Volume 6 Number 37 - Tuesday, September 14th, 2004





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Published by The National Herald, September 12, 2004

 Christian Hellenism and How the Byzantines Saw Themselves

By Demetrios J. Constantelos

This article was written as a response to a request to address the issue concerning the nature of the so-called "Byzantines," and the question whether we can speak of "Christian Hellenism."  What follows is a popularized summary of what I have published in several studies incorporated in my books "Christian Hellenism" and "Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church."  For obvious reasons I do not cite any Greek historians or theologians.

A nation’s self-image and self-understanding is shaped by the history it remembers and the culture that has molded its ethos and character from generation to generation.  The memory of ancient Greece, from the beginning of its history down to the Christian era, was very much alive in the Byzantine Empire.  Even though for legal and political reasons the inhabitants of the Empire called themselves Romans (Romaioi, Romioi), the history they remembered and the history they studied was that of the ancient Greeks – Herodotos, Thucydides, Polybios, Plutarch[os], the image they possessed of themselves had been molded by the language they spoke [Greek], the literature they read – Homer, Hesiod, Sophocles, Plato – and the physicians and scientists they studied – Hippocrates, Archimides, Hero, Ptolemeos, Strabo and many more – from ancient times to their times.

It is for this reason that Hellenology rather than Byzantinology more accurately expresses the nature of the Byzantine Empire’s people and culture as the Hungarian scholar Gy Moravesik writes.  It is well known that the transitional years between the death of Justinian in 565 and the reign of Phocas (602-610) have been perceived as the end of the ancient Greek-Roman world and the beginning of the medieval Greek Empire.  With the death of Phocas in 610 "Byzantine history properly speaking is the history of the medieval Greek Empire" in the words of the Russian-Serbian historian George Ostrogorsky.  The Byzantine Empire was no less than a continuation of the Greek world as it had evolved after the age of Alexander the Great.  Even from as early as the reign of Constantine the Great we can identify the Byzantine Empire as the Greek Empire of the middle centuries.

"Notwithstanding the various tribes and peoples that settled on the territory of the [Byzantine] Empire… the prevailing population was as Greek or Hellenized as it had been in the Balkans and Asia Minor during the fourth through sixth centuries (A.D.).  Certainly, there were ethnic minorities there sometimes inclined to secession (the Italians, Bulgarians, Armenians, and so on), but the main ethnic substratum consisted, throughout Byzantine history, of Greek and Hellenized constituents.  The language [Greek] remained unchanged… A form of diglossia, the artificial gap between the language of literature and the spoken vernacular…" write Alexander Kazhdam and Anthony Cutler, both leading "Byzantine" scholars.

It was the Greek influence that was markedly present throughout the Empire’s existence.  Whether in ethnic composition, language and literary forms, both secular and religious, art, or cultural consciousness, the Byzantine Empire was conscious of its continuity with the Greek world of antiquity and the Roman political heritage.  Christianity, a religion that triumphed over Hellenism, was transformed and Hellenized.  Hellenism, not in racial but in cultural and linguistic terms was perceived by Church Fathers as propaideia, preparatory for the success of Christianity.

The importance of philosophy and Hellenic ideals as a prodromos (forerunner) to Christ was beautifully developed by Justin the philosopher and martyr and others.  Clement of Alexandria (153-217) writes that before the coming of Christ "philosophy was necessary to the Greek for righteousness," and it was given to them by God, "for God is the cause of all good things."  He adds that "philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, until the Lord shall call the Greeks."  The "Hellenic mind" and "Hebrew law" became schoolmasters, paving the way for the believer "who is perfected in Christ."  In addition to Justin and Clement, Origen of Alexandria, shared many beliefs with the Greek philosophers.  For Origen, biblical teachings and philosophical speculations were not antithetical.

Influential Church fathers such as the Cappadocians, the Alexandrians, the Antiochians and many ecclesiastical writers, including hagiologists, had been nurtured in an intellectual climate that had respect for both Christian faith and Greek learning.  Revealed truth in Scripture, and revealed truth through human logos, were perceived as two interrelated principles and God-given gifts to humankind.  It is for this reason that they relied on Scriptural passages and Greek educational proof texts.  St. Basil urged young students to study Homer because Homer’s epics are full of ethical instructions that lead to the truth and virtue.  The interrelationship between Hellenism and Christianity gave birth to what is called Christian Hellenism (Glanville Downey, Francis Dvornik, George Florovsky and several more).

