Natalie Bennett is a writer and journalist, founder of the Carnival of Feminists, books editor on Blogcritics. org, and a Green Party member. Here follow select excerpts from her presentation of Judith Herrin’s, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. If you are familiar with Byzantine history you won’t learn anything new (note that Hesychast theology is presented erroneously; I don’t know if Herrin or Natalie is responsible for that distortion), but you will have the chance to know the way a feminist approaches this history:
I’ve always had a soft spot for Byzantium, because it has such a wonderful range of powerful interesting women, as I found some 15 years ago when I last studied the subject of its history, although the course I took then resembles some of the texts Herrin describes without approval, as being little more than a long list of emperors and battles. Her Byzantium, while broadly chronological, isn’t arranged like that, but rather list of themes and stories, which overall present a very satisfying overview.
If you’re thinking of Byzantium, then you can only think of the Hagia Sophia, and Herrin provides a reminder that it was not some late flowering of the ancient world, but the energetic burst of something new, and behind it once again was a strong woman – not (just) Justinian’s famous and much maligned empress Theodora, but a wealthy senatorial lady, Juliana Anicia, who had just built a grand church, St Polyeuktos’s, on her own property. But it was Theodora to whom more credit was due, for it was just before the great church was begun that she, ancient accounts seem to agree, stiffened Justinian’s backbone when he was about to flee before a mob riot that conveniently cleared a large tranche of the centre of Constantinople.
It supports, with its very great weight and power, Herrin’s thesis, that Byzantium boasted “a rich ecology of traditions and resources” – it didn’t just passively preserve ancient traditions, as Gibbon claimed, just waiting for the West to be ready to receive them again, but rather creatively and constructively engaged with and developed them:
It bequeathed to the world an imperial system of government built upon a trained, civilian, administration and tax system; a legal structure based on Roman law; a unique curriculum of secular education that preserved much of pagan, classical learning; orthodox theology, artistic expression and spiritual traditions enshrined in the Green church; and coronation and court rituals that had many imitators.”
And when the doomed Constantine XI in 1453 made his final desperate call to the last remnant of the empire, its capital, to resist the Ottoman Turks, he called out in Greek to his people to prove themselves true Romans – to emphasising the continuity of 1,323 years of Constantinople’s history, and much further back. But long before that, Herrin argues, Byzantium’s ability to withstand, albeit eventually in much reduced form, the shock of the Arab onslaught as the tribes burst out of Arabia, in the eighth century that protected a then ill-prepared West, which would otherwise have been overwhelmed.