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Why are complex things called “byzantine”?


Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

John Burger - published on 11/13/18

The name of a glorious empire has been reduced to a negative connotation.

The Byzantine Empire, like the Roman Empire that it succeeded, was full of glorious cultural achievements. Byzantine church architecture is just one example. Today, when we speak of Byzantine Church art, music and liturgy, it’s on a par with the most beautiful patrimony of the Western Church, such as Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, the Sistine Chapel or Sainte Chapelle.

How, then, did the adjective “byzantine” come to acquire such negative connotations?

Examples abound even today:

  • “Pension savers caught out by ‘byzantine’ tax-relief rules,” reads a headline in The Times of London.
  • “Experience in byzantine water policy key in elections at Coachella Valley agencies,” says an editorial in the Desert Sun.
  • “It’s Complicated: Bosnia’s Byzantine System Of Government,” puns Radio Free Europe.

The word itself, of course, derives from the name Byzantium, that city that the Roman Emperor Constantine renamed for himself as Constantinople, and which is now called Istanbul.

As it turned out, “Byzantine” has gotten a bad rap.

“Modern historians are quick to point out that modern contempt for Byzantine government is based more on bias than on fact,” Brian Palmer pointed out in a 2011 Slate article. “They blame Byzantium’s bad reputation largely on 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon. In his influential multi-volume work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon caricatured the history of the Byzantine Empire as little more than a series of shady backroom deals, backstabbing, and power grabs. (In fact, the same could easily be said of Ancient Rome—which Gibbon glorified—or the Islamic societies nearby.)”

Subsequent historians relying on Gibbon perpetuated the caricature. “French scholar Jules Michelet was the first to use the adjective Byzantine to describe something excessively complex or subtle in his 1846 work Le Peuple, and the term had spread to nonpolitical contexts by the 1880s. (Louis Pasteur complained about Byzantine medical discussions in 1882.),” Palmer wrote.

According to Harvard historian Dimiter Angelov, the Enlightenment brought about “an almost universal condemnation of Byzantine civilization which was thought to embody exactly what the Age of Reason opposed: an authoritarian political system; a culture permeated by blind religious belief; and a society fervently hostile to any notion of reform.”

“There still exist a simplistic and negative assessment of Byzantine civilization and of the Byzantine legacy in southeastern Europe by historians, political scientists and publicists,” Angelov wrote.

The modern use of the word “byzantine” first showed up the English political lexicon in 1937, said Palmer, citing William Safire’s Political Dictionary. It was in that year that writer Arthur Koestler described the structure of the Spanish army as “Byzantine.”

But if the American tax code today is often lambasted as byzantine, was Byzantium’s tax code as bad?

In fact, Palmer wrote, it was quite the opposite.

“Byzantium’s two-pronged system would have made [flat tax proponent and former presidential candidate] Steve Forbes proud,” he said. “There was a flat tax on all citizens. Farmers paid an additional tax based on the size and quality of their land and their annual production.”

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