The Byzantine Empire was an extension of the Roman Empire in the Greek-speaking, eastern part of the Mediterranean. The empire was constantly in rage with the Muslims and was of a pro-Christian nature. Wars with Muslims flourished under the reign of the Macedonian emperors and finally came to a halt after the attacks by Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, and Ottoman Turks.
Byzantium may seem too small a name, but was the most important town in the Bosphorus strait and connected the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean to the Black Sea. It demarcated the continents of Europe and Asia. The emperor Constantine the Great (reign 306-337 CE) was one of the first to realize the impossibility of managing the empire’s problems from distant Rome, and hence took steps further to have a better control of the large empire.
This post by Compilation11 is a brief insight into the lesser known facts about Byzantine Empire, religion, history, culture, law, education and the end of it.
1 The City between Two Continents
The Byzantine Empire was the Roman Empire of the East during the end of the Old Age and the middle Ages. It centered in the capital of Constantinople. The Roman Empire anticipated in the fourth century its fall of Western power, and assumed the barbarian invasions to be the reason behind it. In view of this, Emperor Constantine transferred the capital of the Roman Empire to the eastern city of Byzantium, and changed its name to Constantinople.
This change contributed to increase trade and commerce. Constantinople was located between the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea, where in the middle of these seas there is the Sea of Marmara, separated By the Bosphorus Strait.
2 The Recreation of an Empire
Byzantium served as a crucial trade route of that time. The strategic position and its topography facilitated the security, along with the construction of walls and other works.
In 324, the emperor ordered the architects, engineers, craftsmen and other workers to assemble and reform the city for its new function. New roads, houses, churches, walls and other buildings were built. Constantine I inaugurated these works in 330, with the name of Nova Roma. These works ended during the middle ages and Byzantium came to be called as Constantinople (or City of Constantine).
3 The division of the empire after the death of Theodosius I
Emperor Theodosius I died in 395, and left behind a divided Roman Empire. Of the two parts, Constantinople was made the capital of the Roman Empire of the East, and Rome remained as capital of the Roman Empire of the West.
Rome suffered successive invasions from the Germans after the division of the Empire. This led to their fragmentation and dissolution. In the Eastern part, the progress was taking care of the empire. There were some of the biggest cities of the time, commerce was dynamic and there was plenty of fertile land for cultivation.
Constantinople grew, and in 412 it had 250,000 inhabitants. The Roman Empire of the East accumulated wealth and managed to resist the foreign invasions for a long time. It helped the rulers extend their power.
The Roman Empire was thus recreated during the middle ages. It was centered to the east and had distinct cultural elements of the empire located to the west. To clear this dissimilarity the Roman Empire of the East came to be called Byzantine Empire.
4 Commercial and Urban Growth of Constantinople
Constantinople had a favored geographical location and it boosted trade and economic development of the Empire. The central government had full control on all economic activities with the help of employees. They kept a check on the quality and quantity of the products. Fishing, metallurgy, arms and weaving businesses were exclusively owned by the Byzantine Empire.
Private craft and carpentry, weaving and shoe-making workshops were organized to boost the growth of the profession. Trade with other regions generated great profits, with the main products being-
Luxury items like perfumes, silk fabrics, porcelain and glass pieces, made by Chinese, Arab, Persian or Indian artisans; Agricultural products such as wheat, spices, wine and olive oil, produced in North Africa, Greece and Syria; Handcrafted products from the cities of the Empire – jewels, fabrics and articles of gold and ivory.
The intense and lucrative commercial activity contributed to move the urban life in the Empire. The main city was the capital, Constantinople. In the tenth century it had one million inhabitants. Other important cities were Thessalonica, Nicaea, Edessa, Trebizond and Tarsus.
5 Lives in Byzantine Cities
The great cities of the Byzantine Empire were house to great merchants, shopkeepers, manufactures, high clergy members, and senior government officials. They were the most important consumer of luxury items such as wool, silk garments embroidered with gold and silver threads, porcelain vases, and tapestries. They formed the elite class of Byzantine cities. On the other hand, the cities also housed slaves, artisans, factory workers, middle and lower echelon officials, and small traders. They were the majority of urban populations.
Life in Constantinople was considered more comfortable than in other parts of the Empire, but goods and comforts was not at everyone’s reach. For the free workers who earned little, it was very difficult to buy clothes and pay for housing. Many of them lived on the streets of the city. Those who had no work received food for free. Each free citizen was entitled to receive six forms of bread a day.
6 Life in the fields
A majority of people in Byzantine Empire were poor workers who lived in the countryside. They were the servants of the large estates and the prisoners of war who worked in domestic services, mines, quarries, and constructions.
Military nobles and monasteries received land as a reward for the services rendered to the emperors and were the largest landowners. Agriculture was thus a fundamental activity in the Byzantine economy. Despite a greater production than the West, the Byzantine Empire never had a large food surplus. Production was always insufficient to supply all the inhabitants of the Empire.
