The Byzantine Greeks' Heritage from the Hellenic Greeks
'A people's prospects are affected by its image of its past' - Arnold Toynbee presents an exclusive extract from his book on the Greek sense of the past, The Greeks and Their Heritages.
'The Modern Greeks have had both a Byzantine and an Hellenic past to digest and the Byzantine and Hellenic attitudes to life are not only different to each other; they are antithetical to each other.... I have watched them gradually gaining ground in their struggle to master their heritages by digesting them and transcending them.'
The Hellenic Greeks' legacy to the Byzantine Greeks was potent and massive. In the course of the three centuries (AD 284-602) of cultural overlap, during which the Hellenic civilization was not yet extinct, while the Byzantine civilization was already in being, the Byzantines rejected a number of key elements in Hellenism. City-states had. already become incapable of serving even as non-sovereign municipal organs of local self-government. The Byzantine Greeks rejected the city-states' pre-Christian religion, the outward-facing rectilinear architecture of the Hellenic temples in which the rites of this religion had been performed, the naturalistic representation of the human form in monumental sculpture (bas-reliefs, as well as statues), and Hellenic philosophy. These rejected elements of Hellenism were of its very essence, and it might have been thought that so radical a cultural revolution would have enabled the Byzantine Greeks to jump clear of their Hellenic past. However, the Byzantines' repudiation of their Hellenic heritage, though sweeping, was not complete. The Byzantines failed to make a break with some of the neturalistic post-Alexandrine Hellenic minor arts, and they were haunted by two major bequests from Hellenism, the Hellenic paideia and the Roman Empire (a political dispensation which was the antithesis of city-states and was the nemesis of the Hellenic city-states' failure to give the Hellenic World peace, unity, and order). The paideia and the Imperial régime dominated Byzantine Greek life, and their dominance was one of the causes of the Byzantine Greek civilization's breakdown and disintegration.
In the Byzantine Greek World, there were still some city-states to be found, and some of these – for instance, Kherson (the Hellenic Khersonesos) in the Crimea and Neapolis (Naples) in southern Italy – were survivals from the Hellenic age of Greek history. Others, however – for instance, Amalfi on the Sorrento Peninsula, Ragusa, originally just off, and later just on, the coast of Dalmatia, and Venice in her lagoon – were settlements of refugees who had fled from their former homes during the age of anarchy and Völkerwanderung (circa AD 378-678). The constitutions of these Byzantine city-states differed, de facto , from those of the former municipal city-states of the Roman Empire, and still more from those of the previous sovereign Hellenic Greek city-states. The local bishop now usually played an important part in the civil administration, and in the Byzantine city-states in Italy and Dalmatia the principal lay officers had originally been imperial officials and retained this status in theory long after they had become, in practice, representatives of the local population. Moreover, there were only fourteen Byzantine city-states in all, including the nine on and off the Dalmatian coast, and all of them were on the fringes of a Byzantine Greek World whose heartland was Asia Minor with a European ferry-terminal at Constantinople. This heart-land was held by a resuscitated Roman Imperial Government, with Constantinople 'the New Rome' – as its capital. Compared with the territories under the East Roman Imperial Government's direct administration, the autonomous outlying city-states were insignificant so long as the East Roman Empire flourished. The Empire's slow decline and long-delayed fall opened the way for Venice – and for Ragusa, too, on a smaller scale – to become sovereign city-states, and for Naples to become eventually the capital of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies.
The Byzantine Greeks' repudiation of the Hellenic city-states' religion was an ever. greater formal break with the Hellenic past than the liquidation of the city-states themselves. This religious revolution was symbolised in a change in the connotation of a famous name. For Greeks of the Hellenic Age, the name 'Hellenes' signified 'civilized men' in contrast to 'barbarians', for Greeks of the Byzantine Age, the name signified 'pagans' in contrast to 'Christians'. In other words the name 'Hellenes' meant, for the Byzantine Greeks, no longer 'insiders' but 'outsiders'; and these deplorable Greek-speaking recalcitrants, whose survival had been a reproach to Christian Greek civilization, had become extinct when their last representatives, the Maniots, had been converted to Christianity in the reign of the Emperor Basil I (867-86).
