Taking the long viewLet us step back from the disasters of the bumbling and overextended empire of Pax Americana, and look at the later stages of the bumbling and overextended empire of Pax Romana -- after it split into an enormous eastern and Mediterranean empire based in Constantinople and a punier and more quarrelsome one nominally based in Rome.
Why? Because ancient dead in ideological wars are less distressing than the freshly killed whose faces we see every night on TV. Just as sad -- lives cut short, the work of centuries destroyed by the razing of a city, cruelty so great that only Mel Gibson and people of a similar turn of mind could relish it. But because those disasters are ancient, remote, we can view them more rationally, free of the terror that Tom Ridge wants us to get used to and that makes it impossible for our leaders to envision an alternative.
This weekend, Helen Evans and her collaborators in assembling the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Byzantium: Faith and Power 1261-1557, presented a symposium on those last centuries of the eastern empire, which called itself "Romania" (accent on the "i" -- ro-ma-NEE-yah) because its people thought of themselves as the true ("orthodox") heirs of the Romans. At one time, this empire controlled most of North Africa, all of what we call the Middle East up to Persia, and most of Southeast Europe and the islands in between. The regime became famously inflexible (which is part of what we mean by "byzantine" today) and, despite its vast resources of wealth and manpower, was hard put to defend itself against new forces battering its empire -- Arabs, Mongols, and finally Turks. "Latin" Christians in Europe (especially Venetians and Genoese, but also Catalans and even Germans) took advantage of Constantinople's problems to grab trading concessions (either by force or in exchange for loans to the beleaguered empire). Even "Orthodox" Christians, nominally recognizing the emperor in Constantinople as head of their church, declared their independence and set up their own mini-empires, the most threatening being the Serbians under Stefan Dushan (see note on toppling of his statue in Kosovo).
In 1204, the "Latins" invaded Constantinople, sacked it (the famous bronze horses at St. Mark's in Venice were part of the loot), destroyed much of it, expelled the Greek-speaking Orthodox, and continued to occupy it until the booty and their own troops were exhausted. In 1261, the Orthodox under Michael VIII Palaiologos returned victorious to the ruined city, and sought to rebuild it and restore the much diminished empire. Michael's descendants were able to hold on until 1453, when Mehmet, sultan of the Ottomans, finally broke through the ancient walls and turned the famous city that Constantine had devoted to Christ into the capital of the world's greatest Muslim empire.
This past weekend's symposium included an analysis by David Jacoby of the vigorous trade patterns that grew and grew even as the state grew weaker and weaker. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Constantinople was the meeting point of two great circuits, one extending from China through Central Asia (the northern land route) and the Persian Gulf and Arabia (southern sea route), and a more disorganized one drawing goods from as far as northern Europe down to the great trading centers of the Mediterranean, especially Venice. And in Constantinople, Jacoby remarked, fashions reflected all these influences. The Christian aristocracy favored Turkish caftans and Mongol headdresses, with Venetian boots, or sometimes the other way around. Angeliki Laiou described how the "statelets" -- Serbia, Bulgaria & many smaller ones -- and the reduced power of Constantinople permitted ever greater political fragmentation, which seemed to facilitate the ever growing commercial integration; the trading houses were the real powers. And Vassilios Kidonopoulis wrote (but couldn't get a visa to come to the US to present it) and Sarah Brooks ably presented a paper on how the city itself (its buildings, its neighborhoods, its population) suffered and coped in these final decades.
The lessons for today's rulers are not obvious enough for them to grasp, but this much is clear: governing the world is a much more complex and unpredictable process than as ever seen from Washington.