THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
From Ancient Times (Porphyrogenite) To Modern Times
The Byzantine Empire, church and architecture became the era on era dating from the assumed beginning of the world, 5508 years and 4 months before the beginning of the Christian era. It is still used in the Eastern Church. The civil year commences September 1, the ecclesiastical year March 21 or April 1. Byzantine historians such as Procopius, and Anna Comnena, and various chroniclers and chronologists, etc. furnish the only considerable record of its affairs.
After Justinian died (emperor 527-565), the Eastern Roman Empire was no longer able to play a significant role in the history of western Europe. After the 6th century, historians refer to it as the “Byzantine Empire” (after Byzantium, the little Greek town that had originally occupied the site of Constantinople). The new name is significant: it indicates that the tradition of ancient Rome had declined and that the empire that governed the eastern Mediterranean had become more Greek than Roman. With unique characteristics of its own, clearly different from those of ancient Rome and the contemporary Germanic kingdoms, the Byzantine Empire was no longer Roman nor capable of claiming universal leadership.
It is important to remember, however, that Byzantium was never overrun by alien invaders, as the Western Roman Empire had been, and that therefore many Roman traditions were followed without interruption. The Germanic kingdoms were new and short-lived; the Byzantine Empire was old and continuous. To the men of the east, whether Greek, Slav, or Muslim, the Byzantine Empire was the Roman Empire.
THE INVADERS OF BYZANTIUM
For centuries after Justinian’s death, the Byzantine Empire was attacked by one invader after another. Some of these aggressors managed to seize valuable provinces, but they were never able to take Constantinople or to destroy the empire. Throughout the Middle Ages Byzantium served the weak and disunited little countries of western Europe as a buffer state, protecting them from would-be conquerors from Asia and the Near East.
SLAVS, AVARS, AND BULGARS
Three different alien peoples crossed the Danube River, Byzantium’s European boundary, in the 6th and 7th centuries. First came thousands of Slavs who fled the Balkan Peninsula trying to escape the Avars, an Asiatic tribe of professional raiders. The Avars caught up with the Slavs, overran them, and moved on, reaching the gates of Constantinople in 591 before they were finally defeated and thrown back north of the Danube. There they established an empire of their own which lasted for two centuries. The Slavs remained behind in Byzantine territory, where they retained their own language and customs and so were a constant problem for their Byzantine rulers.
In the 7th century the Bulgars came out of Asia, established their own kingdom south of the Danube and intermarried with the Slavs who were already there. In the 9th century they conquered much of the Balkan Peninsula and made repeated attacks on Constantinople. But the Byzantines successfully fought off each attack, eventually began to reconquer what they had lost, and finally in the 11th century brought the Bulgars completely under Byzantine control.
SASSANID PERSIANS AND ARABS
Meanwhile a more dangerous foe, the Sassanid Empire was attacking the eastern and southern borders of the empire. The Sassanids governed a revival of the ancient Persian Empire that stretched from the Caspian Sea to the desert sands of Arabia. Fanatical Zoroastrians in religion, in the 6th century they began a holy war against Christianity that even Justinian could hardly contain. Early in the 7th century they invaded Byzantine possessions in the eastern Mediterranean, seized Egypt and Jerusalem, and marched north to take Chalcedon, just across the Bosporus from Constantinople. It took the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (emperor 610-641) ten years to marshal an army to counterattack, but in 627 he drove the Sassanids back to their homeland in the Tigris and Euphrates valley and destroyed their military power completely.
No sooner had the Byzantines defeated the Sassanids than a new and even greater threat, the Arab Muslims, galloped out of the Arabian Peninsula. These successors of Muhammad, founder of the religion and state of Islam, conquered Egypt in 642. Before the end of the 7th century they had overrun all the other Byzantine possessions in North Africa and the Middle East and gained control of the Mediterranean Sea. In 717 they even besieged Constantinople, but without success. After an Islamic revolution in 750 the Byzantines were able to reconquer some of their lost territories; but they were never able to drive the Muslims from any of the lands east and south of Asia Minor.
THE RESULTS OF THE INVASIONS
The invasions greatly reduced the size of the Byzantine Empire, but by doing so they made it more compact and therefore more easily governed. In the year 1000 the emperor at Constantinople ruled only Asia Minor, part of the Balkan Peninsula, three provinces in Italy, and some islands in the eastern Mediterranean. Yet his empire remained a commercial center with large and prosperous cities strategically located on the trade routes between Europe and the East. Fertile, highly cultivated lands added to its prosperity. It also had a well-organized and fairly efficient government. It was probably better off without its former provinces in Europe and the Middle East, which brought it much prestige but little trade and which cost far more to govern and defend than they contributed in taxes.
Byzantium remained rich and strong, a crossroads of the world. It also developed a distinctive way of life of its own, which combined elements of Roman civilization, the Hellenistic civilization of the Greeks, and the Oriental civilizations of the Persians and Muslims.
The emperor was the absolute ruler of Byzantium – at least as long as he was able to hold his office. In the early days he was usually elected by the senate, the people, or the army, or all three. Later it became the custom to allow the son of an emperor (Porphyrogenite) to succeed to the throne and then to depose him if he proved to be weak or incompetent. A reigning emperor was considered sacred and appointed by God and he was revered by his people in much the same way that their pre-Christian ancestors had worshipped the god-kings of ancient days. He lived in an elaborate palace, was surrounded by a lavish court, and took part in one complicated ceremonial event after another. In civil government the emperor was supreme, for he both made the laws and enforced them. His power over the church was almost as great; he appointed the patriarch of Constantinople who acted as head of the church in the east; he called church councils and published their decrees; and in general he directed the activities of the priests.
After Justinian there were half a dozen great Byzantine emperors, and occasionally a dynasty of powerful rulers would reign for a considerable time. But all too often the problem of the succession to the throne was settled by violence and “palace revolutions,” in which one faction of the ruling clique would oust the reigning emperor and replace him with another of its own choice. Between 395 and 1453 there were 107 Byzantine emperors or approximately one every ten years. Of these, only thirty-four died natural deaths while they were still in office; eight were killed in battle or in accidents; all others were either assassinated or forced to abdicate (surrender their offices) as the result of some sixty-five revolutions. Women often played an important role in these intrigues. One of them, the Empress Irene, became regent after her husband died. She then blinded and imprisoned her son when he tried to take the throne from her. She ruled for five years before she, too, was ousted.
Usually the government’s lesser workers were more admirable than the people who headed it. In Constantinople there was a well-organized bureaucracy (organization of lesser officials and clerks) who handled the daily activities of the government. The empire was divided into provinces called “themes,” each of which was governed by a military ruler called a “strategos” (general). Despite the power of the emperor, there was considerable self-government in the themes, where the palace intrigues that disrupted the capital seemed far away and unimportant. The loyalty of the people to their government which seemed fair and stable, was more or less assured. This stability more than made up for the revolutions in the palace and in the army.
THE BREAK BETWEEN THE ROMAN AND BYZANTINE CHURCHES
As western Europe and the Byzantine Empire became more and more isolated from each other, differences between the Christian religious practices of Rome and Constantinople increased. Romans said their religious services in Latin; the Byzantines used Greek. Roman priests were clean-shaven and were expected not to marry; Byzantine priests were bearded and often married. Roman bishops were supposedly free from secular (political) control; Byzantine patriarchs were considered state officials, and head of the church in Byzantium, the patriarch of Constantinople, was appointed by the emperor himself. Byzantine emperors bitterly resented the alliances of the popes with the Frankish rulers, whom they considered their inferiors in rank, power, and culture. They also resented, and strongly resisted, the attempts of the popes in distant Rome to regulate a church that in Byzantium was looked upon as a part of the government.
THE ICONOCLASTIC CONTROVERSY, 726 – 843
During the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III (emperor 714-741), a dispute over theology drove the popes and patriarchs further apart. Leo, a devout but practical man, was worried by two developments in the church: the growing wealth of the monasteries, whose monks, landholders as they were, opposed his efforts to reform the system of landowning; and the increasing veneration of icons (sacred paintings or statues), which he feared would lead to paganism. His efforts to reduce the power of the monks and to rid the church of icons led to a major struggle between the church and state called the “Iconoclastic Controversy.”
In 726 Leo ordered the destruction of all icons in the churches and monasteries, and his followers enthusiastically rushed around smashing statues and earning the name “Iconoclasts” (image-breakers). Many monks and priests, eager to defend both their beloved icons and their property rights, opposed the Iconoclasts. The pope, who favored icons, excommunicated Leo, denied him the right to take part in religious services, and declared him and his followers to be heretics.
