This was a letter I wrote to Viking Press with a book proposal. All this material, of course, is already featured at The Proceedings of the Friesian School; but it would also be nice rewritten and available in book form. With no agent, significant conventional academic credentials, or any other "in" with the publishers, I suspected that Viking would have trouble taking this seriously. Evidently indeed they didn't, since by May 9th I have heard nothing from them, not even a polite, or impolite, rejection letter. I used to think that in the age of e-mail, people who received hard copy letters might pay more attention to them. Instead, the opposite may be true; and the work of generating a hard copy letter in reply may just not be worth the trouble. Or a publisher may get so many proposals and manuscripts that most go directly into the trash, with no more than a cursory examination, if that. In any case, they had their chance.
3 February 2016
The Penguin Group
375 Hudson Street
New York, New York 10014
I am writing to you with a proposal for a book. After a fashion, this follows a book you have already published: Justinian’s Flea, Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe, by William Rosen . As such, the new book will be concerned with Byzantine history. However, one of the principal arguments of the book is about the falseness and misuse of the terms “Byzantine” and “Byzantium” in relation to the Mediaeval empire usually named with these words -- together with other misconceptions about the place and period. Every chapter really has the character of “Everything You Know Is Wrong.”
Thus, the title of the book proposed here is:
It Was Not Called “Byzantium”
Unsettling Truths about the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages.
Mr. Rosen himself, as I see, was not an academic historian but an executive in publishing, living near where I do now, in Princeton, New Jersey. My attention was drawn to his book because a correspondent pointed out to me that my longstanding webpage, “Rome and Romania,” at https://www.friesian.com/romania.htm, was cited in a footnote by Mr. Rosen -- note #36, on page 331. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, where I taught, and have never met Mr. Rosen.
I am not an academic historian myself. Instead, I taught philosophy for 22 years at Los Angeles Valley College. My philosophy website, The Proceedings of the Friesian School, https://www.friesian.com/, has been on-line since 1996. It does actually contain a great deal on philosophy of history and history. My academic degrees are from UCLA (BA, 1971), the University of Hawaii (MA, 1974), and the University of Texas at Austin (PhD, 1985).
An idea of the contents of each of the proposed chapters of the book follows:
The proper name of the Roman Empire was “Romania”in Latin and in Greek. These names were used at least as early as the 4th century AD and as late as the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Yet one can read a great deal of history by Byzantinists, or a great deal of Roman history by Classicists, and not be made aware of this simple fact. I first saw it in The World of Late Antiquity by celebrated Princeton historian Peter Brown. The names are ignored in most histories, and sometimes they seem to be actively suppressed, as though the historians don’t want us to know what the Late Antique and Medieval Roman Empire was called, even though they usually admit, in passing, that the citizens of the “Byzantine Empire” always called themselves “Romans,” in Greek, and called their state the “Empire of the Romans.”
There are ideological reasons for this situation, beginning with the Franks and Germans, from Charlemagne in the year 800 AD, wanting to claim that they were real “real” Romans (resulting in the “Holy Roman Empire”), despite the direct political, cultural, and religious succession of the emperors in Constantinople from Augustus and Constantine I – and the absurdity of German speaking Germans being “Romans.” While preferring to call the “Greeks,” Mediaeval “Franks” or “Latins” – i.e. French, Germans, English, Spanish, etc. – nevertheless consistently called the empire “Romania.” They didn’t know what else to call it.
The words “Byzantine” and “Byzantium,” based on the original Greek name of Constantinople, did not come to be used for Romania until well after the empire had fallen to the Turks in 1453. Even now, this usage is often explained by historians as due to the want of a simple, proper name for the empire, as though the name “Romania” had never existed -- and even though its use could never be confused with the modern kingdom and republic of Romania, which did not exist before 1859 and for many years had a name, Rumania or Roumania, that reflected Turkish pronunciation. The ideology of “Byzantium,” very evident in Edward Gibbon, is still a matter of claiming the “true” Roman heritage, which apparently more properly belongs to an 18th century British historian than to the people who were living in its continuous political and cultural tradition.
Modern Byzantinists, like Gibbon himself, often seem to display some dislike or distaste for the people and state that they study. While they usually acknowledge what the called themselves, they drop the matter as quickly as possible and are apparently more comfortable with a de-Romanized entity, Byzantium, than with the implications of the truth. At a time when people fall all over themselves to say “Mumbai” rather than “Bombay,” or “Beijing” rather than “Peking,” even though they can’t even say what language “Mumbai” derives from (Marathi), or how “Beijing” is actually pronounced (it is not a “b” or a “j” familiar from English or French), it is remarkable to read in its entirety a hefty tome on the history of the “Byzantine Empire” and not know what its inhabitants, and even its enemies, called it.
While as a teacher I could no longer count on people knowing this, it used to be general knowledge that the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD. However, no one at the time thought so. And if we ask people now, even well educated academics, what actually happened in 476, chances are they won’t have the faintest idea. It must have been something at Rome involving barbarians, and I have seen published books asserting that barbarians sacked Rome and overthrew the last emperor in 476. However, nothing happened at Rome in 476; and someone might have lived out the year there and not noticed anything unusual. Instead, the last emperor of the Western part of the divided Roman Empire was deposed by a coup in Ravenna, where the seat of Western government had been since 402 AD – and where the government of Italy would remain until 751 (who knows this?). Since the Western Emperors had been figureheads for most of the time since about 461, the beneficiary of the coup, the Magister Militum, or “Master of Soldiers,” Odoacer, sent the regalia of the Western Emperor to Constantinople and informed the Eastern Emperor, now the only Emperor, that he would rule Italy (to which the Western Empire had been reduced) under the direct authority of Constantinople. The last Western Emperors were so ephemeral that the later historian of the English Church, the marvelously named Venerable Bede, entirely ignored them; and reckoned the legitimate succession of the Roman Empire entirely in Constantinople.
Hence the subtitle of the proposed book. If no one in 476, or for many centuries afterwards, thought that the Roman Empire had “fallen,” this is an “unsettling truth”; and what it was that actually happened, and why people thought about it in certain ways later, needs to be exposed and explained. Meanwhile, books are published constantly about the “Fall of Rome,” rarely with acknowledgment that this was unheard of at the time; and it is not unknown in published books to find unqualified generalizations about the Dark Ages, concerning the loss of literacy, urban life, a cash economy, and trade, that may have been true in Western Europe under the Germans but that are quite false if anyone thinks they apply to Constantinople and Romania. Bryan Ward-Perkins, whose good book The Fall of Rome is subtitled and the End of Civilization (Oxford University Press, 2005, 2006), is actually aware that there was no “End of Civilization” in Constantinople, where libraries held the heritage of Roman law and Greek literature, in a city that was the largest in Europe for most of the Middle Ages – something else rarely noted. His title is thus deceptive, even in terms of the information contained in his own book. This is a strange situation.
Part of the common perception of the Middle Ages is that it was a time of ignorance and bigotry. All thanks to religion – or least to Christianity. Islam tends to get a better rap, as part of a questionable contemporary apologetic for radical Islam. On no scientific issue is the case so open and shut as whether the sun revolves around the earth, or the earth around the sun. Thus, we find Christopher Hitchens saying:
Augustine was an self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus: he was guiltily convinced that god cared about his trivial theft from some unimportant pear trees, and quite persuaded -- by an analogous solipsism -- that the sun revolved around the earth. [god is not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007, p.64]
The sense here seems to be that anyone who thought that the sun revolved around the earth in the 5th century AD had to be an “ignoramus” and a “solipsist.” However, if we were to ask the late Mr. Hitchens what the evidence was for Heliocentrism in the 5th century AD, he would be no more able to tell us than he could, I suspect, about what happened at Rome in 476.
In fact, until Galileo, almost all the actual scientific evidence was against Heliocentrism, yet many historians and philosophers of science have a poor grasp of the facts and the issues involved. Even Stephen Hawking has admitted that there were no mathematical flaws in the Geocentric astronomy of Claudius Ptolemy; and the only observation embarrassment to his system, that the moon on its epicycle does not change its visible distance from the earth, as it should, also happened to be an embarrassment to the astronomy of Nicolaus Copernicus, who retained an epicycle for the motion of the moon, despite an otherwise Heliocentric system. Instead, most popular presentations I see of the history of science repeat falsehood and follies about Ancient and Mediaeval astronomy.
Christopher Hitchens also says that most Greek scientific literature was only preserved in Arabic translations, because the Emperor Justinian had destroyed it. This is quite false. Indeed, in the 12th century, the Emperor Manuel made a gift of a copy of Claudius Ptolemy's Almagest to King William I of Naples and Sicily. This was about the time that Arabic translations were arriving in Europe and well before the era when Greek refugees from the Turks brought many Greek manuscripts to the West. Greek texts were already being translated, and although St. Thomas Aquinas was still relying on Latin translations from Arabic in the 13th century, he began to receive translations from Greek.
What is obviously missing in modern tendentious histories of science is not just that there was no real evidence in favor of Heliocentrism, but that the evidence against it was decisive, not in astronomy, but in physics. This is routinely overlooked. It is bad enough when writers fail to understand the nature of the astronomical evidence; but when they seem to be unaware of the problems in physics, they hardly seem competent. Thus, Greek physics held that if you stop pushing an object, it will slow down and stop. This is what we see in ordinary life. The contrary principle, of inertia, that bodies in motion continue in motion, in the absence of friction, is something we do not see. It was a leap of imagination by Galileo. If Mediaeval physicists are to be faulted for not being Galileo, no scientist can ever be excused for failing to equal the achievements of their successors. At the same time, what the Mediaeval physicists did achieve cannot be appreciated.
One of the most famous moments in the history of science was when Galileo demonstrated that Aristotle and all Mediaeval physicists were idiots. He did this just by dropped two weights of different sizes and noting that they fell at the same rate and hit the ground at the same time. This refuted Aristotle, who said that the speed of the weights would be in proportion to their weight, so that the heavier weight would hit the ground first. Thus, the brilliant neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran tells us about all the reading he did in the history of science, leading him to say:
Once upon a time, it was so obvious that a four-pound rock would plummet earthward twice as fast as a two-pound rock, that no one ever bothered to test it. That is, until Galileo Galilei came along and took ten minutes to perform an elegantly simple experiment that yielded a counterintuitive result and changed the course of history. [The Tell-Tale Brain, 2011, W.W. Norton & Company, pp.xviii-xix]
Unfortunately, this is all false. Aristotle’s theory was tested, by a fellow named John Philoponus, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 6th century AD, during the Age of Justinian. John dropped his weights, and he did not see anything like the difference that Aristotle had claimed. Indeed, he often could not see any difference at all. This actually led to a revolution in physics, which is ignored by most histories of science, even the otherwise excellent recent one by the physicist Steven Weinberg (To Explain the World, The Discovery of Modern Science, 2015).
The historian of science Alberto Martínez has discovered that a lot of people were dropping weights in Galileo’s lifetime. Some even thought that Aristotle was right ["Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa," Science Secrets, The Truth about Darwin's Finches, Einstein's Wife, and Other Myths, University of Pittsburgh, 2011]. Even Martínez, however, doesn’t know that everyone was dropping weights because Philoponus had recently been translated. Indeed, one of Galileo’s own teachers, Girolamo Borro (1512-1592), had already demonstrated the experiment, perhaps in front of Galileo himself [Charles Schmitt, "Philoponus' Commentary on Aristotle's Physics in the Sixteenth Century," Philoponus and the rejection of Aristotelian science, Duckworth, 1987, p.222].
John Philoponus, besides refuting Aristotle, was responsible for any entirely new theory of motion, the “impetus” theory. This was not inertia, but it threw off the earlier idea that objects could only move by being pushed. Previously, everyone thought that bodies flew through the air because the air was pushing them. Philoponus refuted this with experiments. Translated into Arabic, the physics of Philoponus entered the mainstream of Mediaeval science, where the impetus theory became accepted. Isaac Newton said that he advanced by standing on the shoulders of giants. Galileo was able to advance by standing on the shoulders of, among others, John Philoponus.
For more than three hundred years, Englishmen journeyed to Constantinople to join the elite Life Guard, called the Varangian Guard, of the Emperor of the Romans. This was attested the first time in 1080, and the last time in 1404. The first Englishmen arrived, however, soon after 1066, as refugees from the Norman Conquest of England. One can read a great deal of history about Mediaeval England, however, as I did as an undergraduate, without hearing about these people. For a long time, I figured that British historians did not know of the Mediaeval historians writing in Greek. However, most of the information about this is actually in Latin sources that Western Medievalists should be quite aware of. A major source is thus the 12th century Norman historian Ordericus Vitalis. Edward Gibbon himself cites Vitalis. Another source mentions that 4350 English emigrants in 235 ships arrived in Constantinople in 1075, and that they were settled on land then known as Nova Anglia, “New England.” This New England was not at Plymouth Rock.
A remarkable feature of this history is that while the earliest Englishmen to arrive in Constantinople, and to join the Varangian Guard, were Anglo-Saxon refugees from the Normans, is short order it becomes evident that Norman nobility themselves were traveling to join the Guard. Thus, after the Emperor Manuel was defeated by the Turks at Myriocephalum in 1176, he wrote a letter to King Henry II of England, of “Lion in Winter” and “Becket” fame, reporting on the good conduct of the Englishmen at the battle, and also asking some questions about conditions in England. Just as remarkable as this whole history, again, is how little we hear about it. Although there was an English church in Constantinople, and something like a Roman recruiting office for a while in London, the refugees from Saxon England, and the men who became the , the “English Varangians,” in the following centuries, were more or less, as the Classicist Anthony Kaldellis says, “written out of history.” Somehow, they are an embarrassment to British historians, even though there is mention of them in Gibbon, and Sir Walter Scott wrote a historical novel, Count Robert of Paris, that features them.
Some time shortly after 1042, Maria Scleraena, the mistress of the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus (1042-1055), entered the theater in Constantinople. Constantine was married to the elderly Empress Zoë Porphyrogenita (1028-1050). It was a marriage of convenience, and Zoë not only allowed Maria to live in the palace but granted her the title “Augusta.” This may have been Maria’s first appearance in public in her new status. Seeing her, one of the nobles of Constantinople whispered, , “No blame.” This was what one of the elders of Troy said as Helen appeared on the walls:
Small blame that Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans should for such a woman long time suffer woes; wondrously like is she to the immortal goddesses to look upon. [The Iliad, 3:156-158, Loeb Classical Library, A.T. Murray translation, Harvard, 1924, 1988, p.129]
What A.T. Murray translates as “small blame” is actually “no blame.” No one can be blamed for infatuation with a woman of such transcendent beauty, even when a terrible war results.
It is hard to imagine this event at any other Court in Europe, or in Islam, at the time. No one at the Court of the King of England or the King of France, or of the Emperor of Germany, knew Homer, who was not yet available. There was no theater in Islam at all, and women did not appear in public in any such way. But people in Romania knew their Homer – except for Maria herself, who had to ask about the reference.
This was the civilization of Constantinople. In our own day, Muslim radicals destroy Buddhist art in Afghanistan, or blow up ancient temples in Iraq and at Palmyra, Syria. But Constantine I had adorned Constantinople with the art of the Classical World. Later, when the Crusaders occupied the city in 1204, a Greek historian rebuked them as “enemies of the beautiful” for melting down a bronze statue of the goddess Hera. Actually, they just needed the money. But we have a list of the statues that were in the city, although it apparently is not exhaustive.
Now all that is gone, except for what was looted by the Crusaders, like the bronze horses from Delphi that the Venetians put on St. Mark’s Cathedral. Some Roman monuments remains in Istanbul, but the libraries and Classical statuary have vanished. The base of the “Serpent Column” from Delphi stands along what was the “spina” or axis of the Hippodrome (near where terrorists recently killed German tourists with a bomb), but its upper part is supposed to have been shattered by the mace of Mehmet II himself, the Conqueror of Constantinople, as he rode up to it on May 29, 1453.
This central issue of this proposed book is the place of Romania and Constantinople in Western Civilization. While any proper history details the literature and the knowledge of the Greek language brought by refugees to Italy and the West after the Turkish Conquest, the full effect of this is not always appreciated. On the other hand, even this role is sometimes overlooked. Kenneth Clark's classic video documentary Civilisation (1969), has a great deal to say about the Renaissance, but he forgets that Greeks and Greek learning had anything to do with it. On the other hand, even when acknowledged, the influence may be underestimated. While philosophers in Islam became increasingly preoccupied with Aristotle, which carried over to people like St. Thomas Aquinas, philosophy in Romania remained strongly focused on Plato and on the Neoplatonists of the 3rd century AD and later. The difference that this made in the Renaissance was in enthusiasm for Plato and Neoplatonism. The difference that makes in our own day was in the fascination of Plato for mathematics, which held little interest for Aristotle.
While the Renaissance is mainly remembered for its art, which is what someone like Kenneth Clark shows us, we generally do not think of it in relation to the birth of modern science. That came a little later. But it came with an emphasis on mathematics, which, as in Pythagoras and Plato, was seen as the key to the universe. Galileo, Kepler, and Newton were mathematicians; and we know, at least about Kepler, that he was dotty for Plato. Even now, the seriousness of a science is generally judged in relation to its use of mathematics; and physics remains the place where the most advanced mathematics is used to sound the deepest secrets of nature. But this is what Mediaeval physics was usually lacking; and the influence of Aristotle, who is correctly seen as more interested in observation than Plato, nevertheless served to suppress the direction that modern science needed to go. The paradox that one needed both Aristotelian observation (magnified by Philoponus) and Platonic mathematics is something that philosophers of science don’t always appreciate.
Meanwhile, something like modern publishing began in Venice, where Aldus Manutius (Teobaldo Mannucci, d.1515) founded the Aldine Press and, with help of a large staff of Greek expatriates, created printed editions of a large part of Greek literature, often in the convenient octavo pocket editions that he popularized. The influence of this was varied but may have been particularly important in political philosophy.
Besides these seven chapters, another on the Crusades may be appropriate. In any case, this is already a lot to work with. I am not looking for an advance or any kind of contract from Viking, but I am curious about your reaction, if any, to such a proposal. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to come in and talk, since it is an easy trip from here to Penn Station, and I visit New York regularly. Most of this material, however, is already at the https://www.friesian.com/ website, which is often updated daily. However, things need to be reorganized and rewritten for a book. What I would particularly like to know is whether it is worth the effort. In Ghostbusters, Harold Ramis says, “Print is dead.” I don’t think that is true, yet; but in the long run e-books may come first and bound, hard copy books may only appear as print-on-demand. So, are you interested? Please advise.
Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D.
Philosophy of History