WE ARE BYZANTINE
NOT GREEK, ROMAN, EASTERN, OR ARABIC
By Bro. John Samaha
Is our Melkite Church Greek, Eastern or Byzantine? The late and revered
Byzantine Melkite Archbishop Joseph Raya raised this question more than once.
And we are indebted to his scholarship for this commentary.
The common terms by which we identified ourselves was the word "Greek" or
the word "Eastern." We called ourselves, and everyone else called us,
Greek or Eastern Orthodox, Greek or Eastern Catholics.
What’s in a name?
What’s in a name? The answer is plenty.
The name is the symbol of the reality.
Because the word "Byzantine" is an essentially Christian term, Voltaire,
Montesquieu, and after them Gibbon, created, in the words of Voltaire, an
aura of disgust and horror around it. They attributed a pejorative
connotation to the term. Under their influence, it came to be, in European
languages, synonymous with bizarre, barbarous, futile, and inane. So
everyone shied away from its use. But this basically Christian word
has been vindicated and rehabilitated by scholars and historians of the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries who have restored its luster and brilliance.
By contrast, the word "Greek" connotes the glorious history of pagan Greece
and its marvelous culture. It was better understood and more respected.
Furthermore, the original and official language of the Byzantine Empire and
of the Church that it sponsored was the Greek language. This is why different
nations and cultures, and the Empire itself, were covered by the word "Greek."
We called ourselves Greeks: Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox; our rite was
the Greek Rite. Even Slavs, who are no more Greek than the Chinese
are French, called themselves Greek. Yet the Slavs were civilized and
Christianized not by the Greek but by the Byzantine culture.
The importance of language
A language is the instrument and sign through which a culture is expressed.
For a Church, and for us as members of that Church, to be called Greek would
be erroneous, an aberration, a misrepresentation. Do we refer to Americans
as English people, English Church or English culture because they speak the
English language? The American culture and civilization are an amalgamation
of many cultures, civilizations, peoples and mentalities. We cannot call
it simply English or Spanish or French or Nordic or Slavic. It is a
very special, a very specific culture and civilization. We call it American,
and not English, even though it is expressed in the English language.
The Byzantine Empire and the Byzantine Church used the Greek language in
the expression of their civilization and culture as the American people today
use the language of England. Byzantinism is under the influence of and contains
Greek elements, just as the American culture contains English elements. Besides
being Greek, the Byzantine culture is Oriental or Eastern, and it is Roman.
It possesses also elements from many other cultures. We could call a whole
by one of its components; we could call our Church Greek. But only
in a broad sense, and never without qualification.
Our Church is not Eastern, even though born and developed in the Eastern
part of the Roman Empire. The words "East" or "Eastern" are historical and
geographical terms. They designate an indistinct reality of obscure contours
and boundaries. The word itself, especially for us Americans, is so
confused and confusing that it submerges our personality as a Church in a
dark shadow of unreality. Generally speaking, the word "eastern" is a collective
term which designates the populations, the languages and cultures proper
to Far Eastern countries, as well as to certain regions of the Near East.
It is the nations of the Near East and Middle East which Hellenic civilizations
covered and influenced, but never completely replaced or dispossessed of
their original ethnic characteristics. Egypt, which occupied a very
special place and position in the Empire and in the formation of our Church,
was Coptic in its very soul. Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia and all the
surrounding countries that played important roles in the formation of the
Byzantine Church were of the Syriac language, which was later replaced by
Arabic. Georgia and Armenia were of the Armenian language.
All these Eastern nations with their particular cultures were in some way
united by a common element, the Greek language, without becoming Greek
themselves. They all converged on Byzantium to contribute to its formation
and development without making it Eastern. The rite or cultural expression
of our Byzantine Church is a unified cultural expression of many peoples
from many parts of the world, from the East as well as, and as much as, from
the West. The definitive history of Byzantine science, philosophy,
literature, and theology has yet to be written. But the main lines stand
out in sufficient detail to reveal its diversity in unity.
