From the labor and skill of the people and the superfluities of the rich there came in the ninth and tenth centuries a remarkable revival of letters and arts. Although the Empire to its dying day called itself Roman, nearly all Latin elements had disappeared from it except Roman law. Since Heraclius, Greek had been the language of government, literature, and liturgy, as well as of daily speech, in the Byzantine East. Education was now completely Greek. Nearly every free male, many women, even many slaves, received some education. The University of Constantinople, which, like letters in general, had been allowed to decay in the crises of the Heracleian age, was restored by Caesar Bardas (863), and attained high repute for its courses in philology, philosophy, theology, astronomy, mathematics, biology, music, and literature; even the pagan Libanius and the godless Lucian were read. Tuition was largely free to qualified students, and the teachers were paid by the state. Libraries, public and private, were numerous, and still preserved those classic masterpieces which had been forgotten in the disordered West.
This ample transmission of the Greek heritage was at once stimulating and restrictive. It sharpened and widened thought, and lured it from its old round of homiletical eloquence and theological debate. But its very wealth discouraged originality; it is easier for the ignorant than for the learned to be original. Byzantine literature was intended chiefly for cultured and leisurely ladies and gentlemen; polished and polite, artistic and artificial, Hellenistic but not Hellenic, it played on the surface, and spared the heart, of human life. Though the churchmen of the period were remarkably tolerant, thought of its own accord, through habits formed in youth, stayed within the circle of orthodoxy, and the iconoclasts were more pious than the priests.
It was another Alexandrian age of scholarship. Pundits analyzed language and prosody, wrote epitomes, “outlines,” and universal histories, compiled dictionaries, encyclopedias, anthologies. Now (917) Constantine Cephalas collected The Greek Anthology; now (976) Suidas accumulated his encyclopedic lexicon. Theophanes (c. 814) and Leo the Deacon (b. 950) wrote valuable histories of their own or recent times. Paul of Ægina (615—90) composed an encyclopedia of medicine that combined Moslem theory and practice with the legacy of Galen and Oribasius; it discussed in almost modern terms operations for cancer of the breast, hemorrhoids, catheterization of the bladder, lithotomy, castration; eunuchs were manufactured, says Paul, by crushing the testicles of children in a hot bath.23
The outstanding Byzantine scientist of these centuries was an obscure and impoverished teacher, Leo of Salonika (c. 850), of whose existence Constantinople took no notice until a caliph invited him to Baghdad. One of his pupils, captured in war, became the slave of a Moslem dignitary, who soon marveled at the youth’s knowledge of geometry. Al-Mamun, learning of it, induced him to join in a discussion of geometrical problems at the royal palace, was impressed by his performance, heard with eager curiosity his account of his teacher, and at once sent Leo an invitation to Baghdad and affluence. Leo consulted a Byzantine official, who consulted the Emperor Theophilus, who hastened to secure Leo with a state professorship. Leo was a polymath, and taught and wrote on mathematics, astronomy, astrology, medicine, and philosophy. Al-Mamun submitted to him several problems in geometry and astronomy, and was so pleased with the replies that he offered Theophilus eternal peace and 2000 pounds of gold if the Emperor would lend him Leo for a while. Theophilus refused, and made Leo Archbishop of Salonika to keep him out of al-Mamun’s reach.24
Leo, Photius, and Psellus were the stellar luminaries of this age. Photius (820?—91), the most learned man of his time, was in six days graduated from layman to patriarch, and belongs to religious history. Michael Psellus (1018?-80) was a man of the world and the court, an adviser of kings and queens, a genial and orthodox Voltaire who could be brilliant on every subject, but landed on terra firma after every theological argument or palace revolution. He did not let his love of books dull his love of life. He taught philosophy at the University of Constantinople, and received the title of Prince of Philosophers. He entered a monastery, found the monastic career too peaceful, returned to the world, served as prime minister from 1071 to 1078, and had time to write on politics, science, medicine, grammar, theology, jurisprudence, music, and history. His Chronographia recorded the intrigues and scandals of a century (976-1078) with candor, verve, and vanity (he describes Constantine IX as “hanging on Psellus’ tongue”25). Here, as a sample, is a paragraph from his description of the revolt that restored Theodora to the throne in 1055:
Each [soldier in the crowd] was armed: one grasped a hatchet, another a battle-ax, one a bow, another a lance; some of the populace carried heavy stones; and all ran in great disorder … to the apartments of Theodora…. But she, taking refuge in a chapel, remained deaf to all their cries. Abandoning persuasion, the crowd used force upon her; some, drawing their daggers, threw themselves upon Theodora as if to kill her. Boldly they snatched her from the sanctuary, clothed her in sumptuous robes, seated her on a horse, and, circling about her, led her to the church of St. Sophia. Now all the population, highborn as well as low, joined in paying her homage, and all proclaimed her queen.26
The personal letters of Psellus were almost as charming and revealing as Cicero’s; his speeches, verses, and pamphlets were the talk of the day; his malicious humor and lethal wit were an exciting stimulus amid the ponderous erudition of his contemporaries. Compared with him and Photius and Theophanes, the Alcuins, Rabani, and Gerberts of the contemporary West were timid emigrants from barbarism into the Country of the Mind.
