Princeton Press, April 2014
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
I’ve long been drawn to the simple yet powerful icons of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but it was only a few years ago, while reading the exceptional The Cyclist Conspiracy by Serbian author Svetislav Basara, that I began to feel pulled toward Byzantium. Among other theories, Basara’s novel presents the idea of a “spiritual” Byzantium lying underneath the Balkans and other areas of the former Eastern Roman Empire. The suggestion seems to be that any understanding of present-day Eastern Europe and Asia Minor must be based in the past—but no. For Basara, “the things that happen now are prepared in the future, it is a waste of time to seek for the causes of things in the past. Death does not come from the past, but from the future.” Wait, what? Come again? Basara pushes further: “As far as Byzantium goes, it never ceased to exist, it just went from being an exoteric empire to being an esoteric one. All sorts of states spring up on its soil, but the whole is never lost in parts.” The book fascinated me with this bizarre perspective, a way of thought at odds with the rational Western mind. Other novels have continued to increase my interest in all things Byzantine, and so I recently turned away from fiction and picked up Averil Cameron’s Byzantine Matters.
Rather than explain the history, politics, culture, and society of Byzantium, however, Cameron’s slim book raises questions without providing answers. It’s not—as I initially assumed the book to be—that Byzantium matters, in the sense that understanding the Byzantine is important for understanding the modern world. It instead focuses on the matters of current academic discussion about how to understand the Byzantine, which the West has a tradition of negative associations: the superfluous complexions of “Byzantine bureaucracy,” the darkness of the Middle Ages, and with decline. For example, can we even consider the Byzantine an empire? Or was it more a city-state of Rome? The early Byzantines thought of themselves as Roman, as inheritors of the Holy Empire, yet they spoke and wrote in Greek, and eventually expelled the Latins from Constantinople. Was the culture of Byzantium essential Greek, or is the modern Greek nation-state a cultural remnant of Byzantium? Can Byzantium even be considered part of European history, or is it Middle-Eastern? Is there an “early Byzantium” period, or is it part of the larger “Late Antiquity”? Scholars are still figuring all this out.
Cameron begins the book by writing about the general “absence” of Byzantium from modern consideration until the 20th century, when a few British and American travelers “discovered” it, excited by its mystery and attracted to its golden icons. She tries to steer us away from this exoticism of eastern orthodoxy, with subsequent chapters focusing on the more scholarly questions above. Yet the last two chapters are specifically on orthodoxy, in art and religion, and these are by far the most engaging. And it’s here where she gets to the crux of the mystery: “We know a great deal about religious phenomena and practices, theological and other kinds of religious literature, religious structures and spirituality, but the theoretical underpinning that would allow the understanding that the subject calls for is so far conspicuous by its absence.”
As far as I understand it, the Byzantine approach to understanding God was that God cannot be understood. Therefore, ironically, there is no point in having an “orthodox” theology. This is reflected in the decentralization of the Orthodox churches and its system of patriarchs instead of a pope. The Byzantine Greeks accepted the concept of the Holy Trinity mainly because it did not make sense. It was irrational and thus shows the limitation of the human mind in trying to understand concepts far beyond its capabilities. And so it makes sense that Westerners have had difficulty understanding this Byzantine way of thinking, in which it’s perfectly fine for things to not make sense.