This reversal of the connotation of the name 'Hellenes' was dramatic, but the actual break in the continuity of the Greeks' religious life was not so great as this terminological revolution suggests. The break was on the surface; it did not extend to the subsoil. The popular religion remained what it had been since the Neolithic Age. A genius loci who had been honoured in the Hellenic Age as a hero or as a tutelary goddess was now honoured as a saint or as 'the All Holy Mother of God' ('The Panayia', 'the Theotokos'). The religious revolution at the official level passed over the peasants' heads, and most Greeks were still peasants till within living memory.
The reversal of the fortunes of Hellenism and Christianity was abrupt, because it could be, and was, brought about by acts of autocratic Roman Emperors. Constantine I and Licinius lifted the ban on Christianity in AD 313; Theodosius I imposed a ban on all non-Christian religions, except Judaism and the kindred religion of the Samaritans, in AD 380-92. The corresponding revolution in the architectural form of the Greek World's places of public worship was, by its nature, a change that could not be produced instantaneously by Imperial decrees; inevitably it was a gradual process.
This architectural revolution had two aspects: in being transformed into a Christian church, the Hellenic temple, like the word 'Hellenic' itself, was turned inside-out, and its rectilinear lines were dissolved into curves. Visually, the second of these two revolutionary changes is the more striking; psychologically, the first is the more significant.
The transfer of attention from the building's exterior to its interior was not only first in importance; it also came first chronologically. The Hellenic temple had been designed to please, not the god or goddess to whom it was dedicated, but the human public. The divinity's statue was housed – or immured – in lonely darkness within walls whose inner faces were not relieved either by windows or by decorations. The decorations were placed on the temple's outer faces, in the sunlight, for the delectation of the public. In the ensuing architectural revolution the contrast between the building's two faces was maintained, but their treatment was now reversed. This happened when the temple's lay-out was taken over for designing secular buildings in which the interior was to be used, not for housing the statue of a divinity, but by human beings.
Human users needed the comforts, namely sunlight and decorations, which had been unnecessary for a statue – however holy, and however great a work of art, this inanimate representation of the divinity might have been. Therefore, when the temple's layout was adapted for designing a basilica,' in which ceremonial, judicial, administrative, and other public business was to be transacted indoors, the basilica, unlike the temple, had to have window. These might either be pierced in the walls or be provided by a clerestorey. The second alternative would require the replacement of the temple's traditional unitary gable roof by a roof in three sections, with the middle section elevated, in the clerestorey, to a higher level than the other two. For supporting the clerestorey and its roof, it was convenient to transfer to the interior the rows of columns that had previously been set along the long sides of the temple's outer face. Besides being useful for the architect, this transfer was agreeable for the human users of the basilica, since the columns were major elements in the decoration of the building.
For the same reason, all the other decorations were now transferred from the exterior to the interior. They would be visible and enjoyable there, now that the interior was lighted by windows. The exterior could be stripped of its decorations, in order to embellish the interior with these, without any aesthetic loss for the human users. These, unlike statues, had sensibilities that required consideration. So long as the building had been a temple into which there was no admittance except, periodically, for a few priests, the public ordained its aesthetic satisfaction from the building by standing, or strolling round, outside it and enjoying its decorated exterior. Now that the interior of the building had become a place for the transaction of human business, no one would any longer wish to linger, gazing, outside; everyone would wish to enter promptly in order to get his business, inside the building, done. The exterior would not now receive more than a passing glance, so the architect could afford to leave it unadorned.
The rectilinearity of a basilica might be broken by apses, since an internal recess would be a convenient location for a public officer who was giving audience or was passing judgement in public. The public could then fill the main body of the hall. An apse would have to be roofed by a semi-dome, and this would break the rectilinearity of the roof as well. The way was now open for the development of the secular pre-Christian basilica into the Byzantine Christian church, in which the secular officer, transacting business with the public, would be replaced by a priest, officiating in partnership with a congregation.
In the architecture of the church, a square replaced the basilica's oblong ground-plan. This square was roofed by a circular dome, and the walls bulged out into apses roofed by semi-domes. These led the eye up, by stages, to the crown of the central dome. The Hellenic rectilinear gable-roofed oblong temple had thus been transformed into a non-rectilinear hollow pyramid. The roofing of a Byzantine church is pyramidal in its general effect; but, instead of mounting from its base to its apex in smooth surfaces meeting each other at sharp angles, the Byzantine church's roofing mounts in a crescendo of billowing curves. The optical effect is wave-like, and, to a modern observer, it feels like a piece of symphonic 'classical' Western music translated into visual form.
