The Byzantine Empire made great contributions to civilization: Greek language and learning were preserved for posterity; the Roman imperial system was continued and Roman law codified; the Greek Orthodox church converted some Slavic peoples and fostered the development of a splendid new art dedicated to the glorification of the Christian religion. Situated at the crossroads of east and west, Constantinople acted as the disseminator of culture for all peoples who came in contact with the empire. Called with justification "The City," this rich and turbulent metropolis was to the early Middle Ages what Athens and Rome had been to classical times. By the time the empire collapsed in 1453, its religious mission and political concepts had borne fruit among the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe and especially among the Russians. The latter were to lay claim to the Byzantine tradition and to call Moscow the "Third Rome."
At the southern extremity of the Bosphorus stands a promontory that juts out from Europe toward Asia, with the Sea of Marmora to the south and a long harbor known as the Golden Horn to the north. On this peninsula stood the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, which Constantine the Great enlarged considerably and formally christened "New Rome" in A.D. 330.
Constantine had chosen the site for his new capital with care. He placed Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) on the frontier of Europe and Asia, dominating the waterway connecting the Mediterranean and Black seas. Nature protected the site on three sides with cliffs; on the fourth side, emperors fortified the city with an impenetrable three-wall network. During the fourth and fifth centuries Visigoths, Huns, and Ostrogoths unsuccessfully threatened the city. In the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, first Persians, then Arab forces, and finally the Bulgarians besieged - but failed to take - Constantinople. Until 1453, with the exception of the Fourth Crusade's treachery, the city withstood all attacks.
The security and wealth provided by its setting helped Byzantium survive for more than a thousand years. Constantinople was a state-controlled, world trade center which enjoyed the continuous use of a money economy - in contrast to the localized systems found in the west. The city's wealth and taxes paid for a strong military force and financed an effective government. Excellent sewage and water systems supported an extremely high standard of living. Food was abundant, with grain from Egypt and Anatolia and fish from the Aegean. Constantinople could support a population of a million, at a time when it was difficult to find a city in Europe that could sustain more than 50,000.
Unlike Rome, Constantinople had several industries producing luxury goods, military supplies, hardware, and textiles. After silkworms were smuggled out of China about A.D. 550, silk production flourished and became a profitable state monopoly. The state paid close attention to business, controlling the economy: A system of guilds to which all tradesmen and members of the professions belonged set wages, profits, work hours, and prices and organized bankers and doctors into compulsory corporations.
Security and wealth encouraged an active political, cultural, and intellectual life. The widespread literacy and education among men and women of various segments of society would not be matched in Europe until, perhaps, eighteenth-century France. Until its fall in 1453, the Byzantine Empire remained a shining fortress, attracting both invaders and merchants.
Constantine and his successors struggled to renew the empire. Rome collapsed under the pressure of the Germanic invaders in 476 . Thanks to its greater military and economic strength, Constantinople survived for a thousand years, despite revolutions, wars, and religious controversy.
Justinian (527-565) was the last emperor to attempt seriously to return the Roman Empire to its first-century grandeur. Aided by his forceful wife Theodora and a corps of competent assistants, he made lasting contributions to Western civilization and gained short-term successes in his foreign policy.
The damage caused by devastating earthquakes (a perennial problem in the area) in the 520s and 530s gave Justinian the opportunity he needed to carry out a massive project of empire-wide urban renewal.
The ruler as builder was one of the oldest ideals of a sovereign. Public buildings and other structures were, in principle, gifts to be used by the ruler's subjects, but also monuments of the greatness of the ruler. Justinian strove hard to realize this ideal. The greatest buildings he erected or rebuilt were in Constantinople, the city which was now the embodiment of the civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire. Numerous magnificent and artistically beautiful structures were constructed or rebuilt during his reign. They included statues, churches and various other monuments. His crowning achievement was the building of St. Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom. This building was considered by many an architectural wonder of the middle ages, and is still standing strong today. Its design, size, artwork, name and its significance made it a building that symbolized the religious and philosophical epicenter of Constantinople and Byzantine civilization.
Even before he came to power, during his uncle's reign, Justinian had already set about to rehabilitate and rebuild many churches in Constantinople and its suburbs. This work began mostly in a private capacity and reflected the piety which was to show itself further when Justinian became emperor. The chief church in this category was St. Accius, a Cappadocian soldier who had been executed at Byzantium in the early 300's and was venerated as one of the leading martyrs who had suffered on the site of the future Constantinople. Six other churches were similarly rebuilt. One was St. Mocius. This was one of the most famous shrines in Constantinople. It was said to have been originally a temple of Zeus, which Constantine then converted into a church. Other churches included St. Plato, martyred at Ancyra, and St. Thyrsus, executed in Nicomedia in the same persecution. In the suburbs of Constantinople he rebuilt a church of the famous woman martyr, St. Thecla, who suffered in the first Christian century.
When Justinian came to the throne, he found many of the major public buildings and churches in dire need of repairs. His private undertakings were replaced by an official program to rebuild and construct churches throughout the whole empire. The reign of Justinian would have been incomplete if it had not brought with it some new monuments to the glory of the empire, and Justinian was eager to have a permanent literary record of his building achievements. To this end Justinian had at his disposal the famous Historian Procopius who wrote, at the Emperor's command in the years 559-560, the famous panegyrical treatise "On the Buildings of the Emperor Justinian". Far from being displays of megalomania, Justinian's works constituted a well balanced plan. First, he wished to provide the people of the capital with much needed public buildings. Second, to create a new architectural setting for the institutions that represented the chief political and spiritual resources of the empire and its civilization. Justinian surpassed the work of Constantine, who up to that point had been the greatest builder among the Christian emperors of the Empire.
