Byzantium and Us

Εxtract from an interview with Sir Steven Runciman

The most slandered and misrepresented historical period of Romanity[1]

(Comments of the webpage)

The following interview with the great historian and Byzantologist Sir Steven Runciman can be characterized as the quintessence of his great work, which is globally renown and recognized. His statements are momentous and his words mature and wise in meaning, extractions of thorough and objective life-long study of all expressions of the 'Byzantine' civilization. They truly are blows to the profane mouths which regurgitate generalizations, smear-talk and insults about anything relating to this millennium. And the most detestable thing is that the majority of these unlearned people who follow this trend is that they are 'ours', being 'Romans (Romioi)'*. And so, deservingly they receive the brash title of 'Greekling*', while this Celtic scientist of noble descent sits on the bright firmament of Hellenophiles.

* a Greek not worthy of their cultural heritage; servile to foreigners and things foreign

The following viewpoints of Sir Steven Runciman are more relevant in modern days than at any other time. He warns us so that we can finally wake up and understand the real reasons that drove us to today's degradation, to the new state of occupancy of our nation―surely to the worst one so far, since everything takes place fraudulently and behind the scenes. We must understand that it is impossible to build our future as a healthy nation when we have rejected our bright past, at the advice of opportunists. Let us listen to the people who have demonstrated their honest love towards our tormented race through their life and morals.

At the end of the interview the respectable researcher makes reference to Orthodoxy in relation to other dogmas. We believe it is important to consider the views as perspectives of a man who is not part of this sphere. We note that certainly it is not possible to perceive them as regular Orthodox teachings. Besides, the speaker was not Orthodox.   



“Sir Steven Runciman: We Need Spiritual Humility”, Nov. 6, 2000,
Εxtract from an interview with Sir Steven Runciman

Translation by: Holy Monastery of Pantokrator

The following interview was given by Sir Steven Runciman, in Elseselds, Scotland, in his ancestral chateau, in October 1994, for ET3, to journalists Chrysa Arapoglou and Labrini H. Thoma. Because of technical reasons it never aired on TV. Both journalists consider this interview as one of the most important in their career since it was one of those 'discussions' that shape you and which you never forget. They believe it should be made public, at least on the occasion such a sad event, as is the death of this great friend of the Greek nation. has published, for the first time, unpublished extracts from this interview.                

Journalist: How does a man feel that has studied the Byzantium for so many years? Are you tired?

It is hard to answer. My interest never dissipated. When I started studying Byzantium, there were very few people in this country (i.e. Great Britain) that were interested, even minutely in Byzantium. I like to believe that I have created 'interest' in Byzantium. What satisfies me, especially today, is that now there are several, very good representatives (i.e. in the study of Byzantium) in Britain. I may say that I feel like a father towards them. So I am glad that I chose Byzantium as my main interest. 
And was it attractive to you all these years?

I believe that if you start studying every event in history thoroughly, it can become exciting. I find Byzantium especially exciting because it was a self-sufficient civilization. To study Byzantium, you must study its art first, study religion, study a whole way of life, which is very different to today's.

Better or Worse?  

Look… I am not sure that I would like to live in Byzantine times. I wouldn't like, for example, to grow a beard. Still, in Byzantium they had a way of life which was better structured. Besides, when you have a strong religious sense, your life 'is given shape' and is much more satisfactory than today's, where one does not believe enough in anything.     

So was it a religious state?

It was a  civilization in which religion constituted the main way of life.

In all the eleven centuries?

I think people talk about Byzantium as if it remained the same, a stagnant civilization during all those centuries. It changed dramatically from the beginning to its end, even if some basic factors lasted throughout its entire duration―such as the religious sense. They may have had disagreements on the various religious matters, but they were all believers and this feeling was constant. Respect and appreciation to the arts, as those that please God, those were preserved as well. And so, despite the fact that fashions changed, the economic situation changed, the political status quo changed, there was a very interesting integrity, on the whole.

We are talking about religion and morals. Byzantium is considered by many a period of wars, murders, intrigues, 'Byzantinisms' that had nothing to do with morals.

