Narrator. Hello. In 1453, the Byzantine Empire fell. Let us now take a look at how this happened.
Islamic chant weaves into the gusts of freezing wind.
Istanbul. The muezzin continues his prayer, amplified by a loudspeaker. The noise of a market place in a Middle Eastern city. Turkish conversation.
Narrator. This city was once called Constantinople; six centuries ago it was the capital city of what was without exaggeration one of the greatest civilizations in world history—the Byzantine Empire.
It was during this period of looting that the monstrous modern lending system was created using treasures stolen from Constantinople. This average sized city in Italy—Venice—was the New York of the thirteenth century. The financial fate of nations was decided here. At first most of the booty was easily taken by sea to Venice and Lombardy (the Russian word for “pawn shop” to this day is “Lombard”). The first European banks began to spring up like mushrooms after a good rain. The English and Dutch, more reserved than their contemporary Italians and Germans, joined the activity a little later, and, with the help of Byzantine riches pouring in, developed that famous capitalism with its inevitable lust for profits, which is essentially a sort of genetic continuation of the sport of military plunder. The first significant Jewish capital was a result of speculation in Byzantine relics.
An unprecedented flow of free money caused the Western European cities to grow wildly, and became the decisive catalyst in the development of craft, science, and the arts. The barbaric West became the civilized West only after it had taken over, stolen, destroyed, and swallowed up the Byzantine Empire.
We must admit that our own Slavic forebears were no more well-mannered, and also succumbed to the barbaric temptation to get rich quick at the expense of Constantinople’s seemingly inexhaustible wealth. However, to their credit, and fortunately for us, their lust for the spoils of war did not eclipse the most important thing: Russians comprehended Byzantium’s greatest treasure! This was neither gold, nor expensive textiles, nor even art and sciences. The greatest treasure of Byzantium was God.
Having traveled the world over in search of the truth and God, Prince Vladimir’s ambassadors experienced only in Byzantium that a true relationship between God and man exists; that it is possible for us to have living contact with another world. “We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth,” said the ancestors of present-day Russians, astounded by their experience of Divine Liturgy in the Empire’s most important cathedral, the Hagia Sophia. They understood just what kind of treasure can be obtained in Byzantium. It was upon this treasure that our great forebears founded not banks, nor capital, nor even museums and pawn shops. They founded Rus’, Russia, the spiritual successor of Byzantium.
Today we will talk about that inner enemy which appeared within the spiritual bowels of Byzantine society, and broke the spirit of that great nation, turning it into a helpless victim of those historical calls—calls which Byzantium was no longer able to answer.
It happened like this: An important financial resource in the country was not gas and oil, as it is now, but customs obtained from the enormous international trade in the Bosphorus and Dardenelles. The Byzantines, who earlier relied solely upon their own capability to govern the country’s economics, suddenly began heated discussions about, and finally decided upon, consigning the problems of international trade to their foreign friends, who were more resourceful, and ready to take responsibility for the expense of complex transport, armed guards along trade routes, the construction of new ports, and the intensification and development of commercial activities. Western specialists were called in from Venice and Genoa, towns which had grown large on several centuries of Byzantine trade. They were granted duty-free trade, and entrusted with the patrol of sea routes along the Empire’s territory.
All the Byzantine traders either went bankrupt or became dependent upon foreigners. When the country finally realized what was happening, it was too late. The “Golden Bulla” was annulled, and Emperor Andronikos tried to reverse the flow of money back towards his empire. He confiscated all foreign commercial enterprises, which were draining the government of its last resources. Both he and the country paid dearly for this. He himself was brutally murdered; as for his country… The republic of Venice, which had by that time become a huge financial oligarchy, hired a whole crusade, and sent it to sack Constantinople instead of Jerusalem. The Byzantines, who had up until then considered the crusaders to be in general brothers in the faith and military allies, were so unprepared for such an underhanded blow that it was unable to organize sufficient defense. In 1204, French, German, and Italian contingents of the Western union advanced upon Constantinople and took it over. The city was mercilessly pillaged and put to the torch.
