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Stench Power and Byzantine tolerance

August 8, 2010

From Edward Luttwak’s excellent Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, an interesting aside on how Byzantine culture lent itself to the rediscovery of a Greek “curiosity about foreign peoples”:

Christianity certainly helped to combat prejudice – not only because of its universal embrace but also because it dissuaded its followers from bathing, and therefore removed the barrier of smell that greatly inhibited Roman intimacy with barbarians.

Of course, bribery ended up being more crucial than cultural attraction. But the willingness of the Byzantines to negotiate with and reach out to “savages” makes one wonder if these medieval Orthodox Christians were in some ways more tolerant than today’s universal liberal society. Then again, when the pagans, heathens and barbarians are your close neighbors, prudence tends to dissuade proselytization and crusading…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2010 3:09 am

    Your concluding remark is dead on. Necessity is the mother of tolerance.

    Not sure I’d agree with the Christian tolerance bit though. Christianity was not more tolerant than polytheism since the latter allowed for the integration of all Mediterranean faiths whereas Christianity as monotheism was exceptional and exclusive.

    I personally believe Christianity corroded Roman imperial authority. If not for any other reason, because the emperor ceased to be divine…

    • August 9, 2010 4:32 pm

      Quite true, and I didn’t mean to imply Christianity was more religiously tolerant towards pagans than the Romans were… It simply strikes me that the Byzantines were much more open to negotiation and adept in their dealings with “mortal” theological enemies than the modern West is today…

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