Friday, September 19, 2008

Byzantine Affairs

My apologies for skipping a post in my usual four day routine (even so, I'm one day late with this one). The Byzantine Empire had most of my attention during the past week and a half. It's a fascinating subject of historical study, one of my favourites. You know, if I had a time machine, Constantinople during the late Middle Ages would probably be my first destination.

It must have been a wondrous sight, "the city of the world's desire", cultured and beautiful. A bustling metropolis set in a spectacular geographic location, with magnificent architecture and virtually impregnable fortifications. Also a centre of scholarship, offering various luxuries that were unheard of in Western Europe - street lighting, sanitation, public gardens, libraries, shops which stayed open even at night. Definitely a place where I would have liked to live. Okay, they had the occasional outbreak of the bubonic plague like everyone else. But you can't travel and be totally safe, right? Especially not with a time machine.

Actually, one of the dates I'd pick for visiting is 1204, when Constantinople was conquered by the Fourth Crusade (that's what a church schism does for you). It was a very tragic event and one of the most barbaric sacks of a city in all of history, but that is why it interests me. There is a certain apocalyptic fascination to it. The crusaders behaved terribly - much worse, it must be said, than the Muslims did when they destroyed the Byzantine Empire for good two and a half centuries later.

The Western knights massacred, looted and raped their way through the city for three days. Orthodox clerics were murdered, nuns were violated, many ancient and priceless works of art stolen or destroyed. The hatred for the Greeks found its most spectacular outlet in the desecration of the Hagia Sophia, the greatest church in Christendom. Reportedly, the conquerors placed a prostitute on the patriarchal throne who sang vulgar songs while they got falling down drunk on wine from the holy vessels. I've always subscribed to the theory that there is a difference between hooliganism and destruction with style. Most of the sacking undoubtedly fell in the former category, but there were creative moments, as the above story attests.

It was still an unimaginable shame, of course. They (fellow Christians, mind you) had just taken the greatest city in the world, and they knew nothing better to do than to smash everything and slaughter everyone. It must be a guy thing. The curious historian in me would love to see the event, but certainly not to revel in it. As a whole, it is too primitive and uncouth to even stimulate my kinky imagination. There are certain elements that are useable once I isolate them and block out the other, decidedly unerotic "bashing in of heads" atrocities. I can think of a female friend or two who would volunteer for the part of the abused nun bent over the altar. Or for the prostitute who sullies the sacred throne.

(Eugène Delacroix, "The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople", 1840)

The Empire, which was already in decline at the time, never recovered. Even though the Greeks managed to recapture Constantinople and held on for a few more generations, they eventually fell to the Ottomans in 1453. Byzantium under the Palaiologoi, the last dynasty of emperors, has an aura of "fading glory" that attracts me immensely. They knew they were doomed, yet they proudly clung to their old traditions and looked down on the "barbarians" who encircled them. And while their political power on the world stage was long gone, there was a final flourishing of art and literature, the "Palaiologian Renaissance".

As obviously different as the two of them were, it all reminds me a bit of another crumbling empire, Austria-Hungary at the beginning of the 20th century. I can imagine the same morbid romanticism and nostalgia surrounding it. Like the Habsburg monarchy which provides the stage for several Lupus epics, I think Constantinople circa 1400 would be a fabulous setting for kinky movies. Such a pity that it is impossible to faithfully recreate even with the means the werewolves have at their disposal. But the feverish death throes of the period, the air of gloom and disintegration, combined with the Byzantine fondness for elaborate ceremony and ritual, seems like the perfect backdrop.

The heirs of the Caesars were more refined and well-mannered than the Western Europeans, but no strangers to cruelty. Their history is full of political backstabbing, so much so that we use the adjective "Byzantine" today to describe complex scheming and plotting. Those on the losing side often met a less than pleasant fate. Blinding was an especially popular penalty, practiced on various deposed emperors, but also on captured enemy soldiers. One time after a Bulgarian army had been defeated, all survivors were blinded. The victorious Byzantines left 1 out of every 100 soldiers with one eye so he could lead his comrades back home.

Not my thing at all, I must say, but you can always reimagine the tortures as something that catches your fancy. Flogging certainly isn't out of place in the Middle Ages. The point is that for me, with a little fictionalization, the Byzantine Empire is a fertile source of fantasy. The palace intrigues, the religious controversies, the invasions they had to endure, the remnants of Roman decadence, take your pick.

