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Prologue: the two worlds of Christendom

[From, Byzantine East & Latin West: Two Worlds in Middle Ages and Renaissance, Harper Torch books, New York 1966]

The Influences of Byzantine Culture on the Medieval Western World

IT IS FREQUENTLY asserted that from a cultural point of view the chief function of Byzantium was to serve for over one thousand years as the bulwark of Christendom against invading infidel hordes and in this capacity to preserve for the world the literary and philosophic heritage of ancient Greece.(l) There is no doubt of course of the signal service rendered by Byzantium as a preserver of Greek learning. After all, the Greek language and literature had virtually disappeared from the German-dominated West of the so-called Dark Ages. But Byzantium was certainly more than a mere passive repository of ancient civilization. On the contrary, as her culture developed, it reflected a remarkable amalgamation not only of the philosophy and literature of Greece, but of the religious ideals of Christianity-which in the East underwent a development significantly different from that of the Latin West- and thirdly, of a certain transcendent, mystical quality that may at least partly be attributed to the diverse influences of Syria, Egypt, the Jews, even Persia. These three elements, then, Greco-Roman classicism (including the governmental tradition of Rome), the Byzantine brand of Christianity, and what we may call the oriental component, were blended by the Byzantines into a unique and viable synthesis that made Constantinople, at least until 1204, the cultural capital of all Christendom. It was this many-faceted cultural amalgam, as we shall attempt to show, that enabled Byzantium to play a far from insignificant part in the formation of western civilization.(2)

Now to analyse the Byzantine cultural influence on the West is a complex problem spanning more than a millennium of history and involving, in one way or another, most of the countries of Europe. One could perhaps make facile generalizations about the natural tendency of the less developed western civilization to draw upon or be influenced by the more complex, sophisticated Byzantine. But one must not forget that as the medieval period progressed, Byzantium and the West were becoming increasingly estranged -indeed by perhaps the ninth century they had become almost two different worlds(3)- and that many westerners, especially those who did not come into direct contact with the East, were not receptive to Byzantine influences. To demonstrate a definite cultural impact of the Christian East on the West can accordingly sometimes be a rather difficult, even elusive matter, particularly in regard to those fields, which are less tangible in nature or in which the evidence remaining is inadequate. In order therefore to deal with the problem on as firm ground as possible and at the same time to provide a kind of historical frame of reference, we shall consider first the points of actual physical contact between Byzantium and the Latin West during the medieval period -that is, the specific channels through which cultural transmission could and seems to have taken place. Then, having established such a pattern of contacts, we shall move to the main section of the essay and examine, insofar as time permits, selected cultural fields in which it can be asserted that the Byzantines affected western civilization -philosophy, science, law, political theory and diplomacy, music, art, and such lesser known but important aspects as religious piety, commercial practice, and more refinement in the manner of living.


Originally constituting two halves of the ancient Roman Empire, the eastern (Byzantine) and the western (Latin) areas in the early centuries of the Christian era had possessed certain cultural elements in common, Christianity and the Greco-Roman tradition. In the East, however, the Greek element continued from the Hellenistic period onward to predominate, while in the West the Latin language and culture obtained. Moreover, while the East technically preserved an unbroken continuity of the Roman Empire -as late as 1453 the Byzantines continued to call themselves Romans not Greeks(4)- the western areas early fell to the German invaders and, with the passing of time, the German element largely displaced in the West the more refined Greco-Roman. This emergence of a strong Germanic strain in the western cultural synthesis is to be contrasted to the Byzantine synthesis, with its inclusion of an Oriental component, absent in turn from the West.

In the sixth century, under the Emperor Justinian, Byzantium recaptured much of Italy and established the so-called exarchate of Ravenna, a fact, which once again brought an important area of the West into direct dependence upon Byzantium. The exarchate -and this included the city of Rome- remained in Byzantine hands until 751 when Ravenna was finally captured by the Lombards.(5) Before its collapse, however, Ravenna had become a centre for the radiation of Byzantine cultural influence, especially in connection with Byzantine art and the dissemination of Byzantine, that is Roman law.

