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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]

Administration, Political Theory, Law and Diplomacy

In contrast to the medieval West, where a relatively loose, atomised feudal system obtained, Byzantium, for most of the period, had a highly centralized state organization with a well developed civil service -a type of government in which virtually all activities were at the command of the emperor. These two elements, the autocracy and the civil service dependent upon it, were basic factors in providing Byzantium with the strength to withstand almost continual foreign invasions and domestic crises.

The autocratic tradition of Byzantium served as an inspiration for the development of a number of medieval western governments. Thus, for example, part of the basis for the Norman ideas of kingship in Sicily, as well as some of the Norman court ceremonial (including the king's own costume), seem to have been borrowed directly from Byzantine usage and from the absolutist concept of the Basileus as vicegerent of God, the ruler of both state and church in the world.(50) (The portrait of Roger II in the Martorana of Palermo is a good example.) This Byzantine concept was opposed to both the earlier western theory of pope and emperor as wielders of the two swords, and the later papal claims to universal spiritual and temporal sovereignty.
We know that Roger II of Sicily, when seeking to bolster his claim to control of the Sicilian church vis-à-vis the papacy, instructed a Greek monk of his kingdom, Nilus Doxopatres, to draw up a treatise expounding the old Byzantine theory of the pentarchy, that is of the equality of all five patriarchs, including the pope, in the governance of the Christian church (though the pope was conceded a primacy of honour). It is probable that the autocratic Byzantine type of government also inspired some of the German Hohenstaufen ideas of royal power and, according to Diehl, helped to shape the subsequent European concept of the divine right of kings.(51)

If the autocracy played a basic role in maintaining the strength of the Byzantine state, it was law which bound together Byzantine society. And it is the Roman law, codified by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and transmitted via Italy to the West(52), which is perhaps Byzantium's chief practical legacy to the modern world. For while the West was steeped in Germanic, barbaric law with its primitive ordeals and trials by battle, the Greek East was enjoying the benefits of Roman law, which had been leavened by the ideals of Stoicism and other philosophies on the basis of the long experience of the East. It was these concepts of Romano Byzantine jurisprudence even more than the practical legal enactments themselves that have had the greatest effect on modern western law.

Contrary to common belief, the evolution of Byzantine law did not cease with the reign of Justinian. Because of the great social changes which came about in the Empire the code had to be modified and even expanded by the Macedonian dynasty in the tenth century, at which time all laws were systematically reshaped in Greek. It was the Macedonian code, even more than that of Justinian, which occupied the central position in Byzantine jurisprudence of the tenth century and afterwards.(53)

Previously, in the eighth and ninth centuries, three other codes had been drawn up by the Isaurian dynasty, the rural code or farmers' law, the military code for soldiers, and an 'admiralty law' based on the old Rhodian sea law. Of the three the latter had a considerable impact on the West. Originally developed in antiquity by the mariners and merchants of the Greek island of Rhodes, the Rhodian sea law had been adopted by the Hellenistic cities and then by Rome as a model of maritime law. In the Byzantine East where it became the official or semi-official sailor's code and 'admiralty law', it offered practical, time-tested regulations for the handling of collision cases between ships and for such 'proto-capitalist' problems as the relation of the owner of a ship to the cargo owner in the event the cargo was lost. As time went on, provisions of the code seem have been transmitted, by custom, to the early Italian maritime cities, which, as we have seen, were in close relation with Constantinople. One of the Italian sea codes, possibly the first, that of Amalfi (enacted ca,. 1000 A.D.) seems to have been based upon it. As Byzantine trade declined, however, from the twelfth century onward and Italy secured the primacy in sea power, the Rhodian sea law per se fell more and more into disuse. But some of its more important concepts continued to survive and inspired the development of certain of the commercial and maritime practices of Genoa, Pisa, Venice, and even of the famous 'Consolato del Mare', the early Catalan legal code (written down ca. 1300) of more distant Barcelona.

Regarding navigation it appears that as the great western commercial cities of the Mediterranean began to develop their trade, they borrowed a number of nautical and commercial terms from the Greek East. For example the Byzantine (but originally Latin) term scala (landing place for merchandise) was used in the Italian documents from the eleventh century onward. The word gripos (a Byzantine type of net or fishing boat) also came into common usage in parts of the Mediterranean, especially Italy, as did the Byzantine palamarion (a rope or cable), the latter found in Genoese, Venetian, as well as Catalan documents of the thirteenth century and later. Perhaps an even more interesting derivation is that of the old Viking term dreki, referring to the larger type of Viking ship, the prow of which was decorated with the head of a dragon or other animal, and which one scholar believes may have been borrowed ultimately from the Byzantine term drakon (dragon). (How this term actually came to the North is another question.) It should be pointed out, however, that a recent survey of nautical and maritime terms in use in the Mediterranean would seem to indicate that, especially from the thirteenth century onward, more terms of this type were borrowed by the Byzantines from western usage than vice versa. Examples are the Venetian cassela, chest; marangon, ship's carpenter; galion, warship (which is first mentioned in a Pisan twelfth century document); and the blended Venetian term arma, meaning rigging of a ship, which fused with the older Latinism arma.(54)

