The Uniqueness of Byzantium

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for


The Byzantine Empire is commonly associated with political absolutism, economic feudalism, and a State Church that simultaneously sacralised power and secularised religion. This, coupled with influence of Islam and oriental cultures, appears to explain how Europe’s East has been backward and reactionary, lacking Western virtues such as the distinction of religion from political authority constitutionalism, the rule of law, a vibrant market economy and civil society – a free space between the people and the ruler.

That is why Byzantium is synonymous with decadence, repression, and the arcane arrangements of an opaque bureaucracy. As such, the Byzantine legacy is thought to be singularly responsible for Eastern authoritarianism and autocracy that contrasts sharply with Western freedom and democracy. In modern times, so this narrative goes, the East was caught in the constricting shackles of imperial and clerical domination, while the West became the harbinger of Enlightenment emancipation.

This essay contends that Byzantium is key to understanding the history of pan-Europe and to chart an alternative European project for the future. Far from being simply a decadent empire whose demise heralded the rise of progressive sovereign nation-states, I shall argue that the Byzantine Commonwealth preserved the heritage of Antiquity and represented an association of nations and peoples around a shared polity, culture, and faith.

This legacy offers as yet unrealised resources to build a pan-European community that the post-Cold War project of liberal market democracy purported to provide but failed to deliver.

1. On Orthodox Theology

The dominant accounts of European and global history may well be secular, but it is precisely this default position that skews the debate about the legacy of Byzantium. However, both the theology and the history of are rather more complex than the contemporary caricatures suggest. Theologically, there is a clear distinction of state and church. Saint John Chrysostom, a fifth-century Greek theologian, was opposed to the sacralisation of power – a critique that underpins the distinction by Pope Gelasius I of the two swords. For Saint Chrysostom and Saint Augustine who both followed and developed the teaching of the Apostle Paul, secular rule is confined to the temporal saeculum (destined to pass into God’s Kingdom) and falls inside the Church insofar as it concerns justice and the orientation of human existence to the supernatural Good in God.

The distinctness of State and Church was preserved and enhanced by Pope Gelasius I who emphasised the difference between ecclesial auctoritas and secular dominium, with the former having absolute priority over the latter. So configured, politics and the law are secular (in the sense of belonging to the saeculum) without being divorced from religion – a unique legacy of Christendom to Europe and the world at large.

The defenders of Christian universality – from St. Paul via the Church Fathers and Doctors like St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Gregory of Palamas to modern and late modern Christian philosophers like Ralph Cudworth and Vladimir Solovyov – were united in their commitment to the idea of government as a divine gift and the subordination of all institutions to natural law under God and according to God’s wisdom.

In his exposition of the Epistle to the Romans, Chrysostom exhorts Christians not to reject the public political realm as profane but instead to judge secular rule in terms of its divine foundation and finality: “Don’t raise objections about one or another abuse of government, but look at the appropriateness of the institution as such, and you will discern the great wisdom of him who ordained it from the beginning”.

In short, the Orthodox tradition puts a particular focus on the limits of secular power in ways that seeks to avoid both the secularisation of religious authority and the sacralisation of political authority.

2. Christianity and Empire

Moreover, Christianity can never be separated from the legacy of the Roman Empire. The New Testament itself and the Church Fathers viewed the empire as part of the providential working of God towards universal peace. From St. Paul onwards, the Christian tradition accentuated the limits of imperial authority, regarding its main role as upholding justice within the saeculum – the time destined to pass away into the Kingdom of God. It was not until William of Ockham’s emphasis in the fourteenth century on the autonomy of the king vis-à-vis the pope in the fourteenth century that the first notion of ‘secular government’ emerged.

Subsequently this evolved towards the idea of political rule indifferent to philosophical and religious points of view. Christendom maintained the idea that government had to conform to natural law under God and that justice was as much about the law as it about love and grace – the dignity of the human person on which states cannot simply legislate but which they must promote through virtue practices. Indeed, ‘secular’ ruling only fell inside the Church to the degree that it itself approximated to a pastoral concern with the totality of human well-being and collective solidarity.

As I have already indicated, this tension is preserved in Pope Gelasius’s formulation concerning the ‘two powers’: first, ecclesial auctoritas and, second, secular dominium. Both rule ‘this world’, with the former having ultimate sway over the latter in all and every issue – since nothing concerning our ‘passing through this world’ is irrelevant to our attaining ‘the things eternal’.

Once again this was lost in the late medieval and modern era when either some ecclesial or statal arrangements arrogated to themselves exclusive power – leading either to secular state power or a theocracy, both of which destroyed the delicate balance of religious and political authority and with it eliminated constitutionalism and ‘mixed government’ that had been invented by Greco-Roman Antiquity and developed by Christendom.