More significant for our study are the areas of Sicily and southern Italy, which were Byzantine provinces until the ninth and eleventh centuries respectively. What served to maintain -some scholars would prefer to say 're-establish'- the Hellenization of these areas especially in southern Italy after the period of antiquity, was the successive waves of Greek exiles who emigrated there from the East. Thus in the seventh century refugees from Syria, Palestine, and Egypt fled to southern Italy (especially Calabria) before the attacks of the Arabs. And in the eighth and ninth centuries, according to certain scholars, as many as 50,000 eastern monks and, to a lesser extent, ecclesiastics arrived in Calabria in order to escape the persecutions of the Byzantine Iconoclast Emperors. Whether the Greek language spoken by the population of southern Italy was derived from the ancient Greek of Magna Graecia or was rather the product of subsequent Byzantine influence we may pass over here. The significant point is that by the eleventh century parts of southern Italy, primarily Calabria, had become almost completely Byzantinized in both culture and religion(6) and that as late as the fifteenth century it would constitute the leading outpost of Byzantine influence in the West.

Even the Arab conquest of Sicily in the ninth century did not put an end to Greek influence on the island. For the Arabs were fascinated by ancient Greek and, to a much lesser degree, Byzantine science and philosophy. Indeed, when subsequently in the late eleventh century, the Norman invaders took the island from the Arabs, Greco-Byzantine culture continued to be a vital element in the island's civilization. Under the Norman King Roger II and his successors, for example, three official languages were employed in the documents of the Sicilian chancery, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Moreover, the Normans appointed as ministers of state such learned Greeks as Eugene the Emir and the more famous Henry Aristippus, who, at a time when western Europe knew only a fragment of one of Plato's dialogues, the Timaeus, translated into Latin two more Platonic works. Though relations between Byzantium and Norman Sicily were generally hostile, we know that gifts were not infrequently exchanged by their rulers, sometimes including valuable Greek manuscripts of philosophic or scientific content such as the famous Almagest of Ptolemy.(7)

Among the first Italians to have had active commercial contacts with Constantinople -and the Italians were to have the closest relations economically with the East- were the citizens of Amalfi, in southern Italy. The cultural results of those connections of Amalfi are hard to assess, though we know, for example, that in the eleventh century the wealthy Amalfitan family of the Pantaleone, with residence in Constantinople, had transported to Amalfi, for installation in that city's cathedral, magnificent bronze doors which had been cast in Byzantium. The rising Italian maritime cities of Genoa and Pisa followed the Amalfitan example and by the twelfth century had established, in the heart of Constantinople, substantial quarters for the residence of their own merchants. Each community had a Latin church for the use of its people and though the sources, which primarily concern activities of merchants,(8) do not afford many specific examples of cultural exchange with the Greeks, we may cite the names of such Pisan men of letters as Burgundio of Pisa, Leo Tuscus and his brother Hugo Eterianus.(9) These were interested not only in Greek philosophy, but what is more striking in this period of Latin suspicion of the Greek church, in Byzantine ecclesiastical writings.

Of the many Italian commercial colonies in the East the most important was certainly that of Venice. From at least as early as the ninth century Veneto-Byzantine relations had been close, the Doge acquiring the title of Protosevastos and a high enough place in the imperial Byzantine hierarchy of titles. In exchange for Venetian naval aid against Byzantium's enemies, the Greek Basileus had authorized the establishment of a Venetian colony in the heart of Constantinople, along the Golden Horn, the citizens of which were soon able to enjoy complete freedom from payment of taxes and even exemption from imperial Byzantine law -what we would call extraterritoriality. In the twelfth century this Venetian colony numbered perhaps 20,000 persons out of a total population in Constantinople of 800,000 to a million people.(10) The contrast with Venice itself with an estimated 64,000 in 1170, and with Paris, then the West's largest city with a population of less than 100,000, is remarkable.(11)

