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Byzantinism, or Byzantism, is the political system and culture of the Byzantine Empire, and its spiritual successors, in particular, the Orthodox Christian Balkan countries (Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia) and Orthodox countries in Eastern Europe (Belarus, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine). [1] [2] The term byzantinism itself was coined in the 19th century. [3] The term has primarily negative associations, implying complexity and autocracy.

Byzantine Empire Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

The Byzantine Empire, also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium, was the continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople. It survived the fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD and continued to exist for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During most of its existence, the empire was the most powerful economic, cultural and military force in Europe. "Byzantine Empire" is a term created after the end of the realm; its citizens continued to refer to their empire simply as the Roman Empire, or Romania (Ῥωμανία), and to themselves as "Romans".

Bulgaria country in Southeast Europe

Bulgaria, officially the Republic of Bulgaria, is a country in Southeast Europe. It is bordered by Romania to the north, Serbia and North Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south, and the Black Sea to the east. The capital and largest city is Sofia; other major cities are Plovdiv, Varna and Burgas. With a territory of 110,994 square kilometres (42,855 sq mi), Bulgaria is Europe's 16th-largest country.

Greece republic in Southeast Europe

Greece, officially the Hellenic Republic, also known as Hellas, is a sovereign state located in Southern and Southeast Europe. Its population is approximately 10.7 million as of 2018; Athens is the nation's capital and largest city, followed by Thessaloniki.


This negative reputation stressed the confusing complexities of the Empire's ministries and the elaborateness of its court ceremonies. Likewise, the "Byzantine system" also suggests a penchant for intrigue, plots and assassinations and an overall unstable political state of affairs. The term has been criticized by modern scholars for being a generalization that is not very representative of the reality of the Byzantine aristocracy and bureaucracy. [4] [5]

A generalization is the formulation of general concepts from specific instances by abstracting common properties. Generalizations posit the existence of a domain or set of elements, as well as one or more common characteristics shared by those elements. As such, they are the essential basis of all valid deductive inferences. The process of verification is necessary to determine whether a generalization holds true for any given situation.

Aristocracy and bureaucracy

The Byzantine Empire is a modern term applied by Westerners to the Eastern Roman Empire (that survived a thousand years after the western one collapsed in 476) and thus had a complex system of aristocracy and bureaucracy which was derived from earlier Roman systems. At the apex of the pyramid stood the Emperor, sole ruler and divinely ordained, and beneath him a multitude of officials and court functionaries operated the administrative machinery of the state. A key component of state power was the prestige of the Imperial institution and its long antiquity. Ceremony and the granting of both honorific titles and valuable offices was therefore extensive and elaborate.

Aristocracy is a form of government that places strength in the hands of a small, privileged ruling class. The term derives from the Greek aristokratia, meaning 'rule of the best'.

Bureaucracy refers to both a body of non-elected government officials and an administrative policy-making group. Historically, a bureaucracy was a government administration managed by departments staffed with non-elected officials. Today, bureaucracy is the administrative system governing any large institution, whether publicly owned or privately owned. The public administration in many countries is an example of a bureaucracy, but so is the centralized hierarchical structure of a business firm.

Roman Empire Period of Imperial Rome following the Roman Republic (27 BC–476 AD)

The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of ancient Rome, consisting of large territorial holdings around the Mediterranean sea in Europe, North Africa and West Asia ruled by emperors. From the accession of Caesar Augustus to the military anarchy of the third century, it was a principate with Italy as metropole of the provinces and its city of Rome as sole capital. The Roman Empire was then ruled by multiple emperors and divided into a Western Roman Empire, based in Milan and later Ravenna, and an Eastern Roman Empire, based in Nicomedia and later Constantinople. Rome remained the nominal capital of both parts until 476 AD, when it sent the imperial insignia to Constantinople following the capture of Ravenna by the barbarians of Odoacer and the subsequent deposition of Romulus Augustus. The fall of the Western Roman Empire to Germanic kings, along with the hellenization of the Eastern Roman Empire into the Byzantine Empire, is conventionally used to mark the end of Ancient Rome and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

Over the nearly fifteen hundred years of the empire's existence, different titles were adopted and discarded, and many lost or gained prestige. By the time of Heraclius in the 7th century many of the early Roman titles, grounded in the Latin language and the traditions of the old Roman republic had become obsolete in the now mostly Greek-speaking empire, although Latin survived longer in law and in the military. Heraclius formally changed the official language to Greek from Latin in 620. Titles inspired by their Greek tradition, often only rough approximation of Latin concepts, became common (i.e. "basileus" [βασιλεύς] instead of "caesar" or "augustus" for the title of the emperor himself). Other titles changed meaning (for example, "Patriarch") or were devalued with time (such as "consul").

Heraclius Byzantine Emperor 610–641

Heraclius was the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 610 to 641. His rise to power began in 608, when he and his father, Heraclius the Elder, the exarch of Africa, led a revolt against the unpopular usurper Phocas.