Another unresolved problem in Byzantium was corruption and oligarchy. The government warred with them continually, and was for a long time was effective. Bureaucrats and financial schemers who had gone too far were punished and exiled, their possessions completely confiscated and given to the treasury. However, the authorities never really had the strength and resolve to sever this evil systematically. Oligarchs gathered entire armies under the pretext of servants and guards, and plunged the government into the thick of civil wars.
Incidentally, the oligarchs not only failed to provide the government with money or arms during this final invasion by the Turks, but even grabbed what little was left in the treasury. When the young Sultan Mehmed met took the city, he was shocked at the exorbitant wealth of some citizens while the city’s army was completely lacking. He summoned the richest citizens and asked them a simple question: why they did not provide any money for the city’s protection from the enemy? “We were saving these funds for your Sultanic Majesty,” was their flattering answer. Mehmed had them punished immediately in the cruelest manner: their heads were chopped off, and their bodies thrown to the dogs. Those oligarchs who fled to the West hoping to hide their capital were mercilessly fleeced by their Western “friends,” and ended their lives in poverty.
A huge problem of the Byzantine government during the period of decline was its frequent change in political direction, which could be called a lack of stability and succession in governmental powers. With each change of emperors, the empire’s direction would often change drastically. This weakened the country severely, and cruelly exhausted the population.
Political stability is one of the most important conditions for a strong state. This was the testament of the great Byzantine emperors. However, they began to disregard this testament. There was a period when a new emperor was in power every four years on the average. Could it have been possible under such conditions for the country to undergo a revival, or complete any large-scale state projects—projects which would have required many years of systematic effort?
Basil significantly weakened the mighty regional oligarch-magnates. These local sovereigns’ influence and power were at times incomparably greater than that of the official governors. Once, during a military campaign, the Asia Minor magnate Eustaphios Maleinos demonstratively invited Emperor Basil and his troops to rest at his estate, and was easily able to accommodate this huge army until they had sufficiently recuperated. This oligarch seriously hoped to influence the country’s fate. He began his intrigues, then moved his own puppet candidate forward to the upper levels of authority. Later he would pay dearly for this. All of his vast property was confiscated, and he himself was sent to one of the most distant prisons in the Empire.
After the rebellion of another magnate, Bardos Skleros, was put down, Skleros even advised Basil II in a candid discussion to exhaust the magnates with taxes, special tasks, and governmental service, so that they would not have time to get so rich and powerful.
Having restored the structure of authority in the country, Basil left a sort of “stabilization fund” to his successor which was so large, that, in the words of Michael Psellos, he had to dig new labyrinths in the underground treasury stores. This national reserve was designated first of all for military reforms and the organization of a professional, capable army. Basil’s successors, however, ineptly squandered this reserve.
Although the oligarchs quickly achieved their aim, it came with a price. If Basil II punished insubordination by confiscation of property, or, in extreme cases, by blinding (a punishment not uncommon during the Middle Ages), his successor, the hysterical Constantine, during fits of anger, castrated half of his contemporary Byzantine administrative elite. Furthermore, his extravagance eclipsed even that of one of the most dissolute emperors of the country’s period of decline, whose nickname was “The Drunkard,” and like him, in a state of inebriation, entertained the rabble at the city hippodrome, three times larger than this Roman Coliseum.
The next successor also failed to fulfill expectations. The vertical, central power structure began to collapse. The result of a new uprising amongst the clans and elite and the continual re-shifting of property was predictably deplorable—within fifty years the Empire found itself on the brink of destruction.
The only foreign elements for the Byzantines were people who were strange to Orthodox morals and to the ancient Byzantine culture and perception of the world. For example, coarse, ignorant, money-grubbing Western Europeans of the time were considered barbarian by the Romans. Emperor Constantine VII, “The Purple-born,” instructed his son when choosing a bride, “Inasmuch as every nation has its own traditions, laws, and customs, one should unite in matrimony only with one from amongst his own people.”
In order to understand the emperor’s thoughts correctly, we must recall that his great grandfather was a Scandinavian by the name of Inger, his grandfather was the son of an Armenian man and Slavic woman from Macedonia, his wife was the daughter of an Armenian man and a Greek woman, and his daughter-in-law was the daughter of an Italian king. His granddaughter, Anna, became the wife of the Russian Prince Vladimir, just after the latter was baptized.