Following the example of Basil and other Church fathers, Greek Christianity of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine centuries never subscribed to the notion that whatever is Greek in Christianity is a corruption of pure revealed biblical truth.  They saw a wider preparation for the invasion of history by God’s incarnate Logos, Jesus the Christ, than the preparation only through the prophets of ancient Israel.  Biblical and patristic instruction and ancient Greek thought were integrated into a system of belief, ethos, and customs which determined its continuum throughout the Byzantine millennium.  They spoke the language of Plato and cited Greek poets and philosophers and were at home among Greek ideas, rhetoric, ethics; it was their belief that Greek philosophy was the instrument of God for an ecumenical appeal of Christianity.  The ancient Church adopted classical culture as a new spiritual force uniting the Greek and Roman world with the religious impulse of the Hebrew world.  In the process of Hellenism was Christianized and Christianity was Hellenized.  As history and literature professor Ihor Sevcenko, a Ukrainian-American leading Byzantine scholar has put it:  "Hellenism vanquished by Christianity conquered its victor in turn".  And Father John meyerdorff, a leading theologian adds:

"…it is the adoption of the Greek language and the use of cultural and philosophical features borrowed from Hellenism which really witnessed to philosophical features borrowed from Hellenism which really witnessed to a ‘Catholic’ understanding of the church…the Christian Gospel had to be  proclaimed in a world which spoke and thought in Greek.  To do so was not a betrayal of the scripture…but a direct missionary task which was begun by the first generations of Christians and fulfilled by those whom we call ‘the fathers’.

Let me emphasize that it is a great error to identify and speak of Hellenism in racial terms.  The Greek in Christianity is not ethnic, it only reflects the fundamental historical and cultural relationship between Hellenism and Christianity.  It is correct to say that "Greek is to Christianity what Hebrew is to Judaism and Arabic is to Islam."

It is well known that the so-called "Byzantines" defined themselves as Romans (citizens of the Roman Empire).  After the edict of Caracallus all free people of the Empire became Romans.  Other nations and peoples such as Latins, Franks, Germans, Russians, Armenians, Georgians, Khazarian Jews thought of the "Byzantines" as Greeks or Yunani, Yavani, Yoyn (Ionians).  The "Byzantines" called their state "Kingdom of the Romans" (Basileion ton Rhomaion) but others described it as Graecia (Greece), the Greek Empire, or Yunastan, Yavan, Yawan (Ionia).

Aristotle, Apollodoros, the Chronicle of Paros and other ancient sources tell us that the name Greek is older than Hellene.  It was occasionally used by the Byzantines themselves for self-identification, but more frequently it was used to designate the learning, language, and culture of their Empire.  With some exceptions, for most of the foreigners the whole Byzantine Empire, including Asia Minor, was Greece, and its citizens Greeks.  In determining the Greek national character, outsiders made no distinction between pagan and Christian Greeks, between the Greeks of ancient times and the "Byzantines" of the Middle Ages.

The overwhelming majority of the "Byzantines" themselves were conscious of their uninterrupted continuity with the ancient Greeks who, although not Christians, were ancestors.  Though the adjective Hellene, was used to imply pagan, it never disappeared as an ethnic name.  However, the names Greek and Ionian had been extensively used by their neighbors and other people of Europe and the Orient and even by themselves. 

Graekos, as an ethnic identification, was used often.  Priskos, the fifth century historian, relates that, while unofficially on an embassy to Attila the Hun, he had met at Attila’s court someone dressed like a Scythian but who spoke Greek.  When Priskos asked him where he had learned the language, he smiled and said that he was a Graikos [Greek] by birth.

Many other "Byzantine" authors speak of the Empire’s natives as Greeks [graikoi] or Hellenes.  For example, writing about the revolt of a Slavic tribe in the district of Patras in the Peloponnesos, Constantine Porphyrogennitos of the tenth century writes that the Slavs first proceeded to sack the dwellings of their neighbors, the Greeks, [ton Graikon], and gave them up to rapine and next they moved against the inhabitants of the City of Patras.

Hellene as an ethnic name was used frequently after the eleventh century by Anna Komnene, Michael Psellos, John III Vatatzes, George Pletho Gemistos and several more.  Anna Komnene writes of her contemporaries as Hellenes.  She does not use Hellene as a synonym for pagan.  Anna boasts about her Hellenic classical education, and she speaks as a native Greek not as an outsider who learned Greek as a foreigner.  She writes of her country not as an insider.

