I took this text from a compilation of historical essays, "The World of History", published in 1954, but it belongs originally to "Peoples, Places and Books" from Gilbert Highet (1953). It doesn't deal with Bizantium itself, but rather, with the way in which we feel Bizantium, out of our own place in history. The title, as indicated at the end of the article, is derived from a poem by W.B. Yeats; the complete text of the poem can be found in the poetry section. In the compilation were I found it, the text is presented through the following paragraph:


In this meditative essay on Bizantium, Gilbert Highet opens wide the doors to the world of history, where peoples speak to peoples across the centuries, where the remote can be as instructive as the immediate, where time is of less importance than achievement. According to Highet, the Byzantines have much to teach us about "the mistery, the difficulty, and the preciousness of high civilization".


Sailing to Byzantium

Gilbert Highet

History is a strange experience. The world is quite small now; but history is large and deep. Sometimes you can go much farther by sitting in your own home and reading a book of history, than by getting onto a ship or an airplane and traveling a thousand miles. When you go to Mexico City through space, you find it a sort of cross between modern Madrid and modern Chicago, with additions of its own; but if you go to Mexico City through history, back only 500 years, you will find it as distant as though it were on another planet: inhabited by cultivated barbarians, sensitive and cruel, highly organized and still in the Copper Age, a collection of startling, of unbelievable contrasts.

There is one such world, one historically distant planet, which very few of us have ever visited. This is Byzantium. The city which was called Byzantium is now called Constantinople, or rather Istanbul, in modern Turkey. But the civilization called Byzantine was the Roman empire: it was the eastern section of the Roman empire, its oldest and its most culturally fertile area, the Greek part of the Greco-Roman world. From another point of view, equally important, Byzantium was the Roman empire refounded as a Christian empire. And do you know that it survived until just 500 years ago, until 1453 -nearly 1000 years after the western Roman empire had crumbled into fragments? It still existed, and it still called itself the Roman empire, when Cristopher Columbus was born -although it fell (as though by some secret logic of history) just before America was discovered. Historically it is closer to us than medieval Mexico; but it feels far away.

All that most of us know about it is that it was beautiful. Its center was one of the loveliest buildings in the entire world, something worthy to rank with the Taj Mahal and Notre Dame: the Cathedral Church of the Holy Wisdom, St. Sophia, with its enormous, airy dome. Some of us also know the strange unforgettable paintings and mosaics of Byzantium: when you enter a Slavic or Greek church today, or look at an icon, what you see is Byzantine art: those tall thoughtful figures, with vast somber eyes. Connoisseurs know also that much of Byzantine art spread through the rest of Europe and the Middle East. So St. Mark's in Venice, St. Basil's cathedral in Moscow, the legendary palace of Harun ar-Raschid in Baghdad -all these are Byzantine. In fact, we are told that it was the beauty of Byzantium that converted the Russians to Christianity. They had been idol-worshipping pagans until the tenth century; but some of their leaders had been baptized; and their monarch Vladimir began to consider which of the great faiths they ought to adopt. He thought of Judaism; but he said, "No, the Jews are scattered and powerless". He thought of Mohammedanism; but that is a teetotal religion, and he said, "To drink is the joy for the Russians, and we cannot live without drinking". Then he sent envoys to Byzantium. They were taken to see the Christian services at St. Sophia. When they returned, they said, "We did not know whether we were in heaven or earth; for on earth elsewhere there is no such splendor. We know that there God dwells among men". And so the Russians became Christians converted through Byzantium, and to this day their alphabet is the Greek alphabet, and much of their art, their religion, even their way of life, is Byzantine.

We know, too, that it was a complicated and difficult civilization. If we read Gibbon, we remember how contemptuously he dismissed the Byzantines as a succession of priests and courtiers, and how unwilling he was to pay serious attention to their eager discussions of a God in whom he himself scarcely believed, and to their struggles againsts barbarism which he believed had by the eighteenth century been largely exterminated. And if we have glanced into modern histories of Byzantium, we have still been bewildered by painfully complex dynastic disputes, and by almost impenetrably difficult and feverishly excitable arguments over what at first seem to us very tiny religious problems.

And the language of Byzantium is Greek -and not wholly classical Greek, but a special Greek of its own. Few translations of Byzantine Greek works are made, and few scholars study them; if it were not for the Dumbarton Oaks group in Washington, there would hardly be any Byzantine scholarship in the entire American continent. Even apart from the language, the literature is awfully hard: long highly elaborate histories, carefully wrought theological treatises, stiff and formal poems, together with wild folk-romances and epic poetry written in a fantastic blend of cultures and languages.

Perhaps Byzantium is too difficult for us? There might be a sound reason for this. You remember that Spengler said that all important cultures followed the same pattern of growth, maturity, and decay, although in different periods in history. Therefore the people of one culture might well sympathize with the people of another culture, although the two were separated by many centuries, provided they were both in the same stage in their development. For example, he called Mohammed a "contemporary" of Cromwell. Now, if this is true, you see what follows? It follows that people cannot properly understand a stage of history which is later in development than they are -even if it happened a long time ago. Mohammed could have understood Cromwell perfectly, although Cromwell lived 1000 years after him; but he could not have understood Disraeli, or even Napoleon, because they inhabited a later state of civilization. (We see this in our daily life: you know how hard it is for a youth of twenty to understand a man of fifty -much harder than it is for a man of fifty to understand a youth.) Well, supposing all that is reasonable and true, then we have not nearly reached the stage of development in our own culture which will correspond to Byzantium, and therefore we cannot understand Byzantium fully -just as we cannot now foresee and understand the world our own great-grandchildren will inhabit.

