I’ve just started reading the first volume of John Julius Norwich’s history of Byzantium, largely prompted by having booked our tickets to visit (in January!) the Royal Academy’s new exhibition, Byzantium 330-1453.
Norwich’s opening sentences capture something of the magic of Byzantium, of why it is easy to be held in its thrall:
In the beginning was the word – surely one of the most magically resonant place-names in all history. Even if its Empire had never existed, even had there been no W. B. Yeats to celebrate it, even had it remained what it was at the outset – a modest Greek settlement at the furthest extremity of the European continent, without pretensions or ambitions – Byzantium would surely have impressed itself upon our minds and memories by the music of its name alone, conjuring up those same visions that it evokes today: visions of gold and malachite and porphyry, of stately and solemn ceremonial, of brocades heavy with rubies and emeralds, of sumptuous mosaics dimly glowing through halls cloudy with incense.
Now, in my head, I know I’m supposed to disapprove of Byzantium and much of its expression of Christianity. The whole concept of a “Christian empire” ought to be an oxymoron; it represents a millennium-long confusion of church and state; it is the political expression of the theology of glory. And I probably deserve to get thrown off the Jacques Ellul Facebook group for writing this post.
However, this is one of those times when my head is overruled by my heart. I fell in love with Byzantium a decade ago, watching John Romer’s magnificent TV series about the city and its empire, and no amount of four-square Lutheran cross-theology or two-kingdoms teaching, or Ellulian Christian anarchy, can quite cure me of it.
So when I read with dismay – and I am dismayed – of how easily Constantine was able to seduce the church’s bishops with the magnificence of his appearance and the generosity of his gifts at the Council of Nicaea and his subsequent twentieth anniversary celebrations, at the same time I have to admit I’ve probably been seduced in just the same way they were.