Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Belshaw's World - history, Byzantium and the modern world

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday  17 March 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010.

On Friday I am giving a paper in the University’s Classics and History seminar series.

My title is ‘Unrecognised and Now Almost Unknown: Explorations through the History of the Broader New England’. The seminar will start 9.15 am in A3 in the Arts Building.

Morning tea will be served afterwards, and everybody is welcome to attend.

I have long been a fan of Harry Turtledove's Videssos books. They tell the story of Videdoss, the city and empire, centred on imperial politics and battles with neighbouring states.

He creates a very effective world in those books.

I knew that he had based the books on the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, reflecting his studies there. I had no idea just how much he had done so until I read Warren Treadgold's A History of the Byzantine State and Society.

This is a remarkably good book. However, in reading I was struck at just how closely Mr Turtledove did base his Videssos books on Byzantium. I would now recommend that someone who is interested in Byzantium read the Videssos series first.

In 285 Emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into two, east and west. He did so for governance reasons. Over time, the western half declined. The Eastern Roman Empire survived until 1453, still thinking of itself as Roman.

The exact date marking the formal start of the Roman Empire is almost definitional, it evolved, but 23 BC can be taken as a start because of the constitutional changes in that year. However, it is also important to remember that the Roman republic began some 500 years before this date.

These are huge time spans.

From the foundation of Rome until the end of the eastern empire we have some 1,900 years. Australia has been in existence for 220 years. All recent financial turmoil is just a blink in historical terms.

I provide this history for two reasons.

The first is that the changes that took place over those nineteen centuries were enormous.

From the viewpoint of the ordinary citizen, the person whose thinking was measured in perhaps four generations, the changes that they experienced were often just as great as those we are experiencing today. They had to adjust just as we do. I think it helpful to remember this. We are not unique.

The second is a more complicated point.

I can and do argue that history is important. In doing so, I mount a variety of arguments. Yet the reality is that I just enjoy it. Too me, history is fun. However, in trying to understand history I also struggle to break through to that past world. What was it really like?

At one point Warren Treadgold discusses the decline in Byzantium intellectual activity during a particular period. He suggested, to use my words, that citation had taken the place of scholarship, that scholarship had taken the place of writing. I sometimes think that this is where we are today.

The best history, the best of any discipline, comes from applied imagination. Too few people ask what it was really like, too many are simply prepared to argue present cases and attitudes.

The world of Rome and Byzantium may seem a long way from modern Australia. Yet this ancient past is still remarkably close.

A bit under eighty years ago, my old school presented a classic Greek play in ancient Greek to a Sydney audience. Later, Latin was still a compulsory subject when I started at that school for those in the more academic stream.

More importantly, the history of Byzantium is still present in current politics.

The recent 131 to 130 vote in the Swedish Parliament stating that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against Armenians and other minorities in 1915 is an example. This decision has pleased Armenians and outraged Turkey.

The questions of what happened and whether it was in fact genocide, indeed what is genocide, are beyond the scope of this column.

What we can say is that the complicated events that played out across the Balkans and Asia Minor during the First World War and the immediate post war period were directly linked to Byzantine history and that of the successor Ottoman Empire.

All the various parties involved used their own versions of history to support their causes. The end result was tragedy for millions across many ethnic groups.

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