New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Professor Anthony Kaldellis, Ohio State University, provided a much-needed corrective to many generalities made by Western scholars about Byzantium in the conversation “Loving Greek Culture in New Rome: Hellenism in Byzantium” with Professor Young Richard Kim, University of Illinois Chicago, About the persistence of Greek culture in the East Roman Empire and the Memory of Byzantium on the eve of the Greek Revolution, the conversation between the two classics professors was livestreamed on ZOOM on Sunday afternoon, March 14.
“Loving Greek Culture in New Rome: Hellenism in Byzantium” was the second event in the HALC’ series “titled Philhellenism Through The Ages”, presented in celebration of the bicentennial of the Greek Revolution of 1821, by the Classics and Mediterranean Studies Department at the University of Illinois Chicago, the Embassy of Greece in the USA, HALC, the Metropolis of Chicago, the Foundation for Hellenic Studies, Illinois, and the Consulate General of Greece in Chicago.
For several years now, Anthony Kaldellis has written brilliantly on the subject of ethnicity, religion, and polity in what traditionally, beginning in the West, has been called “Byzantium”. Many of his insights came out in this masterful interview by Young Richard Kim, resulting in a better understanding of how the “medieval” centuries fit into the broader history of Greek culture, which for the sake of simplicity is often divided up into three major and to a large extent overlapping phases, the Ancient, the Byzantine, and the Modern. The Greek language was a kind of thread running through all three major periods and helped maintain a certain cultural continuity.
The “Byzantines” codified the classical tradition for us and preserved much of its literature and philosophy, but during the transition into Christianity (until about the 6th c,) when interest was focused on the religion and morals of classical antiquitythe term “Hellenic” meant polytheistic, pagan, though they continued reading and studying ancient texts.
Gradually the Greek Church Fathers legitimized the acceptance of Hellenic ideas as a kind of introduction to Christianity, and toward the end of the Byzantine Empire the term “Hellenic” enjoyed a revival of reputation because paganism was no longer an existential threat, and the greatness of ancient ideas could be acknowledged without embarrassment.
The “Byzantines” codified the classical tradition for us and preserved much of its literature and philosophy, but during the transition into Christianity (until about the 6th c,) when interest was focused on the religion and morals of classical antiquity, the term “Hellenic” meant polytheistic, pagan (though they continued reading and studying ancient texts).
Gradually the Greek Church Fathers legitimized the acceptance of Hellenic ideas as a kind of introduction to Christianity, and toward the end of the Byzantine Empire the term “Hellenic” enjoyed a revival of reputation because paganism was no longer an existential threat, and the greatness of ancient ideas could be acknowledged without embarrassment
The changes undergone by “Hellenism” through these phases, in addition to whatever continuities we can distinguish in this or that aspect of daily life, form an interesting and complicated story, in which the “Romanness”, adopted toward the end of antiquity, of the Greek-speaking world became one of its essential characteristics, as did Orthodox Christianity. (It is often stressed that the Byzantines called themselves Romans, but less often noted that they called their country “Romania”. Traditionally the West has underplayed both facts, because the more “Roman” Byzantium is seen as being, the less claim to being “Roman” does the West have.) For anybody interested in understanding the Greece of today, which emerged as a nation-state two hundred years ago with a view of itself formed in large part by the West’s image of ancient Greece, which ignored Byzantium, this historical evolution is important, lending many changing shades of meaning to the term “Greek”.
The “Erasmian” pronunciation of ancient Greek is a late scholarly invention, because in fact the switch to the modern pronunciation began in antiquity, when Greek speakers were still pagan.
Still alive when modern Greece emerged: a kind of vernacular, “folk” Hellenism. Until not too long ago, “Romiós” was still a “folksy” way of saying “Ellinas”.
In the last third or so of the interview, talking good bit about how the Greeks at the time of their revolution viewed their own past, Professor Kaldellis made the point that they were enough aware of it to know that in speaking to Westerners, they had to talk more about ancient Greece than about Orthodoxy, whereas in speaking to other Orthodox—such as the Russians—they could focus more on matters somehow related to the Church.
For lay people to further understand his work, for Professor Kaldellis’s next interview a possible question might be whether what Greek scholars have done in recent years to understand the displacement of paganism by Christianity in the Late Roman (or Late Antique) centuries in the Greek-speaking world gave him impetus for this “rewriting” of history.