The Byzantine Empire, Part Two

The Postclassical Era

Date: 1992

The Byzantine Empire unfolded initially as part of the greater Roman

Empire and then, as this framework shattered with Roman decline, took on a

life of its own particularly from the reign of the emperor Justinian onward.

During its formative period, which lasted through the first encounters with

the new Arab and Muslim threat, the Byzantine Empire blended Greco-Roman

political and intellectual traditions with new impulses. It also centered on a

territory both different from and smaller than the eastern Mediterranean as

Rome had defined it - this was the result of new pressures, particularly from

the surge of Islam throughout North Africa and the bulk of the Middle East.

The territorial definition of the Byzantine Empire emerged only gradually;

again Justinian's reign formed an important step prior to Arab pressure. This

definition was crucial in pushing Byzantine influences northward, toward

sketching the larger East European civilization.

Origins Of The Empire

The Byzantine Empire in some senses began in the 4th century A.D., when

the Romans set up their Eastern capital in Constantinople. This city quickly

became the most vigorous center of the otherwise fading imperial structure.

The emperor Constantine constructed a host of elegant buildings, including

Christian churches, in his new city, which was built on the foundations of a

previously modest town called Byzantium. Soon, separate Eastern emperors ruled

from the new metropolis, even before the Western portion of the empire fell to

the Germanic invaders. They warded off invading Huns and other intruders,

while enjoying a solid tax base in the peasant agriculture of the eastern

Mediterranean. Constantinople was responsible for the Balkan peninsula, the

northern Middle East, the Mediterranean coast, and North Africa. Although for

several centuries Latin served as the court language of the Eastern Empire,

Greek was the common tongue and, after the emperor Justinian in the 6th

century, it became the official language as well. Indeed, in the eyes of the

Easterners, Latin became an inferior, barbaric means of communication.

Knowledge of Greek enabled the scholars of the Eastern Empire to read freely

in the ancient Athenian philosophical and literary classics and in the

Hellenistic writings and scientific treatises.

The new empire benefited from the high levels of civilization long

present in the eastern Mediterranean. Commerce continued at a considerable

pace, though the merchant classes declined and state control of trade

increased. New blood was drawn into administration and trade, as Hellenized

Egyptians and Syrians, long excluded from Roman administration, moved to

Constantinople and entered the expanding bureaucracy of the Byzantine rulers.

The empire faced many foreign enemies, though the pressure was less severe

than that provided by the Germanic tribes in the West. It responded, however,

by recruiting armies in the Middle East itself, not by relying on barbarian

troops. And the empire increasingly turned from the emphasis on army power, so

characteristic of Rome in its later phases, to add a growing, highly trained

civilian bureaucracy. Tension between strong generals and bureaucratic leaders

remained, but the empire did not rely primarily on force for its internal

rule. Complex administration around a remote emperor, who was surrounded by

elaborate ceremonies, increasingly defined the empire's political style.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity

As an Eastern Empire took shape politically, Christianity also began to

split between East and West. In the West the pope, based in Rome, officially

headed the framework of church organization. He claimed control over bishops,

sent missionaries to the north, and tried to regulate doctrine. No comparable

single leader developed in the Eastern church. For several centuries the

Eastern church acknowledged the pope's authority as first among equals, but in

practice papal directives had no hold over the Byzantine church. Rather, it

was the emperors themselves who regulated church organization, creating a

pattern of state control over church structure far different from the

tradition that developed in the West, where the church insisted, though not

always successfully, on its independence. Byzantine emperors used their claim

to be God's representative on earth to cement their own power.

Correspondingly, they kept a close eye on church affairs while trying to force

non-Christians to convert. From the time of Justinian the number of

non-Christians allowed in Constantinople was carefully limited.

Furthermore, the Eastern church experienced a number of different

influences from those prevalent in Western Christianity. Monasticism developed

earlier in the East than in the West. Many individual holy men and groups of

monks sought to follow Christ in a more complete way, through special lives of

fasting, celibacy, and prayer, staying apart from worldly concerns. Several

leaders undertook to regulate this holy life, and a rule for monasteries

developed by Basil, the patriarch of Constantinople in the mid-4th century,

became particularly important in the East. Basil's rule helped formalize the

separation between monasteries and ordinary people, pledging monks to lives of

poverty, charity, and prayer. Unlike Western monastic orders, Eastern monks

devoted little attention to scholarship. Their social role was great, however,

for Eastern people venerated holy men and gave them considerable authority in

the larger affairs of the church. Monasteries, along with traveling

missionaries, provided food and medical care while seeking to drive away

demons; they were far closer to popular Christianity than the official

religion of the imperial court.

Eastern Christianity was also marked by a host of religious controversies

different from those in the West. Particularly troubling was the 8th-century

dispute over religious imagery, or icons, with one group seeking to purify

Christianity from the physical representations of statues and pictures of

Christ and the saints. Religious disputes made Eastern emperors and church

officials all the more reluctant to allow interference from Western popes, for

religious affairs were politically sensitive given the need to maintain unity

in the realm.

Orthodox Christianity, in sum, shared a host of features with its Western

cousin, including intolerance for other beliefs. Different political

organizations, however, launched a largely separate pattern of religious

development, in terms of specific church structures, monasticism, religious

art, and theology. These differences in turn caused ongoing mutual suspicion

and hostility. A late 12th-century church patriarch in Constantinople even

argued that Muslim rule would be preferable to that of the pope: "For if I am

subject to the Muslim, at least he will not force me to share his faith. But

if I have to be under the Frankish rule and united with the Roman Church, I

may have to separate myself from God."

