Judith Herrin on Byzantium and America

November 18, 2009

The following article by the historian Judith Herrin was posted yesterday to openDemocracy. The article on which it comments, “Take Me Back to Constantinople,” by Edward Luttwak, appears in the November/December issue of Foreign Policy. I hope people in the government read Luttwak’s article and his book (The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire), and take his very sane advice to heart.

Back to the eleventh century?

Judith Herrin, 17 November 2009

It is a great pleasure to read a contemporary appreciation of Byzantium which stresses its civilisation of quality, intelligence and success, and even a model from which we can learn. It is especially refreshing as it suggests that the stereotype of Byzantium, its very name an insult, may finally wane.

Only last Monday I read in Maureen Dowd’s op-ed piece, which I usually enjoy for her sharp and original judgements: “Obama will resist blinders as he grapples with the byzantine, seemingly bottomless conflicts he inherited”. Bottomless, maybe; Byzantine, no.

This notion of the Byzantine as complex and ill-begotten can be traced back to the treacherous destruction of the Christian city of Constantine in the Spring of 1204 by the Fourth Crusade – and the projection of the West’s bad faith since that day.

But I fear that Edward Luttwak may be stretching the argument a little when he proposes Byzantium as a model power for the United States. Or rather, it may be too late for Washington to absorb the lessons of Constantinople that he eloquently proposes, if it ever could.

As I attempted to show in my book, Byzantium, the surprising life of a medieval empire (which Luttwak reviewed most generously in the Times Literary Supplement) the core strength of Byzantium came from its inner Greek fire, a unique combination of pagan energy, Greek education, Roman law and administration, and Christian faith.

When the capital city was inaugurated in 330, all these elements were present and the society that resulted, with its extraordinary self-belief, was “born old”. This was the cultural background to its capacity to play the long game when necessary. It also gave it immense self-confidence and flexibility, permitting innovation and invention, from the unprecedented domed structure of Hagia Sophia to the secret of Greek fire itself. It was quite capable of delivering ruthless and crushing defeats as well as developing the arts, techniques and insignia of diplomacy that Luttwak praises.

Luttwak is right to stress Byzantium’s grasp of the long term as an instrument of rule. This in part stemmed from its historic sense of itself as Roman, but in a different way from Rome. Why, then, do I feel it is unlikely that the United States, which also has a capacity to be a cosmopolitan society like Byzantium, is not going to prove itself capable of taking Luttwak’s advice?

The core driver of American self-belief is surely the market, and the market has delivered to Obama most of the bottomless conflicts he grapples with. Byzantium’s defining force was the ideological combination of imperial rule and church rather than its economic system. However, it was the supposedly devious empire that grasped the simple but fundamental importance of a stable currency for radiating influence and exercising hegemony over its opponents. The gold solidus (or besant) was small in the hand but loomed large in the mind. It was to be minted by emperor after emperor (and even by some empresses, another aspect of Byzantium’s uniqueness) for almost 700 years from the fourth to the eleventh century without being debased or devalued – a period over twice as long as the current history of the USA.

Much of Byzantium’s military influence and diplomatic success was established on the basis of its reliable gold coin, and its devaluation proved very damaging. Today, Washington, after less than 200 years as a major trading country, happily devalues the dollar to diminish the value of its debt to China and make its goods cheaper to export. Sixty years ago the eminent economic historian Lopez described the Byzantine solidus as ‘the dollar of the middle ages’ – an analogy meant to communicate its universal attraction and trusted value. Today, such a comparison would be laughable.

It is hard, therefore, for a Byzantinist not to sense that when it comes to the United States it is back to the eleventh century. Given the acceleration of events, at this rate perhaps we can expect Washington to fall in less than a hundred years – unless the great power game itself is abandoned, a much more attractive alternative.

None of which is to diminish the military lessons Luttwak proposes or his framework of comparison. For too long the myths of classical Roman power, symbolically inscribed in the neo-classical architecture of Washington, have monopolised the idea of greatness and command held by US presidents, their staff, armed forces and media. Here too is another stereotype which should be abandoned.

7 Responses to “Judith Herrin on Byzantium and America”

  1. Veritas Says:

    Very good reads — both of them.

    I have a copy of Herrin’s “Formation of Christendom.” A rather large back that I have yet to read in its entirety. I do recommend the book, however. Written in a very organizational way, so to speak.

    In the above, Herrin notes:

    “For too long the myths of classical Roman power, symbolically inscribed in the neo-classical architecture of Washington, have monopolised the idea of greatness and command held by US presidents, their staff, armed forces and media. Here too is another stereotype which should be abandoned.”

    My question would be: Should it? Doubtless Luttwak’s proposals should be taken to heart, but does it necessarily follow — as Herrin suggests — that these stereotypes of “Roman might” should be thrown overboard? The way a culture views it self, and — more importantly — the way other countries view another, is very important not only to state survival, but the way history as we know her has played out.

    Let us use Russia as an example. She viewed herself as the living succession to Byzantium (maybe not always, but for the most part). I need not get into how this Russia (U.S.S.R) felt herself more than capable to handle the U.S. head on. One has to ask, was this due in some sense from this “Byzantine theory”(One may even say, third Rome theory)? The U.S. for her part, as Herrin has noted, has thought along some of the same lines: a western attitude of superiority that has lended its boldness to the success of its borders. Doubtless I have simplified the history of the U.S., and more severely the Russians (what with the Czars and Peter the Great — western, eastern? Historians and their classification…), but one thing seems clear to me: the prestige of both Byzantium and Rome, their swagger if you will, is not something of an evil kind, in my opinion. It is when this “swagger” has lead to unnecessary violence, often ending in defeat (recall Nicephorus and the Battle of Pliska), that these countries need to take a step back and observe how this prestige is manifested. Perception is everything, and we must be read, as Luttwak suggests, at all times as if war is immenent.