Why did the East speak Greek?
The most astonishing feature of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) was his
vision and conscious aim of a Hellenized East. Wherever he passed in
his triumphal conquests from 336-323 B.C., he established cities peopled
by a mixture of his veterans and the native population. His aim was to unite
and wed the East to the West. He himself set an outstanding example:
he married (for love, it is said) Roxana of Bactria. Upon his return from
India, he took as a second consort Statira, daughter of Darius III.
Nearly a hundred of his superior officers and some ten thousand of his humbler
followers took Asiatic brides. "Soon, every Greek who had strength,
beauty or talents to sell was on foot to seek his or her fortune in Asia,
and with them went everywhere the Greek trader as enterprising, as fearless,"
we are told by Francis Legge. Streams of fortune-hunters rapidly poured out
in full flood from Greece and from the capitals that Alexander and his officers
had founded in the distant provinces. As often happens with conquered
countries, the language and cultural exploits of the conquerors were assimilated,
and the East woke from its sleep with a veneer of Greek culture. Conquered
peoples now spoke in Greek, thought in it and wrote in it. Thus did
they come to recognize the values of Hellenism and the degree of their indebtedness
to it. Their gods were not Zeus and Athena, but Plato, Aristotle, Homer
and the language they spoke. Thus the East spoke Greek and was intimately
connected with Greek culture. While the supreme beauty and delicate texture
of Hellenism bound East to West and gave them a common language, the peoples
so bound influenced Hellenism in their turn, creating a new Greek language
To this happy marriage of East and West, Rome later added its own culture,
its genius for organization, and that peace and order in which Christ was
born. Thus Eastern, Greek and Roman cultures met and combined. Other
lesser cultures were to be joined to them by a stronger tie of unification,
the tie of Christianity which was to amalgamate them and meld them into yet
another culture called Byzantine.
What is the Byzantine culture? How was it formed?
In the third century, the emperor Diocletian abandoned Rome and fixed his
capital at Nicomedia in Asia Minor (285). In the fourth century, Constantine
the Great created a new capital for the Roman Empire: Byzantium (Constantinople).
He transplanted there the culture, and the intellectual and artistic abilities
of all the peoples who dwelt under the rule of his empire. St. Jerome observed,
somewhat tart!y, that Constantinople was clothed in the nudity of almost
every other city and with the work of any contemporary artist who could be
persuaded to make his home there. If Constantine did not Christianize the
whole Roman Empire, he did give the Church sufficient power and privileges
to overcome paganism and to become the only recognized and official religion.
The New Rome, Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire, became officially
Christian on 11 May 330. On that date, Constantinople was dedicated to the
Theotokos, the Mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Eternal Father.
Under the Emperor Theodosius Christianity became the state religion (392).
The cultural wealth of the Roman Empire from the plains of Latium to the
deserts of Africa began to converge upon the capital, giving it a new individuality
and establishing it as the center of Christian culture and development.
Such concentration is a natural phenomenon that has befallen all the great
capitals of the world. Even dissenters and revolutionaries contribute
to the culture and formation of their capitals and of their nations.
The East as a whole was often opposed to the despotic colonialism of Byzantium.
Almost from the outset the East reacted against it, while at the same time
contributing to its culture, formation and development.
The peoples of Egypt and Syria, keeping their own consciousness of having
separate origins, never really accepted the Roman Empire, formerly Latin,
now fast becoming Greek, and a mixture of all nations. They had no chance
of political independence. Their hatred of the power of Rome found vent in
the Christological controversies. The cry of the faith of Cyril, "one nature
in Christ," no betrayal of Ephesus, meant really no submission to the foreign
tyrant on the Bosporus. So the great majority of the population in
these lands turned Monophysite (non-Cholcedonian), rose in continual rebellion
against the Creed of the Empire, and committed savage atrocities against
the "Melkites" (Imperialists), who were mostly government officials, tax
collectors, and army officers. In return the faithful were fiercely
Romans, Greeks, Eastern peoples, and later Nordic and Slavic tribes, came
together of set purpose or by force of circumstance to form a nation, an
empire. This mutual penetration and amalgamation of nations were not the
result of any systematic plan, or the work of any political experts or school
of thought. It resulted from the natural condition of life: a symbiosis,
fusing into one a number of races and cultures. Thus evolved
a new and many-splendored civilization of multiple layers.
Culture is formed by human beings who, once bound by a common purpose
of life, become fully what they ought to be. As a nation, they
develop their gifts and powers and try to attain to intellectual and moral
perfection and social effectiveness. Culture is, then, the very life of a
society in its ascent, development and progress. In such a society,
a person becomes artist, philosopher, poet, saint. Christianity was
the catalyst that bound all the diverse elements of this new
The new formation and unification of East and West, of all tribes and peoples
who concentrated in the Roman Empire under Christ and under the power of
his teachings and ideals, made the new cultural dimensions and life of Byzantium.
Under such an influence and through a slow development, Constantinople became
the capital of Christ himself, where public monuments were inscribed in his
name: Christos Basileus, (Christ Emperor). Coins were minted in his
effigy. With Justinian II
(685-695) the image of Christ appeared on coins, where he was proclaimed
Rex Regnantium; the Emperor, standing, was designated as Servus Chrsti.
Thus the Emperor made it known to the world that he was subject to the King
of Kings. Laws were promulgated in the name of "The Lord Jesus
Christ, Our Master." In the palace by the side of the imperial throne
there stood another throne, mysteriously empty, on which the Gospel was displayed,
and which no one approached without bowing: the throne of Christ, "our true
It is the glory as well as the strength of the Byzantine people to have realized
and proclaimed that the real ruler of the Empire was Christ Himself: "Christ
alone Basileus!" Only the Gospel could be the constitution of a state that
had Christ as its sovereign. Christ, the Lord, directed and preserved,
chastised and comforted, often using the unseen forces of the angelic orders,
or the saints, and above all the Mother of God, who was the special patron
of "The City, " as Constantinople was called. Byzantinism is, then, the specifically
Christian culture of the Byzantine Empire.
At its very beginning, in its universal and universalizing elements, Christianity
was expressed by Easterners in the Greek language. St. Paul, the Jew
from Tarsus, the founder of Churches, the Apostle par excellence, spoke Greek
and converted only Greek-speaking people. The whole of the New Testament
was written in Greek with the exception of St. Matthew, who wrote his gospel
in his native tongue, Aramaic. Most liturgies in existence today proceed
from a Greek original. Our Creeds were conceived and formulated in
Greek. Some of the Apostolic Fathers were true Greeks. Some were of
mixed races; and others, not having a drop of Greek blood, yet wrote in the
Greek language. The theology of Origen, the Egyptian, and of the famous
school of Alexandria in Egypt, is Greek in its source and scope. Antioch
and Jerusalem were Greek-speaking. The most illustrious Fathers of the Church
-- Athanasius, Basil the Great, the two Gregorys, Chrysostom, the two Cyrils
and, later, John of Damascus -- are Greeks, if not spiritually, at least
in the way they express their thoughts. Most of the faithful were of Greek
culture and language. In Byzantium, the capital of the Roman Empire, we behold
and reverence the Christian Hellenism of the Universal Church.
Greek, but also Roman
It is evident to any reader of history that Byzantine culture is also Roman.
The name that Byzantium received at its foundation and creation was New Rome.