The Byzantine architects never carried their transformation of the Hellenic temple to its logical conclusion. This would have been a dome-roofed round building on the plan that, in the Pantheon at Rome, had been executed in concrete at an early date in the second century of the Christian Era.' The Byzantines did not take up the Roman invention of concrete, and therefore, with a single famous exception, they did not build on the gigantic scale of the Baths of Caracalla and of Diocletian at Rome. The exception is, of course, the Church of the Ayia Sophia at Constantinople (532-7). The architects achieved their tour de force of building on this scale without using concrete by countering the outward thrust of the huge non-monolithic dome with massive buttresses, and by making the dome, at the first essay, of such light materials that it had to be replaced (558-62).
The sixth-century Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus at Constantinople ('the Little Ayia Sophia') is a variation on the plan of the Great Ayia Sophia, executed on a miniature scale, but the normal scale of later Byzantine churches is still smaller. The eleventh-century churches of the Kapnikarea and the Saints Theodore at Athens are more characteristic, in both their scale and their style. The still tinier Old Metropolitan Church at Athens, whatever its date, conveys the quintessence of the Byzantine ecclesiastical architects' spirit.
The abandonment of monumental sculpture was, no doubt, partly a consequence of impoverishment. Statues of Emperors and even of popular racing charioteers continued to be made until the Empire's economic collapse in the East in and after AD 602. But, though statues of human beings were still tolerated till then, statuary was too intimately associated with Hellenism, and Hellenism with paganism, to be looked upon with favour by the Christian ecclesiastical authorities. Moreover, when Hellenic temples were replaced by Christian churches, there was no longer a place for the statue of the divinity to whom a temple was dedicated. The statue had been the focal point of a temple's interior; the focal point of a church's interior was the place at which the rite of the Eucharist was performed. There was no room in a church for a rival centre of attraction in the form of a dominating statue. Nor could the Christian Trinity-in-Unity or the duality-in-unity of the person of Christ have been represented acceptably in the round. Christians fell out with each other in trying to convey these theological paradoxes even in the supple medium of the vocabulary of Hellenic Greek philosophy. In the use of art in the service of Christianity, the Byzantines eschewed sculpture in the round, and bas-relief too. They compensated for this renunciation by decorating the inner walls of their churches two-dimensionally with mosaics and paintings.
Even the flat representation of human forms is a breach of a Jewish tabu which the Christian Church has never avowedly repudiated; and when it has failed, as it has at most times and places, to observe the second of the Mosaic Ten Commandments, the Church has hiad periodic misgivings about its laxity on this important point. These misgivings have produced occasional outbursts of iconoclasm. There has been the Protestant outburst in Western Christendom in and after the sixteenth century; and this was anticipated by an outburst in the eighth century which was let loose by an East Roman Emperor, Leo III (717-41).
The conflict in the East Roman Empire over eikons went on from 726 to 843. During these 117 years, except for the twenty-six years 787-813, the iconoclasts were in power in the Empire, and they enforced their veto on images in that part of Eastern Orthodox Christendom (and it was the greater part) over which the East Roman Imperial Government's authority was effective in the eighth and ninth centuries. In 843 the conflict was ended by a compromise in which the champions of images got the best of the bargain. Two-dimensional images were reinstated, and it was agreed that the devotion paid to them was not to be condemned as idolatrous. The images, so their champions claimed, were not being worshipped in themselves; they were being venerated as visual symbols of the divine or saintly persons whom they depicted.
This decision, which has never been called in question, demonstrated that the East Roman Imperial government's autocratic power was not so potent as public feeling. A majority of the Eastern Orthodox Christian public was deeply attached to the cult of images, and its devotion to them had not been weakened by two bouts of repression which, between them, ran to ninety-one years. In the end the iconoclastic-minded minority was compelled to recognize that, in spite of having had the Imperial Government on its side, it must acquiesce in a compromise that was a thinly disguised defeat. The settlement of AD 843 ensured that the two-dimensional representation of human form should be countenanced in Eastern Orthodox Christendom. The veneration of eikons , both publicly in church and privately in the home, had been vindicated.
To judge by such evidence as we have for the style of the Hellenic art of painting, the Byzantine and the Hellenic treatments of the human figure were worlds apart. Their difference in style reflected a difference of spirit and aim. Hellenic pictures, like Hellenic bas-reliefs and statues and busts, were attempts to give a naturalistic portrayal of the human body, on the assumption that this was the best, and indeed the only possible, way of revealing human nature. On the other hand, Byzantine eikons were attempts to adumbrate in visual form the invisible soul, on the assumption that the soul is Man's essence; and Byzantine painters and mosaicists did not hesitate to abandon naturalism if, by misrepresenting bodily appearances, they could succeed in conveying spiritual realities that a naturalistic treatment of the body would have failed to express.