Justinian's Achievements

The early history of the Byzantine Empire was marked by a recurrent

threat of invasion. Eastern emperors, relying on their local military base

plus able generalship by upper-class Greeks, beat off attacks by the Sassanid

Empire in Persia and by Germanic invaders.

Then, in 533, with the empire's borders reasonably well assured, a new

emperor, Justinian, attempted to reconquer western territory in a last, futile

effort to restore an empire like that of Rome. Justinian's reign would,

ironically, confirm Byzantium's basis in the Greco-Roman heritage, through

massive architectural and legal achievements in the classical mode, while also

furthering the empire's relocation toward the Balkans and the western part of

present-day Turkey, away from the Mediterranean coast.

Justinian himself, who faced and brutally suppressed serious social

unrest, has been variously judged by contemporaries and later historians

alike. He was a somber personality, autocratic, and prone to grandiose ideas.

A contemporary historian named Procopius, no friend of the emperor, described

him as "at once villainous and amenable; as people say colloquially, a moron.

He was never truthful with anyone, but always guileful in what he said and

did, yet easily hoodwinked by any who wanted to deceive him." The emperor was

also heavily influenced by his wife Theodora, a courtesan connected with

Constantinople's horse-racing world, who was eager for power. It was Theodora

who stiffened Justinian's backbone in response to popular unrest and who

prodded expansion plans.

Justinian's positive contributions to the Byzantine Empire lay in

rebuilding Constantinople, ravaged by earlier riots against high taxes, and

systematizing the Roman legal code. Extending later-Roman architecture, with

its addition of domes to earlier classical styles, Justinian's builders

constructed many new structures - the most inspiring of which was the huge new

church, the Hagia Sophia, long one of the wonders of the Christian world. This

was an achievement in engineering as well as architecture, for no one had

previously been able to support a dome of comparable size. Justinian's

codification of Roman law reached a goal earlier emperors had sought but not

achieved. Unified law not only reduced confusion, but also served to unite and

organize the new empire itself, paralleling the state's bureaucracy.

Justinian's code, called the Body of Civil Law, stands as one of the clearest

and most comprehensive systems created by any culture. The code summed up and

reconciled a host of Roman edicts and decisions, making Roman law a coherent

basis for political and economic life throughout the empire. Recurrently

updated by later emperors, the code would also ultimately help spread Roman

legal principles in various parts of Europe.

Justinian's military exploits had more ambiguous results. The emperor

wanted to recapture the old Roman Empire itself. Aided by a brilliant general,

Belisarius, new gains were made in North Africa and Italy. The Byzantines

hoped to restore North Africa to its role as grain producer for the

Mediterranean world, while Italy would be the symbol of past imperial glories.

Unable to hold Rome against the Germans, Justinian's forces made their

temporary capital, Ravenna, a key artistic center, embellished by some of the

most beautiful Christian mosaics known anywhere in the world. But the major

Italian holdings were short-lived, unable to withstand Germanic pressure,

while North African territory was soon besieged as well.

Furthermore, Justinian's westward ambitions had weakened the empire in

its own sphere. Persian forces attacked in the northern Middle East, while new

Slavic groups, moving into the Balkans, pressed on another front. Justinian

finally managed to create a new line of defense and even pushed Persian forces

back again, but some Middle Eastern territory was irretrievably lost.

Furthermore, all these wars, offensive and defensive alike, created new tax

pressures on the government and forced Justinian to exertions that almost

literally wore him to his death in 565.

The Empire's Defenses

Justinian's successors, after some renewed hesitations and setbacks,

began to concentrate more fully on defending the Eastern Empire itself.

Persian successes in the northern Middle East were reversed in the 7th

century, and the population was forcibly reconverted to Christianity. The

resultant empire, centered in the southern Balkans and the western and central

portions of present-day Turkey, was a far cry from Rome's greatness, far even

from the wealth of the Eastern Empide itself when it had a firmer hold on the

rich lands of the northern Middle East. It was sufficient, however, to amplify

a rich Hellenistic culture and blend it more fully with Christianity, while

advancing Roman achievements in engineering and military tactics as well as


The Byzantine Empire was also sufficiently strong to withstand the great

new threat of the 7th century, though not without great loss: the surge of the

Arab Muslims. The Arabs by the mid-7th century had built a fleet that

challenged Byzantine naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean, while

repeatedly attacking Constantinople. They quickly swallowed the empire's

remaining provinces along the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, and soon

cut into the northern Middle Eastern heartland as well. Considerable Arab

cultural and commercial influence also affected patterns of life in


The Byzantine Empire, however reduced, held out nevertheless. A major

siege of the capital in A.D. 717-718 was beaten back, partly due to a new

weapon called Greek fire (a petroleum, quicklime, and sulfur mixture) that

devastated Arab ships. The Arab threat was never entirely removed.

Furthermore, wars with the Muslims had added new economic burdens to the

empire, as invasions and taxation, weakening the position of small farmers,

resulted in greater aristocratic estates and new power for aristocratic

generals. The free rural population that had served the empire - providing

military recruits and paying the bulk of the taxes - during its early

centuries was forced into greater dependence. Greater emphasis was given to

careful organization of the army and navy. For all the problems, however, the

imperial core displayed real strength, governing a territory about half the

size of the previous eastern portion of the Roman Empire and withstanding a

series of enemies. More than a long-standing barrier to the Arabs, the empire

would soon make its greatest contributions to subsequent world history by

reaching northward in trade and culture, creating a new zone of civilization

precisely because so much of the Mediterranean had fallen to Arab hands.

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