In a truly byzantine turn of events, the exhibition of 170 glorious objects scheduled to open at Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art has been shuttered by the government shutdown. The Greek Prime Minister and Minister of Culture, not to mention scads of scholars and officials in the city for the opening, have departed, disappointed. “Heaven and Earth: The Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections” was due to be on display from 6th October 6 – 2nd March.  It seems heaven can wait.

The title of the exhibition “Heaven and Earth” is right on target, for citizens of the Empire were equally concerned with both realms. As members of the first Christian empire, artists were instrumental in defining the identity of their religion. At first, without models to draw on, they looked to the Greco-Roman tradition, adapting antique sculpture, mosaics (the supreme Byzantine art form) and frescoes to new uses. That marble statue of Aphrodite left over from pagan times: why not repurpose it? Just carve a cross on her forehead.

It’s too bad that the exhibition is delayed, for the Byzantine period is arguably the most important historical period that few people know about. Due to its negative connotations, when you say “byzantine”, people have an instant impression of something darkly sinister, devious. Yet the 1,123 years of the Byzantine Empire (the longest surviving empire in Europe) were actually full of light. While the western half of the Roman Empire “fell”, sucked into the Dark Ages of feudalism in the fifth century, the Eastern Empire surged, preserving the best of Classical civilization and creating the first Christian state.

The Eagle and the Swan deals with the outset of the Byzantine period. The first half of the sixth century was a crucial pivot point between the Late Roman Empire and the Byzantine that followed. Still heir to Roman law and culture (and its Greek underpinnings in philosophy and literature), Byzantium added intense religiosity and mysticism. Under Justinian, the Empire became the largest, wealthiest and best-organized state in the world.

The period takes its name (only used much later) from Byzantium, the Greek name of its capital Constantinople. Citizens spoke Greek but thought themselves Romans; government business was conducted in Latin. In social, legal, military and economic institutions, the Empire was decidedly Roman. In fact, Constantinople was named New Rome in 330 CE when Emperor Constantine removed the seat of the Empire from Italy. As the hub of all trade routes, Constantinople was a thriving, polyglot metropolis, center of the civilized world for eleven centuries.

When the Emperors Justin and Justinian were in power in the story’s time frame (518-532 CE), the Empire consisted of the Balkans (stretching north to the Danube), northern Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor, Egypt and part of northern Africa. With Constantinople as the jumping-off point between Europe and Asia, the city was bordered by the bay called the Golden Horn on the North, the Bosphorus strait on the East and the Sea of Marmara to the South. To the West were land walls and a moat to protect the European side.

Of the half-million souls who lived there, virtually every single citizen was fanatical about two things: religion and sports. What’s hardest for contemporary readers to understand is their passion for theological debate. Just as people today wax heated about politics or climate change, people then were even more intemperate in discussing Church doctrine. The Emperor was believed to be God’s representative on Earth. The soul’s salvation in an afterlife was dependent on correct dogma. You couldn’t buy a loaf of bread without getting into a debate on the Trinity.

People believed that the hand of God (and the devil himself) were constantly intervening in human affairs. They avidly interpreted dreams and astronomical portents to prophesy miracles or one’s fate. They analyzed natural phenomena as signs of God’s approval or disfavor. Saints, magicians and astrologers were entreated to cure ailments or ward off disaster. It was an exceedingly spiritual (and superstitious) age.

It was also very worldly. Chariot racing was the sport that most inflamed emotions, dividing the populace. Supporters fell into two factions: Blue or Green. The drivers of the four-horse chariots were idols of the masses. People gambled without restraint, cheering lustily for their teams and often violence spilled out of the Hippodrome into the streets.

The perfumed, silk-clothed, wealthy citizens of Constantinople were said to be foppish, pleasure-loving dilettantes, addicted to lounging in public baths, attending games in the Hippodrome and eating rich feasts, accompanied by copious wine, at lavish banquets.

And then along came Justinian and Theodora to upset the status quo, upstarts from nowhere, scorned for their low-life beginnings and (in Theodora’s case) her sordid past. The elite were aghast at the rapid changes these two rulers introduced into their comfortable world, dragging them kicking and screaming towards modernity. Justinian’s goal was to restore the lost splendor (and territory) of the Roman Empire, which had been hacked away by barbarians. During the period covered by the novel, he was gearing up for battle, pushing through social and legal reforms, increasing efficiency of the government, trying to reconcile warring religious factions and sponsoring innovative construction of churches, public amenities and fortifications.

His world was changing fast. It was a period of great flux, rife with tensions, both ecclesiastical and domestic. Deep divisions in the social fabric and partisan strife roiled the Empire. Theological battles over the most abstruse points were furious and irreconcilable. Citizens resisted having their beliefs dictated by an autocrat, even if he was convinced he was saving them from eternal perdition.

It’s not easy living in interesting times. The early sixth century in Constantinople was such a time. Just as the city – perched on a hilly promontory facing Asia – is a bridge between continents, the period of the novel was a hinge between the Classical World and the Byzantine era. The Late Roman Era was a precursor to the Middle Ages in Europe and to the rise of Islam in the Middle East, the last gasp of antiquity. By preserving Hellenistic culture and Roman government and disseminating Christianity, it bequeathed an enduring legal system, innovative social programs, and glorious art and architecture to the rest of the world.

 

Image - “Judgment of Paris” Mosaic from Antioch (Roman Syria), 115-150 CE, Musée du Louvre