7 The Green and Blue Party Model of Constantinople
The two main political parties of the Byzantine Empire were the Greens and the Blues. They brought together the workers and residents of the capital’s neighborhoods. Green and Blue Parties were commanded by members of the Byzantine elite, such as large landowners, army leaders and Church officials. The main place of political concentration in Constantinople was the hippodrome.
In the hippodrome, parties acted as organized cheerleaders of the horse racing teams and took advantage to present their claims to the emperor. Their claims could be religious, social or military, and generally aimed at securing privileges.
8 The Justinian Government
Justinian (527-565) was one of the most important Byzantine emperors. During his reign, wars were waged to conquer territories that belonged to the Empire of the West, in an attempt to restore the old Roman Empire.
The Byzantines not only confronted the Germans in the west but also fought against the Persians in the East and the Slav, who attempted to invade the Empire from Eastern Europe. These wars demanded enormous expenses with the payment of soldiers, weapons, transportation, and supplies. To cover these expenses,
Byzantine rulers exacted high taxes from the population.
9 The Justinian Code
Justinian, the Roman knight was gathered and reviewed by Byzantines lawyers. They sought to adapt to the needs of a new Christian society.
Juris civilis (body of civil laws, in Latin), is an extensive work consisting of laws and norms, highlighting the Justinian Code. This work served as a basis for the laws of many Western countries, such as France, Germany, Portugal, Brazil, and others. The modifications made by the Byzantine jurists also extended the power of the emperor and guaranteed the maintenance of the properties of the Church and the landowners. The peasants continued without the right to land.
10 Expansion of the Byzantine Empire
Violent revolts broke out in the capital of the empire in 532. It emerged out of dissatisfaction against high taxes and the oppression by the emperor and officials of the government. The revolt began at the hippodrome, one of the few public places where the population had contact with major government officials. After the end of a disputed horse race, doubt prevailed over who had won. Emperor Justinian was at the racecourse and wanted to choose the winner. There was a divided opinion between the green and blue crowd.
Social tensions became a popular protest and the emperor retired to the palace. From the hippodrome, the conflict took to the streets of Constantinople and became a revolt against the sovereign.
Justinian intended to flee the city, but was stopped by his wife Theodora. The empress was harsh with her husband and this caused the emperor to give up his escape. His generals organized the troops, who repressed the revolt. The result of this revolt was a balance of 35 thousand dead.
11 The Cesaropapism
The Byzantine emperors used religion as a means to achieve more power and maintain the unity of the Empire. Not only this, they also assumed the role of representatives of God on Earth. Thus, they governed both political (state) and religious (Catholic Church) affairs. This system of governance became known as Cesaropapism and the imperial powers were concentrated in the figure of the emperor.
Cesaropapism was a system of relations between the Church and the State in which the head of the State had the competency to regulate the policy, discipline and organization of Christian society, and exercise powers which were traditionally reserved to the supreme religious authority. One of the first emperors to adopt Christian Cesaropapism was Constantine.
In the Byzantine Empire, the emperor adopted the title of basileu, a Greek word that means “one who has supreme authority”. Thus, he not only commanded the Empire, but also submitted the principal religious authority. The concentration of powers was not peaceful, for the patriarchs rejected the dominion of the emperors over religious matters without reacting.
12 Monophysism And Inoclasty in the Byzantine Empire
Byzantine history was marked by various polemics and religious movements. One was Monophysitism.
The members of the Monophysism movement concentrated mainly in Syria and Egypt. They argued that Christ had only one divine nature. They denied that he was human and divine at the same time, as was established in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (in which God would be simultaneously the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit).
Another important religious movement that emerged in the Byzantine Empire was Inoclasty, a word that means “breaking of images”. His followers were against the worship of the images of the saints which arose between the sixth and seventh centuries. They preached the destruction of the statues of the churches and prevented idolized worship.
13 The Schism of the East
The problems generated by the innocent movement exceeded the limits of the Empire. In 731 Pope Gregory III gathered Catholic authorities to protest against the news that the Byzantines were promoting banning and breaking the images of the saints.
The coming centuries witnessed various conflicts between the popes and the Byzantine emperors and patriarchs. These differences eventually led to a division of the Catholic Church in 1054, an episode known as the Schism of the East. From then on, the Christian world got separated into two parts:
Eastern Catholic Church – known as the Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Church, based in Constantinople. It continued to be commanded by the patriarch of the city. This was named by the Byzantine emperor to whom it was subordinated.
The Western Catholic Church – known as the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church was based in Rome, and commanded by the popes.
14 Byzantine Empire after the Fourth Crusade
Despite the great strength of the Orthodox Catholic Church and Christianity, the Byzantine Empire maintained religious practices prohibited by the authorities. Among them was the worship of pagan gods of ancient Greek and Roman traditions.
In popular festivals, the cult of Dionysus, god of wine and adventure among the ancient Greeks, was common. To the medieval Christian church, Dionysus was a kind of demon of laughter and drunkenness. In the Byzantine carnivals, men and women went out on the streets. They put masks and enjoyed dancing, singing and laughing in celebration of the renewal of life at the time of the harvests.
Religiosity also included devotion to icons (paintings depicting saints or Christ) and the relics of the saints. All these differences created a disagreement of the official world of the emperor, the court, and the Church with the religious experiences of ordinary people.
15 Architecture in the Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine architecture kept the churches and the monasteries stand out. They expressed the dominion of the State on the religious subjects. There is very little left of the palaces, aqueducts and other types of civil constructions erected during the Byzantine Empire.
The church of Saint Sophia is the most striking example of Byzantine architecture. It was first built in the fourth century and then rebuilt between 532 and 537, shortly after the fire it suffered during the Nika Uprising. Its architectural design served as a model for the construction of many other churches in the West and the East.
Also to add elements of embellishment were the frescoes and mosaics. Frescoes were a type of decorative painting to represent angels, saints and religious authorities. They were found in almost all the churches, but they were also made in the homes of the rich. Icons, wooden panel paintings representing sacred images such as saints or Christ were also admired in those days. It was believed at the time that they were not simply painter’s hands but an instrument of divine revelation.
Mosaics were pieces made of stones and colored glass and glued on a clear glass. They were further covered with gold leaves. Byzantine mosaics were generally a representation of animals, plants and religious figures or politics. The Byzantine sculptures served many religious ideals, and were made of gold, ivory, or glass. Since they were low-relief works, they could be used in both buildings and book covers.
16 The Architectural Marvel- Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – Turkey
The Hagia Sophia stands at a height of 56 meters and has its dome 34 meters in diameter. One can always feel it floating on the square base. The facades are simple but the inner part is lavishly decorated. Ivory, precious stones and mosaics cover its walls, its ceiling and its stained glass windows. About 18 tons of gold was used to decorate.
Constantinople was occupied by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century, and they converted the church of Hagia Sophia into a Muslim temple. It also received four minarets and the Byzantine mosaics were covered with a layer of lime. In the twentieth century, these mosaics were restored and the entire structure was turned into a museum.
17 Literature and Greek In Byzantine
Initially, Byzantine literary works were written in Latin. Over time Greek gained much more importance. Greek was spoken in the capital and other regions of the Empire, and later taken up as the language of the writers, Churches, and the government authorities.
The literary works in prose or poetry were handwritten received rich decorations, called illuminations. The literary genres developed by the Byzantine authors are hymns and texts on the life of the saints, war and diplomacy, lyric poetry and epic romances. In the writing of History, Procópio de Caesareia (500-565) and Ana Comnena (1083-1148) stood out. In addition to writing original texts, many texts from antiquity were gathered, copied and translated. By working in the monasteries or libraries of the emperors, people helped to preserve the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
18 Education in Byzantine
Byzantine education system focused mainly on propagating the teachings of Christianity and the Hellenistic culture. This culture included Greeks, Egyptians, Persians and other peoples of the East. The Byzantines added Christianity and Latin to the Roman cultural elements.
Good educational background had value only among the richest. From the age of six, boys learned to read and write and began to comment on texts of Greek authors such as Homer and Plato. Later, the youngsters had classes in rhetoric, philosophy, arithmetic, music, and astronomy. In some schools teachers also taught law, medicine and physics. Priests taught the principles of religion.
Girls from wealthy families usually studied at home with private teachers. The children of artisans, merchants and the poorest families studied until they were literate.
The Academy of Plato – was one of the inspirations in the education of the Byzantines.
19 The Decline of the Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine history had seen many ups and downs. There were a series of external attacks that slowly weakened the Empire. From the seventh century, many Byzantine territories were being lost to the enemies.
Its main adversaries were the Arabs, in both the military and cultural aspects, as they conquered areas of the East that had up till now been under the rule of the Byzantine Empire.
Between the 9th and 11th centuries, the Byzantines suffered new military defeats. Constantinople still remained an important center of commerce in the Mediterranean world, and Byzantine culture reached significant moments. Administration became more efficient, the economy stabilized, and borders in Europe, Asia and North Africa were strengthened with military troops.
20 Loss of Byzantine- The Fall of Constantinople
In Byzantine, prosperity lasted for centuries. It was in the mid-fifteenth century that the crisis bought the decline of the Byzantine Empire. In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks after successive attempts at invasions.
This conquest is seen as the most common landmark to indicate the end of the Middle Ages. It dismantled the Byzantine Empire and also triggered other historical processes. One of the main consequences of the Turkish Ottoman rule was the shift from Byzantine intellectuals to the Italian peninsula.
They brought with them much knowledge of the classical Greco-Roman culture, which had been preserved in Constantinople. This had great influence in the creation of the cultural movement known as Renaissance.