Issue Number: 101
How did an empire with such a rich culture become a byword for labyrinthine complexity? AC Grayling unravels the linguistic knots
There are two main uses of the adjective ‘Byzantine’: one describes the empire and the rich artistic and architectural heritage of Byzantium; the other, written ‘byzantine’, denotes labyrinthine complexity – and by extension surreptitiousness, deviousness, duplicity. How was it that ‘Byzantine’ lost its capital ‘B’ and acquired its lower-case meaning?
It is no surprise that Byzantium should have added such a variegated palette of ideas to our culture, for it was a great city at the heart of a great empire, and its achievements and history are vast. For nearly 1,000 years it was the preserve of the highest civilisation west of India, continuing, and in some ways surpassing, the Roman imperial tradition, at the same time absorbing the influences of Asia into it.
The result is that ‘Byzantine’ and ‘byzantine’ are words that suggest many things, from particular types of architecture and iconography to general notions of intricacy, complexity and even moral twistedness.
‘Byzantine’ with a capital ‘B’ to describe the city’s fifth and sixth century style of architecture, to take a specific example, denotes buildings with a dome supported on pendentives over a square space, the interior surfaces veneered in marble and polychrome mosaics on a golden ground.
Similarly precise, the expression ‘Byzantine art’ denotes the icon paintings, murals, mosaics, illustrated manuscripts and other works that have the instantly recognisable stamp of the civilisation they emerged from. Think of the supremely beautiful thirteenth-century Icon with Archangel Gabriel exquisitely painted in tempera and gold on wood, or the Cambrai Madonna of the fourteenth century, with its lively baby wriggling in the Madonna’s arms. Legend claimed that this icon was painted by no less than St Luke himself, but the iconography places it in the late medieval period: Byzantium invented the Virgin of Tenderness, of which this is a classic example with its elousa (sweet kissing) cheek-to-cheek pose.
These are examples of the ‘Byzantine’. But the ‘byzantine’ stems from the tortuous, opaque, convoluted bureaucracy of government that the empire of many peoples, languages and cultures demanded. Under the basileus (emperor) were many degrees of aristocrat and official, the latter divided into ‘the bearded ones’ (i.e. not eunuchs) and eunuchs.
Domestic citizens and foreign diplomats alike found dealing with Byzantium’s bureaucracy almost impossible because of the labyrinth of departments and painstaking processes that had to be navigated to get even the least thing done. Think of what it’s like trying to do anything on the telephone: ringing ‘help lines’ to solve a computer problem or assist with setting up your iPhone; those hours on the phone, being shunted from one faint, faroff voice to another. Now multiply that by a hundred, add a dash of Kafka’s The Castle and a garnish of The Trial – and you get the picture.
The use of ‘byzantine’ to describe this state of affairs began in the seventeenth century (some dictionaries give 1651 as the date of the first recorded use) but the reputation for complexity stems from the kinds of relationship that were forged between medieval European governments and Byzantium in the centuries before and during the Crusades.
A secondary meaning of ‘byzantine’ as ‘decadent’ or ‘effete’ arose from the fact that the rough, barely-civilised western Europeans who variously visited or sacked Byzantium on their rampages to the Holy Land found the polished manners, literacy and sophistication of the culture a rebuke, and reacted by despising and insulting Byzantium.
Among the insults was the entirely unwarranted one that Byzantium’s history was full of intrigue, plots, poisonings and palace revolts. Of all the great civilisations, the Byzantine was probably the least like this, and correlatively the most stable. And this was a function of the highly developed system of government bureaucracy itself, in which due process, proper regulation and a rich framework of law and precedent enabled the vast empire to operate, century after century, with steady, if slow, efficiency.
Nevertheless, the jealousy of non-Byzantines ensured that terms that merely signified rank in the hierarchy of Byzantium came to have negative connotations. The word despotes meant ‘lord’ in Byzantium, and was one of the emperor’s titles; ‘despot’ has an unequivocally negative connotation now. Another of the emperor’s epithets was autokrator, which as ‘autocrat’ now is a near-synonym of despot.
A great power gets a bad name. Perhaps in a few centuries people will insult each other by saying, ‘You wretched washingtonian!’, ‘You scurvy whitehouser!’ or ‘It was so american I couldn’t touch it’, and so forth. This would be linguistic history repeating itself.
The main use of the word ‘byzantine’, though, is to denote ‘very complicated’. Although the chief source for this idea has to be the bureaucracy already mentioned, one need only look at something like the mosaic portrait in San Vitale of the empress holding a jewelled bowl, dating from the early sixth century, to see that the detail and complexity of Byzantine art could be part of the meaning too. The rendering of the folds of Theodora’s robe draped over her arm is intricately done, wonderfully communicating the flow and weight of the cloth in subtle gradations of colour. That is the kind of byzantine complexity that is worth celebrating.