Constantinople is only a surname. Built by Constantine the Roman, Byzantium
becomes his capital, his town, his polis. Constantine is the Emperor. He
is the Roman Emperor. He is the emanation, the condensation, the summary
and symbol of all the glory and powers of the people of Latium. Where
the Emperor is, the Senate will be. Where the power and majesty of the Roman
people are fixed and stable, there also is Rome. Constantine, the Roman Emperor
of the Roman Empire, transferred to his new capital the Senate of Rome and
most of the noble families who lived in Rome. He coaxed them, he bribed them,
he coerced them to move to Constantinople. He even transported to the shores
of the Golden Horn whole marble palaces, with their statues and fountains.
Where people settle, their culture will flourish. The official language of
the Byzantine Empire, up to and long after Justinian,
Some historians, among them Krauss, insist that "from the foundation
of Constantinople to the eighth century one cannot speak of a Byzantine Empire;
everything in it -- government, law, and language -- was Roman. Where
New Rome (Constantinople) was prospering and growing, Old Rome was ruined
and dying. In 410 Rome was sacked by the Goths. In 455
it was pillaged for a fortnight by the Vandals, and it suffered yet again
from the entry of Ricimer in 472. Finally, when, in 476, the last Roman Emperor,
the boy Romulus Augustulus, abdicated in favor of the German Odovacar, the
barbarians became supreme in the Western Roman Empire. With their supremacy
and the ruin of the Roman patricians, Old Rome became for a long time a provincial
city dependent on the metropolitan impulses of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Roman culture lived in Byzantium. It enriched and was enriched by what
it encountered there, namely, Christian Hellenism. Because of this
presence of Rome in the East, all the people of the Mediterranean shores
and beyond called themselves Romans. Sixteen hundred years after that
glorious exodus, the Melkites of the East, Catholics and Orthodox, still
call themselves Romans: Roum (Roman) Catholics or Roum Orthodox. Even today
the people of Greece thrill to call themselves as Romyos.
Rome came to Byzantium and lingered there for centuries, pouring her spirit,
her life and her genius into the creation and formation of Byzantine culture,
and theological and spiritual life. Byzantine Christianity has therefore
been enriched by Roman culture and civilization.
Roman, but also Eastern
To say that the East infiltrated the West long before Christianity is not
an oversimplification. With their highly developed civilizations the
peoples of the East flooded the West. They came from Asia Minor, Palestine,
Christianity was first thought out and formulated by Easterners. It
was developed and brought to the West by Easterners. Alexandria in
Egypt and Antioch in Syria were centers of learning and schools of Christian
experience, even for the Romans of the West. There Jerome was
formed, there Ambrose was nurtured, from there inspiration came to Benedict.
Constantinople was populated by men from the East. Syrians, Armenians,
Orientals of all nationalities converged upon it. Artists, philosophers,
metals workers, traders, architects and monks found in it a flourishing field
for development. Their knowledge, skills and intellectual powers were
set free for expression and creativity. Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom,
with its icons and mosaics was designed and built by Eastern architects.
It was to be the model for many churches, from the splendid buildings in
Ravenna to the humblest chapel in the Russian steppes.
Proud people of a proud origin, the Easterners would have been unfaithful
to the spirit of their race if they had let the world pass by without celebrating
the glories of their ancestors and of their churches. Byzantine hagiography,
as is still attested by our liturgical books, is indeed full of the saints,
events, and spirituality of the East. Easterners brought to the Christian
capital relics of their saints and martyrs whose anniversaries and "translations"
were never celebrated without Oriental-style oratory and literary discourses.
Until the late ninth century monasteries, renowned for their religious spirit,
learning, and holiness, were staffed and renewed with Orientals. The best
creative writers and poets whose works fill today's liturgical books were
also Orientals: Ephrem (350), Romanos the Melodist (500), Cosmas of Mayouma
(734), John of Damascus (759) and many others. Constantinople absorbed
all the living forces of the dying East.
Antioch, the queen city, experienced all the agonies of death. Completely
destroyed by an earthquake in 525, it was rebuilt soon afterwards.
