Byzantine Empire-Or Republic?

By Mitchell, Brian Patrick | The American Conservative, July-August 2015 | Go to article overview

Byzantine Empire-Or Republic?


Mitchell, Brian Patrick, The American Conservative


The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome, Anthony Kaldellis, Harvard University Press, 312 pages

The textbooks say the Byzantine Empire was a theocratic autocracy uniting church and state under an all-powerful emperor believed by the Byzantines to be God's viceroy and vicar. Nonsense, says Anthony Kaldellis, professor of classics at Ohio State University. The Byzantine Empire was a continuation of the Roman Empire and even of the Roman Republic. Its political ideology was fundamentally secular and grounded in the ancient Roman republican belief that government exists to serve the common good. Its people no longer had a legal role in the election of leaders or legislators, but they often played an extralegal role in the making and unmaking of emperors, whose legitimacy depended on popularity and not on a claim of divine right or constitutional correctness. Emperors therefore ruled pragmatically and not fanatically, often disappointing the Church to please the people.

This is fresh air for Orthodox Christians, who have had to bear the accusation of Byzantine theocracy longer than Western Christians have had to bear the accusations of the Crusades and the Inquisition. But Kaldellis's The Byzantine Republic also provides useful criticism of modern Western political thinking, as well as portentous, if inadvertent, insight into progressive democratic thinking and where it will take us.

His book is a frankly revisionist attack on the field of Byzantine studies, which has perpetuated age-old Western prejudices at odds with the historical record. Kaldellis takes aim mostly at academics of the 1930s and their imitators, but the roots of prejudice go back much further to the anti-Orthodox propaganda of the Middle Ages. The Orthodox Byzantines refused to recognize the supremacy of the Pope of Rome over all things sacred and secular, and they allowed their emperor far more authority over the Church than papal partisans could countenance. Later, during the Enlightenment, as the West moved to exclude religion from politics, the Byzantines were held up as the prime example of "caesaropapism" under the mistaken belief that the Byzantine emperor ruled as both king and pope, with no separation of church and state.

As Western political thought evolved, more faults were found in the Byzantine model. The empire lacked a written constitution with enumerated rights, separation of powers, democratic procedures, or any other explicit limits on the authority of the emperor, who seemed to rule by divine right as an absolute monarch. By then, the empire had ceased to exist, so Westerners with no knowledge of Greek or access to the relevant documents had no way of checking the historical reality against the disparaging claims of Edward Gibbon and others, for whom the Byzantines served as a convenient starting point for the Whig writing of history--the primeval nightmare of superstitious despotism out of which the Western world awoke and arose.

Some kinder 20th-century scholars have offered modest corrections to the conventional narrative, denying the accusation of caesaropapism and celebrating Byzantine art and culture, but no one has gone as far as Kaldellis in asserting the secular basis of Byzantine politics or in demonstrating the blindness of Western historians who only understand politics according to Enlightenment categories of thought.

Reading Roman history, but not rightly, early modern Western political theorists divided governments into two basic categories, monarchies and republics, defining the latter as self-governing polities without a monarch and understanding the former as either absolute or constitutional. As Kaldellis explains, the ancient Greeks and Romans saw things differently. Their two basic categories were kingdoms and commonwealths. A kingdom, in their experience, was the possession of a king ruled by his might for his own satisfaction. A commonwealth--res publica in Latin, politeia in Greek--was an independent polity variously governed but administered for the good of all. …

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