    Also, Herrin has some excellent thoughts about the Byzantine and U.S. views on economy. Very interesting.


  2. bekkos Says:

    Hello, Veritas!

    Like you, I found both of these articles “good reads,” and, like you, there are statements in Judith Herrin’s essay that I find questionable. One of those statements is her proposal that “the great power game itself” be abandoned. If that merely means that the United States ought to act justly and responsibly towards other nations, honoring its commitments and alliances, and seeking peace, I would not take issue with it; but it suggests, instead, a kind of utopianism, as though the fact of military and economic power could be ignored. That strikes me as irresponsible. In the aftermath of the First World War, an isolationist U.S. Congress, which did not want to play “the great power game,” voted down Woodrow Wilson’s proposal that America should join the League of Nations; one could argue that the weakening of that body by America’s absence had a lot to do with the outbreak of an even more disastrous war some twenty years later.

    It was Nixon who took the American dollar off the gold standard in the early 1970’s. At that time, the United States economy was facing an unusual combination of inflation and slow growth that people referred to as “stagflation.” The U.S. government had had to borrow a lot of money to finance the Vietnam War, and the gold standard was keeping the value of the dollar artificially high (it was set at $35 an ounce), meaning that gold was artificially cheap, and foreign countries were making a run on the U.S. gold reserves. So Nixon and his advisers decided to take the dollar off of that standard. This meant the end of the Breton Woods Agreement that had governed international finance since the end of the Second World War, and the beginning of the current state of affairs, in which currencies float against one another freely. (Although China, notably, pegs its currency to the American dollar, which, given the anaemic state of the the American economy and the booming state of the Chinese one, helps to keep prices for Chinese products artificially low.)

    There is a saying (I forget who said it first), to the effect that history does not repeat itself, only historians do. America is neither Rome nor Byzantium, and it would be a mistake to think that America could or should act exactly as Rome or Byzantium did. But, for better or worse, America is an important country, and it would be good for the world as a whole if America got its own house in order. Being the world’s biggest debtor nation is not a position of real strength or a good foundation for future prosperity. Somehow we have been led for the past twenty or thirty years to think otherwise.


  3. Veritas Says:

    Hello, Peter,

    Yesterday we baptized my nephew, Brody. These things are always cause for celebration. I hope you do not think me too crude a man in my effort to solicit prayers on behalf of my godson from both you and your readership.

    As for Pres. Wilson, I completely agree. We most certainly do need to “play the game.” As you alluded, the Second World War should have taught us that. Woodrow Wilson certainly earned his Peace Prize. Economics is probably one of my weak spots; I suppose as an undergrad History major that unfortunate reality is one that I ought to strive to relieve, eh?

    Anyhow, while I have you, I have a question for you. Have you read anything from Tia M. Kolbaba? She is Associate Professor at nearby Rutgers, last I knew. I was thinking about purchasing “The Byzantine Lists: Errors of the Latins.”


  4. bekkos Says:


    I will pray for your nephew / godson. Please pray for the repose of my Aunt Becky, who died early yesterday morning, aged 80, after a difficult struggle with cancer.


  5. Fr Paul. Says:

    I recommend “The Byzantine Lists”. You won’t necessarily learn much about theology – but you will learn about the tendancy to confuse cultural divergences with theological ones, and that lesson is needed today just as it was in Bekkos’ day, for example.
    Prayers assured for you and yours, as for our gentle host.

  6. Veritas Says:


    I will most surely keep you and your Aunt Becky in my prayers. I am sorry.

    Fr. Paul,

    Thanks for your opinion; It is greatly appreciated. And thank you for your prayers; mine are returned in kind.


  7. Dean Calvert Says:


    Congratulations on your new godson…many years!!!

    As a student of both the Byzantines and US Money Supply, I must take issue with Ms Herrin’s diagnosis that “The core driver of American self-belief is surely the market, and the market has delivered to Obama most of the bottomless conflicts he grapples with. Byzantium’s defining force was the ideological combination of imperial rule and church rather than its economic system.”

    The current problem is no more “market related” than it was at the time of the inflation of Alexios Comnenos…

    While it is currently in vogue to blame the US Federal Reserve, the true culprits in the mini-depression we are currently experiencing are anything BUT the market – blame rests squarely with the bureaucrats in Congress, who foisted a ridiculously flawed mortgage system on us, along with the Federal govt guarantee of trillions of dollars of unsound mortgage liabilities. It was only LONG after the fact, when the securities issued to prop up the economy were purchased by the Federal Reserve (thus monetizing the debt….i.e. PURE inflation and debasement of the currency) that the true impact was transferred to the US currency.

    That diagnosis aside (and I do not believe it is an insignificant difference), I think Ms. Herrin has hit the nail squarely on the head with regard to the critical importance of a stable currency. Most do not realize that it was only the adoption of the ancient Greek tradition of a stable currency in the East, as opposed to the Roman tradition of debasing the currency, which created the economic colossus in the East (beginning with the Hellenistic period) that eventually became the “Byzantine” (or more accurately later Roman) Empire.

    Economics have not changed much in 10 centuries…deficit spending ultimately leads to ruin…then (in the Roman West) and now…in Washington.

    We would be lucky to emulate the Byzantines, and like Ms. Herrin, I take exception to the derisive comparisons.

    Best Regards,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: