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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Alexander Schmemann

4. Byzantium (22 pages)













From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church


Significance of the Byzantine Period.

It is strange that the Orthodox mind has had so little interest in Byzantium. As a field of study, Byzantium has been the domain either of secular historians — among whom, of course, Russian scholars have held and rightly still hold a leading position — or of specialists on specific problems. Despite the abundance of monographs in which Orthodox historical scholarship may take a confident pride, there exists no history of the Byzantine Church in the full sense of the word, which would both describe and try to comprehend this phenomenon in its totality. Somehow entire centuries have slipped from the Church’s memory, and this makes every attempt at a rapid survey of Byzantium extremely difficult. The only thing that can be done is to try to give some sense of the meaning of the Byzantine problem.

Byzantium can in no way be considered merely a completed and outlived chapter of Church history. Not only does it continue to live in the Orthodox Church, but in a sense still defines Orthodoxy itself, constituting its historical form. Just as modern Catholicism crystallized in the Middle Ages and in the era of the Counter-Reformation, so — perhaps to an even greater extent — did Orthodoxy acquire its present form, its historic canon, in Byzantium. Simple inquiry will soon show that any aspect of modern Orthodox Church life to which one might refer found its present-day form in the Byzantine period in particular. The development of the Rule of worship was completed in Byzantium, a Rule, which makes of it a system permitting almost no progress or change. The Byzantine typicons and euchologia of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries differ hardly at all from our own missals and rule-books. The Orthodox icon is painted in accordance with the Byzantine tradition; our canonical tradition was fixed in both volume and interpretation by Byzantine canonists. The patristic heritage, which has until now been the basis of Orthodox theology, was given final shape in Byzantium, and there first flowered the manner and spirit of Orthodox piety which is best expressed in Russian by the word tserkovnost. In a sense the Byzantine period must be acknowledged as decisive in the history of Orthodoxy, as the age of the crystallization of Church life. The modern Orthodox Church is — from the viewpoint of history — the Church of Byzantium, which has survived the Byzantine Empire by five hundred years.

All historians of Byzantium declare in unison that a new period in her history opened with the beginning of the eighth century. The seventh century had ended in anarchy and the almost complete ruin of the empire. In the year 717 the Arabs besieged Constantinople, and internal disorder made her an easy prey for any conqueror. Leo the Isaurian — one of those soldiers from the eastern border country, numerous in the Byzantine army, who often rose to the highest ranks and by whom the empire was actually held together — saved her. Leo was proclaimed emperor and thus began the new Isaurian dynasty. In a series of victorious wars, he and his son Constantine Copronymus (717-45, 745-75) retrieved the situation and added internal strength by a profound military, economic, and administrative reform of the state. This reform, completing the evolution already begun under Heraclius, concluded the metamorphosis of Byzantium from a world empire into a comparatively small state in which all was subordinated to the need of withstanding pressure: that of Islam from the east, the Slavs from the north, and — soon to come — the Normans from the west. The Roman oekumene had finally been transformed into Byzantium.


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