Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The City of Constantine

from Steven Runciman's The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (Cambridge University Press, 1965)

It is easy to maintain that in the broad sweep of history the year 1453 stands for very little. The Byzantine Empire was already doomed. Diminished, underpopulated and impoverished, it was bound to perish whenever the Turks chose to move in to make the kill. The notion of Byzantine scholars hurrying to Italy because of the fall of their city is untenable. Italy had for more than a generation been full of Byzantine professors; and of the two great intellectual figures amongst the Greeks living in 1453 the one, Bessarion, was already in Italy and the other, Gennadius, remained on at Constantinople. If the trade of the Italian merchant-sea-ports was to wither away, that was due more to the discovery of ocean routes than to the Turkish control of the Straits. Genoa, indeed, declined rapidly after 1453; but that was largely because of her precarious position in Italy. Venice kept up a lively Levantine trade for many years to come. If the Russians came forward now as the Champions of Orthodoxy, with Moscow raised to be the Third Rome, this was not a revolutionary idea. Russian thought had already been moving towards it, with Russian armies driving the infidel Tartars back across the Steppes, while Constantinople sank further into poverty and made an unholy bargain with the West. All these seeds had been sown already. The fall of Constantinople merely hastened the harvest. If the Sultan Mehmet had been less determined or Halil Pasha more persuasive, of it the Venetian armada had set sail a fortnight earlier, or, at the last crisis, had Giustiniani not been wounded at the walls and the postern gate of the Kerkoporta not been left ajar, little would have been changed in the long run. Byzantium might have lingered on for another decade and the Turkish advance into Europe been delayed. But the West would not have profited by the respite. Instead, it would have regarded the preservation of Constantinople as a sign that the danger was not so pressing after all. It would have turned away with relief to its own affairs; and after a few years the Turks would have come again to the assault.

Nevertheless the date of 29 May 1453 marks a turning-point in history. It marks the end of an old story, the story of Byzantine civilization. For eleven hundred years there had stood on the Bosphorus a city where the intellect was admired and the learning and letters of the Classical past were studied and preserved. Without the help of Byzantine commentators and scribes there is little that we would know today about the literature of ancient Greece. It was, too, a city whose rulers down the centuries had inspired and encouraged a school of art unparalleled in human history, an art that arose from an ever varying blend of the cool cerebral Greek sense of the fitness of things and a deep religious sense that saw in works of art the incarnation of the Divine and the sanctification of matter. It was, too, a great cosmopolitan city, where along with merchandise ideas were freely exchanged and whose citizens saw themselves not as a racial unit but as the heirs of Greece and Rome, hallowed by the Christian Faith. All this was now ended. The new master-race discouraged learning among its Christian subjects. Without the patronage of a free government Byzantine art began to decay. The new Constantinople was a splendid city, rich and populous and cosmopolitan, and full of handsome edifices. But its beauty expressed the worldly imperial might of the Sultans, not the Kingdom of the Christian God on earth; and its inhabitants were divided in religion. Constantinople was reborn, to be the cynosure of visitors for many centuries; but it was Istanbul, not Byzantium.

Was nothing, then, achieved by the gallantry of the last days of Byzantium? It impressed the Sultan, as his savagery after the capture of the city made clear. He would take no risk with the Greeks. He had always admired Greek learning; he found now that the heroic Greek spirit was not entirely dead. It may well be that when calm was restored his admiration encouraged him to offer fairer treatment to his Greek subjects. The terms that the Patriarch Gennadius obtained from him reunited the Greek Church and the majority of the Greek people under one autonomous government. The future was not to be easy for the Greeks. They were given the promise of peace and justice and opportunities for enrichment. But they were second-class citizens. Bondage inevitably brings demoralization; and the Greeks could not escape from its effects. Moreover, they depended ultimately upon the good-will of the suzerain. So long as Conquering Sultan lived their lot was not too bad. But there arose Sultans who had never known the civilization of Byzantium and who were proud to be the Emperors of Islam, Caliphs and Commanders of the Faithful. And soon the great structure of the Ottoman administration fell into decay. The Greeks had to answer corruption by deceit, injustice by disloyalty and intrigue by counter-intrigue. The story of the Greeks under Turkish rule is unedifying and melancholy. Yet, in spite of its faults and weaknesses, the Church survived; and so long as the Church survived Hellenism would not die.

Western Europe, with ancestral memories of jealousy of Byzantine civilization, with its spiritual advisers denouncing the Orthodox as sinful schismatics, and with a haunting sense of guilt that it had failed the city at the end, chose to forget about Byzantium. It could not forget the debt that it owed to the Greeks; but it saw the debt as being owed only to the Classical age. The Philhellenes who came to take part in the War of Independence spoke of Themistocles and Pericles but never of Constantine. Many intellectual Greeks copied their example, led astray by the evil genius of Korais, the pupil of Voltaire and of Gibbon, to whom Byzantium was an ugly interlude of superstition, best ignored. Thus it was that the War of Independence never resulted in the liberation of the Greek people but only in the creation of a little Kingdom of Greece. In the villages men knew better. There they remembered the threnes that had been composed when news came that the city had fallen, punished by God for its luxury, its pride and its apostasy, but fighting a heroic battle to the end. They remembered that dreadful Tuesday, a day that all true Greeks still know to be of ill omen; but their spirits tingled and their courage rose as they told of the last Christian Emperor standing in the breach, abandoned by his Western allies, holding the infidel at bay till their numbers overpowered him and he died, with the Empire as his winding-sheet.

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