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.