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Nostalgia for Byzantium: How and Why we Continue To Sail
By Silvia Ronchey
Proceedings of the 22nd International Congress of Byzantine Studies (Sofia, 22-27 August 2011)
“O City, City, eye of all cities, universal pride, other-worldly wonder![…] O City, that has drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury![…] What malevolent powers have lusted after you?[…] O prolific City, once garbed in royal silk and purple, and now dirty and squalid and heir to many evils[…]! O City, formerly enthroned, on high, striding far and wide, magnificent in beauty and more becoming in stature! Now your luxurious garments and elegant royal veils are rent and torn. Your flashing eye has grown dark.”
Dear colleagues, you will have recognized Nicetas Choniates’ famous lament for Constantinople, when in 1204 it fell into the hands of “foolish nations, or rather, those people who are not truly nations, but obscure and scattered tribes”: the Crusaders.
Shortly before 1204, Nicetas’ older brother, Michael Choniates, the erudite classicist and former student of Eustathius of Thessalonica, had, you will remember, raised a similar lament – no less moving, but bleaker and more subdued, because it was not dictated by such apocalyptic circumstances – on the fate of another imperial city: not its capital, but the capital of Greek culture, the very symbol of Byzantium’s Hellenism: Athens.
The love for Athens once so great
inscribed these verses, shadow game,
solace of the fire of my regret.
Forgive me, for if I did not find
The famous city of Athenians
I raised instead a stele of letters.