Many murders also occurred then, but there is no period in history from which they are missing. One time I was giving a lecture in the USA, and in my audience there was the daughter of President Johnson, who was studying Byzantium. She came to the lecture with two body guards, two tough men who watched over her. She explained to me that they love Byzantine history, because it is filled with murders and brings to mind school lessons (homework). I had the tact not to tell her that up until then, the percentage of American presidents that had been murdered was much higher―in relation to the years the US has existed―from the percentage of murdered Byzantine emperors during the empire. People continue to murder. Open your eyes!

You have written that in Byzantine civilization there was no death penalty. 

Indeed, they did not kill. And the big difference is evident in the initial period. When the Roman Empire turned Christian, one of the most essential changes was to stop gladiatorial games, not throw people to lions anymore, and all those things. The empire became much more humanitarian. And they always avoided as much as possible the death penalty. At times, some emperors resorted to it, but the majority used as a last resort punishment, a method that today seems hideous to us: some sort of mutilation. But I think that most people would rather have a hand cut, for example, than be put to death.     
For some time, an open dialogue has been taking part in Greece. There are contemporary Greek intellectuals that claim that Byzantium is not particularly worth studying, since it did not create anything, as it entailed commentators of the scriptures and not intellectuals. In a phrase “it was nothing memorable”.

I think that those Greeks are very biased with their Byzantine ancestors. It was not a society without intellectuals; it's enough to look at the work and progress of Byzantine medicine. One may dislike religion, but some of the religious writers like the Cappadocian fathers, and many others, up to Gregory Palamas, were people of unique spirituality... Intense intellectualism and spiritual life existed in Byzantium. Especially, in the late Byzantine years, i.e. The period under the Palaiologoi. It is especially curious, that at the time when the empire was shrinking, intellectual thinking was blossoming more than ever.

Others claim there was no art.
Then they must not know anything about art. Byzantine art was one of the greatest art schools worldwide. No ancient Greek would have been able to build St Sophia, this required a very deep technical knowledge. Some, as you know, claim that Byzantine art is static. It was not at all static, but it was one of the most important art schools in the world, which as time passes, it is more appreciated, and the Greek intellectuals who tell you that Byzantium did not create anything are blind.
So the ones that characterize Byzantine art as “simple imitation and copying” are probably mistaken.

If you make something excellently, then you can repeat it excellently. But there were always differences. Looking at an icon, we can assign a date to it. If they were all the same this would not happen. There were specific traditions that were maintained, but this art is very different from century to century. It got 'stuck' and remained the same after the fall of Turkish rule, because illuminated sponsors were missing from your country.[2] The art of the Palaiologoi is very different from the art of the Justinians. Certainly it was also analogous, but it was not imitative. Things are simple: the people who persecute Byzantium never studied it, and started out with prejudices against it. They do not know what it achieved, what it accomplished.        

Greece, Byzantium, modern Democracy

Some claim that Byzantium was not Greek and was not a continuation of ancient Greece. There was no democracy, or even democratic institutions.

I don't believe that contemporary Greeks are more Greek than the Byzantines. In time, in the course of centuries, races do not remain pure, but certain characteristics of culture remain ethnic. The Byzantines used the Greek language―that has changed a little, but languages change. They were very interested in philosophy and the philosophical life. They may have been subjugated to an emperor, but this emperor had to behave correctly, because uprisings among the people took place easily. The worse that one could say about Byzantium was that it was a bureaucratic state. But it had a very educated bureaucracy, much more educated than the bureaucrats in today's world.

