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Brief History of the Byzantine Empire

Posted in Ancient Greece  by antiques

byzantine-empire-mosaicIt 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.


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. - Inspired by

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