Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Historical Musings: Byzantine Empire

Popular imagination is an odd thing. Most people in the USA are familiar with the Roman Empire. Even people who paid no attention in history class will know of its existence from movies, and have a vague idea of its culture, power, and place in history. Political commentators often make reference to ancient Rome, usually in the context of its culture, institutions, and values. They often draw parallels between the USA and Rome. It is a common cultural reference point, like Shakespeare and the Bible.

The Byzantine Empire, however, is not nearly as well-known, despite the fact that it was the major cultural, military, and economic power of the early Middle Ages. For hundreds of years after Rome fell, the Byzantines, who called themselves Romans, were a powerful, stable, advanced civilization. And yet, when people think of this era of history, they think of the Dark Ages of Western Europe, with petty kingdoms and Viking raids. I cannot think of any kind of popular entertainment that features the Byzantine Empire. It is almost totally absent from our cultural consciousness, known only to people with a scholarly interest in history.

Americans like to think that they will always be remembered by history, no matter what might happen. We look around and see that we have dominated the last century. We have been the major cultural, military, and economic power of the world. We hope that, even if something happens and our country falls apart, future generations will know and care about us the way we know and care about the Roman Empire.

It is possible, however, that the prize of historical memory will go to the British Empire. They were the ones who started off as a little island nation and went on to rule a quarter of the globe. They were the ones who spread their language, law, and culture all over the world. They were the ones who started modern capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. They were the ones who fought piracy and slavery on a worldwide scale, in a remarkably successful effort to remake the world according to their cultural values. I can easily imagine the British Empire being embedded in the popular culture of a thousand years in the future the way the Roman Empire is in ours, especially if India becomes a world power in the future and has a big effect on that culture.

Compared to the British historical legacy, the century of American power looks rather less impressive. Our biggest achievements were defensive actions against various forms of tyranny, and the continuation of a scientific and economic system that we mainly inherited from the British. Even if we end up being the last outpost of Anglo-American civilization, the way that Byzantium was the last outpost of Roman civilization, that will not guarantee us a place in history.

The USA might share the historical fate of the Byzantine Empire, barely remembered at all in a thousand years, regarded as a mere adjunct to a grand civilization that remade the world. History might remember us as but a dwindling power, an insignificant offshoot of the grand British Empire, that tried to continue the civilization but fell slowly to pieces in a world that grew increasingly chaotic and fragmented. Our very name could be assigned to us by later historians.

If this is depressing, it should not be. The people of Byzantium lived good lives, and their civilization was worth preserving and fighting for. To our modern eyes, they would seem like impoverished savage primitives, but compared to the rest of the people of their world they were the richest and most civilized nation. History is a rather poor judge of what really matters, as I have noted before. If we accept the fact that history might not know or care about anything we do, then it becomes easier to abandon grand ambition and focus on making the lives of individuals as good as possible.


Lou said...

Richard; An excellent piece. I have in the past with various classes, postulated if WE (U.S) will be remembered in a thousand years, and how so. If it's OK, I'd like to make copies of this article, and give out to my Honors W. History class as a writing prompt. Dad

Alleged Wisdom said...

Feel free to use this, or anything else on here. Let me know how their writing turns out.