And, what do you mean when you say the word “democracy”? Was all of ancient Greece democratic? No. I would say to the Greeks who claim such a thing, to read their own history, especially that of classical Greece. There they will find a lot to judge... I never understood exactly what “democracy” meant. In most places of the world today, democracy means to be governed by mass media, newspapers and television. Because it is desirable to attain what we call “people's vote” but, from the minute that people cannot judge on their own―and there are many people in the modern world that do not think―then they transfer this authority to the hands of the Media, who, with the power they have, should choose the difficult path and educate all whole world. Many, not all fortunately, are irresponsible. Democracy can exist only if there is a highly educated public. In a city like ancient Athens, there was democracy―without considering how slaves and women went through―because the men were very well educated. Usually they did not elect their governors, they drew lots, as if they were leaving it in God's hands―nothing like the House of Commons.   
Was there a social state in Byzantium?

The Church did a lot for the people. Byzantium had utter social understanding. The hospitals were very good, as well as the nursing homes, which mainly belonged to the Church, but not only to it; there were also public ones. Let us not forget that one of the most senior officials was the head of orphanages. Surely, the Church played a key social role. It was not only about a regime of hermits sitting on Mount Athos. There was also that, but there was a system of monasteries in the cities. The monasteries looked after the homes for the elderly, and the monks educated the youth―especially boys, as girls were educated at home―and most provided a very good education. Girls in Byzantium often received a better education, because they “enjoyed” more private attention. I think the marks we would give to the social work of the Church in Byzantium would be particularly high.

And their education, according to Basil the Great, had to be based on Homer, the “teacher of virtues”.            

They were experts of ancient Greek Writings. It is worth mentioning, nevertheless, that they did not pay particular attention to the Attic Tragedians, but to the rest of the poets. There is the famous story of an attractive lady, a friend of an emperor, that Anna Komnene narrates to us. As the lady was passing by, someone yelled a homeric phrase to her, referring to Helen of Troy, and she understood the innuendo. Nobody needed to explain to her, whose lyrics they were. All boys and girls without exception knew Homer. Anna Komnene never explains the points referring to Homer, all her readers were familiar with them.      
Were there no uneducated people in Byzantium?

The problems of Byzantine writing were different. They were so knowledgeable of ancient Greek writings that they were influenced in their linguistic formation. Many historians wished to write like Thucydides; they did not want to write in the language that was more natural to them but in the ancient. The great tragedy of Byzantine writings was their dependence on classical writings. Not because they did not have enough knowledge, but because they had more knowledge than necessary, for their own “creative” well-being.  

Would you like to live in Byzantium?

I don't know personally if I would be suited for the Byzantine period. If I lived at the time, I think, I would find comfort in some monastery, living, like many monks lived, an intellectual's life, buried in the wonderful libraries they possessed. I don't think I would want a life in Byzantine politics, but it is very hard to find a period in world history in which you would like to live... It all depends on the government, the society, the class in which you are born. I would like to live in 18th century Britain, if I was born an aristocrat. Otherwise, I wouldn't like it at all. It's very difficult to answer your question.   ... 

How do you view Orthodoxy within this circle?

I have a deep respect for Christian dogmas, and especially for Orthodoxy, because only Orthodoxy recognizes that religion is a mystery. The Roman Catholics and Protestants want to explain everything. It is pointless to believe in a religion, believing that this religion will help you understand everything. The point of religion is exactly to help us understand the fact that we cannot explain everything. I think that Orthodoxy retains this valuable feeling of mystery.   

But do we need mystery?

We need it. We need the knowledge that implies that in the universe there is much more than what we can understand. We need intellectual humility, and this is missing, especially among Western ecclesiastical men.

This is a characteristic of Orthodoxy and their Saints―the respect for humility.

How do you comment on the fact that many Saints got involved in politics and practiced political?
All who wish to influence people use politics and are politicians. Politics means trying to organize the 'Polis' (city) in a new way of thinking. The Saints are politicians. I never believed that you could separate the faith toawrds the Saints from intellect. I return to what I said about the Churches. From the minute you try to explain everything, you essentially destroy what should constitute human insight, which connects intellect to Saints and the sense of God.      

Intellect, politics, and faith in the Divine: So, can they march together?

Your town, Thessaloniki, is an example. It was very famous for its intellectuals, especially in the later Byzantine years. But it also had help from its military, as Saint Demetrios, were coming to rescue her on the right moment. Faith in Saints gives you courage to defend the city from attacks, as Saint Demetrios did.

