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Byzantine Empire


The Byzantine Empire

THE EASTERN EMPIRE   As Western Europe succumbed to the Germanic invasions, imperial power shifted to the BYZANTINE EMPIRE (the eastern part of the Roman Empire).

CONSTANTINOPLE became the sole capitol of the empire and remained so until the successful revival of the western empire in the 8th century by Charlemagne.

THE REIGN OF JUSTINIAN   The height of the first period of Byzantine history (324-632) was the reign of the EMPEROR JUSTINIAN (r. 537-565) and his wife EMPRESS THEODORA (d. 548)
Goal: One God, One Empire, One Religion   The imperial goal in the East -- as reflected in the policy "ONE GOD, ONE EMPIRE, ONE RELIGION" was to centralize government and impose legal and doctrinal conformity.
  To this end, Justinian COLLATED AND REVISED ROMAN LAW. His CORPUS JURIS CIVILIS (body of civil law), compiled by a learned committee of lawyers, contained four parts:
The CODE revised imperial edicts issued since the 2nd century.
The NOVELLAE (new things) contained the decrees issued by Justinian and his immediate successors.
The DIGEST was a summary of the major opinions of the old legal experts.
The INSTITUTES was a textbook for young scholars that drew its lessons from the Code and the Digest.

These works had little immediate effect on medieval common law.  However, beginning with the Renaissance, they provided the foundation for most subsequent European law down to the 19th century. They especially served well those rulers who aspired to centralize their states.

Since the 5th century, the patriarch of Constantinople had crowned emperors in Constantinople. This practice reflected the close ties between rulers and the Church.
In 380, Christianity had been proclaimed the OFFICIAL RELIGION of the eastern empire. All other religions and sects were denounced as "demented and insane."
Between the 4th and 6th centuries, the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem acquired enormous wealth in the form of land and gold.
The Church, in turn, acted as the state's welfare agency to aid the poor and needy.
The prestige and comfort that the clergy enjoyed swelled the clerical ranks of the Eastern church.

At one time or another the Christian heresies of Arianism, Monophysitism, and Iconoclasm also received imperial support.

Arianism denied that the Father and Son were equal and coeternal and was declared a heresy by the Council of Nicea (325).
MONOPHYSITISM (mö-noph´-y-sit-ism) taught that Jesus had only one nature, a composite divine-human one, not the fully human and fully divine dual nature that orthodox doctrine taught.
Empress Theodora lent her support to this heresy.
After her death, the imperial government persecuted them as heretics, a policy that cost the empire when Persian and Arab armies besieged its eastern frontiers in the 7th century. Bitter over their treatment, the Monophysites (mö-noph´-y-sïtes) offered little resistance to the invaders.
ICONOCLASM forbid the use of images (icons) of the sacred personages of Christianity, including Christ and all the saints, because it led to idolatry.

Orthodox Christianity was not the only religion within the empire with a significant following.  The empire was also home to large numbers of Jews.

Under Roman law, JEWS HAD LEGAL PROTECTION so long as they did not proselytize among Christians, build new synagogues, or try to enter sensitive public offices or professions.
Justinian (the emperor most intent on religious conformity) adopted a policy of encouraging Jews to convert voluntarily.
Later emperors ordered all Jews to be baptized and granted tax breaks to those who voluntarily complied. Nevertheless, many Jews were unwilling abandon their traditional religion.
Cities   During Justinian's reign the empire's strength was its more than 1,500 cities. The largest with perhaps 350,000 inhabitants, was CONSTANTINOPLE, THE CULTURAL CROSSROADS of the Asian and European civilizations. The large provincial cities had populations of 50,000.
Between the 4th and 5th centuries, councils of about 200 members, made up of local wealthy landowners governed the cities. They were not necessarily loyal to the emperor.
By the 6th century, special GOVERNORS AND BISHOPS, appointed from the landholding classes, replaced the councils and proved to be more reliable instruments of the emperor's will.

A fifth century statistical record gives us some sense of the size and splendor of Constantinople at its peak. It lists 5 imperial and 9 princely palaces; 8 public and 153 private baths; 4 public fora; 5 granaries; 2 theaters; a hippodrome; 322 streets; 4,388 substantial houses; 53 porticoes; 20 public and 120 private bakers; and 14 churches.

The most popular ENTERTAINMENTS were the theater, frequently denounced by the clergy for nudity and immorality, and the races at the hippodrome. Many public taverns existed as well.

CONTRIBUTIONS TO WESTERN CIVILIZATION   Throughout the early Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire remained A PROTECTIVE BARRIER between western Europe and hostile Persian, Arab, and Turkish armies.

The Byzantines were also a major CONDUIT OF CLASSICAL LEARNING AND SCIENCE into the West down to the Renaissance. While western Europeans were fumbling to create a culture of their own, the cities of the Byzantine Empire provided them a model of a civilized society.

Byzantine Studies on the Internet:  Gives a brief introduction about Byzantium culture and history. Contains comprehensive links to an array of topics such as Byzantine art, religious artifacts, and historical images. Listen to Byzantine music through sound files.
Life in Byzantine Jerusalem: From the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this site contains twelve photos and descriptions of places and objects depicting life in Byzantine Jerusalem.  See also The Cardo: A Street Through Time.
The Constantinople Home Page: Has pictures and descriptions of Byzantine monuments (palaces, churches, libraries, the hippodrome, a Roman villa, the Hagia Sophia). 
Why was the Byzantine Empire able to survive and expand during the Early Middle Ages?
Discuss the methods Emperor Justinian used to achieve the goal of "One God, One Empire, One Religion." How successful was he?


Send mail to Dr. Edrene S. Montgomery  with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright © 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: October 31, 1999