Michael Psellos, a philosopher and historian of the 11th century was another person conscious of the Greek nature of the Empire.  When he attacks Herodotos, the son of Lykos, who dared to criticize his fellow Greeks and express his bias in favor of the Persians, Psellos writes as if Herodotos had insulted his own ancestors.  Emperor John III Vatazes in his correspondence with old Rome writes of his people as Hellenes.

In one of the early debates between representatives of the See of Rome and the Patriarchate of Constantinople at the Council of Florence (1438-1439) on the subject of Purgatory, Markos of Ephesos and Bessarion of Nicaea drafted a response to the Latin position and added that "on the subject [of Purgatory] our Fathers and all of the Hellenes who have written have said nothing about it.  What the Latins have said, appear to us Hellenes unintelligible (senseless)."  Note here that Markos and Bessarion used the name Hellenes rather than Graekoi or Romioi.

It was on the basis of the learning and language that Plethon Gemistos identified the Empire’s people as Hellenes.  There are linguistic, cultural and psychological indications that the "Byzantines" viewed themselves as direct descendants and inheritors of the ancient Hellenes.  Culture, language, education, religion were far more important factors than racial characteristics in their self-understanding.

To be sure most of them followed the beliefs and practices of Orthodox Christianity.  But their religious faith did not force them to reject their cultural past. 

Instead, we discern in their writings and practices of daily life an effort to integrate their old culture with the new faith.  Their perception of themselves found support in the views of their neighbors and other nations which invariably called them Greeks or Ionians.

The sixth century Syrian monk, Joshua the Stylite, writing about a famine that plagued Edessa in Mesopotamia ca. 501-502 praised the army stationed there for the help they provided to the victims.  He relates that "the Greek soldiers" set up places in which they looked after the sick.

In a seventh century text, known as an Apocalypse, originally written in Syrica and attributed to Methodios of Patara, known as Pseudo-Methodios, uses the terms Greeks and Romans as synonyms, interchangeably.  He describes the rulers of the Byzantine Empire as "the rulers of the Greeks, that is the Romans."

To Benjamin of Tudela, the Spaniard Jew who traveled to the East in the 12th century, the whole of the Empire, including the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor, is Greece.  Constantinople "is the capital of the whole land of Javan, which is called Greece."  In the eyes of Benjamin, the Byzantines were not warlike.  Instead, for their wars, usually defensive, they hired among all nations warriors called barbarians to fight against the Sultan of the Seljuks, "for the natives are not warlike."  Lawless people from the hills of Wallachia despoiled and ravaged "the land of Greece."  While those lawless people refrained from killing Jews, "they killed the Greeks."  Benjamin adds that in Constantinople is the church of Santa Sophia and the seat of the Patriarch of the Greeks, "since the Greeks do not obey the Pope of Rome."  He calls the whole Empire, including the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor, "the Empire of Greece."  The Greeks are described as very rich, possessing of gold and precious stones, and dressed in garments of silk with gold embroidery; they ride horses and look like princes.  "Indeed, the land [of the Greeks] is very rich in all cloth stuffs, and in bread, meat, and wine.  Wealth like that of Constantinople is not to be found in the whole world.  Here also are men learned in all the books of the Greeks, and they eat and drink, every man under his vine and his fig-tree."

For Ibn Batuta, the twelfth century Arab traveler, the Emperor in Constantinople is the King of the Greeks.  Cities such as Sinope, Brusa, Ephesos are Greek cities.  Ghazi Chelebi ruled over Sinope, a city surrounded by eleven villages inhabited by Greek infidels, he used to sail out in order to "fight the Greeks."  He writes that the City of Brusa was captured "from the Greeks."  Ephesos on the other hand, a large and ancient town, was venerated by "the Greeks."  When Smyrna was besieged by the Turks "the Greeks under pressure of the attacks appealed to the West for help."

The Russian chroniclers of "Tales of Bygone Years," known also as The Primary Chronicle or The Chronicle of Nestor, very frequently describe the Byzantine Empire as Greece and its inhabitants as Greeks.  The Empire’s ruler is the Emperor of Greece; the Russian prince, Igor, advanced upon the Greeks and he received from the Greeks gold and palls.  But who were the Greeks?  They were Macedonians, Thracians, Thessalians, Epirotes, Peloponnesians and people of the entire Greek nation in other geographical areas of the ancient Greek world.  For the Chronicle Byzantium meant only the City of Byzantion.