How do you view the other churches?

The Roman Catholic Church was always a political institution, apart from being a religious one, and was always interested in the law. We need to remember that when the Roman Empire collapsed in the West, and the barbaric kingdoms arrived, the Roman rulers were lost, but the church officials remained, and they were the only ones with a Roman education. So they were used by the barbarian leaders to impose the law. In this way, the Western Church was “muddled up” with law. You can see the law in the Roman Catholic Church; it wants to legally secure everything. In Byzantium―and it is interesting how even after the Turkish conquest the substructures remain―the Church is interested only in the Canon, the law of the Scriptures. It does not desire to determine everything. In the Western Churches that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, the need of law, of absolute specifications, has been inherited. It is very interesting for one to study―and I have been studying for some time―the dialogue between the Anglican Church of the seventeenth century and the Orthodox. The Anglicans were rather unsettled because they could not understand what the Orthodox believed regarding the turning of wine and bread into body and blood. The Orthodox said “it is a mystery which we cannot comprehend. We believe it happens, but how we do not know”. The Anglicans, like the Roman Catholics, wanted a clear answer. This is the typical difference of the Churches, and that is why I love the Orthodox.             

What do you think about modern Greeks?

This quick understanding of things and situations is still alive among the people. There is also a strong presence of the other quality of the Byzantines: lively curiosity. And modern Greeks retain, like the Byzantines, perception of their importance in the history of civilization. All this indicates historical unity. Besides no race can retain all its characteristics untouched. A lot depends on the language, which is the best way to retain tradition. The writers of Byzantium were hurt from their relationship to the ancient writers. Fortunately, the modern Greeks have modern Greek that has allowed modern Greek writers to advance, to progress in a way that the Byzantines did not manage, excluding Cretan literature and Digenes. The great Byzantine masterpieces were most probably folkloristic.    

A Walk in the Garden and Poetic Stories[3]

I first met Seferis when I was in Greece, right after the war. When he came as an ambassador to London, I used to see him often. During that time, I passed a lot of my time on an island of the west coast of Scotland, with its mild climate because of the Gulf Stream. An alley of palm trees lead to my house. He came and stayed over together with his wife. The weather was wonderful as it often is there, and he said to me “It is even more beautiful than the Greek islands”―very polite on his behalf. We corresponded by mail regularly up until his death... when he left London, for Athens, he left me his cellar, a cellar containing exclusively ouzo and retsina. I still have not drunk all that ouzo, I have... he had said that “the Celts are the Romioi of the North”, yes, he enjoyed making such remarks. However, here he is quite right...  

Kavafis is one of the greatest poets of the world, and indeed original... I cannot read Kazanzakis, I knew him personally, but I cannot read him, I never liked him to be honest. I like Elitis and once in while I find something special in Sikelianos. I don't know the younger ones; I stopped following, as you know I belong to a very old generation.

[1]Trans. Note: Often also referred to as “Romiosini”. Some also explain the word as referring to the Greek Roman Empire of the East. However, as Prof. Clifton Fox says: “The people of the 'Byzantine Empire' had no idea that they were Byzantine. They regarded themselves as the authentic continuators of the Roman world: the Romans living in Romania.” It is a word still used by some Greeks and, though it has no set definition, it is usually used for those Greeks who adhere to the Orthodox Christian faith and a certain ideal and spirit connected to the Byzantine Empire. (See:
[2]the Byzantine iconographers are not known to us because the maker of the church was considered the sponsor, the one who granted the money and of course retained an opinion on the total outcome. In very few instances we know the name of the iconographer or architect, in the nine centuries of Byzantium, but almost always the name of the sponsor is known to us.
[3]Sir Steven guided us around the garden of his home, after the interview, talking freely, about his beloved greek friends. The conversation was almost all of it “off the record”, except from the extracts being published here, which in his knowledge were told “on camera”, as he was showing us the most ancient tree in his garden.
Sources (greek):

Translation by: Holy Monastery of Pantokrator


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