However, my favourite anecdote deals with mercy, and the main protagonist isn't a Greek, it is one of their enemies. The Byzantines suffered a terrible defeat against the Seljuk Turks in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The place is called Malazgirt today, a small town in eastern Turkey. With hindsight, it was probably the beginning of the end for the empire and the psychological effect of the loss was significant.

The emperor himself, Romanos IV Diogenes, was captured and taken to the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan. The sultan asked: "What would you do if I was brought before you as a prisoner?" The emperor answered: "Perhaps I would kill you or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople." Alp Arslan retorted: "My punishment is far more severe. I will forgive you and set you free." And so he did. After a peace deal was agreed on, the sultan lavished expensive gifts on Romanos and let him go with a military guard and all the pomp befitting his station.

After his return to Constantinople, the unfortunate emperor was swiftly (and predictably) deposed by his rivals, blinded and exiled to an island. Which goes to show that some acts of "mercy" are indeed the worst kind of punishment. An inventive sadist should remember that.


Anonymous said...

Although it's about the XVIth Century onwards, I think you've just given me the impulse to read Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of The Great Powers again.

There's a certain je-ne-sais-quoi about decadence and the ending of great organizations (or cultures, or civilizations for that matter) that I've always found fascinating :)

Adrian Hardhand said...

Hello Ludwig

Constantinople: Constantine & his mother have a lot to answer for, giving the monotheists an opening. Until then the Roman Empire had been theologically liberal (just accept that the Emperor is divine!) but Constantine ruined that. It would be revealing to put the rise of Constantinople against the rise of Buddhism to the East, Ashoka & his pillars, Taxila, Nalanda (the great Buddhist university); as the Hagia Sophia was built in the sixth century, Buddhism was gaining ground in Tibet (4th to 7th century, leading to Padmasamhava's magickal gains in the 7th century, followed by the second transmission of B to Tibet in the 10th century (Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo & Atisha); in the sixth century Bodhidharma transmitted Chan to China. And what about the Tun Huang Caves? The Venetians were, of course, responsible for the Rape of Constantinople since they financed it.

I find history most interesting when events are put into historical context.

Something that still puzzles me: Why the West had to wait until the 19th & 20th centuries to learn about acupuncture.

Yrs in pervery, Adrian

Ludwig said...

Smallhanded: That's an interesting book you mention. And isn't it fun that the guy's name is Paul Kennedy? Har bloody har...

Adrian: Thanks for your comment. I'm always trying to find the right balance with these "historical" posts. To provide something that is interesting, hopefully, and that gives the blog a bit of a personal touch, but it should also be fun and kinky and inspiring - at the end of the day, it's a spanking and CP blog, not a lecture on history. There are far better and more comprehensive sources for that!

So what you read here about the Byzantine Empire is obviously very simplified (for one thing, the reasons for the events of the Fourth Crusade are far more complex than simply "that's what a church schism does for you"). It's just a bunch of little anecdotes, really, because those are fun to read.

Having said that, I see nothing wrong with going off-topic in the comments section. You raise an interesting point here, so let me answer to that:

I think you are being a little harsh on Constantine (and Helena). Yes, he did create an opening for the monotheists by becoming the first emperor who converted to Christianity. However, he did not, as is often claimed, make Christianity the state religion. I'm sure you know that it is Theodosius who is responsible for this, and who outlawed all forms of pagan worship, destroyed many temples and so forth.

In between the two, there were men like Julian ("the Apostate"), who rejected and persecuted Christianity. And after Theodosius, there was another brief "pagan revival". Et cetera. So on the whole, the Christianization of the Roman Empire is a long and complex process, and even though Constantine undoubtedly played an important part, you can't pin it all on him. His conversion did neither mean a full acceptance of Christianity within the Empire nor the end of persecution. And actually, his Edict of Milan implemented a far more balanced policy than successors like Theodosius did.

Personally, I believe that the rise of Christianity was far from inevitable even after Constantine. Had some events played out differently, it might have been reversed. That is all speculation and "alternate history", of course, but not entirely unfounded. In any case, it seems incontestable to me that there are other figures who played an important role here just as Constantine did, maybe even a more important one.

Of course it's interesting to compare the rise of Christianity with the rise of Buddhism. Or with the spread of other religions, for that matter. Various studies do this, both in the field of history and religious studies. It's a little out of place on a spanking blog, though!

I'm not entirely "Eurocentric" or ignorant of the rest of the world, but admittedly, I know less about Asian history than about the West. I know about the basic beliefs of Buddhism, of course, and I've heard of Ashoka, for instance. Other things you mentioned didn't ring a bell (well, Google helps!). "What about the Tun Huang Caves?" Well, what about them? If you have something to say, say it, don't just drop these names and awaken my curiosity and then walk away. *grins*

Buddhism is a fantastically interesting belief system, that's for sure. And tellingly perhaps, it's not responsible for countless religious wars like the Abrahamic faiths. Moreover, Western historians still tend to be too ignorant of India, China etc., even though things have improved in the past few decades. I'll put my signature to all of that right away.

Actually, I used to read quite a lot about Buddhism when I was younger. Maybe I'll even raise the subject on this blog one day. I'm not sure that there is much in Buddhism which I could deliberately misconstrue as kinky, though. They all seem to be so damn ascetic! Then again, maybe I just haven't looked hard enough yet.

Adrian Hardhand said...

Hello Ludwig

The essential symbol in Tibet's Mahayana / Vajrayana Buddhism is the yabyum (father/mother) male & female deities in sexual union, symbolising the union of wisdom (passive) and compassion (active).

But I'm happier keeping things much simpler: *Anything* consensual goes (DEFINITELY including kink), provided witnessing is taking place.

Yrs very much in pervery, Adrian

Ludwig said...

Thanks, Adrian, I hadn't heard about yabyum. I'm an agnostic myself when it comes to spiritual beliefs, but I've always subscribed to the theory that it's worthwhile and rewarding to read religious and spiritual texts even if you don't necessarily believe in the metaphysical framework. For one thing, they make great literature, and there is a lot of interesting philosophy there, too.

I've tackled kink and Catholicism in my post "Penitentiam Agite!" back in March, in a tongue-in-cheek way (I have a followup to that in the works, by the way). There are also people - believers -, though, for whom kink and religion is a very serious subject. Like a German group called "Sadomasochism and the Church". I remember, they were distributing leaflets during the Pope's visit to Bavaria in 2006 (even as an agnostic, I went out to see the Pope - it's the kind of event you shouldn't miss when you are a historian).

"*Anything* consensual goes (DEFINITELY including kink), provided witnessing is taking place."

I'm all for witnessing. CP with an audience is twice the fun, be it the "virtual" audience when you put it on film or a real, live one.

On the subject of Buddhism, I wonder if you have heard of the German movie "Erleuchtung garantiert" (English title "Enlightenment Guaranteed")? It's not set in Tibet, but in a Japanese zen monastery. Delightful little film:

Adrian Hardhand said...

For me, it's witnessing that makes the difference. Gurdjieff called it "remembering oneself" but this description is dependent on belief in the solidity of ego. When I heard the buddhist phrase "illusory nature of ego," I dropped language that assumed solidity of ego. So "I am witnessing" became "witnessing is happening." Being conscious in the moment is essential buddhist practice, as in "every-minute-zen." The problem with this is that it makes a practitioner miserable if forgetting takes place, so my own version is "every-OTHER-minute-zen."

You describe yourself as agnostic. I feel the same way. Since buddhism is psychological practice rather than a belief system, I'm comfortable with it.

But now, back to more important matters....

Yrs in pervery, Adrian

The Headmaster said...

How very interesting. Who would have thought there was so much history in this sort of thing?

Anonymous said...

Your perverted ideas are interesting and yes, not even werewolves could shoot that, unfortunately.

Personally, I prefer the earlier times of the Roman Empire, especially the end of republican period. I don't like the general and widespread destruction. At the times I prefer, the basics of the civilization as we know it were laid. Yet the differences between noble/rich and poor were very clear and pretty much any kink could be set there.

I hope that some day I'll convince Thomas Marco to shoot some story from that place and period. I will personally opt for role of fat perverted senator abusing young and pretty slave maids :-)

Ludwig said...

Sure, Altair, a Lupus movie set in ancient Rome would be very interesting. There wouldn't be anything typically Czech about it, of course, but as a one-off with a great deal of novelty value, I would definitely want to see it.

And I'm sure you would be great as the fat perverted senator. Take an example from Charles Laughton in "Spartacus", which has to be my favourite "fat senator" performance of all time. He is the good guy in that movie, of course, and much too nice, but I'm sure you would have no trouble changing the character and injecting him with the required dose of sadism!