The first to give in were the intelligentsia. The enlightened Byzantines began to sense their Greekness. Nationalistic movements began, then the denial of Christian traditions, and finally, during the reign of the Paleologi, the imperial ideal gave way to a narrow, ethnically Greek nationalism. However this betrayal of the imperial ideal was costly—the nationalistic fever tore the empire apart, and it was then quickly swallowed up by the neighboring Moslem empire.
One apologist for Hellenic nationalism, the liberal scholar Plethon, arrogantly wrote to Emperor Manuel II, “We, the people whom you command and govern, are Greeks by descent, as our language and educational heritage testify!” Such words would have been unthinkable even a century earlier. However, Plethon wrote them on the eve of the fall of Constantinople, in which were living people no longer Roman, but rather Greeks, Armenians, Slavs, Arabs, and Italians, in enmity with one another.
Greek arrogance led to the discrediting of Slavs in the Empire. Byzantium thereby estranged the Serbs and Bulgarians, who could have provided real help in the struggle with the Turks. The result was that the peoples of the once united Byzantium began to be at enmity with one another.
Even the capital city’s chief administrator, the eparch of Constantinople, enjoyed a particular status in the country, and his contemporaries often compared his power with that of the Emperor, “only without the purple,” as they would say. One such eparch once became so feverishly involved in the building of high-rise buildings in the capital that he could only be stopped by a special imperial order forbidding the construction of buildings over ten stories.
All political, cultural and social life essentially took place in Constantinople. The government did not wish to notice that a serious imbalance was developing, and the forsaken provinces were becoming more and more decayed. Gradually, the tendency to flee to the center became increasingly marked.
The demographic problem was one of the most serious problems in Byzantium. The Empire was gradually inhabited by peoples of a foreign spirit, who firmly supplanted the native Orthodox population. The country’s ethnic composition changed visibly. This was in some ways an irreversible process, for the birth rate in Byzantium was decreasing. But this was not the worst thing. Something similar had earlier occurred periodically. The catastrophe was that the peoples who were pouring into the Empire were no longer becoming Romans, as they once had done, but remained permanently foreign, aggressive, and enemy. Now the newcomers treated Byzantium not as their new homeland, but only as potential property which should sooner or latter come into their own hands.
As for demographic issues, and the eternal headache of any empire—separatism in the outlying areas—the best Byzantine Emperors left as an inheritance proven methods of solving these issues; for example, creating conditions for the massive resettlement of the inhabitants of centralized areas to the outlying provinces. This would quickly spark an explosion in the birth rate, and effectuate an extraordinary adaptability to the new locality in the second generation.
However, this wealth of experience was cruelly mocked and criminally disregarded in favor of foreign opinion; and, finally, it was irretrievably lost!
But just what was this invasive opinion? Whose views did the Byzantines begin to value? Who was able to so influence their minds that they began to commit such suicidal mistakes, one after another? It is hard to believe that such enormous reverence and dependence could have developed with regard to that same once barbaric West, which had for centuries so enviously and greedily looked upon Byzantium’s wealth, and then coldly and systematically grew fat upon its gradual dissolution.
Not a bad organ. Also invented and created in Byzantium. In the ninth century it was brought here to Western Europe, and from that time on, as you see, it has taken root.
Of course, it is senseless to say that the West was to blame for Byzantium’s misfortunes and fall. The West was only pursuing its own interests, which is quite natural. Byzantium’s historical blows occurred when the Byzantines themselves betrayed their own principles upon which their empire was established. These great principles were simple, and known to every Byzantine from childhood: faithfulness to God, to His eternal laws preserved in the Orthodox Church, and fearless reliance upon their own internal traditions and strengths.
In Byzantium, after the end of the 13th century, two parties emerged—one called for reliance upon the country’s internal strengths—to believe in them unconditionally, and to develop the country’s colossal potential. It was prepared to accept Western European experience discriminately, after a serious test of time, but only in those cases where such changes would not touch the fundamental basics of the people’s faith and state politics. The other party—pro-Western—whose representatives pointed to the indubitable fact that Europe is developing more rapidly and successfully, began to proclaim more and more loudly that Byzantium has historically exhausted itself as a political, cultural, and religious phenomenon, and to demand a root-level re-working of all state institutions in the image of Western European countries.
