The Byzantine Empire, Part Two
The Postclassical Era
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."
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.