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4.0 out of 5 stars The little known story of Byzantium's queer, schizophrenic relationship to the emerging nations of southern and eastern Europe, 23 Jun 2014
Manzikert (Moselland, Germany) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (History of civilisation) (Paperback)
The book was written over forty years ago and is a rare study of Byzantium told largely from the perspective of its very conflicting and schizophrenic realtionship to its central, southern and east European neighbours. It's an epic story spanning ten centuries of a largely forgotten, but still hugely important chapter of Byzantine and European history, virtually unknown in western Europe where Byzantium studies have only recently become popular. In many ways, the book explains why there remains to this day a cultural and religious split between the largely orthodox/cyrillic slavic nations and the catholic/western oriented countries of eastern Europe with profound geopolitical implications for Europe in the present, not least in the current crisis in the Ukraine.

The emerging slavic peoples who invaded and then settled the Balkans between the Adraitic and the Russian steppes in the 4th-6th centuries were seen by the major regional power of the time, Byzantium, as both a threat and an opportunity; Byzantium was confronted with the growing challenge and threat of Islam on its eastern frontier and was also increasingly suspicious and disdainful of the growing ambitions of the western Latin church and the emerging Frankish empires, both of whom had ambitions of extending their influence eastwards into what Byzantium considered its traditional sphere of influence. The Byzantines therefore attempted to bring the new slavic peoples into its political and cultural orbit through a mixture of cultural, religious and other diplomacy, while also applying force whenever flattery, bribery and intimidation failed.

It's a remarkable story of how an often militarily and strategically weak Byzantium managed to establish itself in the minds of the still very warlike, emerging Slavic states as the cultural and above all religious centre of their world, and while most these people retained much or all of ther independence, they acknowledged Constantinople as the spiritual and political centre of their world, hence the author's use of the term 'commonwealth' to explain the strangely dual nature of this relationship.

Particularly fascinating for me was to learn how the Byzantines created the intellectual and linguistic basis for many of these new nations, introducing alphabets that allowed these illiterate peoples to read and translate scriptures into their own language. Cyrillic itself derives from the name of a Byzantium missionary who created the cyrillic alphabet based on Greek that became the basis for the Russian, Bulgarian and Serbian written langauges. Initially, Cyril created an entirely unique phonetic alphabet that bore no resemblance to Greek, but which more closely matched the phonetic tones of the slavic tongue, but its introduction was overruled by his Byzantine masters who preferred the cyrillic/Greek letters that would strengthen Slavic identification with Byzantium in sharing a superficially similar langauge. The success of the Byzantine project can be seen in the historic appropriation of Russia and other Balkan nations of the Byzantine inheritance, and their alienation from the west, in particular the way Russia after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 styled itself as the 'Third Rome' and the trustee of the Byzantine legacy, and spent the next five centuries attempting to recapture Constantinople for Slavdom and Orthodoxy.

The paradox of the relationship was that despite the deep and profound cultural and spiritual influence of Byzantium on its European neighbours, it remained at constant war with one or more these peoples from the fifth century virtually until its collpase in 1453. This paradox can be explained in that Byzantium never gave up the conceit that it was the continuation of the Roman Empire - something that became the source of constant friction with the west and the Vatican - and considered its Slav neighbours as no more than vassals, who should accept and acknowledge Byzantium politcal and religious supremacy. By contrast, the beligerent and no less ambitious emerging Slavic empires of the Bulgars, Serbs and Russians, who when not fighting each other happily turned on Byzantium, while happy to accept cultural exchange and other benefits of Byzantine culture, still sought to assert their own national and territorial independence and aggrandisement, which inevitably bought them into conflict with Byzanztium.

The Byzantines skilfully manipulated a variety of diplomatic and other leavers not least military force to at turns intimidate, cajol, flatter and bribe its neighbours, often turning one against the other, a tactic that its opponents sought to imitate with mixed results. Byzantium remained at war with a variety of ambitious Bulgar leaders for over a century before finally subduing and conquering it in the late 10th century.

The tragedy of the story is that had this commonwealth of nations been less fractious and prone to internicine conflict, it could, under stronger, unified Byzantine leadership, have provided the foundation for a confederation of christian nations to resist the growing threat of the Turks and halted the Turkish incursions into the Balkans from the 14th century onwards, saving not only Byzantium from its ultimate collapse, but also sparing the Balkans from centuries of Turkish rule. Despite their common cultural and spiritual heritage, neither side was able to overcome their national rivalries, jealousies and mutual suspicion for long enough to put aside common disputes and join together to face a greater and more dangerous, alien threat from the Turks. Had they done so, the history of south Eastern Europe would have been very different indeed.

I should add that the book is not a light read, it's for the serious and dedicated reader. If you're seriously interested in Byzantium and the formation of Eastern Europe it's an essential and unique volume to understand the interaction of these emerging nations, caught between mighty empires in east and west, and how it shaped their own emerging national, cultural, linguistic and religious identities, and the profound cultural debt they owe to a lost empire. The only reason I give it 4 and not 5 stars is the book's age, and the likelihood some of the research is out of date. Also the paperback edition like mine is liable to be decaying, so a plea to the publishers for an updated and revised edition that includes new research on Byzantium from recent decades, as well as input from academic research from Eastern Europe since the collapse of communism.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Very good, 19 Dec 2013
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This review is from: Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (History of civilisation) (Paperback)
Excellent introduction to the subject. Very well written and for its time well illustrated. Good overview of what is understood by the Byzantium Commonwealth.
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