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Byzantine, adj.: The Evolution of a Word

Perhaps because it's an election year, the word "byzantine" pops up quite a bit in the news these days, although it's not used to refer to an artistic style or a period of history.

"Florida's claims bill process is arbitrary and byzantine and subject to all kinds of political influence."
The Miami Herald, February 27, 2012

"The proposal shows just how convoluted if not downright Byzantine the ownership structure of some of the city’s trophy office properties can be."
Crain's New, March 5, 2012

How is it that a word, which, for art enthusiasts, suggests beauty, spirituality, and glory, has come to mean "excessively complicated, typically involving a great deal of administrative detail," according to

Safire's Political Dictionary, by "Renaissance (another interesting adjective, for a different discussion) man" William Safire, describes the introduction of "byzantine" into the political sphere as having taken place around 1916, when Theodore Roosevelt accused President Woodrow Wilson of being a "Byzantine logothete." The epithet insinuated that, like pencil-pushing Byzantine logothetes, or administrators, Wilson was dillydallying by not declaring America's participation in World War I.

The first cited instance in the Oxford English Dictionary of the "complicated" (and, according to Safire, "Machiavellian") meaning of the word is a 1937 statement by Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler, a prolific wordsmith. (In addition to new usages, he is also known to have coined new words, including "holon," meaning something that is at once whole and part of a larger system, and "bapucracy," a society in which obedience to father figures leads to perfunctory compliance.) "In the old days," Koestler wrote in his book Spanish Testament, "people often smiled at the Byzantine structure of the Spanish Army." The statement is tinged with resignation and irony—Koestler had been imprisoned and sentenced to death by General Franco's forces (who later released him, under pressure from the British Foreign Office).

The OED includes two citations from 1966, one an allusion to another political tyrant ("It was precisely on this occasion that Stalin struck the new ominous note of the cult of personality, of the Byzantine homage to the leader," wrote literary critic George Steiner), and the other an observation in the magazine The Listener: "To hint that one does not quite catch the drift of their byzantine prose . . . pierces to the heart of their intellectual pride."

Safire explains that the negative connotations of "Byzantine" originated from "the court of the emperor—usually named Constantine—[which] was marked by rivalries, duplicity, and violence, giving the word a bad name today." He may have been inspired in his remark by a proliferation of anti-Byzantium sentiment in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. "[The Byzantine empire's] general aspect presents a disgusting picture of imbecility; wretched, nay insane, passions stifle the growth of all that is noble in thoughts, deeds, and persons," declared Hegel in Lectures on the Philosophy of History. Even Napoleon warned against following "the example of the Byzantine Empire, which, being pressed from all sides by the barbarians, became the laughing stock of posterity because it was preoccupied with petty quarrels."

While there was undoubtedly intrigue in the Byzantine court—and, as in any political system, a degree of bureaucracy—interpretations of Byzantium as a place full of bad actors who never got anything done probably reflect old East-West tensions more than anything else. Nonetheless, the negative connotation seems to have stuck, an example of the power of language. Meanwhile, in Byzantium and Islam, we are shown artifacts that convey the true legacy of Byzantium: magnificence, beauty, spirituality, and cultural exchange. In this, we see the power of art.

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