This is, and isn’t what you think it is.
If all the history you learned was in high school and college, unless you specialized, you got American History and Western Civilization. And western civilization followed a more or less direct line from the ancient Greeks, from Plato to Alexander to Rome, and thence, after Rome’s downfall, to the rise of the Western European royal system.
Almost all world history that we read as interested amateurs is written from the Western European perspective, including that of Christianity. After all, it was in Rome that Peter went to establish his Church.
The Greek part of western history since Alexander has been largely demoted as a subordinate member of the cast. The chorus line. For instance you have to dig some to learn that almost all the region of the New Testament (the Holy Land and Asia Minor) had been under the Greeks for over 200 years before the Romans had conquered those places where Christ was born, raised, and finally, taught.
Moreover, the Greeks and Romans didn’t really like one another, and it was less about who had the greater armies and conquests, and more about who possessed the greater minds.
A couple of years ago, Boris Johnson, now the PM of Great Britain, but also a classical scholar, debated Mary Beard, another classical scholar, over the comparative greatness of “classical Greece” and “the Roman Empire”. Boris took the Greeks.
You can watch this if you like, it’s an hour and a half, and very entertaining as well as instructive.
The Greeks didn’t like the Romans who came after them, red-headed stepchildren, so to speak. For one, from the 1st Century BC the Greeks had been treated as second class citizens by their new Roman overlords, at the same time considering themselves vastly superior intellectually to them. They thought of the Latins as bumpkin country cousins, only with a knack for engineering, making things work, from aqueducts, to running water in houses, to all sorts of battlefield equipment the ancient Greeks, going back to the Pythagoreans, had theoretically made possible five centuries earlier, but thought it almost sacrilegious to build something with their math. Somehow, turning a beautifully symmetric formula, A squared + B squared = C squared, into architecture debased the deep intellectual beauty of the original thought. (The Pythagoreans were funny that way.)
And the Romans couldn’t even come up with their own gods, stealing the Greeks’, only giving then different names, calling Athena Minerva, or Jupiter Zeus. They even claimed “The Aeneid” by Vergil to be a rank theft of Homer’s “Iliad”. Theme-piracy. Political writers see that all the time, especially when trying to outguess Trump.
But the point is that western History as we know it was directed toward Rome as it remained the seat of the Church even though its final articles of incorporation were registered not in Rome but in Nicea and Constantinople in the 4th Century, by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who seemed to prefer the air and waters of the Hellespont (Dardanelles) over the dank, stagnant Tiber. He wanted to build a new Rome there, only found out that none of his 4th Century architects knew how to replicate the work of Roman builders 400 years earlier. So they cannibalized old Rome and brought it to Constantinople to be re-erected there, leaving the city of the Roman Church a mere shell of itself. (By doing so, Constantine also taught, for future use, both the Russians and Chinese how to build empires without knowing a single thing about design, or for that matter, original ideas. Just steal them. A subject for future discussion.)
So, there was an Eastern Roman Empire (Constantinople) and Western Roman Empire (Rome) but they would eventually quit being Roman, splitting into two churches with different rites, Latin (Roman Catholic) and eastern rites, Greek (Orthodox). I once nearly got my mouth washed out with soap when I referred to their Church as “Greek Orthodox” to a scientist in Bulgaria . “Iz Eastern Orthodox. Please don’t say that name again.”
What the American history student of WesternCiv doesn’t know is that from the 4th Century all the way into the 15th Century, the Eastern Church was vastly larger, more wealthy, and powerful, and more civilized and sophisticated than the “reconstructed” Catholic Europe of the West, we were taught.
We were taught about the Dark Ages, which engulfed the old Roman Empire in western Europe, and that the Church in Rome, facing armies of barbarians, having been sacked by the Vandals in 455 AD and facing a return to the old days of fearing for its life, finally signed a kind of power sharing agreement in 800 with the barbarian Frankish, but recently converted king, Charlemagne, crowning him Holy Roman Emperor. The Church would be guaranteed protection and security, as well as a third of the royal pie, (Sweeet!) in exchange for guaranteeing the royals and all they could bring to the church for baptizing, eternal life. Since this was at the very beginning of the Feudal System in Europe, where everyone who wasn’t of the nobility was owned by the nobility, this was just about everyone. In 800 AD this meant the Roman Church no longer had to go out and work hard to capture souls. The serfs were brought to them. An almost 100% conversion rate.
For Americans the Middle Ages in western Europe wasn’t interesting until Hollywood made the Crusades, Robin Hood and Goth popular. Too many kings and dynasties from dozens of countries. So many in fact that countries only taught their own local histories for centuries. The Germans knew of Frederick Barbarossa (Frederick the Great) but very few knew of any English king.
Today American Catholics today know more about Braveheart than they do about the Avignon Papacy, when a French king stole the Papacy and moved it across the Alps to France.
