universally recognisable symbols of authority together with clear intimations of a heaven-sent mandate to rule and they were of practical use as building blocks in the establishment of new structures of hegemony. In so far as a ruler was expressly invoking the Byzantine brand of political culture, he was likely to show at least a measure of deference to its original and principal exponent. The alternative, of seeking to eclipse or to take over the template of Christian authority, was scarcely an option worth considering before 1453.

This rationale can be set out in more or less conventional terms, of self-interest and the profit-and-loss accruing to individual dynasts and would-be monarchs among peoples whose elites, at least, were conscious of the Byzantine Empire. And it is plausible for the period when Byzantium enjoyed overwhelming material wealth and power. However, as Obolensky noted, the heyday of the commonwealth came after Byzantium's politico-military decline and its religion's consequent loss of the aura of success. The work of social anthropologists, such as Mary Helms, on 'superordinate' centres helps to explain this apparent paradox. These are centres, much like the Byzantine capital, which provide outlying leaders and their peoples with the goods, rites and symbols with which to organise and define themselves. They hold out a template to which individuals, political elites or whole communities aspire.19 A 'superordinate' centre is, in Helms's formulation, 'a geographically distant setting' deemed to be a 'particularly charged point or direction of cosmological contact between various dimensions of the outside. Because of this conjunction it is a place where ritual can bring the gods into contact with humans'.20 Association with such superhuman forces sets the leaders and elites of outlying lands in positions of advantage over their subjects and all others lacking in such links, and at the same time imbues their existing privileges with further legitimacy.

For their part, those at the centre believe themselves 'charged with the moral obligation to repeat or continue the task of manifesting moral legitimacy and ideological centrality in the face of the non-moral or the less moral on this earth'. These claims to moral superiority over the 'barbarians' take material form in the well-crafted or rare objects, which they bestow on them.21 It is this ability, rather than just brute force, which ensures a 'superordinate' centre's continuingprestige and goes along way towards explainingthe Byzantine paradox. Long after 1204 Byzantium's imperial-ecclesiastical complex

19 M. W. Helms, Craft and the kingly ideal: art, trade and power (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment