The Byzantines

In 330 Byzantium was proclaimed New Rome by Constantine the Great, as we have noted. Rome had become a bit uncomfortable for Constantine, so he moved his armies and enlarged the already ancient city on the Bosphorus. In November of 324, the fortifications of New Rome were begun. This task took more than five years to complete. But the city was built. Constantine fashioned it after Rome to include seven hills, one of the city’s many special features, Constantinople served as the capital of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire for nearly a thousand years after the fall of Rome in 476.

Emperor Justinian, considered the first true Byzantine emperor, reigned from Constantinople during the middle 6th century. To the all ready sprawling empire, he added Africa, Italy and Spain. And much of the power wielded by Justinian was shared by his wife, Theodora, until her death in 548, At this point Justinian became less the impassioned theologian he was with Theodora and more law-keeping arbitrator between the factions into which Christianity had broken. He developed a sound legal system and succeeded in realizing an absolute monarchy over the Byzantine Empire, This contrasted sharply with the primitive governments of the conquering Germanic tribes in the Western Empire. It was also during Justinian’s reign that a distinctive Byzantine culture was developed. The Church of Saint Sophia was the initial example of Byzantine architectural design — a blending of Greco-Roman styles with Persian. Justinian was responsible for reconstruction of Constantine’s Saint Sophia after its destruction by fire. Justinian, on seeing the completed church, exclaimed; “0 Solomon, thou art vanquished!” His allusion was, of course, to the great Temple of Solomon. Justinian laid the basis of Byzantine religious doctrine by way of his imperial, dogma-defining edicts. His reign also marked a rapid decline in the use of Latin. Greek took its place as the official language of the Byzantine Empire.

Constantinople had been the jewel of the Christian world far more than eleven hundred years. Nearly a hundred Roman emperors ruled over the empire in this period. The walls and fortifications of Constantinople withstood intruders from all sides with the exception of the Fourth Crusaders who cuptures and laid waste to the capital during the 13th century. It was retaken by the armies of Byzantium, and managed to hold out against the invading Turks until the middle of the 15th century.

The Byzantine civilization produced much in the way of artistic creation. The most impressive of all was Justinian’s Church of Saint Sophia with its tremendous dome and rows of colorful and intricately executed mosaics of the nterior,’ The altar and furnishings were covered with gold and jewels, the floors were made of patterened marble, and the columns were decorated with ornate carvings. The Byzantines were also famed for their elegant jewelry and richly decorated armor, Their manuscripts were adorned with fine miniature paintings and were bound in soft leather set with jewels. Splendor and brilliance were the main features of Byzantine architecture and art. The literature of this period, like its art, was marked by a careful sense of technical skill more than by innovation or originality. Byzantine writers wrote volumes and volumes of history and encyclopedias of ancient knowledge. They wrote detailed commentaries on the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Many works were done on Christianity, which were generally honed to the fine points of religious doctilne. They also produced many histories. Some of these provide us with fascinating details of Byzantine life and the intrigues at the imperial court. The most important Byzantine achievement came In the field of law. Justinian appointed a committee of legal experts to go over the huge mass of Roman laws and judicial decisions which hod accumulated through the cen-’ turies. By careful selection, they combined the best of these into a single great code for both civil ond criminal law. They also Issued a digest of the basic concepts of Roman law and a collection of Important imperial decrees. The Code of Justinian is still used In teaching law, and Its principles are followed In many countries of Europe and Latin America even today.

The Byzantines influenced civilization in several other ways. Byzantine missionaries, led by two brothers, Cyril and Methodius, converted the Slavs

The Crusades or Holy Wars began largely as a result of events in the East, At the beginning of the 11th century, a nomadic people from central Asia, the Seljuk Turks, invaded Mesopotamia and gained controi of the caliphate of Bagdad, Later they expanded westward, defeated the Byzantines, and conquered all of Asia Minor. The Byzantine emperor sent frantic appeals to the Pope for help. His pleas were echoed by pilgrims, who returned form the Holy Land with tragic tales of mistreatment. Because the Seljuk Turks had recently embraced a new religion, Islam, they were intolerant, as new converts are inclined to be. Scholars, however; believe that the stories of Seljuk atrocities were greatly exaggerated. Religious zeal and idealism were probably the main inspiration of the Crusaders, They were anxious to safeguard their fellow Christians in Constantinople and to regain control of the Holy Sepulcher from the Seljuks. Moreover, the Pope had granted remission of their sins and entry into Paradise if they perished while fighting the “infidels”. As far as the Byzantines were concerned all the Crusades accomplished was to reduce the power and influence of the Byzantine armies. In the Fourth Crusade, Venetian merchants and shipowners diverted the Crusaders Into attacking Venice’s great trade rival, Constantinople. Despite the protests of the Pope, the Crusaders conquered the city, establishing a Latin Empire In the East. The Byzantines recovered control about a half-century later, but their empire never regained its former strength. Moreover, after such a beff-ayal, there was little hype that the westerners and the Byzantines would cooperale against the Moslems.

Byzantium played a large part in the building up of !he civilization of Islam. The Arabs that came out of the desert were simple people. Very few of them were literate. As they swept across the Near East and through Anatolia into Byzantium controlled areas, they picked up and borrowed almost ail the refinements that they subsequently acquired from the peoples they conquered. They borrowed from the Persian but much more from the Hellenistic Semitic Christian civilization of Syria and Egypt. This civilization, already Byzantine, even after- the conquest, was continually being aided by Byzantium. The removal of the Moslem capital to Bagdad increased the Persian influence on Islam, even though Baghdad was built partly by Greek architects and masons.

The Byzantines had been taking severe setbacks from the encroaching Seljuk, then later Ottoman, Turks. Byzantine power had been on the decline’ for years; the government was almost bankrupt and could not afford to maintain Its necessarily large armies. It is as the seers of Byzantium foretold, the prophets that spoke incessantly of the fate that was coming, of the final days of the city, The weary Byzantine knew that‘the doom so often threatened must some day surely envelop him.

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