Later Russian sources, too, call the Byzantine Empire a Greek land.  For example, the Zabelin and Hludov manuscripts of The ‘Wanderer’ Stephen of Novgorod relate that "in Constantinople, at the Jordan, on the Holy Mountain ,and all over the Greek land it is the Typikon of St. Sabas [which is followed]." 

What do they mean by "all over the Greek land?"  To be sure, not merely the mainland, the Greek chersonese proper.

There is no great need to elaborate on how Latin sources refer to the Byzantines.  A few illustrations will suffice.  In several of the lives of popes such as Stephen II, Hormisdas, John I, John III, Stephen III, Hadrian I, the Byzantine Empire is Graecia, its emperor is called Greek Emperor, and the Empire’s inhabitants are designated as Greeks.  Several Latin or Western European sources, too, such as Gregory of Tours, the Venerable Bede, Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, Liutprand of Cremona, to mention only a few representative sources provide identical information. 

The designation Greek was not used as a derogatory name but as a historical and long-standing appellation.  Paul the Deacon, the eighth-century chronicler of the Lombards, writes that Maurice (582-602) was the first emperor of the race of the Greeks.  And for Liutprand of Cremona whether for realistic or polemical reasons, the Byzantine Empire was Greek and its emperor the king of the Greeks.

For the Latin chroniclers who wrote about the Crusades, the Byzantines were Greeks and their Empire, including Asia Minor, was Graecia. 

Guibert of Nogent praised "the hospitality of the inhabitants of the Greek Provinces," notwithstanding the "utmost insolence" of the "pilgrim" crusaders.  For Peter the Hermit, it was the Empire of Constantinople and its inhabitants were Greeks.  For Geoffrey of Villehardouin and Robert di Clary, both eyewitnesses of the Crusades and recorders of speeches by the movement’s leaders, the Byzantine Empire is called Greek Empire and its citizens Greeks. 

Several more western Europeans, travelers, chroniclers, and theologians after the twelfth century continued o call the so-called Byzantine Empire as Graecia and its inhabitants Greeks.  Khazarian Hebrew sources express themselves in terms identical with Latin sources.

For the Arabs, too, the "Byzantines" were the descendants of the ancient Greeks.  Arabic sources indicate that the Arabs made no distinction between ancient and contemporary Greeks.

"Only the highest praise could do justice to the importance of the Greeks.  Even excessive admiration is not infrequently expressed" by Arabs in the words of Franz Rosenthal, a leading scholar of Islam and the Arabs.  He cites Arabic sources.

For the Arabs, the Byzantine rulers were Greeks, not Roman, and "Greek rulers were always building level roads through difficult territory, filling hollows, cutting through high mountains and banishing fear of them. 

They were always constructing various kinds of bridges, erecting strong walls, building aqueducts and diverting rivers… They were concerned with science and medicine."  Other Arabic sources describe the Byzantine state as Rum but they consider its people and culture as Ighritsi (Greek).

For Armenians, Georgians, and several Semitic people of the Near East, the "Byzantines" are Ionian Greeks (Yoyn, Yavani) and their Empire is Yunastan, Yavan, Javan, Yawan (Ionia, Greece). 

For Armenian sources in particular, all the emperors from Diocletian in the third to Constantine XI Palaiologos in the fifteenth century as well as military leaders, and all the Patriarchs of Constantinople are called Yoyn.

In brief, the so-called "Byzantines" identified themselves as Graekoi, Hellenes, and Rhomioi while Western European (Latin, Germanic, Frankish) and Eastern European (Russian, Khazarian, Hebrew) and other non-Greek sources describe them as Greeks and their Empire as Graecia, or "land of the Greeks."  The sources we have cited were closer to the events they described, and to the mind of the people they knew.  They should be considered more reliable than later writers who invented rather than inherited the perceptions of the past.

* Fr. Demetrios J. Constantelos is the Charles Cooper Townsend Sr. Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History and Religious Studies at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey. He is also a Distinguished Scholar in Residence there, with specialties in the Byzantine or Medieval Greek world, ancient Greece, Rome and the Roman Empire, early Christianity, New Testament Studies, and the history of Philanthropy. He also serves as the Chair of the Hellenic Studies program at Richard Stockton.


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