The most conspicuous side of this Byzantine renaissance was its art. From 726 to 842 the Iconoclastic movement prohibited the sculptural or (with less strictness) pictorial representation of sacred beings; but in compensation it freed the artist from a monotonous confinement within ecclesiastical themes, and turned him to the observation, portrayal, and decoration of secular life. The gods were replaced as subjects by the imperial family, aristocratic patrons, historical events, the animals of the forest, the plants and fruits of the field, the fond trivia of domestic life. Basil I built in his palace the Nea, or New Church, “all adorned,” says a contemporary, “with fine pearls, gold, shining silver, mosaics, silks, and marble in a thousand varieties.”27 Much of the decoration recently uncovered in St. Sophia was the work of the ninth century. The central dome was rebuilt in 975 after an earthquake, and then received its great mosaic of Christ seated on a rainbow; additional mosaics were set up in 1028; the massive cathedral, like a living organism, achieved continued life by the death and renewal of its parts. The bronze doors installed in 838 were so renowned for excellence that similar doors were ordered from Constantinople for the monastery of Monte Cassino, the cathedral of Amalfi, and the basilica of San Paolo outside the walls of Rome; the last pair, made in Constantinople in 1070, still survives as a testimony to Byzantine art.
The royal or “Sacred Palace,” of which the Nea formed the chapel, was a growing congeries of chambers, reception halls, churches, baths, pavilions, gardens, peristyles, and courts; almost every emperor added something to it. Theophilus gave the group a new Oriental touch with a throne room known as Triconchos, from the shell-like apses that formed three of its sides—a plan imported from Syria. North of this he built the Hall of the Pearl; south of it several heliaka or sunrooms, and the Kamilas, an apartment with roof of gold, columns of green marble, and an exceptionally fine mosaic representing on a gold ground men and women gathering fruit. Even this mosaic was surpassed in an adjoining structure, on whose walls green mosaic trees stood out against a golden mosaic sky; and by the floor of the Hall of Harmony, whose marble tesserae gave the effect of a meadow in full flower. Theophilus carried his taste for bizarre splendor à outrance in his palace of Magnaura: in its audience chamber a golden plane tree overhung the throne; golden birds sat on the branches and the throne; golden griffins lay on either side of the royal seat, and golden lions at its foot; when a foreign ambassador was presented, the mechanical griffins rose, the mechanical lions stood up, swished their tails and roared, and the birds broke into mechanical song.28 All this was a frank copy of like absurdities in the palace of Harun al-Rashid at Baghdad.
