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A-level – and the fall of Byzantium

February 2004 | by Jonathan Bayes

It is often said that our education system is being ‘dumbed down’. Achievements are becoming meaningless because standards are being lowered. A-level results are improving year on year, but is it because the exams are getting easier and marking less rigorous?

If there is anything in these allegations, should that be a matter of concern to Christian people? Perhaps so, since, arguably, history sometimes suggests the gospel prospers most where education and true learning thrive – as we shall see.

Fed up with Rome

The Roman Emperor Constantine was fed up with Rome. It was A.D. 330 – 17 years since he had ‘converted’ to Christianity and declared it to be the official religion of the Empire. However, the Roman senate did not share their emperor’s enthusiasm for the new faith.

As the years went by, they made their hostility more and more obvious. Now Constantine had had enough of their pagan attempts to frustrate his policies. He decided that the Empire should have a new ‘Christian’ capital city.

Byzantium seemed ideally placed. An ancient town near to the mouth of the Black Sea, it was far more central than Rome to the Empire, which at that time stretched far to the east. Constantine reckoned that it would be much easier to displace the pagan past at Byzantium than had proved to be the case at Rome.

So a large-scale programme of migration to Byzantium was encouraged. The town expanded vastly. Many churches were built and Byzantium was renamed Constantinople, after the Emperor. Its ethos was to be Christian from the beginning.

Byzantine Empire

Constantinople’s prominence was enhanced a couple of hundred years later. During the fifth century, Rome came under increasingly frequent attack from Barbarian armies.

The ravages of the Goths and the Vandals took their toll on both city and region, until around A.D. 476 the western half of the Empire finally collapsed. A network of Barbarian kingdoms began to replace the Empire in north-western Europe.

The mantle of Rome fell on what would become known as the Byzantine Empire. This was really the eastern half of the Roman Empire, and its authentic continuation.

So convinced were its citizens of this, that they continued to call themselves ‘Romans’, and the Latin language survived in Greece, Turkey, and the lands to the east for several hundred years. Constantinople remained the capital of the surviving Empire.

For much of the next thousand years, Constantinople was to be a renowned cultural centre. It became a haven for artistic and intellectual activity. Teachers, orators and philosophers began to flock there. They opened schools, academies and libraries.

Classical heritage

Certainly, there were periods when the Empire was shaken. When the Muslim Arabs began to conquer the Middle East in the seventh century, Byzantine power was dented and eastern lands were lost.

However, during the tenth and eleventh centuries there was a resurgence of Byzantine political prestige. The Empire expanded again as territories were recovered. This led to a new blossoming of culture.

It was thanks to Byzantine civilization that the ancient classical heritage was not lost to the world. Constantine’s son and successor as Emperor, Constantius, had appointed a man called Themistio to revive intellectual endeavour at Constantinople.

Themistio established a circle of scribes whose task was to collect the works of the influential Greek poets, historians and philosophers, to restore worn and damaged scrolls, and to make multiple copies. The libraries of Constantinople preserved what was left of ancient culture.

The fall of Constantinople

The zeal of the Christian scholars of Constantinople ensured that early Christian theological treasures were also preserved – in libraries attached to monasteries. At a later date (during the thirteenth century) a scholar named Nikephoros travelled widely, copying valuable rare manuscripts, and housing the copies at Constantinople.

The Byzantine Empire was severely weakened during the era of the Crusades, and Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks, led by Sultan Mehmet II, on 29 May 1453.

Mehmet had several hundred thousand troops at his disposal. Constantinople was able to muster only 10,000 men.

At its zenith the population of Constantinople had been over a million. By 1453 it was reduced to about 60,000. Nevertheless, its small army defended the city valiantly. It was under siege for nearly seven weeks before its walls were finally breached.

Once the city had fallen, Mehmet renamed it Istanbul, claimed it for Islam, and built many mosques.

Turning point

From one point of view, the fall of Constantinople was a tragedy for Christianity. Significant Christian influence over a large region of the world was nullified almost at a stroke. The Middle East fell into the hands of Islam.

On the other hand, the fall of the eastern Empire has been described as ‘a turning point in the history of the western world’. The explanation of this paradox is that the victory of the Turks prompted a mass exodus of scholars from Constantinople.

Most of them travelled west, bringing their expertise with them into western Europe. Paris began to replace Constantinople as the leading centre of thought and education.

This flight from the east did not begin suddenly when Byzantium fell in 1453. Even before this event, throughout the first half of the fifteenth century, there had been a steady trickle of Byzantine scholars moving westwards.

The atmosphere in Byzantium was increasingly one of foreboding during those years, as the Islamic powers gradually gained strength. It is reckoned that between 1400 and 1453 more than 1,000 Byzantine manuscripts found their way to Italy.

Printing press

Around the time the Empire fell, the printing press was invented. The refugees from Byzantium carried with them a wealth of books – just in time for them to be printed and disseminated throughout western Europe.

This influx of scholarship played a profound role in the cultural movement known as the Renaissance. This was a rediscovery or ‘rebirth’ of the classics, including the Greek language in which the New Testament had been written.

One of the architects of the Renaissance was a Dutchman called Erasmus. His early career was quite unsettled. He spent two years as a monk in Germany and then became secretary to a French bishop. He studied classics in Paris, and was ordained a Catholic priest in Holland.

He came to England to teach Greek at Oxford, and then returned briefly to France, before embarking on a tour of Italy. When he was about 40 he returned to England, this time to teach at Cambridge, before settling in Switzerland.

Erasmus and the Reformers

Here he spent his remaining years studying the newly available manuscripts and preparing Greek editions of the New Testament and the Greek Fathers. His purpose was to make these documents available to everyone.

This was a revolutionary idea at the time, given the power of the Roman hierarchy, which claimed to be the only legitimate interpreter of the Bible. Erasmus knew that the Roman Church needed reform and sympathised with Luther, offering him early encouragement.

Although he never became a Protestant, and later parted company with the Reformers, his new emphasis had a positive influence on the Reformation.

It has been pointed out that the Renaissance, with its revival of learning, was a necessary means to facilitate the Reformation. God used it to prepare fertile soil for the truth of the gospel, which was rediscovered soon afterwards and powerfully preached.

People were already growing tired of the dull formalism of the Middle Ages. The excitement of rediscovering the intellectual treasures of the past gave birth to a restlessness and hunger for a more vital faith.

Darkness

While the Byzantine Empire was flourishing, western Europe languished in spiritual and cultural darkness. The ‘Scholastic’ theology of the time was a matter of cold, lifeless logic.

By and large, vibrant biblical Christianity was unknown in the west during the Middle Ages. The arrival of Christian scholars from the east began to change all that.

It would not be true to say that the eastern brand of Christianity – known as Orthodoxy – was significantly more pure than the Roman Catholicism which held the west in its grip.

Nevertheless, the knowledge of the New Testament in its original language, and the preservation of the works of the early Church Fathers, meant that a more biblical understanding of the faith was potentially available, even if neglected.

Through the fall of Constantinople, therefore, the providence of God released that potential for the immense blessing of western Europe.

Let us pray, not only for revival, but for the means of revival to be put in place in the culture and politics of our day!

For if our education system really is being dumbed down, it could be a devilish ploy to undermine the effectiveness and comprehension of the gospel.

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Historical