Toward a Parting of the Ways
Travel to Italy, and you’ll find that Byzantium is never more than a stone’s throw away. Even that short distance is closed, discreetly but persistently, when you step into the painting galleries, the museums, and especially the churches. In these places Byzantium swirls gently around you like a mist, muting the hum of German, American, and Japanese voices: in Venice’s Basilica di San Marco, for example, built with the help of Byzantine artisans, modeled on Constantinople’s long-lost Church of the Holy Apostles, and adorned with loot from Venice’s conquest of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade; or in San Vitale at Ravenna, where the famous mosaics of the Byzantine emperor Justinian and his wife, the notorious stripper-turned-empress Theodora, each with their retinues, gaze limpidly at each other across fifteen yards of apse and as many centuries.
Byzantium comes to life in the monuments of Italy as nowhere else in Europe, and in the monuments of Ravenna as nowhere else in Italy. Venice certainly has more of a Byzantine feel today, but it’s the feel of a much later period, and anyway Venice’s Byzantium is generally either lifted or copied. Ravenna’s Byzantium is primal. Built long before the Venetians sank their first piling, its swampy environs more easily defensible than Rome, Ravenna in the early Middle Ages was the capital of the Byzantine administration in Italy.
Then came the barbarians—Vandals, Goths, and others—whose turbulent arrival and usurpation of political power we know as “the fall of Rome.” Determined to reclaim the lost territory, in the middle of the sixth century Justinian carried out a ruthless and grueling Reconquest of Italy and other parts of the Western empire. Having completed the long war, he built San Vitale to celebrate his victory.
A few minutes’ walk from San Vitale, mosaics in the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo offer a very different message from the bland, assertive gaze of the imperial couple and their retinues. Built by the Gothic king and statesman Theoderic the Great just before Justinian came to the throne, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo precedes San Vitale by a generation. It proclaims in the most buoyant terms the Goths’ arrival on the Roman scene. Two extended series of mosaics face each other on the church’s long interior walls: a grand cityscape of Ravenna featuring Theoderic’s palace on the south wall and a view of the nearby port of Classis on the north wall.
The cityscape on the south wall once included portraits of Goths, members of Theoderic’s Amal dynasty or other nobles; after the Reconquest, just as they had painstakingly rooted the Goths out of Italy, the Byzantines prised out and replaced the mosaic stones constituting the Gothic figures. A visitor today can clearly make out the dappled areas where the new stones, which don’t quite match, were applied. On the edges of columns depicted next to the palace, between which billowing curtains replaced the original Gothic figures leaning against them, you can still see a few fingers: they are remains left by the revision, too delicately embedded to chip away from the mosaic columns, so that it looks as if the last of the Goths hide there behind them, waiting to spring out through the curtains. On the wall nearby, what appears to be a portrait of Theoderic has had his name excised from the legend and that of Justinian written in.
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo reflected a widespread state of affairs in Europe at the time, a civilization really, but a clumpy one that scholars have given the name “sub-Roman”: the part-Roman, part-barbarian cluster of cultures, like the Goths, that arose in the West over the fragmented course of the fourth and fifth centuries. These yeasty little worlds were the earliest signs of the Western Europe to come, and appeared first in the former Roman colonies from Spain through Gaul to Germany and down into the Balkans, and then eventually in Italy itself.
In Italy under the Goths, however, there wouldn’t be time for the brew to ferment properly; the vessel would soon be shattered for good by Justinian’s vain attempt to grab it back. Not only the Goths would suffer, for virtually the entire peninsula would be wrecked, its people deeply traumatized by what was theoretically their rescue.
It was not the barbarian invasions at all, but the havoc of this brutal Byzantine Reconquest that ended the ancient world in the West.
Yet, Theoderic’s reign in Italy, which came right before the Reconquest, had an air of optimism. The early fifth century had been violent and unsettling in the West, with Roman rule petering out and the incoming barbarians taking over in uneasy partnership with the now rudderless Roman local elites: Vandals ending up in Africa, Visigoths in Spain, Franks in Gaul. Rome itself was twice laid open to barbarian armies, in 410 and again in 455. The crumbling of Roman power had led a Christian bishop and writer from Roman Africa, one Augustine of Hippo, to turn away from the earthly landscape and point his readers toward the City of God, whose pristine invulnerability stood in splendid contrast to Rome’s decay. However, within a few short decades the West turned a corner.
The year 476, later seen as the end of the empire in the West, in fact passed unremarked by contemporaries. The absence of imperial power had by then lost its fearsome aspect. In the last decade of the century, the Byzantines invited Theoderic—himself raised and more or less educated in Constantinople—to occupy Italy with his followers. The Goths set themselves up in an uneasy alliance with the old Roman senatorial elites, ruling Italy in the name of good government and of the “Roman” emperor in Byzantium.
Procopius, the main Byzantine historian of this era, describes Theoderic as popular and dignified. The Gothic king, we are told, “was exceedingly careful to observe justice, he preserved the laws on a sure basis, he protected the land and kept it safe from the barbarians dwelling round about, and attained the highest possible degree of wisdom and manliness.” Though in time Theoderic himself could be considered “in name a tyrant,” Procopius goes on, “in fact he was as truly an emperor as any who have distinguished themselves in this office from the beginning.”
Procopius’ description hints at a few of the intriguing ambiguities that characterize this shifting world. What made a barbarian? A tyrant? A king? Indeed, an emperor? Byzantines and Italians would soon begin to come up with conflicting answers to such questions as they slowly went their separate ways. The long divergence—marked by tiny, imperceptible steps rather than huge, irrevocable ones—stretched over the whole thousand-year history of Byzantium.
Boethius and Cassiodorus
To start us on the path to this parting of the ways, we shall call on two learned Roman gentlemen of Theoderic’s day, Boethius and Cassiodorus. Like double-faced Janus, the Roman god of arrivals and departures, each looks in two directions at once, harkening back to the fading world of antiquity and beckoning us forward into the emerging world of the Middle Ages.
Modern scholars invariably introduce Boethius as “the last of the Romans and the first of the Scholastics.”* What this comes down to is that Boethius was the last Western European of cultural consequence to know Greek and Greek philosophy for a very long time. He wasn’t the absolute last—there were a number of stragglers, certainly more than used to be thought—but he was the last heavyweight, at the very least until Thomas Aquinas and other Scholastics rediscovered Aristotle starting in the twelfth century, some seven centuries later. Even then few if any Scholastics had Boethius’ knowledge of ancient Greek; knowledge on that level in the West would have to wait nearly a thousand years, for the Renaissance scholars of quattrocento Florence.†
It isn’t certain how Boethius learned his Greek, or where he learned it, though it’s possible from hints in the sources that he studied in Athens or Alexandria, or both, as a young man. If so, it wasn’t much longer that such sojourns, once standard practice for a vanishing Mediterranean-wide
* Scholasticism was the major intellectual movement in Europe before the rise of humanism, and it, too, was stimulated by the discovery of ancient literature—in this case, the partial recovery of Aristotle’s thought in the twelfth century. It is closely associated with the rise of universities or “schools.” The greatest scholastic was St. Thomas Aquinas, whose thought was incorporated into Catholic doctrine after his death. Scholasticism stressed the use of reason and dialectical disputation in the formulation of theology.
† Quattrocentro, Italian for “four hundreds,” refers to the fifteenth century and its cultural innovations in Italy.
upper class, would be possible. Boethius’ father died when he was still a boy, and he was adopted by an older relative, Symmachus, a leading figure in Rome who also had strong ties to the literary culture of the Greek East. The refined Symmachus, it turns out, nursed an ambitious plan for restoring Italian familiarity with the Greek classics, and this may have been among his reasons for sponsoring his brilliant younger relative. Under Symmachus’ guidance, Boethius undertook the almost unbelievably audacious project not only of translating into Latin the entire works of Plato and Aristotle, with commentary, but also of reconciling their often divergent philosophical views. And he planned to do this in his spare time, since from the age of about twenty he was writing prodigiously as well as filling increasingly important political positions for Theoderic.
Theoderic clearly valued Boethius’ wide-ranging intellect, making it part of plans he had for revitalizing higher Roman culture and fixing in place its Gothic veneer. But he also had worldly reasons for promoting Greek learning in Italy. Boethius’ learning had a practical side, and the king took full advantage of it in promoting his domestic and foreign prestige agendas: fulsomely flattering letters exist in which he asks Boethius to devise a tamper-proof system of weights and measures, to find a skilled harpist to send to Clovis, king of the Franks, and to come up with two timepieces, one a sundial and the other a water clock, as impressive gifts for Gundobad, king of the Burgundians. The letters present a pretty picture of peaceful coexistence, cooperation even, between the Roman senatorial class—of which Boethius was a member—and its new Gothic masters in Ravenna.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Sailing from Byzantium by Colin Wells. Copyright © 2006 by Colin Wells. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.