So you can imagine how much less people know about the Eastern Roman Empire and how it became the Byzantine Empire. But it was as splendid as Rome of the early Caesars, with almost as much territory, and entirely Christian, and lasted over a thousand, 1000!, years. But, oh, those impossible to name long, hard-to-pronounce Greek names (as you’ll see below). The Empire finally fell to the (jack) Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453, who, (take notice if you want to know about persistence) had been banging at its door for over 400 years, just as western Europe was entering its Renaissance.
It was during the Crusades that East and West clashed, especially the Third and Fourth, in the 1100’s, after Saladin had taken back for Islam much of the Christians’ kingdoms. The Roman Church wanted to recoup their losses in the Holy Land, and Constantinople was a stopping off place for Latin armies heading south.
The Byzantine Empire in the east would rise and fall depending on the quality of its emperors for another 250 years, but the Fourth Crusade Latins, who stopped over in Constantinople en route to the Holy Land, filled the city with Latin pilgrims as well as armies, all of whom had a grudge against the Byzantines who had “mistreated” (actually massacred) Latin Christians about 20 years earlier. They would burn and sack the city, melting precious gold art and relics into easier to carry bars, losing priceless artifacts. And not unlike the loss of the Library at Alexandria in the 7th Century, vast volumes of manuscripts were simply used as toilet paper by the vandalizing pilgrims, not unlike the homeless of California if only Gavin Newsom would give them some library keys (thus killing two birds with one stone in the eyes of modern California social engineers.)
This is how all that came about. So enough history.
About Going Medieval
This sack and destruction of Constantinople in 1204 came about because of this event 19 years earlier.
In 1183 a man named Andronicus Comnenus, was the avaricious cousin to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel, who died leaving a 13-yr old son, Alexios, as emperor, and his mother, a Western Catholic, as his guardian. Andronicus hated all Latin Christians, so decided to stage a coup and claim the title of co-emperor, and becoming Alexios guardian instead of that Latin witch.
So he staged a massacre of thousands of the Latin Christians in Constantinople, and killed the young Alexios and his mother, and declared himself emperor, then set about ruling. For about two years.
Then, in 1185, while out of town, his chief lieutenant, Stephen Hagio-christo-phorites (broken down so you can read it), attempted to arrest a man by the name of Isaac Angelous, who was troublesome to his boss, Andronicus. But instead of surrendering and coming quietly, Isaac bolted and took refuge at the famous Hagia Sophia, the greatest church in the world (now the greatest mosque in the world) and whipped up the crowd against Andronicus and the way he’d been doing things.
So when Andronicus returned to the city he found out he’d been deposed as emperor and Isaac named in his place. He then attempted to escape with his wife and favorite prostitute, but was captured.
At which time the whole city went “medieval” on him. This is how it came down, from a factual account.
From Umberto Ecco in Baudolino (2002):
Andronicus was captured on the shore of the Euxine (Black Sea) and was brought before Isaac. The courtiers had kicked him and beaten him, torn out his beard, knocked out his teeth, shaved his head;
then they cut off his right hand and flung him into prison.
(Later they brought him forth on a camel.)
Andronicus was more mangy-looking than the mangy camel on which he had been hoisted; he was almost naked, with a foul clump of bloody rags on the stump of his right wrist and clotted blood on his gaunt cheeks, because they had gouged out one of his eyes.
Around him the most desperate of the city’s inhabitants, whose lord and autocrat he had been for so long, sausage makers, tanners, and the dregs of every tavern, collecting like swarms of flies in spring around a horse turd, struck his head with their clubs, stuffed ox excrement in his nostrils, squeezed sponges soaked in cow piss over his nose, thrust skewers into his legs; the milder threw stones at him, calling him rabid dog and son a bitch in heat. A prostitute emptied a pan of boiling water over him.
Then the crowd’s fury increased further; they pulled him down from the camel and hanged him by his feet from the two columns beside the statue of the she-wolf giving suck to Romulus and Remus.
Andronicus behaved better than his tormentors, not emitting a moan. He confined himself to murmuring “Kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison.” and asked why they were breaking a chain already shattered.
Once he was strung up, a man with a sword neatly cut off his genitals, another stuck a spear in his mouth, impaling him to his viscera, while still another impaled him through the anus.
There were also some Latins present, who had scimitars and moved as if they were dancing around him, slashing away all his flesh.
And perhaps they were the only ones entitled to vengeance, given what Andronicus had done to those of their race a few years before.
Finally the wretch still had the strength to raise to his mouth his right stump, as if he wanted to drink his own blood, to make up for the blood he was losing in great spurts.
Then he died.
Now that’s medieval…
….and 17 years later, the Latins would take their revenge on Constantinople, Christian on Christian. Still it would rise again, to last another 250 years, until the Turks finally took the city.
(There’s some kind of lesson here. Try to figure it out.)