Sir Steven Runciman: “Within the Next 100 Years Orthodoxy will be the Only Historical Church”

This is the final interview conducted by the magazine PEMPTOUSIA with the great Byzantologist Sir Steven Runciman at the Holy Great Monastery of Vatopedi, on 14/7/2000, where he was hosted during his three-day stay on Mount Athos for the arrival of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who was to inaugurate the new sacristy of the monastery and the holy community of Mount Athos. Like others (see HERE), he clearly sees the demise of western Christian Churches coming quickly.

PEMPTOUSIA: When did you first come to Mount Athos?

Sir Steven Runciman: In 1936 it so happened that I was traveling on a ship towards Kavala, which approached one of the shores of Athos. The monks approached us in boats intending to help us. I could have got off on the shore, but the ship’s captain insisted that we continue our course towards Kavala, and so he stopped me. I got very angry at him and talked back to him in perfect Greek. You see, when I get angry, I speak perfect Greek… In 1952 I visited Mount Athos for the first time, very briefly. A second time followed that same decade, but I was upset because everything seemed to be in a state of deterioration. Later, it was wonderful to see the live renewal when I returned here; it is now a great joy and satisfaction for me to be here, because this fact restores trust in the God-friendly human nature.

P.: What exactly was the motive which lead you concern yourself for the greatest part of your life with the study of Byzantine civilization?

S.S.R.: Various reasons drove me to it. When I was 7-8 years old, I started learning Ancient Greek because I liked the classical Greek language. At the same time I was quite captivated by the Middle Ages and almost nobody was interested in medieval Greece. And so I decided to make Medieval Hellenism my main interest: Greece and the neighboring Balkan states, as well as the Crusades, which were utterly destructive, resulting in the devastation of the Eastern Roman state and the enslavement of Eastern Christianity.

P.: Had you met anyone in particular who helped you specialize in Byzantine Studies?

S.S.R.: When I begun my studies, the top Byzantologist was Professor Bury, an academic who first took up studying classical Greece and then Byzantium. But he was a solitary person and did not desire any students. Furthermore, he did not like the fact that he was forced to make me his student. I had a very hard time meeting him. I first met him at his office in Cambridge. He was the most famous history professor there and he tried very hard to discourage me. In the end, he told me that I would waste my time studying Eastern Europe and the Middle Ages, unless I spoke Slavic languages. It so happened that I already knew Russian. In the end, he was forced to accept me. Despite all this, it was not always easy to approach him. Because of his old age and weakness he was absent from his office. That is why I sent him written notes and questions to his house, but they never reached his hands. Later, someone mentioned to me that Mrs Bury believed that Mr Bury should not be bothered with such things, and so she destroyed everything I sent him. In time, I discovered that every morning he took a walk around Cambridge and I would wait around for him to pass by. In fact, he liked having someone escorting him on his walk. I accompanied him holding a notebook and asking him relevant things. Indeed, he had a clever mind and great knowledge. He almost never needed to go back to texts and studies, because he always knew what to answer. In case he did not remember or did not know he would send me his scientific answer after a while . But unfortunately, he was my first and only tutor. After some time I fell sick and left Cambridge. When I later returned, he had died. From then on, I had to proceed with the subject alone.

P: What does the average European know today about the Byzantium?

S.S.R.: The average European is starting to learn more, as today there are quite a few Byzantologists. Every year, in Britain, we schedule a Byzantological conference with a great number of interested people taking part. Also, in our universities, the students are showing a growing interest. And on the European continent, in France and Germany, there have always been schools concerned with Byzantium, which were limited I guess, but I am convinced that interest is growing there as well. In America, there is a research institution which is very ‘gifted’, in Washington DC, in Dumbarton Oaks. This institute was founded by an American millionaire, literally ‘in love’ with the Church of St Sofia in Constantinople. When I first met her, she was the wife of an American ambassador. Later on, we met in London at a lunch with my parents. She asked me what my profession was, and I answered her ‘Byzantologist’. And then she told me that it was something which deeply interested her and she was planning to found this institution in Dumbarton Oaks. For all this I feel that during my long life I have seen the Byzantium being considered something like a dark and almost unknown topic, while today, having many students, I am convinced that it will become more and more widely known.

P.: How do the various people in Europe and America see the Byzantine civilization?

S.S.R.: For the time being, this civilization has not penetrated their conscience too much. But now, through various universities, it is no longer a subject ignored or scorned. On the contrary, it is something that keeps developing vivaciously while in my years it was almost unknown. This realization pleases me and encourages me for the future.

P.: How do the people of a Western outlook feel concerning Mount Athos? How do they see it?

S.S.R.: I think that for them it is a puzzling place, and certainly women do not understand almost anything about Mount Athos. Of course, the visitors who come here return enthusiastic, and you now have Prince Charles as an admirer, who very much desires and is happy to stay with you.

P.: This is why he recently stayed at Vatopedi for three nights.

S.S.R.: Yes, he pretended he was stranded because of bad weather on the Mountain. But things were very different. He had told the people on the yacht which transported him to wait for him in Thasos, because he had supposedly seen a big storm. And, indeed, he had a lovely time.

P.: What do you believe about the presence of Orthodoxy in modern Europe?

S.S.R.: Sometimes – what can I say – I feel very disappointed from the other Churches of the West. However, I am glad with the thought that within the next 100 years Orthodoxy will be the only historical Church existing. The Anglican Church is in a very bad state. The Roman Catholic Church keeps losing ground. But, fortunately there is the Orthodox Church. The increasing number of people embracing Orthodoxy is impressive, especially in Britain. I believe it offers real spirituality which the other Churches cannot transmit any longer. All this leads me to the conclusion that Orthodoxy will be sustained, in contrast to the others.

P.: What do you think Orthodoxy could offer a united Europe and generally the whole world?

S.S.R.: I should say that I very much doubt we will ever have a united Europe or world. I believe, however, that it offers a wonderful solution to the problem of unity among the Orthodoxy peoples, because to start with, it does not project nationalism at all. But also because through it are given wider and more liberal views in comparison to the Roman-Catholic Church. All this fills me with the conviction that Orthodoxy has a certain and very good future ahead of it.

P: Which Byzantine figure do you admire the most and why?

S.S.R.: This is a very difficult question…! I am interested in so many personalities. But mostly I admire some religious men. Generally, the non-spiritual but important people of the Byzantium are not, generally, for me worthy of admiration, some of them have certainly offered something. But I believe that some spiritual statures are more admirable. They have offered a lot of things and service to the European civilization.

P.: In the monastery of Vatopedi, the renown saint and great advocate for Orthodoxy Gregory Palamas, started off as a monk remaining here for three years. The Church and especially the fathers of Mount Athos admire him a lot and highly honor him. What does the West say of him?

S.S.R.: There still exists a prejudice against the Palamites, those who accept his theology. Personally, I find comfort in his dogmas, despite the fact that others are against it.

P.: Would you support the idea of (Hagia) Sophia functioning again in the City (Istanbul) as a place of Orthodox worship?

S.S.R.: I would like that a lot, but I doubt that something like that could happen. But it would make me very happy.

P: What do you think is the quintessence of the Byzantine empire throughout its very long history?

S.S.R.: I think I would have to give an answer that would take a long time. In briefl, the Byzantines always maintained―even if in some cases they did not fully achieve it―a high level of spirituality, and I think that this is probably the quintessence, their most important element. And I would emphasize that it is a broad and free religious state. For example, the Byzantine missions in Europe encouraged the publication of holy texts in the language of the newly formed Christians. Rome would never have done such a thing. This is something, among other things that I very much admire about the Byzantines.

P.: We believe that Mount Athos constitutes, in general, the continuation of this Byzantine tradition.

S.S.R.: Certainly.

P.: And we feel greatly pleased with the progress of modern monasticism on Mount Athos.

S.S.R.: Certainly the ‘revival’ of this holy site justifies the hopes of many of us. Here, one feels what Orthodoxy truly meant for the Byzantine leaders and its people. Anyhow, it is undergoing a rebirth here.

P.: Some claim―and we would like Sir your view as an authority―that Ancient Greece was a glorious and wonderful civilization, which undoubtedly it was, while the Byzantine civilization was a dark period in the Middle Ages which repels them. Can you tell us something in relation to that?

S.S.R.: I always object against this stance! In Byzantium there was high ethos! Regarding Byzantine art there was almost never a correct appreciation of it. I personally believe that some Byzantine mosaics are more precious than all the ancient statues of the classical age. There is a lot of rattle around the Elgin marbles. They don’t evoke such an admiration from me; I would prefer older works of art like for example the ‘Kores’. I would never desire to own statues of realistic nature, completely human. I would be excited if they had a spiritual dimension in them, like the so expressive (expressionistic) Byzantine creations which are unique and almost unrepeatable. Something which has occurred during my lifetime is the appreciation of the various Byzantine Arts, and the decrease in the exclusive focus on the the Arts of the Golden Age of Athens.

P: Sir, we thank you very much for your kind disposition to talk to us and we hope that holy providence will grant you more years of life, so that you can transmit your knowledge to the ones that follow in your footsteps, who in their turn will prove that the life and heart of Byzantium was, is and will be Orthodoxy.

S.S.R.: Yes. Of course, I am already 97 years old and don’t know if I can still offer anything else. But I feel revived with this visit of mine to Mount Athos.

P.: Before we finish, one last question, what did you think of the Vatopedian choir?

S.S.R.: I liked their chanting. It is distinguished by the lack of worldly music and creates in me a transcendent quality, which should exist in Byzantine music.

P.: We once again thank you for your trouble and your good intent to speak to us, as an expert in Byzantology, about your appreciation towards Orthodoxy as the quintessence of the bright Byzantine civilization.





The eminent Byzantologist Sir Steven Runciman was born on the July 7, 1903. He was the grandson of the tycoon Sir Walter Runciman (1847-1937) and son of the politician Sir Walter. He studied in Eton and Trinity College of Cambridge, where he was a student of the famous professor of Modern History and Byzantologist John Bagnell Bury. He taught at this university from 1927 to 1938 and remained an honorary member until his death. He also taught in many universities in America and Europe and in the University of Constantinople from 1942 to 1945, where he taught Byzantine History and Art. He served in many diplomatic positions (an attendant of the British embassy in Sofia and Cairo) and served as a representative of the British Council in Greece from 1945 to 1947. He was a member of the British Academy of Athens, and he has been honored with numerous university degrees. Passing through Greece had the opportunity to meet, among many others, Giorgos Seferis, Aggelos Sikelianos and Dimitris Horn.

This prolific historian wrote many works that quickly became as famous on an academic level as among the vast reading public. His first works are: the Roman Emperor Lekapenos and his Reign (1929), Study on the 10th Century Byzantium, The First Bulgaric State (1930) and Byzantine Civilization (1933), which he wrote when he was a lecturer in Cambridge University. The Middle Ages Manichaeism is a study on dualistic sects during the middle ages. An important work of his is also the three volumed History of the Crusades (1951-1954) completing the Sicilian Vespers, a detailed history of the Mediterranean countries and civilizations of that era and the conflicts of the then political and national interests. But just as important other works of his are: The Fall of Constantinople (1965), The Great Church of Christ in Captivity (1968), the Last Byzantine Rebirth (1970), the Orthodox Church and the wordily state (1972), Byzantine Rhythm and Civilization (1975), The Byzantine Theocracy (1977). Many have been translated into Greek. Sir Steven Runciman has through his studies and work revived the Byzantine civilization from scientific indifference and research shunt. Through his work The History of the Crusades he essentially altered the beliefs of the West about the Crusades. The Times newspaper wrote for the great scientist’s contribution on the particular subject: “Mapping the Middle Ages period of the endless gap between East and West in the Middle East, Runciman certainly leaned towards the Byzantine side against the prejudice and looting with which the West was occupied”.

Our country honored him with a gold metal of the city of Athens (1990) and the Onassis prize (1997).

Sir Steven Runciman passed away during the time we were putting together his interview, on the November 10, 2000.

Translated by the Holy Monastery of Pantokrator