Among important qualities of the Empire was also the caesaropapism, the subjugation of church to the state. [6]

Caesaropapism social order combining the power of secular government with the religious power

Caesaropapism is the idea of combining the power of secular government with the religious power, or of making secular authority superior to the spiritual authority of the Church; especially concerning the connection of the Church with government. Justus Henning Böhmer (1674–1749) may have originally coined the term caesaropapism (Cäseropapismus). Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote: "a secular, caesaropapist ruler... exercises supreme authority in ecclesiastic matters by virtue of his autonomous legitimacy". According to Weber's political sociology, caesaropapism entails "the complete subordination of priests to secular power."


The Byzantine Empire acquired a negative reputation in the Western world as early as the Middle Ages. [4] [7] The creation of the Holy Roman Empire by Charlemagne in the 9th century and the East–West Schism in the 11th century made the Empire an outcast to the Western European countries following the Roman Church, and the siege and sack of Constantinopole during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 only cemented those differences. [7] Hence the European medieval stereotypes of the people of the Byzantine Empire portrayed them as perfidious, treacherous, servile, effeminate and unwarlike. [7]

Western world Countries that identify themselves with an originally European shared culture

The Western world, also known as the West, refers to various regions, nations and states, depending on the context, most often including at least parts of Europe, Australasia, and the Americas. There are many accepted definitions, all closely interrelated. The Western world is also known as the Occident, in contrast to the Orient, or Eastern world. It is often correlated with the Northern half of the North-south divide.

Middle Ages Period of European history from the 5th to the 15th century

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

Holy Roman Empire Complex of territories in Europe from 962 to 1806

The Holy Roman Empire was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in Western and Central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. The largest territory of the empire after 962 was the Kingdom of Germany, though it also included the neighboring Kingdom of Bohemia and Kingdom of Italy, plus numerous other territories, and soon after the Kingdom of Burgundy was added. Its size gradually diminished over time, particularly from 1648 onward, and by the time of its dissolution, it largely contained only German-speaking territories, plus the Kingdom of Bohemia which was bordered by the German lands on three sides.

Medievalist Steven Runciman described the medieval European view of the Byzantine Empire by saying:

Ever since our rough crusading forefathers first saw Constantinople and met, to their contemptuous disgust, a society where everyone read and wrote, ate food with forks and preferred diplomacy to war, it has been fashionable to pass the Byzantines by with scorn and to use their name as synonymous with decadence.

Steven Runciman, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign: A Study of Tenth-Century Byzantium, 1988 [8]

Criticism of the Empire continued among historians of the 18th century and 19th century, particularly in the works of historians and philosophers influenced by The Enlightenment. [4] Edward Gibbon, Hegel, Johann Gottfried Herder, William Lecky, Montesquieu, and Voltaire were among the many Western writers of that period who were critical of the Byzantine system. [3] [9]

Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been no other enduring civilization so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet "mean" may be so emphatically applied ... The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude.

William Lecky, A history of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne 2 vols. (London 1869) II, 13f. [10]

Its [Byzantium's] general aspect presents a disgusting picture of imbecility: wretched, nay, insane passions, stifles the growth of all that is noble in thoughts, deeds, and persons. Rebellion on the part of generals, depositions of the Emperors by means or through the intrigues of the courtiers, assassinations or poisoning of the Emperors by their own wives and sons, women surrendering themselves to lusts and abominations of all kinds.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History [11]

Edward Gibbon, the first English historian to write a full history of the Byzantine Empire in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1789), was a sharp critic of the Empire. [12] Jacob Burckhardt, an influential 19th-century historian shared Gibbon's view:

At its summit was despotism, infinitely strengthened by the union of churchly and secular dominion; in the place of morality it imposed orthodoxy; in the place of unbridled and demoralized expression of the natural instincts, hypocrisy and pretense; in the face of despotism there was developed greed masquerading as poverty, and deep cunning; in religious art and literature there was an incredible stubbornness in the constant repetition of obsolete motifs.

Jacob Burckhardt, The age of Constantine the Great [13]

Critics pointed out that the Byzantine Empire and its successors were uninfluenced by such major shifts in Western philosophy as the Investiture Controversy, the Reformation and the Renaissance; [6] and reduced the Byzantine political culture to caesaropapism and authoritarian political culture, described as authoritarian, despotic, and imperialistic. [12] [13]

After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, critics of the Byzantine system pointed out that it has survived and "corrupted" other states, in particular, it has been used in the discourse of the political system, culture and society of the Russia (from the times of the Grand Duchy of Moscow through the tsardom of Russia to the Russian Empire – see also tsarist autocracy), [2] [14] the Soviet Union, [15] the Ottoman Empire [16] and the Balkan states (the former European provinces of the Ottoman Empire). [1] [6] [17]

Modern historians point out that this negative reputation is not necessarily true, and at the very least, a very simplistic generalization. [4] [5] As a constructed term, Byzantinism also shares those fallacies with a closely related term, Balkanism. [18] Angelov sums it up as follows:

Byzantinism begins from simple stereotypes, passes through reductionism and essentialization, and then proceeds to impute Byzantium's supposed essence onto modern Balkans or Russia as the burden of history. ... As a discourse of "otherness", Byzantinism evolves from, and reflects upon, the West's worst dreams and nightmares about its own self.