I have elsewhere suggested that the Early Hellenic decorators of Protogeometric vases broke with the Minoan style of Mycenaean naturalism deliberately, and that their successors in the age of mature Geometric art were also acting deliberately when they 'geometricized' the figures of human beings and horses that they admitted into their subtly worked out abstract patterns. These are only guesses. But, in the apparently parallel case of the non-naturalistic style of the Byzantine eikons , we have positive evidence that their departure from naturalism was not the involuntary consequence of a loss of mastery of the technique of painting or mosaicmaking in the naturalistic Hellenic style. There are surviving specimens of the Byzantines' continuing use of this Hellenic style, side by side with their own non-naturalistic style, the Hellenic style was used by the Byzaatines mainly for the trivial decoration of secular buildings; but they also used it, on occasion, for treating solemn religious themes. Moreover, their missionaries carried this Hellenic style, as well as the Byzantine style, to the regions beyond the East Roman Empire's frontiers that they converted. Examples of works in this Hellenic style survive in Russia and Serbia.
Thus, in the field of painting and mosaic-making, the Byzantines' attitude towards their heritage from Hellenism was equivocal; and so was their attitude towards Hellenic philosophy. Christian theology had been elaborated in terms of Hellenic philosophy. The Greek texts – and these are the original texts – of the Christian Church's creeds are composed in the Hellenic philosophy's vocabulary, and the value of Hellenic philosophy's service to Christianity was always recognized even by the strictest guardians of Eastern Christian Orthodoxy. Moreover, Christian Greeks preserved, by the laborious copying of manuscripts, the writings of those Hellenic philosophers who happened to have written in a form of Attic Greek that had passed the censorship of the Atticizing purists of the Augustan Age. They also preserved even Aristotle's unpolished lecture notes. Yet, in the Byzantine Age, to study Plato's works for their content, and not just for their style, was usually a dangerous adventure. The institutes of philosophy at Athens were closed by the Emperor Justinian I in AD 529. Seven philosophers who were unwilling to become apostates from Hellenism to Christianity had to find asylum in the Persian Empire; and they were able to return home, without having to choose between conversion and penalization, only because the Persian Emperor exacted from Justinian a special amnesty for them.' These were the last Greek students of Hellenic philosophy who were able to follow their bent with impunity. Photios in the ninth century, Michael Psellos and John Italos in the eleventh century, and Yemistos Plethon in the fifteenth century, each in turn got into trouble on this account. Italos and Plethon asked for trouble; Photios and Psell6s did not; they tried to be discreet, but this did not save them. They were suspected of having secretly relapsed into the pre-Christian paganism that Plethon afterwards professed openly and aggressively.
The two important elements in the legacy of Hellenism that the Byzantines failed to shake off were the Hellenic paideia and the Roman Imperial régime. In the latter part of the sixth century, the monks succeeded in putting the paideia out of action temporarily, but it was resuscitated in the ninth century. In the Eastern Orthodox Church's eyes the Hellenic paideia was innocuous, because all that it inculcated was an adulation of literary form. It had deliberately divorced form from content, and it did not take the content seriously; it did not regard this as having an intrinsic value of its own. As for the Roman Imperial regime, the Hellenes had begun by resenting and resisting its imposition but had ended by recognizing retrospectively that it had given the Hellenic civilization an unexpected and perhaps undeserved new lease of life. After that, the Hellenes had identified themselves with the Roman Empire and had appropriated it. The Greeks' captivation of their Roman conquerors was completed when they took to calling themselves Romans (Rhomaioi) instead of Hellenes. Now that the word 'Hellenes' had come to signify 'pre-Christian Greeks', the Christian Greeks needed a new appellation for themselves, and in 'Rhomaioi' they found the word that they were seeking. In Byzantine Greek parlance, 'Rhomaioi' came to mean, not Latin-speaking Romans, but 'Greeks who were Eastern Orthodox Christians', in contrast to outsiders, extinct and extant. The extinct outsiders were the Hellenes; the extant outsiders were the inextinguishable barbarians beyond the East Roman Empire's frontiers, and, in Byzantine Greek eyes, these now included Old Rome's barbarized and non-Greek-speaking inhabitants.
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