Constantinople was beautified with the taxes of commerce and the “themes,” but enough remained to add some lesser splendors to the provincial capitals. The monasteries, rich again, rose in stately mass: in the tenth century the Lavra and Iviron at Athos; in the eleventh, St. Luke’s in Phocis, the Nea Moni in Chios, the convent of Daphni near Eleusis—whose almost classic mosaics are the finest examples of the mid-Byzantine style. Georgia, Armenia, and Asia Minor shared in the movement, and became outposts of Byzantine art. The public buildings of Antioch drew Moslem eulogies. In Jerusalem the church of the Holy Sepulcher was rebuilt soon after Heraclius’ victories. In Egypt, before and after the Arab conquest, the Coptic Christians raised domed churches modest in size, but adorned with such artistry in metal, ivory, wood and textiles that all the skills of Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman, Byzantine, and Mohammedan Egypt seemed to have reached them as an unimpaired legacy. The Iconoclastic persecutions drove thousands of monks from Syria, Asia Minor, and Constantinople to southern Italy, where they were protected by the popes; through these refugees, and through Oriental merchants, Byzantine styles of architecture and decoration flourished in Bari, Otranto, Benevento, Naples, even Rome. Ravenna continued to be Greek in art, and produced in the seventh century the magnificent mosaics of St. Apollinaris in Classe. Salonika remained Byzantine, and adorned its own St. Sophia with somber mosaic apostles as gaunt as El Greco’s saints.
In all these lands and cities, as in the capital, the Byzantine renaissance poured forth masterpieces of mosaic, miniature, pottery, enamel, glass, wood, ivory, bronze, iron, gems, and textiles woven, dyed, and decorated with a skill that all the world honored. Byzantine artists made cups of blue glass decorated under the surface with golden foliage, birds, and human figures; glass vessels with a necking of enameled arabesques and flowers; and other forms of glass so exquisite that they were the favorite gifts of Byzantine emperors to foreign potentates. Even more valued as presents were the costly robes, shawls, copes, and dalmatics that displayed Byzantine textile art; such were “Charlemagne’s cloak” in the cathedral of Metz, and the delicate silks found at Aachen in the coffin of that king. Half the majesty that hedged in the Greek emperor, much of the awe that exalted the patriarch, some of the splendor that clothed the Redeemer, the Virgin, and the martyrs in the ritual of the Church, came from gorgeous vestments that embodied the lives of a dozen artisans, the technique of centuries, and the richest dyes of land and sea. The Byzantine goldsmiths and gem cutters were at the top of their line until the thirteenth century; the treasury of St. Mark’s at Venice is rich with the spoils of their craft. To this age belong the astonishingly realistic mosaic of St. Luke, now in the Collège des Hautes Études at Paris; the glowing head of Christ in the “Deesis” mosaic in St. Sophia’s; and the immense mosaic, covering forty square yards, unearthed in Istanbul in 1935 from the ruins of the palace of the Macedonian emperors.29 When Iconoclasm subsided, or where it did not reach, the churches fed piety with icons painted in tempera upon wood, and sometimes cased in enameled or jeweled frames. No miniatures in all the history of illumination surpass the “Vision of Ezekiel” in the ninth-century volume of Gregory Nazianzen’s sermons in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris;30 or the 400 illustrations of the “Menologus” manuscript in the Vatican (c. 1000); or the pictures of David in the Paris Psalter (c. 900). We shall find in them no perspective, no modeling of forms through light and shade; but, as ample recompense, a rich and sensuous coloring, a lively play of imagination, a new knowledge of human and animal anatomy, a happy riot of beasts and birds, of plants and flowers, among saints and deities, fountains, arcades, and porticoes-birds pecking at fruit, bears dancing, stags and bulls locking their horns in battle, and a leopard lifting an impious leg to make a flowing initial for a pious phrase.31
Byzantine potters had long known the art of enameling—i.e., applying to a terra-cotta or metal base a metallic oxide which, when fired, fused with the base and gave it both protection and brilliance. The art had come from the Orient to ancient Greece, had disappeared in the third century B.C., and had reappeared in the third century A.D. This mid-Byzantine period was rich in enamels—portrait medallions, icons, crosses, reliquaries, cups, chalices, book covers, and ornaments for harness and other equipage. As early as the sixth century Byzantium received from Sasanian Persia the art of cloisonné enamel: the colored paste was poured into surface areas confined by thin wires or metal strips; these cloisons, soldered to a metal base, constituted the decorative design. A famous example of Byzantine cloisonné is a reliquary made (c. 948) for Constantine Porphyrogenitus, and now in Limburg; it is characteristically Byzantine in its minute and conscientious execution, its ornate and luxurious ornament.
