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Lecture 17

Byzantine Civilization

In 410, the "eternal city" of Rome was sacked. From 451 to 453 Italy suffered the invasions of Attila the Hun who was known by all as the "scourge of God." By the 5th century, power in Western Europe had passed from the hands of the Roman emperors to those of barbarian chieftains. In 476, the date usually assigned to the fall the Roman Empire, the barbarian Odovacer (c.434-493), deposed the western emperor Romulus Augustulus and ruled in his place (on the Fall of Rome, see Lecture 14).

By the end of the 5th century the western Empire was split into various Germanic kingdoms. The Ostrogoths settled in Italy, the Franks in northern Gaul, the Burgundians in Provence, the Visigoths in southern Gaul and Spain, the Vandals in Africa and the western Mediterranean, and the Angles and Saxons in England. Barbarians were clearly the masters of western Europe, but they were also willing to accommodate themselves to the people they conquered. (See map of barbarian migration, Shockwave required.)

Despite the military defeat of the Roman Empire by these various barbarian tribes, these victories did not lead to a cultural defeat of the Roman Empire. To be sure, the barbarians were militarily superior, but the Romans managed to maintain their cultural strength. In other words, Roman language, law, and government continued to exist alongside new Germanic institutions. Together with this accommodation, was the fact that the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths and the Vandals became a Christianized people. However, their religious creed was considered heretical by the Church. They were Arian Christians -- Christians who believed that Jesus Christ was not of one identical substance with God. The Arian heresy was founded by a priest named Arius and was condemned in 325 by the Council of Nicaea.

Despite the fact that the Church was hostile to the Arian form of Christianity, the Germans admired Roman culture. They never wanted to destroy it. Just the same, the Germans were a rural people, and preferred the countryside to urban life. By 500, the Franks were converted to the Orthodox form of Christianity supported by the bishops at Rome. As Roman Christians, the Franks eventually helped conquer and convert the Goths and other barbarians in western Europe.

The period of history from roughly 500 to 1000 is called the early Middle Ages. It is oftentimes called Late Antiquity as well (see the excellent introduction, "A Visual Tour Through late Antiquity"). While we will return to the Frankish Kingdom in later lectures (see Lecture 20), it is important to understand that during the period of the early Middle Ages, Europe was born. This is a period of time in which a distinctive western European culture began to emerge. Whether we look to geography, government, religion, culture, or language, western Europe became a land distinct from both the Byzantine world and the Muslim world (see Lecture 18). Although this period marks the decline of the Roman world, it is also a time of recovery and experimentation with new ideas and institutions.

The crucial feature of the early Middle Ages was a unique blending of three distinct traditions: the Greco-Roman tradition, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and Germanic custom.

As western Europe fell to the Germanic invasions, imperial power shifted to the Byzantine Empire, that is, the eastern part of the Roman Empire, with its capital at Constantinople. The eastern provinces of the former Roman Empire had always outnumbered those in the west. Its civilization was far older and it had larger cities, which were also more numerous than in the west. 

It was Constantine the Great who began the rebuilding of Byzantium in 324, renaming the city Constantinople and dedicating it in 330. Constantinople became the sole capital of the Empire and remained so until the late 8th century when Charlemagne strengthened the Frankish Kingdom. Although the Byzantine Empire remained in existence until it was defeated by the Turks in 1453, our focus shall be on the early period of Byzantine history up to the year 632.

Brief biography of Justinian, a list of resources and a selection from his "Institutes"The greatest of all the eastern emperors was clearly Justinian (c.482-565), who reigned for thirty-eight years between 527 and 565. Justinian was reformer in the fashion of Augustus Caesar. It was Justinian's desire to restore the Empire -- both East and West -- to all of its former glory. In fact, it has been said that his desire to restore the former Roman Empire was an obsession. His greatest accomplishment toward this end was the revision and codification of Roman law. Justinian understood that a strong government could not exist without good laws. Although the Romans prided themselves on their written laws, several centuries of written laws had brought nothing but confusion. In Justinian's day, a man could have spent a lifetime studying the laws without ever mastering them. The laws had grown too numerous and too confusing. Justinian created a commission of sixteen men to bring order out of all the laws. These men worked for six years and studied more than 2000 texts. In 534, the commission produced the Corpus Juris Civilis – the Body of Civil Law. The Corpus, written in Latin, became the standard legal work until the middle of the 19th century. As such, the Corpus is one of the most sophisticated legal systems ever produced and symbolized Justinian's efforts to create a reunited and well-governed Empire.

