European Middle Ages
The Byzantines

   It is not possible to effectually distinguish between the later empire in Rome and the Byzantine empire centered around Constantinople. For the Byzantines were the Roman Empire, not simply a continuation of it in the East. The capital city, Constantinople, had been founded as the capital of Rome by the Emperor Constantine, but a uniquely Greek or Byzantine character to the Roman Empire can be distinguished as early as Diocletian. When Rome was seized by Goths, this was a great blow to the Roman Empire, but it didn't effectively end it. Although Rome was under the control of foreigners who themselves claimed to be continuing the empire, the Byzantine empire continued as before, believing themselves to be the Roman Empire.

   Over the centuries, however, Byzantium evolved into a very different civilization. The eastern Empire had always had a predominately Greek character, but the Byzantines through the course of the first millenium AD had to deal with cultural influences and political threats from European cultures, Asian cultures and, primarily, Islam after the seventh century.

   Through the later Middle Ages, however, Byzantium both gradually declined politically and became more isolated from the rest of Europe. While the last centuries of the European Middle Ages saw the consolidation of the idea of Europe and the incorporation of European cultures into a larger, overarching European monoculture, Byzantium was left out of this new European concept. By the beginning of the modern period, when "Europe" had become a solid, cultural idea, Byzantine had come to an end with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

   Byzantine history, then, stretches in a continuous line from the latter centuries of Rome to the very beginning of the modern period. It transmited the classical culture of Greece and Rome but it also developed a unique historical and cultural character based on a synthesis of Greek, Roman, European, and Islamic elements.


Justinian   Most historians consider the reign of Justinian (527-565) as marking a significant break with the Roman past. This is difficult to support—Justinian not only considered himself the emperor of all of Rome, including the territories occupied by the Goths, but also spoke Latin as his primary language.

   After the fall of Rome, the Byzantine emperors never gave over the idea of reconquering Rome. They did, however, take a lesson from the fall of Rome and all throughout the fifth century, the Byzantine emperors wrought a series of administrative and financial reforms. They produced the single most extensive corpus of Roman law in 425 and reformed taxation dramatically. Most importantly, however, they did not entrust their military to German generals—this had been the downfall of the Latin portion of the empire. They could not, however, maintain a powerful military—the loss of territory in the west had dramatically shrunk their financial resources.

   Justinian was perhaps the last emperor that seriously entertained notions of reconquering the west—the institution of the western emperor fell permanently vacant in 476 and the Byzantine emperors claimed as theirs. His expeditions against Italy, however, failed. Although he conquered North Africa and retook Italy from the Ostrogoths, this Gothic War drained the Byzantine Empire of much-needed resources. Most importantly, the Gothic War devestated Italy economically. The economic destruction of Italy was so total that it destroyed Italian urban culture for centuries. The great cities of Rome and her allies would be abandoned as Italy would fall into a long period of backwardness. The impoverishment of Italy and the drain on Byzantium made it impossible for the Byzantines to hold Italy—only three years after the death of Justinian, the Italian territories fell into the hands of another Germanic tribe, the "Long Beards," or Langobardi (Lombards).

   Justinian, however, is most famous for the body of laws that he promulgated—the Corpus iuris civilis. This was not only a great legal achievement in codifying Roman law, it was also the first systematic attempt to synthesize Roman law and jurisprudence with Christianity. Although Byzantium would eventually fade in influence, from the eleventh century onwards, Justinian's Corpus iuris civilis became the foundation of all European law and legal practice (except for England).

   Justinian is also credited for founding Byzantine architecture with his building of the Santa Sophia in Constantinople and the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The Santa Sophia continued the Roman tradition of building domes, the architecture of the Roman basilica, but it was carried out on a scale unheard of in earlier centuries. In fact, it would remain the largest dome ever built until Sinan built the Selimye Mosque in the sixteenth century. Both Santa Sophia and San Vitale are decorated inside with a uniquely Byzantine mosaic style, a style that was to characterize Byzantine architecture for nearly another millenium. It is a style that fuses both Roman mosaic realism and an otherworldly, almost abstract use of simple forms and dramatic colors.

   The most serious and lasting mistake of Justinian's reign was the persecution of heretical Christians. The eastern empire had always been distinguished from the western empire by the proliferation of religions and metaphysical speculation as a characteristic of religions. This did not substantially change with the advent of Christianity. Although non-Christians were stamped, the eastern Christians engaged in high intellectual specuation on theological and Christological questions with a fervor unmatched in the West. You might say that the model of Christian belief in the east was more mystical and philosophical while the Christian belief in the west was more practical and obedience-centered. This meant that a number of competing doctrines circulated in the Greek-centered areas of the Byzantine world. One of these doctrines, the Monophysite doctrine, was so serious a challenge to the western church that it was declared heretical.

   The Monophysite doctrine arose from Christological speculation. What was the nature of Christ? This was one of the dominant speculative questions in the eastern empire from the fifth century onwards. The Monophysites argued that Christ had one and only nature (mono=one, physis=nature) and that nature was divine—the orthodox Christian church held that Christ had a double nature, that of divinity and humanity. In the latter decades of the fifth century, the Byzantine Emperor declared himself to be a Monophysite—this estranged the Byzantines from the Roman Pope.

   But Justinian—and his father before him, Justin I—needed the support of the Pope in order to retake Italy. So both Justin and Justinian renounced Monophysite belief and were reincorporated into the Latin church. But Justinian went even further—to demonstrate his commitment to Latin Christianity, he began a series of oppressive persecutions of Monophysites in Syria and Egypt. This would have a profound effect on later history—the Monophysite Christians, horribly persecuted by the Byzantines, welcomed Muslim conquerors with open arms based on their promise to tolerate their religion.


Heraclius I   It fell to Justinian's successors to rescue Byzantium from the financial ruin caused by Justinian's ill-fated attempt to retake Italy. The emperor most responsible for saving this empire was Heraclius I (610-641). When he assumed the throne, things looked pretty hopeless. From the east, the Persian Empire threatened to overwhelm Asia Minor while from the west, a mix of German, Slavic, and Mongolian peoples were pressing into Greece and the Balkans. Heraclius decided to allow a group of Huns to settle the Balkans and protect the western border while the Byzantine empire focussed on Persia, which Heraclius finally defeated and permanently ended the long history of that great empire.

   A new cultural force, however, emerged during his reign—in fact, the very year that Heraclius assumed the throne, a forty-year old Arab named Muhammad in the city of Mecca first heard the message that would sweep across the face of the world: Islam. By the end of his reign, Muslim armies were making raids into Byzantine territory in Syria and were beginning to conquer the Persian territories. From this period onwards, Byzantine energies focussed almost entirely to the east and to the south. The western countries, the Europe that Byzantium at one time looked to for their identity and history, began to steadily fade from their horizon.


Islam   Almost all of Byzantine energy over the next centuries would be focussed on Islam. The Muslims very quickly conquered Byzantine territory in Syria and Egypt largely because of disaffected populations of Christians and Jews who had been persecuted since the time of Justinian. The patriarchal caliphs and later the Umayyad caliphs, however, really had their sights on Byzantine territory—in fact, the conquest of Byzantium itself. They easily conquered all the Persian territories, but they could never quite conquer the heart of Byzantium itself. In 670, they attempted this conquest with a large fleet; in 717, they tried again with a land and sea operation against the city.

   This operation, however, turned the tide away from the Muslims. Under the emperor Leo the Isaurian (717-741), the Muslim invasion was turned back and the Byzantines began to hold their own against Islamic incursions.

   As the centralized Islamic government under the caliph began to disintegrate in the ninth century, the Byzantines began to reassert their dominance over Asia Minor. By the middle of the tenth century, they reconquered most of Syria and were once again and powerful and influential empire stretching from Greece to Arabia.

   In 1071, however, the Seljuk Turks conquered the Byzantine army at Manzikert in Asia Minor—after this victory, the Seljuks quickly overran all of Byzantine territory in the east.


The Crusaders   The Byzantines, however, turned to Europe for help against the Muslims—the Byzantine emperor, Alexius Comnenius, called upon the European states to push back the Muslim conquerors. While Byzantium and the Europeans had drifted apart culturally, they still shared a common religion, and the European states complied. They had, however, designs of their own on Byzantine territories. While they successfully pushed back the Seljuks and returned territory to the Byzantines, the western Europeans also carved out kingdoms of their own in Syria and Palestine. This wasn't quite enough for them—in 1204, the Crusaders attacked, conquered, and pillaged the city of Constantinople, a goal that the Muslims had been trying for for centuries.

   The amazing thing about this event is that it did not spell the end of the Byzantines. For a few decades, the Byzantine imperial government continued to function in Greece—in 1261, they returned to Constantinople and retook the city! But the Byzantine Empire was no longer an empire after 1261, but rather a small kingdom centered around Constantinople. In 1453, the city was finally and permanently conquered by the Ottoman Turks and renamed Istanbul. Byzantine culture, law, and administration came to its final end.


Byzantine Christianity   Byzantine Christianity was a substantially different religion and cultural practice than Latin Christianity. One of its predominant characteristics was the role of the emperor in matters of faith. The Latin church had battled emperors for control of the church and with the disintegration of centralized authority in Europe and the proliferation of European kingdoms, the primacy of the Pope in matters of faith was relatively solidified.

   The Byzantines, however, inherited the Roman idea that the emperor was near divinity and practiced a form of Christianity where enormous ecclesiastical and theological authority was vested in the emperor. This would eventually create a permanent breach in the world of Christianity between west and east and the event that would produce this breach was the Iconoclastic controversy.

   The Iconoclastic theologians believed that the worship of images, or icons, was a fundamentally pagan belief. Products of human hands should not be worshipped, they argued, but only Christ and God should be the proper objects of veneration. The movement was inaugurated by Leo the Isaurian. It was Leo, remember, that turned the tide against the Muslim in 717. Islam is itself opposed to the worship of images, icons, and idols—one of the founding acts of Islam is Muhammad's destruction of all the idols and images in the sacred Ka'aba in Mecca. There is no doubt that the Iconoclasts were in part inspired by the religious purity of the Islamic faith. There is also little doubt that Iconoclasm would help the Byzantines regain territory conquered by the Muslims since it made Christianity more in line with the Islamic faith.

   Iconoclasm, however, was fiercely opposed by the papacy which saw it as a threat not only to Latin ecclesiastical practices, but to the authority of the pope himself. When Leo's son, Constantine V even more zealously carried out the Iconoclastic program during his reign (740-775), the breach between the Latin and Byzantine church became permanent. Eventually, Iconoclasm would be abandoned in the ninth century—the breach, however, would never be healed.

   The most significant result of the Iconoclastic controversy was the adoption of a strict traditionalism in the Byzantine church. The eastern church had long been characterized by speculation and innovation, but the Iconoclastic controversy was too disorienting. Almost overnight, the Byzantine church became averse to innovation and speculation. This created a more or less static religious culture and it also permanently ended the intellectual dynamism of Byzantine life.


Byzantine Philosophy   Perhaps the single most salient aspect of Byzantine culture was the transmission of classical culture. While classical studies, science, and philosophy largely dissipated in the Latin west, Byzantine education and philosophy still zealously pursued these intellectual traditions. It was in Byzantium that Plato and Aristotle continued to be studied and were eventually transmitted first into the Islamic world and then back into western Europe. A basic education in Byzantium consisted first of the mastery of classical Greek literature, such as Homer (largely unknown in the West during this period)—almost all of the Greek literature we have today was only preserved by the Byzantines.

   Unlike Greece and Rome during the classical period or the Latin West during the Middle Ages, women actively participated in the intellectual life of the culture. While they could not attend schools, aristocratic women were often well-educated at home by tutors in literature, history, composition, and philosophy. The greatest of Byzantine writers, in fact, was the historian Anna Comnena, the daughter of the emperor Alexius. Her biography of her father is one of the greatest works of medieval historiography in existence—this includes the histories written in Europe.


The Slavs   Byzantine culture is important because of two lines of transmission. One of line of transmission involved the exporting of classical Greek and Roman culture into Islam and, to a lesser extent, the transmission of Byzantine theological speculation into Islamic theology. The second is the transmission of Byzantine culture and religion to Slavic peoples, especially to the Russians.

   We know very little about the Slavs before the Middle Ages—what we do know we only know through archaeology. As Byzantium, however, turned less of its attention towards Europe and the west, they became increasingly interested in the peoples to the north. We don't know how cultural contact was initiated between these two peoples, but sometime around 988 a Russian ruler named Vladimir converted to Byzantine Christianity. From that point onwards, the Slavs in Russia became a kind of cultural inheritor of Byzantine culture, adopting the religion, theology, some social structures, and writing from the Byzantines to the south. In many ways Russian and Slavic culture is the continuance of Byzantine culture and many Byzantine cultural practices and beliefs are still practiced among Slavs today. Russian religion, art, philosophy, and even literature, such as the writings of Chekhov and Dostoevsky, show profound influences from Byzantine culture. The Byzantine inheritance also included the sense that Byzantine culture and practice was fundamentally different from European culture and practice. This sense of Byzantine distinctiveness would also impress itself on Slavic cultures up until the present.

   So close was this cultural connection, that Russians believed that they were the inheritors of the Byzantine Empire when it finally collapsed in 1453. The Russian rulers assumed the title of "Caesar," the title bestowed on Byzantine emperors—in Russian, the word is "Tsar." With the government centered in Moscow, the Russian Tsars declared Moscow to be the "third Rome," after Rome and Byzantium, and so located themselves in a cultural and historical trajectory that began with the Roman empire.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-1-97