A commonplace of history is that after the fall of Rome Europe fell into a dark age and that were it not for brave monks on remote Irish islands, holding onto civilisation by what Kenneth Clark called “the skin of our teeth”, humanity may never have recovered. That this is a Euro-centric, even Anglo-centric, view of the early Middle Ages becomes blindingly evident when you open Averil Cameron’s sweeping introduction to Byzantium. (‘The Byzantines’, by Averil Cameron, published by Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4051-9833-2) The world of the East proceeded in an agreed and purposive way at a time when the world of the West was disintegrating into competing Augustuses and barbaric tribes.
Byzantium itself has become the focus of huge scholarly attention over the past two decades and this book summarises a lot of the main discoveries and debates. For this reason alone the book should be in every theological library, but especially in any that is concerned with Patristics, Greek theology, and the meaning of Orthodoxy. International conferences on the subject are now perennial and we add encyclopedias and sets of studies on the subject to our libraries as a matter of course.
The historical textures of the ancient world keep being revised by new historians. In recent times some historians have come to view Rome as going through not so much a Fall as a Transformation or Transmutation. Alaric notwithstanding. The Eastern Empire was part of this transformative process. It is remarkable that a contiguous empire could exist between Europe and Asia for such a period of time in which a church patriarch wielded greater influence than the emperor and their deity was Christ, the supreme ruler, the servant of all. This was going on all over the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, Asia Minor and beyond into Russia. The so-called fall of the Soviet Union in our own time has brought Byzantium back into focus as one of the historical constants of East and West, a way of explaining the international contours.
Byzantium was responsible for the formulation of Christian belief at the great Ecumenical Councils of the 4th and 5th centuries. It developed traditions of spirituality that are now so much a part of mainstream religion we don’t recognise them as Byzantine. Byzantium sustained the first and possibly greatest dispute over religious images, due in part to its direct encounters with the new religion of Islam, with the iconphiles winning out over the iconoclasts – and not for the last time. And, of course, for centuries it maintained its position against Islamic pushes westward.
In fact, Cameron has a determination to revise our understanding of Byzantium. If the word is thrown into conversation today its meanings are still all negative. Either it connotes slippery and convoluted politics or a society infinitely remote and mysterious. It means a society that is decadent and doomed, this last meaning coming to us from Edward Gibbon and the powerful spectre of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. It is a meaning that Cameron questions. After all, how can an empire be doomed that survived for over a thousand years? There must be something more to it and to decide how conclusively the author refutes this perception, you need to read the book. Cameron handles the vast amount of material at her disposal with delicacy and economy. Her conclusions familiarise us with a world we expected to be strange and opens our minds to new questions about the past, including our own.