The struggle over icons that Leo had begun continued for more than a century after his death. It was not until 843 that the Emperor Michael III (emperor 842-867) admitted defeat and allowed the icons to be restored to Byzantine churches. The controversy left the eastern and western Christians more divided than they had been, for most western Europeans had supported the popes, while many Byzantines had supported their emperors.
THE SEPARATION OF THE ORTHODOX AND CATHOLIC CHURCHES, 1054
During the two centuries after the end of the Iconoclastic Controversy, the Byzantine Empire enjoyed its greatest power and cultural achievement, and its church leaders shared the power and self-confidence of the emperors. At the same time western Europe was divided among weak, poverty-stricken, and often short-lived kingdoms, and church leaders there were frequently occupied in resolving disputed among themselves over matters of faith and church government. Not surprisingly, differences between eastern and western Christians became ever greater.
In 1054 the pope sent a legate (representative) to Constantinople. Largely as a result of political and cultural differences (although supposedly because of a dispute over the nature of the Trinity), the papal legate and the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other. After this event the Roman and Byzantine churches drifted so far apart that their separation was generally taken for granted; although it was not so regarded at the time, 1054 later came to be accepted as the definite date of the schism (split).
After the schism, the church of the Byzantines called itself the Orthodox Church. Reflecting the Greek Byzantine tradition in its language and forms of worship, it was tied closely to the Byzantine government and was headed by the patriarch of Constantinople. The Roman Catholic Church, using the Latin language of ancient Rome and headed by the Roman pope, continued to dominate the religious life of western Europe. Each church considered itself to be the true heir of the pure Christian tradition, catholic in the sense that it included all true Christians and orthodox in the sense that its beliefs truly reflected Christ’s teachings. Whatever the merits of the claims of each church, one fact was certain: the Christian Church, like the old Roman Empire, had divided into two different and often hostile parts.
THE BYZANTINE WAY OF LIFE
The rulers of Byzantium were far more concerned with the prosperity of their people than were the primitive lords of western Europe. They encouraged the immigration of Slavic peasants, so that by the 10th century the provinces around Constantinople, in both Europe and Asia Minor, were heavily populated and covered with prosperous farms. Small independent farmers were protected by law from the owners of large estates who sought to increase their holdings. The cities were larger and more numerous than those of western Europe and had many more skilled craftsmen. Most crafts were regulated by the government and developed little with passage of time; but they were stable and prosperous because Byzantine goods were of such high quality that they were in great demand not only throughout the empire but also in western and Muslim lands. Constantinople became one of the great commercial cities of the world, where foreigners gathered to buy local products and to exchange the goods of much of Europe and Asia.
THE CITY OF CONSTANTINOPLE
Lying in the center of the empire, at the crossroads of two continents, was the city Constantine had built “in obedience to the command of God” beside the harbor of the ancient Greek town of Byzantium. For ten centuries Constantinople was the most beautiful, the most civilized, and the richest city in the world. In the 10th century it was at its height. It had a million inhabitants and was probably the largest city in the world, surpassing ancient Rome and the contemporary Muslim capital at Baghdad in wealth, trade, art, and luxury. It was a cosmopolitan city; most of its inhabitants were Greek or Slavic, but there were substantial numbers of Scandinavians, Russians, Italians, Jews, and Asian and African Muslims. It was a center of trade, religion, and government with “as many churches as there are days in the year,” shops, factories and storehouses, tenements and palaces, built in many styles of east and west and covering the hills that rose behind the harbor.
Constantinople’s location was one of its greatest assets. Lying across the trade routes of two continents, it controlled the only practical land route from the Middle East to Europe; and it also controlled the Bosporus, one of the two straits that separate Europe from Asia Minor and control the outlet of the Black Sea. For a harbor it had the Golden Horn, a narrow inlet on the European shore that offers ships a deep, safe, and spacious anchorage. Like Rome, Constantinople was built on seven hills; unlike Rome, it was protected by water on three sides and on the fourth by fortifications that made successful assaults all but impossible.
Justinian’s church of Hagia Sophia was only one of many fine churches built on the central plan, which the Byzantines followed as long as their empire lasted. They displayed their riches in their buildings, Basil I built his “New Church” in the 9th century, “all adorned,” according to a contemporary
account, “with fine pearls, gold, shining silver, mosaics, silks and marble in a thousand varieties.” Basil’s imperial palace, of which the New Church was a part, was filled with masterpieces of art and ingenuity. In his throne room he had a golden tree filled with golden birds, near which were golden griffins and lions. When the ambassador of a foreign state was ushered in, the birds in the tree sang, the griffins stood up, and the lions roared and swished their tails. Bedazzled by this display, several ambassadors reported to their princes that such an emperor was so rich and powerful that it would be foolish to attack him.
