Thursday, 23 February 2012

Philip Sherrard: on the grizzly fate of Byzantine emperors

Philip Sherrard is known for his seminal translations into English of all the main twentieth century Greek poets – Seferis, Ritsos, Eltytis, Sikelianos, Cavafy, etc – and for his numerous books on Christianity and Greek Orthodoxy, particularly his four-volume English translation of the Philokalia, which comprises the core spiritual texts of the Orthodox church, to which Sherrard was a convert and a traditionalist adherent of.

At some point later on, I will post on Sherrard’s book, The Greek East and the Latin West, which examines the metaphysical and ideological schism separating Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and how this has contributed to the modern western world’s slippage, according to Sherrard, into spiritual dereliction and systematic barbarism. The book may be pertinent in the current circumstances.

But, for this post, I want to draw attention to Sherrard’s book, Byzantium, which is an introduction to the empire, its politics, history and culture. It was published in 1967, as part of Time-Life’s Great Ages of Man series, and is as immaculately written as it is illustrated. My favourite chapter is the one on the nature of the emperor in Byzantium – An Emperor Under God.

Here, Sherrard manages to get to a great Byzantine paradox: that while the rulers of the empire were regarded as divine – ‘as the chief representatives of Christ and of God Himself’ – and, indeed, God-like, since the emperor’s duty was to bring ‘all mankind into ordered harmony within a universal state under the ordered rule of the monarchy’, thereby replicating God’s mission of bringing ‘all heavenly principalities into an ordered harmony under His absolute rule’; then how do we account for the fact that throughout the 1,000 years of its history, the Byzantine Empire was known for the precariousness of its throne and for the ruthlessness of its court politics – the viciousness with which supposedly God-like emperors were replaced or overthrown – all of which resulted in 29 of the 88 emperors who ruled the empire meeting grizzly fates – decapitated, poisoned, stabbed and so on – while another 13, to avoid such an end, retreated to live in monasteries?

Sherrard offers this explanation for the Byzantines’ apparent disregard for the sacredness of their emperors. Since, Sherrard says, an emperor emerged by divine decree – i.e. it was the will of God and the will of God is by definition opaque – this meant that the ‘only certain method of knowing the divine will was to see who actually occupied the throne. In other words, all means of becoming an emperor were legitimate – so long as they were successful. An unsuccessful attempt to reach the throne, on the other hand, was unforgivable and disastrous for the would-be ruler.’

‘Furthermore,’ Sherrard goes on, ‘what God had given He could also take away. An emperor’s throne might be seized from him in as unpredictable and sudden a manner as it had been given to him in the first place – and the consequences for him were usually as terrible as if he had tried to seize power and failed.’


Fotis said...

I wonder how many people find this stuff interesting, John. I mean, I find it interesting, but you're ploughing a lone furrow, as they say. I don't even think there are Greeks who care.

Hermes said...

Fotis, I would argue the counter. I am very interested in the steadily increasing Western fascination with Byzantium. There is at least one mass market history released every year and there are sell out exhibitions in major capital cities every few years. The Economist, the bastion of Anglo-American political economy (and anti-Hellenism) regularly reviews books and exhibitions on Byzantium and this latest article makes reference to this phenomemon.

I think the question is, why is Byzantium becoming so interesting to people?

Hermes said...

David Bradshaw has written what looks like a very interesting book on the Greek East and Latin East:

You can also find a number of his free papers here:

By the way, Christos Yannaras has been going on about these things since the 1960s.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting. Always loved Byzantium and I feel more attached to its history than classical Greece.

Speaking about a revival of interest in Byzantium I am seeing quotes by Eustice Mullins about byzantium popping up more often. Of course the quotes are interpreted as antisemetic but with his prejudice aside he makes a point how academia has ignored this empire for a long time, and unfairly.


Hermes said...

Here is a recent book which plans to turn things on its head, much like the books by Kaldellis and Angelov, Radical Platonism in Byzantium:

John Akritas said...

Sherrard's book on the The Greek East came out in 1959, so I suspect he and Yannaras were singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak.

As for the revival of interest, I heard Panagiotis Agapitos with Robert Harrison ( – from 2 June 2009) put this down to Byzantium's multiculturalism, religious tolerance and non-nationalism – how this chimed with modern societies – aarrhh! (That's meant to be a scream of frustration).

And Fotis, I don't mind ploughing a lone furrow, if that's what I'm doing. I've never liked crowd scenes.

Anonymous said...

I, too, find this all incredibly mesmerising and important. There is no need for such a defeatist attitude, Takis (but I can see where you're coming from).

The job of someone with John's knowledge, anyway, is to educate – to disseminate the years of learning and information they have acquired – even if it is not pandering to popular opinions/sentiment etc. We would get nowhere otherwise. People coming across posts like these might find that immediately – or after some time – an interest in the given subject is sparked, and then who knows…

Just thought I'd leave this somewhat unnecessary message so we get more of this from John!


The Antidalarus said...

I've always been interested in Byzantium in theory - but somehow I fall asleep when I try to find out more.

Nobody seems to have found a truly engaging angle on Byzantium for lazy casual readers like me.

John Akritas said...

Mesmerising is the right word, Andreas.

AD: Sherrard's book on Byzantium is not a bad place to start. There's lots of pictures. You can get a good second hand copy off Amazon for a fiver.

Hermes said...

Panagiotis Agapitos may have said irritating things re multiculturalism on that podcast but I would rate him and Kaldellis as very important Byzantine scholars. Actually, it appears to me that as Byzantine scholars of Greek heritage gain prominence in the non Greek world a new approach to ancient Greece and Byzantium is developing. Whereas before German, English and French scholars stopped at the latest Justinian, these Greek scholars see ancient Greeek and Byzantium as a continuem with important upheavals. This is important for our well being.

Hermes said...

Another new book showing new directions in Byzantine and Crusader history: