The textbooks say the Byzantine Empire was a theocratic autocracy uniting church and state under an all-powerful emperor believed by the Byzantines to be God’s viceroy and vicar.
Nonsense, says Anthony Kaldellis, professor of classics at Ohio State University.
The Byzantine Empire was a continuation of the Roman Empire and even of the Roman Republic. Its political ideology was fundamentally secular and grounded in the ancient Roman republican belief that government exists to serve the common good. Its people no longer had a legal role in the election of leaders or legislators, but they often played an extralegal role in the making and unmaking of emperors, whose legitimacy depended on popularity and not on a claim of divine right or constitutional correctness. Emperors therefore ruled pragmatically and not fanatically, often disappointing the Church to please the people.
This is fresh air for Orthodox Christians, who have had to bear the accusation of Byzantine theocracy longer than Western Christians have had to bear the accusations of the Crusades and the Inquisition. But Kaldellis’s The Byzantine Republic also provides useful criticism of modern Western political thinking, as well as portentous, if inadvertent, insight into progressive democratic thinking and where it will take us. Keep reading . . .