Runciman on Greeks, Byzantines, Romioi, whichever…”The Greek has a subtle and difficult character, not to be recognized in the picture that popular students of the fifth century B.C. like to paint.”

17 Feb

“If art is the mirror of civilization, Byzantine civilization stood high.  Its eleventh-century artists showed all the restraint and balance of their classical ancestors; but they added two qualities from Oriental tradition, the rich decorative formalism of the Iranians and the mystical intensity of the ancient East.  The works of those that survive, whether they be small ivories or great mosaic panels or provincial churches, such as those of Daphne or Holy Luke in Greece, all display the same triumphant synthesis of traditions merged into a perfect whole.  The literature of the time, though more hampered by the overstrong memory of classical achievement, shows a variety all of excellent standard.  We have the polished history of John Diaconus, the delicate lyrics of Christopher of Mytilene, the sweeping popular epic of Digenes Akritas, the rough, common-sense aphorisms of the soldier Cecaumenos and the witty, cynical court memoirs of Michael Psellus.  The atmosphere almost has the complacency of the eighteenth century, but for an other-wordliness and a pessimism from which Byzantium was never freed.


The Greek has a subtle and difficult character [i.e. σπασίκλες, which we remain to this day], not to be recognized in the picture that popular students of the fifth century B.C. like to paint.  The Byzantine complicated this character with the strains of eastern blood in him.  The result was full of paradox.  He was highly practical, with an aptitude for business and a taste for worldly honours; yet he was always ready to renounce the world for a life of monastic contemplation.  He believed fervently in the divine mission of the Empire and the divine authority of the Emperor; yet he was an individualist, quick to rebel against a government that displeased him.  He had a horror of heresy; yet his religion, most mystical of all established forms of Christianity, allowed him, priest and layman alike, great philosophical latitude.  He despised all his neighbours as barbarians; yet he easily adopted their habits and their ideas.  Despite his sophistication and his pride, his nerve was unsteady.  Disaster had so often nearly overwhelmed Byzantium that his confidence in things was sapped.  In a sudden crisis he would panic and would indulge in savagery that in his calmer moments he disdained.  The present might be peaceful and brilliant; but countless prophecies had warned him that some day his City would perish, and he believed them to be true.  Happiness and tranquillity could not be found in this dark transitory world, but only in the kingdom of Heaven.”


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