect that it will reveal you all the secrets.I believe that orthodoxy maintains this precious sense of mystery.

Do we need mystery?

Yes. We need to know that the universe has a lot of things that we cannot comprehend. We need some spiritual moderation which however doesn't exist in the western church.

What's your opinion about the other doctrines?

The catholic church is and was always also a political institution except than being religious.We need to remember that when the Roman empire fell the Roman lords were lost and only the priests remained who preserved the Roman legacy.Thus they were used by the barbarian kings to implement laws.The western church is very interested in law.In Byzantium and later in the Roman empire the church was on;y interested in the laws of the divine scripts. The churches that broke away from the Catholic church have also inherited this law interest.It's interesting to mention the dialogue between the Anglicans and the Orthodox church during the 17th century.The anglicans couldn't understand what the orthodox believed about the conversion of bread and wine to flesh and blood. The orthodox were saying that it was a mystery which cannot be explained. However the Anglicans wanted an explanation. That's the typical difference of the Western and the eastern churches.

What's your opinion about modern Greeks

It is still alive in this nation the skill on comprehending and understanding situations very quickly.They also have a Byzantine attribute the vivid curiosity.Just like the Byzantines, the Greeks are also aware of the importance of the history of civilization. There are many elements that have not changed. First of all is the language which carries all these elements throughout time.The Byzantine literature suffered because of its relation with the ancient greek literature and language. At least the modern Greeks have the modern Greek language that allowed them to develop the modern Greek literature in a way that the Byzantines couldn't with only exception some epic poems which were written in simplified Greek.

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