To be sure, the Venetian colonists, having the mentality of merchants, were rarely interested in anything but commercial profit. Thus of course they learned to speak enough Greek for their commercial transactions. But this was the colloquial vulgar Greek (the lingua franca of the East) and it was not sufficient as a rule to permit the reading of classical works or the exchange of ideas on a higher intellectual level. (The literary Greek of Byzantine intellectual circles were different from the spoken, every-day Greek.) Exceptions do exist such as the case of the famous James of Venice, who a recent scholar believes was a Greek living in Venice. James translated Aristotle's Ethics into Latin and acted as interpreter at ecclesiastical disputations held before the imperial Greek court on questions of difference between the Greek and Latin churches. Such occasions must surely have afforded some opportunity for cultural exchange.(12)

What brought the people of the West and the Byzantines into direct contact on a far greater scale, however, was the vast movement of the Crusades, which began at the end of the eleventh century. Entire western armies now passed through Constantinople on the way to the Holy Land, and pilgrims flocked eastward via Constantinople, all being exposed to the richer and more cosmopolitan manner of living of the medieval Greeks. Inevitably, jealousies and antagonisms between the two peoples now began to develop and with the passing of time to increase. The shattering climax came in 1204 with the notorious Fourth Crusade, when the western armies, led by the Venetians, diverted their crusade from Jerusalem to Constantinople and actually captured the Byzantine capital. After a barbaric sack of three days, a tremendous amount of booty -sacred relics associated with the life of Christ and the saints, precious manuscripts, silver and gold religious treasures, and countless objects of art- was seized in this richest of Christian cities and carried back to adorn the churches and palaces of the West. The enumeration of this booty and the recounting of its seizure fill several volumes in the works of a noted French scholar of the history of the Christian East during the Crusades.(13)

As a result of the Fourth Crusade a Latin Empire was established on the ruins of the Byzantine state. Attempts were made by the western conquerors, and especially the pope, to Latinize the Greek people by forcible conversion to the Roman faith. But this unwise policy, as might be expected, provoked the violent opposition of the mass of the Greek population. The Latin Empire existed until 1261, when Constantinople was recaptured by the Greeks.(14) Then the hitherto predominant Venetian influence in Byzantium diminished, to be displaced by that of the Byzantine allies, the Genoese. The Venetians, however, managed to retain control of certain of their Greek colonies in the East -several points in the Peloponnesus, the Aegean isles, and especially the great island of Crete. With the Ottoman Turkish advance on the Byzantine territory of Asia Minor in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Greek animosity toward the Latins began of necessity to be mollified. And in fact some of the Byzantines, especially of the court circles, came to view the West not only as the sole source of possible aid against the Turk but, still later, even as a place of refuge from Turkish domination.(15)

Before and for at least a century after 1453, then, large numbers of Greeks -a veritable Diaspora of intellectuals, merchants, mercenaries, and others- poured into the West, many of whom sought asylum in Venice. By the end of the fifteenth century there was a very substantial Greek colony established in that city. This was in fact the greatest colony of Greeks to be established in the West after 1453. The Greeks of this community were granted the right to build a church and they also possessed a large dockyard, or scala, on an important Venetian canal for the loading and shipment of goods abroad. We shall see that, from the cultural viewpoint, these Greek émigrés to the West were to play a significant role in the development of humanistic learning in the Renaissance.(16)

There is time only for brief mention of several other Italian centres affected by or radiating Byzantine influence during the medieval period. Further reference should certainly be made to the papal capital Rome, which, after the fall of Ravenna and throughout the entire Middle Ages, had intimate contact with Byzantines or Byzantine ideas. A large community of Greek monks seems always to have lived in Rome, and up to the third century Greek was even the language of the Roman liturgy. Moreover, during the later seventh and early eighth centuries many of the popes themselves -eleven of thirteen to be precise- were Greek or Syrian in origin and shared the cultural proclivities of the East.(17)