An obvious but important area of cultural transmission, hitherto hardly investigated, is the possible influence of Byzantine statecraft, more precisely diplomatic practice, on the medieval West. Though Byzantine diplomatic methods were originally derived, at least in part, from Rome and the Hellenistic east, Byzantium developed these to a degree of finesse otherwise unknown in the medieval period.(55) Some Byzantine treatises dealing in whole or in part with diplomatic policy and statecraft were composed (Emperor Constantine VII's On the Administration of the Empire is perhaps most significant for example), which provided detailed instructions based on theory and experience as to the most expedient ways to handle difficult political situations. Venice, whose relations with Byzantium were always closer than those of other western powers, seems to have profited most from the Byzantine example. Indeed, a comparison of Venetian and Byzantine diplomatic practice in the late medieval and Renaissance period -for instance, the transmission by ambassadors of periodic reports to the home government (relazioni) or the organization of an intelligence service -would probably reveal no small degree of direct or indirect Byzantine influence. It may be recalled that Venice, from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, had a large colony in the very heart of Constantinople and that early a substantial number of Greeks had settled in Venice.

In view of what has been discussed in this section, we may make an important but little realized assumption: that Byzantium, with its perfected administrative system, offered to the feudal western world, especially in the great city of Constantinople, something lost to the West since antiquity -a living example of a remarkably developed and organized society under the rule of public authority.


50. - See esp. Ε. Kitzinger, 'On the Portrait of Roger II in the Martorana in Palermo', Proporzioni (1950) no. 3, pp. 30-34, who emphasizes the fact that Roger wears the costume of a Byzantine Emperor (as he does on several coins and seals) and was addressed as Basileus, but also that the German imperial imagery of the Ottonians provides a precedent for Roger's face done in imitation of that of Christ. On the Norman rulers and Byzantine theocracy see also Α. Μarongiu, 'Lo spirito della monarchia Normanna della Sicilia', Arch. stor. sic. ser. 3, vols. 50-51, pp. 115 ff; and L. Menager, 'L'institution monarchique dans les états normandes d'Italie', Cahiers des civilisation médiévales, ΙΙ(1959) 303 ff:, who opposes such theories.

51. - On Nilus Doxopatres see the article of V. Laurent in Dict. d' histoire et de géog. eccl., XIV, cols. 769-71. Also Ch. Diehl, Byzantinum, Greatness and Decline, 285-87.

52. - See G. Ferrari dale Spade, 'La legislazione dell' impero d'Oriente in Italia', Italia e Grecia (Florence, 1939) 225-53. Cf. Dölger, Byzanz und das Abendland vor den Kreuzzügen',109

53. - G. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswick, 1957) 216 ff. Also R.Lopez, 'Byzantine Law in the Seventh Century and its Reception by the Germans and Arabs' Byzantion, XVI (1942-3) 445 ff. Byzantine law was in force in Byzantine Sicily and southern Italie bur had evidently no lasting influence there. Yet Byzantine law was known to and did affect the Franks (Latins) living in the Easr. The influence of Germanic law was probably responsible for the curious appearance of the ordeal by fire in 1258 at the trial of Michael Palaeologus: see Geanakoplos, Emperor Michael Palaeologus, 21-26.

54. - On Rhodian sea law see esp. W. Ashburner Rhodian Sea Law (Oxford, 1909). Now W. Ρ. Gormley, 'The Development of the Rhodian-Roman Sea Law to 1681', Inter-American Law Review, ΙIΙ (1961) esp. 319 ff. On Byzantine navigational terms and the West see Η. and R. Κahane and Α. Tietze, The Lingua Franca in the Levant (Urbana, 1958) esp. 571, 503, 519, 552etc. For dreki see S. Α. Anderson Viking Enterprise (New York, 1936) 62 and W. Vogel 'Nordische Seefahrten im früheren Mittelalter', Meereskunde, Ι, pt. 7, p. 25. But cf. J De Vries, Altnordisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, who says the German Drache (dragon) comes from Latin draco, itself from ancient Greek. On the influence of Greek shipbuilders in 15th century Venice, F. Lane, Venetian Ships and Shipbuilders of the Renaissance (Baltimore, 1934) 56: 'The finest galley builders in early l5th century were still heirs to [Byzantium].

55. - There is little done on Byzantine diplomacy. See F. Dölger, Byzantinische Diplomatik (Ettal, 1956) for documents and analysis, and for general treatment D. Obolensky, 'Principles and Methods of Byzantine Diplomacy', XIIe Congres International des études Byzantines (Ochrida, 1961 Rapports). There are a number of monographs on the diplomatic relations of individual emperors, the most recent being Geanakoplos, Emperor Michael Palaeologus and the West.

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