But in 540, the Persian King Khusrau I sacked the city. It was captured
again by the Persians in 611, and finally fell to the Arabs in 636, when
its intellectual and artistic wealth took refuge in Constantinople.
Alexandria was captured by the Persians in 617, attacked by the Arabs in
641, and completely occupied in 646. In all these calamities and misfortunes
of wars more and more of its scholars and artists took refuge in Constantinople
and poured into it all the wisdom and knowledge of
In the fifth and sixth centuries, Byzantium became a target for the invasions
of the Huns and the Slavs, who settled within its boundaries and contributed
their own cultures. In the sixth and seventh centuries, the Bulgars
and Arabs flooded the Empire. Provinces fell permanently or temporarily
to these invaders. They left many settlements, mostly along the
borders and around the cities. Military commanders, government
officials, even emperors came from various ethnic groups. Armenians,
Arabs, Syrians, Slavs, as well as Romans and Greeks, mounted the throne of
the Basileus, or led armies and battled in the political arena of the
Empire. Were the brothers Cyril and Methodius, the converters of the Slavs,
true Greeks? Or were they immigrants, or the immediate descendants
of immigrants, whose Slavic origin fitted them so perfectly to be the missionaries
to the land of their fathers?
The Byzantine fusion
During five centuries Greeks, Romans, Slavs, and Easterners vied with one
another in the capital city of the Roman Empire. They lived side by side,
grew to know one another, and were fused into one nation under God and the
rule of Christ. Thus they created and formed the new, Byzantine culture.
What a perfect picture of the Byzantine Empire we have in America today.
A fusion of many cultures, nationalities, and origins, influencing each other
and contributing to form a new nation "under God. "
The Byzantine nation made of so many nations, cultures, and peoples, this
new people under God, exercised a wonderful and enduring missionary influence.
Byzantine missionaries were successful and their work endured, precisely
because of their diversified make-up. Their missions were inspired
by a universal and universalizing understanding of the role of the Church
in this world.
Beginning in the sixth century, these missionaries carried Christianity from
the shores of Crimea in Russia to the borders of Abyssinia, even to the oases
of the Sahara Desert in Africa. In the ninth century, these missionary
activities became more widespread. Cyril and Methodius were already
in Moravia, implanting orthodoxy with its liturgy. At the same time Photius
was converting the Bulgars, whose example was soon to be followed by the
Serbs. And so the whole of the Balkan peninsula became Christian.
The tribes beyond the Danube, Walachians and Moldavians, and soon after them
in the tenth century, the Russians embraced the religion of Constantinople.
Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptized at Cherson, and married a Byzantine
To all these peoples the Byzantines brought, together wi1h religion, their
institutions and their forms of government. Byzantine teachers
conducted schools. Byzantine priests established churches, large and
small. Byzantine artists decorated public buildings and palaces.
Byzantine scholars translated into their languages the most brilliant works
of Byzantine literature, thus leading them to the formation of their respective
national literatures. Even the center and pride of our spiritual life,
the Holy and Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, is of Byzantine development
and Byzantine production.
Truly, then, the Byzantine Empire, and consequently the Byzantine culture
and Church, are not the product of one people or of one culture. They are
rather the sum total and fusion mainly of three distinct cultures and civilizations
-- Greek, Roman, and Eastern, with elements and contributions from Slavic
and other ethnic sources. It is a complex culture, mobile and varied,
with all the variety of the turbulent and glorious history of the Byzantine
From the union of all these cultures in the crucible of Byzantium came forth
a new and specific culture and civilization, and consequently a rite or Christian
life-style, a universal and universalizing Church. Precisely
because of these characteristics derived from Byzantium the theology, liturgy
and spirituality of this Church are so very modern, so contemporary, so American,
so appealing to all cultures. To this culture we owe our Melkite
Rite, and the theological and spiritual expression of our Church. It
is to this culture that the Slavs owe their civilization, their Church, and
Our Church is not Greek or Roman or Eastern. It is Byzantine.