Representatives of the pro-Western party, secretly, or more often, openly supported by European governments, held an undoubted victory over the imperial traditionalists. Under their guidance, a series of important reforms took place, including those economic, military, political, and finally, ideological and religious. All of these reforms ended in total collapse, and lead to such spiritual and material destruction in the Empire that it remained absolutely defenseless before its Eastern neighbor—the Turkish Sultanate.
The final and most devastating blow to Byzantium was the ecclesiastical union with Rome. Formally, this was the submission of the Orthodox Church to the Roman Pope for purely practically reasons. One after another aggressive attack from foreign nations forced the country to make the choice: either to rely on God and their own strengths, or to concede their age-long principles upon which their state was founded, and receive in return military and economic aide from the Latin West. And the choice was made. In 1274, Emperor Michael Paleologus decided upon a root concession to the West. For the first time in history, ambassadors from the Byzantine Emperor were sent to Lyon to accept the supremacy of the Pope of Rome.
This horror has happened during various periods in history, with various peoples, and with entire civilizations. This is how the ancient Hellenic people died out, amongst whom an inexplicable demographic crisis occurred during the first centuries A.D. People did not want to live; they did not want to continue their generation. The rare families that did form often had no children. The children who were born died from a lack of parental care. Abortions became a ubiquitous practice. The darkest occult and Gnostic cults came aggressively to the forefront—cults characterized by hatred for life. Suicide became one of the main causes of death amongst the population. This conscious dying out of a population has been called by science “endogenous psychosis of the I-III centuries”—a mass pathology and loss of meaning for continued existence.
The best minds of Byzantium watched with sorrow as the Empire gradually died, but no one heeded their warnings. The high profile statesman, Theodore Metochites, who saw no salvation for Byzantium, wept over the former greatness of the “Romans” and their “perished happiness.” He lamented the Empire “wasted by illnesses, easily succumbing to every attack by its neighbors, and become the helpless victim of fate and eventuality.”
“O, piteous Romans!” monk Gennadios Scholarios wrote prophetically from his seclusion after the signing of the Florentine Union, and fourteen years before the fall of Constantinople. “Why have you gone astray from the right path? You have departed from hope in God and begun to hope in the might of the Franks. Together with the city, in which everything will soon be destroyed, have you apostatized from your piety? Be merciful to me, O Lord! I witness before the face of God that I am not guilty of this. Return, wretched citizens, and think about what you are doing! Together with the captivity which will soon befall us, you have apostatized from your fathers’ inheritance and begun to confess dishonor. Woe to you, when God’s judgment shall come upon you!”
The words of Gennadios Scholarios came true to the letter. And he himself was to carry the unbearably heavy cross of a bitter patriarchate—he became the first Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople after its fall to the Turks.
O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, treasury of good gifts and Giver of life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us of all impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.
Modern Istanbul. The streets of the city. The chant of the muezzin.
Narrator: (walking through the city): What more is there to say?... Now a completely different people are living here, with different laws and morals. The Byzantine inheritance, foreign to the invaders, was either destroyed or altered at the root. The descendants of those Greeks who were not destroyed by the conquerors were made into second class citizens in their own land, with no rights, for many long centuries.
A Western advertisement in Istanbul.
The West’s vengeful hatred of Byzantium and her successors is entirely inexplicable to the West itself; it goes to some deep genetic level, and—as paradoxical as this may seem—continues even to the present day. Without an understanding of this amazing but undeniable fact, we risk misunderstanding not only distant history, but event historical events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries .
In Russia, before the revolution, serious research on Byzantium was conducted. However, the necessary conclusions were not drawn from purely theoretical knowledge…. During the first decades of soviet government, research in Byzantology was cut off, and then officially banned. More than that: just in case, the Bolsheviks repressed all Byzantologists remaining in Russia; only a few were able to flee abroad.
The chanting of the muezzin over Constantinople grows louder. The sound of a Russian snowstorm blends into it.
We are again before a snow-covered Russian church. With it in the background is heard the prolonged chanting of the muezzin and the snowstorm. The chanting gradually disappears. The snowstorm.