[Order Robert Spencer’s new book. Empire of God: How the Byzantines Saved Civilization: HERE.]
George Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” has been emblazoned on coffee mugs, bumper stickers, websites, and quite possibly needlepoint samplers. In recent years, that saying has been massaged a bit to be replaced with “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” I would add that it is also an excellent mimic.
While the repetition of history is not the central theme of Robert Spencer’s latest book, Empire of God: How the Byzantines Saved Civilization, it plays an important role. One ignores the parallels between the Byzantine Empire and the 21st Century at one’s peril. Spencer takes up the task of chronicling the story of the Eastern Roman Empire. It is a story that could best be described as well, byzantine.
Empire of God does the heavy lifting on a subject that has been largely ignored in high school and even many 100-level collegiate history classes. For that matter, it was also given short shrift by the History Channel, even before the days when it abandoned history for a fascination with pawn shops, custom cars, and the supernatural.
Many people are under the impression that the glory that was Rome came to a screeching halt when Rome itself was sacked by the Goths. It is a common assumption that once the barbarians overran the Eternal City, the last Caesar handed over his laurel crown, hitched up his toga, and made a hasty exit stage left. But the people in the East in no way believed that the curtain had lowered. The truth is that until 1453, when the Eastern Empire finally fell, the Byzantines considered themselves Romans and the keepers of the Greco-Roman traditions and philosophy. The empire existed for a phenomenally long time.
Spencer also charts the course of the growth of the Christian church and how it contended with the remnants of the old beliefs to assert itself and even maintain its right to teach ancient Greek literature and philosophy, paganism aside. Empire of God describes the split between the Latin and Orthodox sides of the church. In some history books, it is relegated to the filioque debate. In reality, the division was much deeper and more complex than one may realize. The massive ecclesiastical divorce was years in the making. Be that as it may, the development of the Eastern Church still resonates in Christianity today, even in churches that do not adhere to the Nicene Creed or any of the traditions of their ancient predecessor. The book also shows how the empire refined laws and educational practices to provide the foundations that anchor modern education and jurisprudence.
But to return to our opening premise: in telling the story of the Byzantine Empire and introducing us to its emperors, many of whom are lost to all but the most diligent of historians, Spencer shows us eerie parallels between the lives of the Byzantines and those of us in the present. Some emperors brought victory, peace, and economic stability. Others succumbed to ambition, wealth, leisure, or politics, brought military defeat to the empire, and subjected their subjects to outrageous taxes and inflation. Sometimes to the point of shaving metal from coins to replenish their treasuries. One was a simpleton who could not even manage the even the most basic tasks of statecraft and needed constant supervision. Another, Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes, led an exhausted and depleted force armed with little more than hunting spears and scythes to face the jihadi threat in the east. Romanos’ exploits accomplished little if anything, but he still felt he had won a victory simply by showing up.
There is the story of Ecumenical Patriarch Nicholas, who was evicted from his position by Emperor Leo VI for his refusal to perform Leo’s fourth marriage, as per church law. Nicholas wrote to Pope Sergius III to air his grievances and to point out that an emperor should not be a tyrant and was bound by the same laws and mores to which every citizen had to adhere:
“Does the emperor order us to take arms against the enemy? Does he decide that we must contribute something to the public interest? His decision must then be obeyed eagerly. Does he order us to do whatever else may bring strength and honor to his rule and to his subjects? We must then do his bidding at once. These things are the emperor’s duties… On the other hand, does he…bid us renounce our piety toward God? But this is not an emperor’s duty: so that we must not obey, and must ignore his order as the impious edict of an impious man. Does he bid us to slander, to slay another by guile, to corrupt another’s marriage, or wrongfully take another’s goods? This, however, is not a work of an imperial government, but rather of a footpad, a slanderer, an adulterer, a thief… It is evil, it is most evil doctrine to say that ‘because he is an emperor’ he is permitted to sin in a way that no one would permit his subjects to do.”
One can hardly read that quote without recalling the saga of Hunter Biden or the two-tiered system of justice that is currently endemic to the United States.
As mentioned above, the empire had its share of victories and successes, and many emperors made wise choices. For example, when the bubonic plague arrived at Constantinople from Egypt in 541, Emperor Justinian realized that there was little he could do to stop it or “slow the spread.” Life in the city continued without quarantines, masks, or social distancing. The people went on as best they could, and the plague passed.
As time wore on, the empire found itself trapped between the Charybdis of the forces of Islam in the East and the twin Scyllas of emerging nation-states in the West who eyed the empire as ripe for takeover and a Latin papacy that was rising in power. Wars were fought, land was won and lost, deals were made with enemies from both points of the compass, and Byzantium and its empire began to decline.
Empire of God does more than recount the history of the Byzantines and the debt our society owes them. It is also a cautionary tale, and one need not look too deep to see how closely the threats that afflicted the Eastern Roman Empire mirror those of our day.
Lincoln Brown is a freelance writer at PJ Media. He has also published columns on Townhall, The Hill, The American Spectator, and National Review.