Rhetoric versus Reality: A Comment on the Byzantines adulation of Warfare






There is tendency in much of the modern scholarship on Byzantium to emphasise the role that Christianity played in their everyday lives. What follows is my brief reply answering  how and why  these devout Byzantines were so able to largely ignore the Church Father’s notions of a just war. He writes:

Byzantine theological notion that war, while sometimes necessary or “just” in cause, is actually UNJUST by nature. This view was certainly held in the Patristic era and is reflected in the Canons of St. Basil. (Maybe he intends to imply that the Patristic teaching wasn’t well. But unless I missed something, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of the Byzantine theological distinction that war is sometimes just or necessary in “cause,” but is never really just by “nature.” This seems to be reflected in the Patristic corpus (e.g., in the Canons of St. Basil). Maybe that notion never really amounted to anything PRACTICALLY, but eventually it seemed to even be echoed by the State (even if later on, perhaps). So, unless I’m being hasty or off-point, or I missed something… why is this not even mentioned?

My response

One might argue that  even average educated Byzantines were not that familiar with the works of the Church Fathers, say in comparison to Thucydides, certainly warfare is a feature of much of the literature created for the Byzantine court: e.g. Procopius, Agathias….it is easy to forget that despite its Christianisation, the Byzantine Empire had become more militarized in the sixth and seventh centuries compared to the previous two centuries. Though even classicising historians made it clear that peace was preferable to war, they tended to glorify warfare and soldiers and see the battlefield as a place where men and the Roman states proved themselves. As a Byzantine scholar reminded me recently, It is too easily forgotten that the Christian God was chosen by Constantine as a God of Battles, and that there are plenty of exempla of heroic warriors and much smiting of enemies in the Old Testament Gideon, Samson, David, and Maccabees.
Indeed, Heraclius’ propaganda against the Persians that amalgamated Christian and classical themes preferred militant Old Testament passages and imagery. Indeed, writers like the fifth-century historian Eunapius tells us about a Christian mural in Milan that depicted the hand of God striking down the Empire’s enemies. One of my favourite passage from Theophylact is when he has the Bishop Domitianus of Melitene explain to a group of soldiers headed off to fight the Persians: “Let no one receive a scar on his back: the back is incapable of seeing victory. In the contest be united in spirit more than body, comrades in toils but not in cowardice. Let him who has not taken up the inheritance of danger be disowned. In death reach out for victory. Trophies are bought with wounds and blows. Sloth brings no glory. There is nothing sweeter than death in war, for if there is no advantage in growing old and being struck down by wasting disease, assuredly it is more appropriate for you heroes to die in the battle-line while you are young, reaping glory in your tombs.”


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