At the same time Christianity had a critique of secular empire, past and present – especially the pagan glorification of agonistic struggle for power. By contrast, the Christian tradition promoted a sense of honour based on the four classical virtues infused by the three theological virtues – above all the love of the neighbour. Linked to the dignity of the person is the emphasis on personal rule: the rule of the king and priest for each and everyone.

From the conversion of Constantine onwards, political rule became directed towards a new ‘pastoral’ dimension which showed a new concern with all aspects of subjects’ lives and involved the support for the foundation of institutions unknown to pagan Antiquity: the hospice, the orphanage, the almshouse, the places of sanctuary and refuge, diaconates for the systematic distribution of alms, etc., as pioneered in Italy in the 12th century.

Following the Constantinian ‘turn’ (that had really been prefigured by St. Paul), the emerging Christian empire eschewed Roman centralism in favour of a decentralised, relational linking of many dispersed local centres – exemplified by the various episcopal sees and bishoprics. To some extent a different imperial settlement then came about in both East and West, though admittedly in large part through force of circumstance.

The representation of Jesus Christ on earth by both kings and priests was an expression of the pastoral outlook of secular power that marks the repeated re-enactment of Christ’s rule over the whole world – hence the notion of cosmopolis that captures both the universality of the universe and the particularity of the city state, whether Rome in the ‘Latin West’ or Constantinople in the ‘Byzantine East’.

3. The uniqueness of Byzantium

In fact, the mirroring of Christ by emperors and patriarchs was even more prominent in Byzantium where both Roman law and the centres of learning survived the repeated sack of Rome. The rule of the emperor through iconic images – of himself and of Christ and His mother – was linked, as Marie-José Mondzain has shown to a radically new notion of ‘economic’ authority that was inseparable from the emergence of ‘pastoral’ ruling already mentioned. [1]

Within the ‘general economy’ of Antiquity, the ‘economic’ in the narrower, special sense was confined to the area of household management or its more large-scale equivalent, such as the city state. The ‘economic’ existed ultimately to sustain the possibility of a more elevated ‘political life’ of negotiated friendship in debated agreement amongst adult males.

But as Mondzain points out, Christian theology now spoke of a ‘divine economy’ that was at the very heart of ‘divine government’ and no subordinate aspect. This ‘economy’ was at once a proportionate distribution of goodness to the finite creation in various modes and degrees, and at the same time an ‘exceptional’ extra-legal adaptation of the ‘theological’ inner-divine Trinitarian life to the creation and especially the human creation, through processes of ‘provision’ that ultimately included the ‘economy of salvation’. Thus in theological terms – however quixotic this may seem today – Byzantium was part of the earthly preparation for the Kingdom of God.

The delicate and imperfect balance of politics and religion is the mark of Christendom in both East and West. It helps explain why secular modernity inherited but never invented the tradition of constitutionalism and ‘mixed government’ which ultimately underpin democracy and classical liberalism. In other words, secularism misses the point that despite the process of secularisation, Europe remains a vestigially Christian polity which initially developed from the fusion of biblical revelation with Greco-Roman philosophy.

The importance of Byzantium for the survival and flourishing of Christianity and the civic legacy of the Roman Empire can hardly be overstated. After the fall of imperial Rome in the late fifth century, three different forces vied for the Roman legacy and shaped the continent’s emerging civilisation: first, pagan tribes from Germanic, Turkic and Slavonic territories; second, Christendom and its ecclesial ‘body’ of local parishes and transnational monasteries; third, Islam’s creation of a caliphate from Arabia to the Iberian peninsula. Of these, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes, “the Christian Church is quite simply the most extensive and enduring, whether in the form of the Western Papacy or of the 'Byzantine Commonwealth', the network of cultural and spiritual connections in Eastern Europe linked to the new Roman Empire centred on Constantinople”. [2]

Here it is instructive to draw on the work of Dmitry Obolensky, in particular in his seminal book Byzantine Commonwealth. Indeed, it is hard to overstate the importance of Christendom in European and world history. Christendom was never just a Roman invention that we largely owe to the Latin West. Following Obolensky’s ground-breaking work, there is ample evidence to suggest that from late Antiquity to early modernity large parts of Eastern Europe from the Balkans and Romania via the territories on both sides of the Danube to the Ukraine, Russia and beyond lay within the orbit of Byzantium’s religious, political and cultural influence.

Taken together, these lands constituted a commonwealth of kingdoms and nations which over time built a shared civic tradition. Only the ‘Byzantine Commonwealth’ and its lasting legacy can explain how the East was christianised and why it has since then formed an integral part of pan-Europe. [3] Without Eastern Christendom (and the defence of Western Christianity by Charlemagne and King Alfred the Great in the ninth century), Christian Europe would probably have succumbed to the invasion by Muslims in the South and the East and by pagan Vikings in the North-West.

