If you spend enough time digging through the Alt-Right world (which I’m describing as the right-wing but non-conservative space in politics), and make your way through the rough exterior, you will find many interesting idiosyncrasies. One of them is a number of people, myself included, fascinated with the Byzantine Empire.
For those unfamiliar, the Byzantine Empire is the name historians gave to the Roman state based in the eastern Mediterranean following the ascent of Odoacer over what remained of the Western Roman Empire. The common story is the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD when Odoacer assumed power in Italy. However, the Emperors in the east reigned until 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans.
The history of the Byzantines hit a number of issues that are held closely by the Alt-Right. First of all, the fall of the Roman Empire is an area of historical significance that draws anyone who seeks to understand patterns of massive political change and upheaval of civilizations. The Byzantines are naturally a part of that story. They continued on from their weakened position for almost a millennium, accounting for about half of the days between the Rome’s foundation by Romulus and the fall of Constantinople. Understanding this civilization is one source from which the Alt-Right seeks knowledge about what might happen to our own Western Civilization and what it might take to preserve it.
One thing that is very important to the Alt-Right is tradition. The Byzantines were a civilization that maintained ancient traditions in a world that changed drastically around them. Their work, both culturally and militarily, has ensured that the great love of the Alt-Right, Western Civilization, survived long enough to thrive. The good done for the world by the Byzantines does not go unrecognized by those who have learned the story.
If any experience defines young people who have joined the Alt-Right, it is the notion of: “The Red Pill”. At some point, we all came to realize that some piece of the dominant cultural narrative is an inaccurate portrayal of the world, paralleling the experience of the protagonist in The Matrix. This is the intellectual equivalent of crossing the Rubicon, to use a relevant metaphor. Once one lie is unmasked, the entire tapestry of the cultural narrative is under suspicion. Part of the journey we find ourselves on is learning about the parts of history which go untaught.
The story of Byzantium is a story that will go untold to anyone who doesn’t actively seek it. It is the greatest civilization that is not mentioned in school. Learning the history of Byzantium means learning about a subject which is entirely absent from common historical narratives, which generally skip the years between 476 and 1066.
The great untold conflict that goes with the Byzantine Empire is its epic struggle against Islam. To the Alt-Right, it doesn’t seem at all surprising that the public is entirely ignorant of this particular titanic conflict as it flies in the face of the dominant cultural narrative about Islam.
Starting with the invasion of Syria and Palestine in 634, the Byzantine Empire would be at war with a parade of Arab and Turkish empires for most of the next 800 years. The Byzantines served as a bulwark against Muslim expansion into Europe via the Balkans. The Alt-Right, recognizing the incompatibility of Islam and Western Civilization, put the Byzantines in a special place for their role in protecting Christendom.
On the other side of the religious divide of that conflict was Orthodox Christianity. With some exceptions, the Alt-Right recognizes the inseparability of Christianity from Western Civilization. The Orthodox Church is a critical part of Christendom.
In addition, most on the Alt-Right view what the Catholic Church has become post-Vatican II, and most Protestant movements as being incapable of confronting the civilization-scale challenges that face what was once called Christendom. Practicing Orthodoxy is one way to connect to an ancient church full of tradition, while rejecting the innovations of the Catholic Church and the increasing irrelevance of mainline Protestantism.
This leads to a connection to the nation which served to protect and maintain Orthodoxy after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Russia. Russia’s claim as the third Rome and their centuries of looking out for Middle Eastern Christians has not gone unnoticed. With the rise of Putin in Russia, the Russians are the most explicitly pro-Christian nation in the world, and the Alt-Right’s interests in promoting Christianity align with those same impulses in Russia. Even without explicit support of Russia, the Alt-Right has no interest in being antagonistic towards them when the Christian world faces so many other enemies.
Viewed as a whole, the connection between the Alt-Right and Byzantium illustrates many of the things which makes the world’s nascent right-wing movements so interesting. It also serves to highlight the issues we care about the most and helps to explain a new, but increasingly important, viewpoint in politics.