In Constantinople, according to a celebrated historian, “For God there was the grand Church of Hagia Sophia, for the Emperor the Sacred Palace, and for the people the Hippodrome.” The political power of the common people of Constantinople was greater that even their numbers or prosperity would indicate. The people often formed mobs that overthrew emperors, so the wise ruler saw to it that they were kept satisfied. Many did little work, and none was taxed. All were amused by great shows and athletic contests staged at government expense in the great arena called the Hippodrome. The people joined organizations called the “Greens” and the “Blues” according to the colors worn by the athletes who represented them. Riots between the two groups were common and occasionally had political overtones.
Like any great city, Constantinople had a bewildering variety of people; sometimes their only common attribute seemed to be their love of fantastic dress. Rich merchants displayed their wealth on their bodies, adorning themselves with embroidered silken robes, gold, silver, and jewels. Wherever they went, armies of slaves and retainers accompanied them. Some built magnificent houses that rivaled the palaces of the ruling class. No wonder that one medieval visitor wrote that Constantinople contained “two-thirds of the world’s wealth.”
BYZANTINE LEARNING AND ART
The Byzantines, severely restricted by a government that tolerated no political or religious dissent, added little that was new to European ways of life and thought. Yet they made an important contribution to the later development of European civilization; for by carefully preserving the heritage of the past, they made it available for later generations in western Europe to build upon. One of the emperors put together a great library of ancient learning. The university at Constantinople gave scholarships to able students, who studied philosophy, science, mathematics, and theology. Its professors compiled The Greek Anthology and wrote histories and books on medicine that combined Oriental and western knowledge and ideas.
The Byzantine civilization was most original in its art. The Iconoclastic Controversy forced artists to turn from religious to secular subjects. Many of them portrayed people in a way that emphasized their physical strength and beauty, much in the tradition of the ancient Greeks. After the end of the controversy, a thriving school of religious art was re-established, which portrayed Christ and his disciples in awesome dignity. Byzantine artists later carried these traditions to western Europe. Byzantine mosaics, which depended for their effect almost entirely upon bright and beautiful colors and in which the figures were symbolic and not realistic at all, were superb. The curved surfaces of the arches and domes of Byzantine buildings “gave depth to rich, dark, gleaming compositions in mosaics, irresistibly potent in their assault upon the senses.”
The Byzantines were also outstanding for their lesser arts and handicrafts. They mastered the art of enameling (a method for applying a brilliant finish to metal or earthenware) and were especially skilled at manuscript illumination. Byzantine luxury fabrics – silk, linen, cotton, and wool – were world famous. The government encouraged goldsmiths, gem cutters, and artisans of many other kinds, who flourished in Constantinople and the other cities of the empire.
In the five centuries between the fall of Rome and the year 1000, the Byzantine Empire shrank in size but remained one of the strongest states of the Mediterranean region. Its scholars added little to man’s knowledge, but they carefully preserved much of the heritage of ancient Greece and Rome. The influence of its artists and architects can be seen in buildings and paintings throughout Europe and North Africa.
Byzantine influence reached far beyond the boundaries of the empire. Russians and other Slavic peoples adopted Orthodox Christianity, an alphabet based on Greek, and Byzantine ideas of government and law. Constantinople was filled with men from all parts of Europe who had come to trade in this great city, which in its heyday was the only important place where the east and the west mingled.
At the same time, Byzantium stood as an impassable barrier between the Sassanid Persians, Asiatic nomads, and Arab imperialists on the one hand and the weak and divided little states of western Europe on the other. Byzantine soldiers bought the time that Europe needed to regain its strength and work out a new way of life of its own.
Even so, western Europeans tended to consider the Byzantines as dangerous enemies who hoped to impose an alien emperor on Germanic kings and the Orthodox religion on the Catholic popes. Far more dangerous enemies to the westerners, however, were the Arab Muslims, who combined political ambition, warlike ferocity, and the religious fervor to build – in less than a century – an empire that stretched from Portugal to India.
Compiled by Marko Marelich
Retired Mechanical Engineer
San Francisco, California USA
September 6, 2006