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Why do we learn so little about Byzantine history at school?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Hagia Sophia in 1897
Hagia Sophia in 1897

The Byzantine Empire was a continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, which was created as part of the division of the Roman Empire in 395 CE, on the initiative of Emperor Theodosius I. It was also thanks to this ruler that Christianity became a state religion that began to have an increasing influence on the centre of power. The fall of Rome in 476 CE and the return of the insignia of power to Constantinople meant that the continuity of the Roman state was based only on the emperors from the east.

Despite the existence of the Byzantine Empire until 1453, which is practically a thousand years after the fall of Rome, the history of this state is regularly omitted or discussed in an extremely incomplete manner in school. But where does this approach in education come from?

We should look for answers in the era of the Enlightenment, which lasted from the end of the 17th century to the early 19th century. The victory of reason over faith and the abandonment of religion as a way to learn about the world and the processes that govern it made the Byzantine state the embodiment of evil, corruption and obscurity. The fact that the Byzantine emperor considered himself God’s representative on earth and was closely related to the Christian religion, which through the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque – according to the Enlightenment representatives – did not bring anything good, caused very bad opinions about Byzantium among researchers. For example, Montesquieu used the term “Byzantine” to emphasize enormous bureaucracy; Edward Gibbon, in turn, considered the Byzantine Empire as a weak and unhappy state. Voltaire additionally ridiculed the history of Byzantium as a time of “insult to the human mind”.

Current researchers are trying to be more rational about presenting the history of Byzantium, which was not so binary at all. Regardless, the dislike of the Byzantine emperors, who in their country was dominated by religion, dynastic conflicts and suffered defeats in the international arena, maintained since the Enlightenment, caused that to this day in school history lessons, the Byzantine Empire is presented very briefly.

  • Sarris Peter, Bizancjum, Łódź 2022

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