Other western areas further removed from the East were also at one time or another in direct contact with Byzantium. In the early ninth century, the German court of Charlemagne at Aachen was exposed to considerable Byzantine influence, as we know from the architectural evidence of its palace chapel as well as from certain Byzantine art works and textiles that remain. In the tenth century more intensive Byzantine influence was felt at the German court as a result of the marriage of the future Holy Roman Emperor Otto II to the Byzantine princess Theophano. So imbued did their young son, the half-Greek Otto III, become with Byzantine political ideals that he adopted Byzantine titles for his court and envisioned the reunion of both East and West in one Empire in the manner of Justinian.(18)

Similarly, we hear that there were at various times communities of Greek merchants or monks in early medieval France -such as at Narbonne.(19) And in the later medieval period, French crusaders were to bring back from the East Byzantine art objects, new ideas, and different building techniques, the adoption of which helped gradually to make for a more refined mode of life. Because of the distance involved the Byzantine influence on England was perhaps the least penetrating of all. But sporadic traces of such influences do remain such as, for example, in the late Anglo-Saxon and possibly Norman use of the imperial Byzantine title Basileus, to apply to their kings; and in the Northumbrian sculptured stones of the seventh century, so extraordinarily Byzantine in feeling and execution. Inspiration for the latter probably came from the East, however, rather through the mediation of the English connection with Rome.(20)
There is one western area, Spain, where the influence of Greek and to a lesser degree of Byzantine philosophy and science were of capital importance for their effect on western culture as a whole. These influences, however, came through the mediation not of the Byzantines but of another people, the Arabs. In the early years of the Islamic expansion, the Arabs had come into contact with heretic Nestorian and Monophysite refugees from the Byzantine East and from these they acquired an interest in ancient Greek philosophy and science, especially the Aristotelian. These Greek works the Arabs carried with them into Spain, and it was from this region that in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the bulk of Aristotle and other Greek scientific treaties were brought back to the Christian West, with the results we shall note shortly.(21)
These, then, are the principal foci, direct and indirect, for the reception and diffusion of Byzantine culture in the western world. Now that we have pointed out the chief lines of possible transmission and provided in the process a historical background, let us concentrate on certain selected areas of culture in order to show in each case what the Byzantine contribution seems to have been.


1. - For example N. Baynes, Byzantine Studies and Other Essays (London, 1955) 71-73.

2. - For bibl. on the Byzantine cultural influence on the West see Appendix, Bibliographical note A.

3. - A date picked because of the creation of Charlemagne's revived Roman Empire in 800 (disputing Byzantium's claim), the collapse of the Ravenna exarchate in 751, and the Slavic invasions of the Balkans in this general period, all of which served to cut off Byzantium though not entirely, from western contacts. F. Dvornik, The Slavs: Early History and Civilization (Boston, 1956) emphasizes that the Bulgar invasion of Illyricum cut off this basic bridge between Latins and Greeks.

4. - There are a few earlier traces of a return to the ancient term Hellenes. See Geanakoplos, Emperor Michael Palaeologus, 35 for term in thirteenth century Also A. Vakalopoulos, History of Modern Hellenism (in Greek) I (Salonika, 1961) 75ff.

5. - Ch. Diehl, Études sur l'administration byzantine dans l'exarchat de Ravenne (Paris, 1888).

6. - Best work on this question is J. Gay, L'Italie méridionale et l'empire byzantin (Paris, 1904). On the 50,000-émigré monks see L. White, Latin Monasticism in Norman Sicily (Cambridge, 1938) 15-17. Also K. Setton, The Byzantine Background to the Italian Renaissance', Proceedings of America Philosophical Society, C 1956) 7 with bibl. cited.

7. - On Eugene see now E. Jamison, Admiral Eugenius of Sicily (London, 1957). On Aristippus (who some think may not have been Greek) see Setton, 'Byzantine Background' 19. On the Platonic dialogues see R. Klibansky The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition during the Middle Ages (London, 1939) 27-31, 51: The Timaeus had been translated by Chalcidius in the fourth century.

8. - On Latin merchants in Byzantium the main work is W. Heyd, Histoire du Commerce du Levant au Moyen Age (Leipzig 1885). Also documents in G. Mόller, Documenti sulle relazioni delle città toscane coll'Oriente (Florence 1879).

9. - The most recent work referring to the Pisans listed here is by M. Anastos, 'Some Aspects of Byzantine Influence on Latin Thought', Twelfth Century Europe and the Foundations of Modern Society (Madison, 1961) 138-49.

10. - On the Venetian colony in the twelfth century see Ch. Diehl, 'La colonie vénitienne ΰ Constantinople', Études byzantines (Paris, 1905) 204ff. For the later period see below Chap 4; on the number of Venetians in Constantinople see Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars in Venice, 14, n. 3.

11. - In the eleventh and early twelfth century Rome had probably no more than 50,000 people. On Paris, Venice, and Rome see T. Chandler, Cities of the World (New York, 1940) 10, and references in Geanakoplos, op. cit., 14, n. 3.

12. - On James of Venice see Ch. Haskins Studies in the History of Medieval Science (Cambridge, 1924) 144-45 227-32 Also L. Minio-Paluello, 'Jacobus Veneticus Grecus', Traditio, VIII (1952), 265-304.

13. - There is a large bibliography on pilgrimages to the East and on the Fourth Crusade, e.g., A. Atiya, Crusade in the Later Middle Ages (London, 1938) and R. Wolff's article in K. Setton ed., The Crusades, vol. 2 (Philadelphia,1962). The French scholar cited above is P. Riant, Exuviae Sacrae Constantinopolitanae, 3 vols. (Geneva, 1877-1904).

14. - On the attempt to 'Latinize' the Greek church soon after 1204 see R. Wolff 'The Organization of the Latin Patriarchate of Constantinople 1204-61. Social and Administrative Consequences of the Latin Conquest', Traditio, VI (1948) 33-60. Also Geanakoplos, 'On the Schism of the Greek and Roman Churches: A Confidential Papal Directive for the Implementation of Union (1278)', Greek Orthodox Theological Review, I (1954) 16-24. On the Greek reconquest of Constantinople by Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1261 see now Geanakoplos, Emperor Michael Palaeologus and the West, Chap. 5. On Brocardus see also above, Prologue, note 3.

15. - Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars, 18.

16. - Ibid, passim.

17. - L. White, Latin Monasticism, 22, points out that from 678 to 752, 11 of the popes were Orientals, that is Greek or Syrian. Also now see J. McNulty and B. Hamilton, ' "Orientale lumen" et "Magistra Latinitas": Greek Influences on western Monasticism', Le millénaire du Mont Athos (Chevtogne, 1963) 181-217, and B. Hamilton, 'The City of Rome and the Eastern Churches', Orientalia Christiana Periodica, 27 (1961) 2-26.

18. - J. Bryce, Holy Roman Empire(New York, 1913); W. Ohnsorge, Das Zweikaiserproblem im früheren Mittelalter (Hildesheim, 1947). Also on art D. Talbot Rice, English Art 871-1100 (Oxford, 1952) 21 f.

19. - Talbot Rice Byzantine Art new ed. (London, 1962), 247.

20. - See R. S. Lopez, 'Le Problème des Relations Anglo-Byzantines du Septième Siècle', Byzantion, XVIII (1948), esp. 161-62; On Norman use of the title 'Basileus' but only in the coronation laudes see P. Schramm, A History of the English Coronation (Oxford, 1937) 30. On art see Talbot Rice, Byzantine Art, 250 ff. and his English Art, 22, 133, esp.135, 250.

21. - On early Arab contacts with Nestorians and Monophysites see e.g., Ph. Hitti, History of the Arabs (London,1960) 309 ff. On Spain see C. Haskins, Medieval Science, passim.

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