No other art has been so overwhelmingly religious as the Byzantine. A church council of 787 laid down the law: “It is for painters to execute; it is for the clergy to ordain the subjects and govern the procedure.”32 Hence the somber seriousness of this art, its narrow scope of theme, its monotony of method and style, the rarity of its ventures into realism, humor, and common life; ornate and brilliant beyond rival, it never reached the lusty variety and scandalous secularity of mature Gothic art. So much the more must we marvel at its victories and influence. All Christendom from Kiev to Cadiz acknowledged its leadership and flattered it with imitation; even China bowed to it now and then. In its Syrian forms it shared with Persia in molding the architecture, mosaics, and decorative motives of Islamic art. Venice modeled itself on Constantinople, and St. Mark’s on the Church of the Apostles there; Byzantine architecture appeared in France, and mounted as far north as Aachen. Illuminated manuscripts everywhere in the West confessed Byzantine influence. The Bulgars took over Byzantine faith and ornament; and the conversion of Vladimir to Greek Christianity opened a dozen avenues by which Byzantine art entered into Russian life.
From the fifth to the twelfth century Byzantine civilization led Christian Europe in administration, diplomacy, revenue, manners, culture, and art. Probably never before had there been a society so splendidly adorned, or a religion so sensuously colorful. Like every other civilization, it rested on the backs of serfs or slaves, and the gold and marble of its shrines and palaces were the transmuted sweat of workers toiling on or in the earth. Like every other culture of its time, it was cruel; the same man who knelt before the image of the Virgin could slaughter the children of Maurice before their father’s eyes. There was something shallow about it, a veneer of aristocratic refinement covering a mass of popular superstition, fanaticism, and literate ignorance; * and half the culture was devoted to perpetuating that ignorance. No science, no philosophy, was allowed to develop in conflict with that ignorance; and for a thousand years no addition was made by a Greek civilization to man’s knowledge of the world. No work of Byzantine literature has caught the imagination of mankind, or won the suffrages of time. Oppressed by the fullness of its heritage, imprisoned in the theological labyrinths in which dying Greece had lost the Christianity of Christ, the medieval Greek mind could not rise to a mature and realistic view of man and the world; it broke Christianity in half over a vowel, and again over a word, and shattered the Eastern Roman Empire by seeing treason in every heresy.
The marvel remains that this civilization lasted so long. What hidden resources, or inner vitality, enabled it to survive the victories of Persia in Syria, the loss of Syria, Egypt, Sicily, and Spain to the Moslems? Perhaps the same religious faith that weakened defense by relying upon relics and miracles gave some order and discipline to a people perennially patient, however periodically turbulent, and surrounded emperor and state with an aura of sanctity that frightened change. The bureaucracy, collectively immortal, gave continuity and stability through all wars and revolutions, kept internal peace, regulated the economy, and gathered in the taxes that permitted the Empire to expand again almost to its Justinian amplitude. Though the possessions of the caliphs were vaster than the Byzantine, their revenues were probably less; and the looseness of Moslem government, the inadequacy of its communications and its administrative machinery, allowed the Abbasid dominion to disintegrate in three centuries, while the Byzantine Empire endured through a millennium.
Byzantine civilization performed three vital functions. For a thousand years it stood as a bulwark of Europe against Persia and Eastern Islam. It faithfully cherished and fully transmitted—until plundered by the Crusaders in 1204—the recopied texts that handed down the literature, science, and philosophy of ancient Greece. Monks fleeing Iconoclast emperors brought Greek manuscripts to South Italy, and restored there a knowledge of Greek letters; Greek professors, shunning Moslem and Crusader alike, left Constantinople, sometimes settled in Italy, and served as carriers of the classic germ; so year by year Italy rediscovered Greece, until men drank themselves drunk at the fountain of intellectual freedom. And finally, it was Byzantium that won Bulgars and Slavs from barbarism to Christianity, and brought the immeasurable force of the Slavic body and soul into the life and destiny of Europe.