A brief biography of Empress Theodora, includes resourcesJustinian was clearly a man who was driven by his obsession. He was aided by his predecessors, who were able to fend off Germanic invasions, something the western empire could not do until much later. Justinian was also aided by his wife, Theodora (c.500-547), the daughter of a bearkeeper at the Hippodrome, and no less ambitious than her husband. Together, she and Justinian brought new energy to an old, conservative regime. 

In 532, mob violence erupted in Constantinople. These riots were called the Nika Riots ("Nika"= "Victory!"), and grew from political unrest over the government's fiscal measures. Rival factions of Blues and Greens (admirers of rival chariot-racing teams) fought in the streets. Justinian wanted to leave the city during the riots, but two of his generals (Belisarius and Narses) and his wife Theodora, persuaded him to stay. Theodora took it upon herself to raise a personal army, an army that eventually killed 35,000 people in a single day.

Following Justinian's victory -- actually Theodora's -- Justinian sent his armies to recapture parts of the former western Empire. In 533, he sent his armies to North Africa to destroy the Vandal Kingdom. The same year his generals took Sicily and Rome. However, victory was only temporary. By 565, Roman Italy was invaded and overtaken by the Lombards.

Back at Constantinople, Justinian tried to rebuild the city. He built aqueducts to supply the city with water. Overseeing all sorts of government buildings, he was responsible for the construction of at least twenty-five churches, the Hagia Sophia being the most well-known. The Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) was initially constructed under Constantine and reconstructed around 400. Justinian commissioned two Greek architects (Isidoros and Anthemios) to build a new kind of church with a great dome at the center. The dome rises 180 feet and the church itself covers 25,000 square feet. The interior was light and airy and covered with mosaics.

Religion as well as law served Justinian's efforts to centralize the imperial office. Since the 5th century the patriarch of Constantinople had crowned emperors in Constantinople, a practice which reflected the close ties between secular and religious leaders. In 380, Christianity had been proclaimed the official religion of the eastern Empire. All other religions and sects were denounced as "demented and insane." Orthodox Christianity was not, however, the only religion within the Empire with a significant number of followers. Nor did the rulers view religion as merely a political tool. At one time or another the Christian heresies of Arianism (the belief that Jesus was not of one substance with God), Monophysitism (Jesus has one nature – a composite divine/human one, not a fully divine and fully human), and Iconoclasm (the attempt to abolish the use of icons/images in church services) also received imperial support. Persecution and absorption into popular Christianity served to cut short many pagan religious practices.

There were also a large number of Jews living in the Byzantine world. However, the Romans had considered the Jews in comparison to Christians to be narrow, dogmatic, and intolerant people, and had little love for them. Under Roman law Jews had legal protection as long as they did not proselytize among Christians, build new synagogues, or attempt to enter public office. Whereas Justinian adopted a policy of voluntary Jewish conversion, the later emperors ordered all Jews to be baptized, and granted tax breaks to those who voluntarily complied. Neither effort was successful in converting the Jews of the Empire.

During the reign of Justinian, the Empire's strength was in its more than 1500 cities. The largest, with perhaps 350,000 inhabitants, was Constantinople, the cultural crossroads of east and west, north and south. Councils composed of around 200 local wealthy landowners governed the cities. Known as decurions, they made up the intellectual and economic elite of the Empire. A 5th century record gives us some sense of the size and splendor of Constantinople. According to the record, there were five imperial and nine princely palaces; eight public and 153 private baths; five granaries; two theaters; a hippodrome; 322 streets; 4388 substantial houses; 52 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. Numerous public taverns and baths also existed.

During the reign of Heraclius (610-641), the Empire took a decidedly eastern, as opposed to Roman, direction. Heraclius spoke Greek, not Latin and his entire reign was preoccupied with resisting Persian and Islamic invasions. Islamic armies overran the Empire after 632, directly attacking Constantinople for the first time in 677. Not until the reign of Leo III in the early 8th century were the Islamic armies defeated and most of Asia Minor retained by the Byzantines.

Byzantine ResourcesLeo, however, offended western Christians when he forbade the use of images in eastern churches and tried to enforce the ban in the west. This became a source of conflict to western Christians, who had carefully nurtured the adoration of Jesus, Mary, and the saints in images and icons. The banning of images became a major expression of eastern imperial involvement in church dogma and practice that the western church had always resisted. In addition to creating a new division within Christendom, the new ban on images brought about the destruction of much religious art.

Throughout the period of the early Middle Ages the Byzantine Empire served as a protective barrier between western Europe and the Persian, Arab, and Turkish armies. The Byzantines were also a major conduit of classical learning and science into the west down to the Renaissance. Throughout the centuries and while western Europeans were fumbling to create a new culture of their own, the cities of the Byzantine Empire provided them an outstanding model of a civilized society.


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