Dimiter G. Angelov, Byzantinism: The Imaginary and Real Heritage of Byzantium in Southeastern Europe [19]


While the Byzantine Empire was commonly seen in a negative fashion, there were exceptions. Byzantium was rehabilitated in France during the Age of Absolutism, from the 17th century to the French Revolution, in the works of such individuals as the Jesuit Pierre Poussines. [3]

As the Enlightenment swept Western Europe, French traditions found refuge in the Russian Empire. The term Byzantinism was used in a positive context by 19th-century Russian scholar Konstantin Leontiev in Byzantism and Slavdom (1875) to describe the type of society which Russian Empire needs to counter the degenerating influence of the West. [14] [20] Leontiev praised the Byzantine Empire and the tsarist autocracy, and a society and political system that comprises authoritative power of the monarch, devout following of the Russian Orthodox Church, the maintenance of obshchina for peasants, and sharp class division; he also criticized universal education and democracy. [20] [21] [22]

When we mentally picture Byzantinism we see before us as if... the austere, clear plan of a spacious and capacious structure. We know, for example, that in politics it means autocracy. In religion, it means Christianity with distinct features, which distinguish it from Western churches, from heresies and schisms. In the area of ethics we know that the Byzantine ideal does not have that elevated and in many instances highly exaggerated notion of terrestrial human individual introduced into history by German feudalism. We know the inclination of the Byzantine ethical ideal to be disappointed in all that is of this world, in happiness, in the constancy of our own purity, in our capacity here, below, to attain complete moral perfection. We know that Byzantinism (as Christianity in general) rejects all hope of the universal well-being of nations; it is the strongest antithesis of the idea of well-being of nations; it is the strongest antithesis of the idea of humanity in the sense of universal worldly equality, universal worldly freedom, universal worldly perfectibility, and universal contentment.

Konstantin Leontiev, Byzantism and Slavdom (1875)

In Russian political discourse, Russia is sometimes affectionately called Third Rome , the second Rome being the Eastern Roman Empire, which outlived its western counterpart at Rome itself, the first Rome, by a thousand years. [23] [24]

In his article, "Was There Ever Byzantinism?" Alexander Mirkovic argued that many Western authors have created an imagined picture of Byzantium as a projection of their own anxieties. [25]

Modern discourse

In a modern context it can be used to denote undemocratic practices and the use of violence in political life; it has been often used in the context of South-Eastern European (Balkan) politics. [6] [26] The "baggage" of Byzantine tradition is used to explain the delays in developing democratic institutions, the preference for the strong, even autocratic governments, people's distrust of businessmen and elected politicians, and overall, to explain the difference between the West and South-East and Eastern Europe. [6] The word "Byzantinism" and related, like "Byzantine", have acquired negative connotations in several West European languages, including the English language. [2] [6]

See also

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  1. 1 2 Dimiter G. Angelov, Byzantinism: The Imaginary and Real Heritage of Byzantium in Southeastern Europe, in Dimitris Keridis, Ellen Elias-Bursać, Nicholas Yatromanolakis, New approaches to Balkan studies, Brassey's, 2003, ISBN   1-57488-724-6, Google Print, p.3
  2. 1 2 3 Angelov 2003, p.11
  3. 1 2 3 Angelov 2003, p.8
  4. 1 2 3 4 Angelov 2003, p.6
  5. 1 2 Angelov 2003, pp.17–18
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Angelov 2003, pp.4–5
  7. 1 2 3 Angelov 2003, p.6
  8. Steven Runciman, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign: A Study of Tenth-Century Byzantium, Cambridge University Press, 1988, ISBN   0-521-35722-5, Google Print, p.9
  9. Cyril Mango, The Oxford history of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN   0-19-814098-3, Google Print, p.v
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  12. 1 2 Angelov 2003, p.9
  13. 1 2 Angelov 2003, p.10
  14. 1 2 Angelov 2003, p.12
  15. Angelov 2003, p.13
  16. Angelov 2003, p.18
  17. Angelov 2003, pp.12–13
  18. Angelov 2003, pp.6–7
  19. Angelov 2003, pp.13–14
  20. 1 2 Richard Pipes, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture, Yale University Press, 2007, ISBN   0-300-12269-1, Google Print, pp.148–149
  21. K. A. Lantz, The Dostoevsky encyclopedia, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004 ISBN   0-313-30384-3, Google Print, p.235
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  24. Evgeny Pavlov, The new Third Rome? Moscow in the Russian culture of the 1990s Archived 2009-01-06 at the Wayback Machine
  25. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2018-01-08. Retrieved 2013-02-17.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  26. Cathie Carmichael, Ethnic Cleansing in the Balkans: Nationalism and the Destruction of Tradition, Routledge, 2002, ISBN   0-415-27416-8, Google Print, p.100