This may be true. Byzantium has a grown-up, an almost elderly feeling, which we do not posses. As we look at the portraits of men and saintly or divine personages which have survived from Byzantium, and see their great thoughtful eyes, and the long powerful faces in which strength and the ability to feel pain are curiously intermingled, we realize that these people are wiser with a wisdom which we have not yet attained; that they knew more about the world's problems, even to understanding that some of those problems cannot be solved. But we do not feel that they are behind us, or inferior to us. The difficulty of understanding them is more like the difficulty that young people have in understanding their elders. We are still young. They are mature, and growing old.

Perhaps that is why so little has been written about Byzantium. There are hardly any novels or plays about it: some failures, of course, but few successes. Offhand, I can recall only Sir Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris and John Masefield's Basilissa and Conquer. And all these books fail partially, because they are not written with sufficient gusto and richness. The two Masefields deal with the reign of Justinian, but they are supposed to be written by a dry official who has little sympathy with any of the wild passions which blazed through the empire. They are good reporting, but they are like black-and-white reproductions of a complex painting. The Scott novel takes us to Constantinople in the time of the First Crusade. Although it is full of fine ideas, they are not worked out: Scott was very tired when he wrote it. I remember one chapter in which Count Robert is entertained in the sumptuous palace of the emperors. He wakes late, because his wine the night before was drugged. As he wakes, the first thing he sees and hears in the darkness of the room is a tiger, with burning eyes and hungry roaring growls: it had been chained there so that when he moves he will either fall under its claws or else go mad with the effort to avoid it. Now, in his best days, Scott would have made the next half hour into a long splendid combat. But here Count Robert merely throws a stool at the tiger, and fractures its skull, "which, to say the truth, was none of the largest size"; and then proceeds to escape, with the help of a blind prisoner in the next cell, who has been sawing his way out for years, and of a trained orangoutang which is an assistant warder. A pity that Count Robert of Paris was not written when Scott had more energy: it might have been as good as Ivanhoe.

Still, there are some fine non-fiction works about Byzantium. (And here, in Washington, we have one of the few great centers of Byzantine studies: the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Research Collection of Harvard University, which puts out a number of learned studies every few months, and is now established as a source of vital new ideas on the subject.) The standard book is Byzantium: An Introduction to East Roman Civilization, edited by Norman Baynes and H. St. L. B. Moss. Mr. Baynes (of the University of London) is really the top scholar on the subject in the English-speaking world, and to make this introduction he has assembled a group of essays by over a dozen specialists, and has added some fine illustrations and copious bibliography. Byzantine art can be glimpsed in a new and beautiful collection of reproductions of mosaics in Italy: Byzantine Mosaics, edited by Peter Meyer. Very recently the best history of the Byzantine empire was published in this country, written by A. A. Vasiliev. (It was originally planned in Russia before the Revolution; and then -such are the trials and torments of scholarship- it passed through editions in French, Spanish, and Turkish before attaining its present English form.) It is a profoundly scholarly book with a stupendous bibliography; it may be too elaborate for the ordinary reader, but it will become a standard work.

Beginners like myself are more apt to be interested by enthusiastically appreciative studies of those odd and incomprehensible people. Such enthusiasm struck me first in Robert Byron's The Byzantine Achievement, a very youthful book issued in London in 1929; and, linked with wisdom, it appears in one of the most wonderful travel books -no, not travel books- one of the most wonderful books of appreciation, of travel and history, and human character and national psychology, and art and religion, one of the finest books written in our lifetime on apparently the least promising subjects, Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

It describes only one small part of the Byzantine empire, as it is today: the Slavic part of the Balkan peninsula. It penetrates with unexampled sympathy and sensibility into the souls of those strange countries, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, the lands where trouble grows like grass. Beauty and disease, poverty and courage, ignorance and heroism, narrow minds and broad epic spirits, these and many other contrasts are evoked in Miss West's beautiful and eloquent book. (It is written with love -like Browning's poems on Italy; or like a blend of Hemingway's books on Spanish courage and Sitwell's books on Spanish art.) Miss West has a superb style. Consider a sentence or two, which few others could have composed:
These handsome peasant women bore themselves as if each wore a heavy invisible crown, which meant, I think, an unending burden of responsability and fatigue.
And this:
If during the next million generations there is but one human being in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of the universe.
And this, the reason she wrote the book:
If a Roman woman had, some years before the sack of Rome, realized why it was going to be sacked, and what motives inspired the barbarians and what the Romans, and had written down all she knew and felt about it, the record would have been of value to historians. My situation [in 1939-1940], though probably not as fatal, is as interesting.

That is our situation at this present time, and it was the situation of the Byzantine empire. We may not be overrun and sacked; but we could be; attempts have been made on us already, and others will be made. When they are, when we resist them and beat them off, we shall realize more of the mistery, the difficulty, and the preciousness of high civilization; and then we shall understand more of the Byzantine achievement. Byzantium is not only in the past. For us it is a possible world of the future. That is part of its power and remoteness. In 1928, W. B. Yeats published a book of poems about his own old age, called The Tower. Its first poem, "Sailing to Byzantium", distinguishes the temporary animal life of youth and passion, which Yeats saw himself leaving, from the stately permanent life of thought and art. He sees himself as a Christian saint, one of those

sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall...

or as a nightingale made by Greek goldsmiths
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

That is the world of art, and thought, and history which we inhabit when we gaze into the somber eyes of the Byzantine saints, or look at the sumptuous Byzantine buildings. Our own buildings look like machines à vivre, made for the present. Theirs seem to be homes of ceremony and prayer, intended to make the mind large enough to contemplate all that

is past, or passing, or to come.

Retrocede     Página principal