In the previous post we saw that the modern Russian film about Byzantium, having presented Byzantium’s unique contributions and gifts, wonders how happened and such a great power fell. The answer given in the film is that wrong economical, political and cultural decisions caused the fall. Trade was surrendered to foreign nations, power moved from the central state to individuals, nationalism replaced the ecumenical spirit, Constantinople tended to care only for itself and not for the provinces, birth rate decreased, the educational system followed principles of individuality and did not manage to assimilate the foreigners, Orthodoxy was betrayed in an effort for western aid to be ensured against the invaders of Mohammed, apathy and death-wish spread to the people.
Although a great effort is put by the makers of the film to find as much and reasonable explanations as possible, in the end they are themselves puzzled by a fact: we are not speaking about Alexander’s fireworks or the one-century-long Athenian democracy. We are speaking about a state that lasted more than any other state in human history. How comes and suddenly they made all the wrong decisions that they did not make for so many centuries?
Mistakes were made before, and during the last period not all decisions were wrong. So far as I know the Byzantine history, I don’t find enough evidence to support that Byzantium suddenly got mad and started to prepare its fall. Incompetent emperors existed before, they are not gathered together at the end of the byzantine history; Orthodoxy was ‘betrayed’ even before (and with incomparably greater intensity, e.g. in the iconoclastic epoch); economically Byzantium had serious problems on various occasions even before (e.g. with the loss of North Africa to the Arabs); nationalism appeared already with the entrance of the germanic tribes in Roman history; the byzantine educational system never included theology, i.e., not only in the end, but already from the beginning the Byzantines did not see the assimilation of peoples into the empire as a result of ideological catechesis; etc.
We need caution in order to understand what happened. All the reasons provided by the film (most of them to be found in many history books) participate but are not enough to explain the Fall.
Byzantium existed in the middle of attacks, obliged in a constant defence. The makers of the film of course know this, but they skip it saying that “the empire had experienced all these things before, and had overcome them.” What they fail to understand is that each time Byzantium ‘overcame’ a problem, a serious wound was left in its body. The examples are many, if we want to know them. Justinian managed to regain the western provinces defeating the barbarians, in order to leave Byzantium exhausted and ready to lose the provinces later; resistance against the Persians left Byzantium unable to resist the Arab invasion, etc.
Nowhere in the film is made a remark about this, although it is obvious and has been emphasized many times by many historians, that Byzantium in the course of time was getting almost identical with Constantinople, since provinces were being lost one by one, and even Constantinople to the Crusaders for half a century. However, I can not blame the makers of the film for such mistakes, when I remember that even some Byzantines, foolish men like Pletho, believed that certain political and economical changes would save them against the Ottomans. The emperors tried hard and with sacrifices to get the only feasible help, western help, which, as the directors of the film also note, was never provided.