I have just finished reading a bit more of Steven Runciman, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign. The book was first published in 1929, reprinted in 1963, and has now been out of print for a number of years. As always with this author, it is a first-rate read. The subject was not totally unfamiliar to me. A couple of years ago, I had searched and found the Myrelaion, the 10th-century church of the Lecapeni, now the Bodrum Camii in the Laleli District of Istanbul.
When Runciman wrote the work in 1929, he was fighting against the prevailing anti-Byzantine prejudice. As he writes:
At the hands of such prejudice many historical epochs have suffered, and most of all the epoch known as the Later Roman or Byzantine Empire. Ever since our rough crusading forefathers first saw Constantinople and met, to their contemptuous disgust, a society where everyone read and wrote, ate food with forks and preferred diplomacy to war, it has been fashionable to pass the Byzantines by with scorn and to use their name as synonymous with decadence....All the historians in chorus treated of a thousand years of empire as a short sinister unbroken decline.
Even by Runciman's day, that attitude had started to fade, though the historical chronicle still contained many dark corners, one of which is addressed by his study of Romanus Lecapenus. The subsequent 80 years have seen a growing appreciation of Byzantine culture. Even so, the civilization of the Christian East remains largely unknown to the West. This particular work of Runciman examines only the earliest decades of the 10th-century, when Constantinople was undergoing an ascendancy once more. His first chapter, nevertheless, is one of the best summaries I have seen of general Byzantine culture. Those who are just beginning to study Byzantium could do worse than to start with this work.
To take only a few examples, in the areas of meritocracy, education and the role of women, these East Romans presented a stark contrast to the whole of western Europe, not only in the Middle Ages, but into the modern age itself.
But even in the army the poorest could rise on their merits to the top. This lack of snobbishness was characteristic of the whole of Byzantine society. It is true that later chroniclers, wishing to insult Theophano, called her an innkeeper's daughter; but society would have to be very democratic where such a past would not be thought a little undignified for an Empress; while the fact that an innkeeper's daughter could become Empress shows a certain elasticity in the social divisions. It was lack of education rather than lack of birth that was considered a subject for mockery (emphasis mine.) The Byzantines prided themselves on their culture. Every self-respecting citizen could recognize a quotation form Homer or the Bible, and was well acquainted with the works of the Fathers and many of the masterpieces of the classics. The University...radiated intellectual activity throughout Constantinople; and the Court prided itself on the patronage of literature and the arts.
The whole attitude towards women was different from that of Western Europe, but certainly no more degrading. In the West, women were the frail sex set apart by chivalry and owing their privileges to their frailty; but in Byzantium women were men's intellectual equals. Girls usually received the same education as their brothers; and Byzantine history can point to several authoresses of distinction.
The reign of Romanus Lecapenus contains one of the best examples of this "Byzantine difference." The army of the Tsar Symeon of the first Bulgarian Kingdom had advanced to the very gates of Constantinople. The Theodosian walls were the toughest nut to crack, but he was closer than he imagined, and the City was in another one of its innumerable dire straights. The Emperor Romanus sent the following letter to Symeon in his camp outside the gates:
I have heard that you are a religious man and a devoted Christian; but I do not see your acts harmonizing with your words. A religious Christian welcomes peace and and love, for God is love, as it is said; but it is a godless and unchristian man who rejoices in slaughter and the shedding of innocent blood. If then you are a true Christian, as we believe, cease from your unjust slaughter and shedding the blood of the guiltless, and make peace with us Christians--since you claim to be a Christian--and do not desire to stain Christian hands with the blood of fellow-Christians. You are a mortal; you await Death and Resurrection and Judgment. Today you live and tomorrow you are dust; one fever will quench all your pride. What will you say, when you come before God, of your unrighteous slaughter? How will you face the terrible, just Judge? If it is for love of riches that you do this, I will grant your desires to excess; only hold out your hand. Welcome peace, love concord, that you yourself may live a peaceful, bloodless and untroubled life, and that Christians may end their woes and cease destroying Christians. For it is a sin to take up arms against fellow-believers.
Chastised, Symeon broke camp and returned to Bulgaria.
Can anyone imagine such a letter being given--or heeded--in the West? I cannot. The empire cannot be understood apart from its Orthodox faith. And while the emperors (including Romanus) could be brutal in defense of their throne or empire, they remained bound to their subjects by a common belief that permeated all aspects of Byzantine society. That, was the Byzantine difference.