Moreover, from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, the periodic religious and monastic revival in Byzantium provided a bulwark against the Mongols and gradually shifted the focus of the Russian Orthodox Church away from national power towards trans-national reconciliation of the Northern periphery with its centre in Constantinople. Coupled with a spiritual and artistic renaissance, this realignment favoured political unity among hitherto rival principalities. Thus, Vladimir Valdenberg makes the crucial point that Muscovy inherited from Byzantium the idea that imperial power is limited and subject to the superior religious power (that ought to be) protected by the Orthodox Church. [4]

Moreover, this legacy is important for two reasons. First of all, it provided a transnational embedding of national power, in the sense that the rule of tsars was only really legitimate if it reflected in some way the universal, Orthodox sovereignty of the Emperor in Constantinople. Linked to this was the Romano-Byzantine system of law and shared liturgical and hymnographical practices (and common saints such as Cyril and Methodius). Second, the Byzantine legacy bequeathed notions and practices of civic association that were variously more religious or more secular – either linked to monasticism (St. Sergius of Radonezh) or schools, universities, workshops, and guilds.

However, it is also true that the unification of Russian lands around Orthodox Byzantine Moscow also introduced a growing split with the Roman Catholic Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania and did not prevent the dissolution of the supra-national commonwealth into its constituent parts – empires, monarchies and national churches. The schism was finally consummated in 1453 when the Byzantine Commonwealth centred on Constantinople was destroyed by the invasion of Turkish troops. Subsequently, pan-European Christendom gave way to national kingdoms and churches in the East and the growing tension between the papacy and the princes in the West.

This event and its aftermath shattered the remnants of the visible Œcumene and polity that bound together East and West around a shared – though contested – Christian legacy. The absence of a mediating ecclesial tradition undermined the remnants of Christendom from within and reinforced some of the worst tendencies of Eastern monocracy and West dualism. Thus, the Great Schism helped destroy the theological and political underpinning of Europe’s Christian culture and its common intellectual basis. In this sense, it remains historically much more significant for Europe and the rest of the world than the discovery of the New World or the American, French and Russian Revolutions. Without the disintegration of Christendom, neither modernity nor secularisation would have emerged triumphant in the way they did.

Indeed, it was the collapse of Byzantium that coincided with the rise of imperial absolutism and periods of either caesaro-papism or hierocracy in Russia and other Orthodox lands – i.e. either the subordination of Church to State or the sacralisation of secular power. The tradition of absolutist rule was adopted by numerous Russian Tsars and Soviet leaders alike. In fact, at various points the modern Russian state has carried on the tradition of early Tsarism, with their focus on opaque power structures and the idea of the ‘Third Rome’, a form of exceptionalism that fuelled both Tsarist and Soviet supremacism. In short, the disastrous development of Russia in late Tsarist and Soviet times can be traced to the demise of Byzantium rather than the Byzantine Commonwealth itself.

4. Conclusion: the origins of civil society

Crucially, Europe is not her own foundation (unlike America or China) but the continuous unfolding of the Hellenistic fusion of Jerusalem with Athens and Rome and also the integration and transformation of other European traditions such as Germanic law, the Celtic, Slavic and other languages.

Connected with this blending of diverse cultures within an overarching framework is the Judeo-Christian distinction of religious from political authority. Based on this distinction, a ‘free space’ emerged between political rule and society wherein politics is not monopolised by the state but pertains to the public realm in which individuals and groups participate. Indeed, the Church – together with local communities and professional bodies like guilds or universities – tended to defend the freedom of society against political coercion. This ‘complex, free space’ is what we commonly call civil society.

This, coupled with the tradition of monasticism and monastic spiritual, is perhaps Europe’s greatest gift to the world. In my next essay, I shall focus on the enduring legacy of the monastic traditions that have helped build and sustain Christendom in both East and West.


[1] Marie-José Mondzain, Image, Icône, Économie. Les sources byzantines de l’imaginaire contemporain (Paris: Ed. Seuil, 1996), trans. Image, Icon, Economy: the Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary, tr. Rico Franses (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005).
[2] Archbishop Rowan Williams, ‘Religion culture diversity and tolerance – shaping the new Europe’, address given in Brussels, 7 November 2005, at  See also Dmitry Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (London: Sphere Books, 1974).
[3] Dimitri Obolensky, Byzantium and the Slavs: collected studies (London: Sphere Books, 1971); idem, The Byzantine Inheritance of Eastern Europe (London: Sphere Books, 1982).
[4] Vladimir Valdenberg, Drevnerusskie ucenija o predelach tsarskoj vlasti (Petrograd, 1916, reprinted The Hague, 1966), esp. pp. 1-27.