One of Justinian's best known benefactions was the rebuilding of a hospital for the poor which had been constructed in the early days of Constantinople. Well outside Constantinople, at a place called Argyronium, on the shore of the Bosporus, there had been a free hospital for people with incurable decease's. This hospital had been neglected until Justinian rebuilt it. Procopius tells us of three other hospitals reconstructed by the Justinian and the Empress Theodora, acting together.
Justinian also improved numerous other public works. For example, work was done for the water supply into the city. The most difficult problem was to maintain an adequate supply of water in the city year round. In the area of the Augustaeum, general repairs were undertaken of the colonnades which lined the main street leading from the Augustaeum to the palace of Constantine. The public bath of Zeuxippus was embellished. In Justinian's day this bath,going back to the Greco-Roman days of Byzantium, was one of the show places of the city. It had a collection of eighty classical statues, which were described by poets and copied by various artists. In the suburbs a general program of development was carried out at Hebdomon, on the shore of the Sea of Marmara. A market place, public baths, and colonnades --some of the chief needs of municipal life in a city very much in contact with its classical roots-- were built. As well, the emperor had an artificial Harbour built at Hebdomon which, along with the artificial harbours of Julian and Theodosius, provided refuge to ships in stormy weather.
Great as all these building operations were they still were small in comparison to Justinian's churches. Every city of the eastern Roman Empire required an ample number of churches and it was only fitting that the capital should have more than usual. We have the names of 34 churches that the emperor built or rebuilt. Most were dedicated to many members of the celestial hierarchy and to a number of saints and martyrs. In addition to those churches he built or rebuilt as a private citizen, there are associated with the emperor. Most famous of these was St. Sophia (the Church of Holy Wisdom) rebuilt after a fire brought the old one down on January 13, 533. There was also St. Eirene (the church of the Peace of God); four churches to the Virgin Mary; One of St. Anna; four churches of the Archangel Michael, who had a special cult in Constantinople and was venerated as a wonder worker; a church of St. John the Baptist; one of all the Apostles and another of St. Peter and Paul; and churches of joint dedication to St. Sergius and St. Bacchus; to St. Priscus and St. Nikolaos. As well, other churches were built by Justinian for Panteleimon Tryphon, Ia, Zoe, and Lawrentius. This list also includes the Church of the Holy Apostles, replacing a building of Constantine the great. This church occupied a special place among churches in that it had been intended by Constantine the Great as a burial place of his dynasty, and a mausoleum had been built outside the apse of the church. Here lay the tomb of Constantine surrounded by members of his family and successors. By Justinian's time the mausoleum had become full, and so Justinian constructed a new tomb near it for himself and his successors. As a result the church of the Holy Apostles was regarded as second in importance after St. Sophia.
Architecturally Justinian's churches illustrate the final development of a design in church building which was to be typical of Greek Christianity. After the official recognition of Christianity, the first churches to be built were based mainly on the plans of the Roman public Basilicas. But slowly this fashion went out of style in the territory of the Eastern Roman Empire, in favour of the building of square or cruciform plan designed around a central dome. This design gave the church both liturgical function and a symbolical significance which were much more congenial than the basilica to the Greek religious mind. It was in churches of this design that Justinian's architectural ambition reached its fullest realization, and set an example for future builders.
The church of this type was essentially either a square or a cross surmounted by a central dome. The structure below the dome might be conceived as a cube or a cross with equal arms which could be inscribed geometrically within the cube. Occasionally there might be a cross with lower member longer than the others. The octagonal plan was also developed. The dome stood alone over the center of the square, or over the intersection of the arms of the cross; or a great central dome might have been accompanied by smaller domes built over the arms of the cross. But it was in the central dome that the significance of this new design lay. The dome unified the whole structure of the church and brought all its areas and spaces together around one central focus. The Hemisphere of the dome, which rose above this central spot symbolized heaven. It was meant to be visible, at least partially, to all worshipers in the church and served to bind the entire congregation. The altar was usually placed in an apse in the east of the building, and in the square or cruciform plan, the congregation was closer to the altar than they had been in churches of the elongated basilica plan. In some buildings the altar stood under the central dome, giving an even greater feeling of unity to the congregation. The dome also created an impression of vast space, and gave the whole interior of the church a majesty and dignity which inspired a sense of inner peace and intellectual detachment. On the dome was usually painted a great portrait of Christ Pantocrator (Christ the allmighty). The architecture and imagery the dome conspired with one's mind to give the illusion of bringing heaven to earth. In many ways the dome created the sensation of exposing a realm, the realm of the divine, to which we could look to for truth and holy wisdom. In this sense the design of the Byzantine church incorporated much of the imagery of the Platonic realm of absolute ideals, the ultimate of which was the Holy Wisdom of God.
In none of the churches of Constantinople could the mind reach a greater sense of spiritual depth and nobility than in the so-called "Great Church" of St. Sophia. This was almost certainly Justinian's greatest architectural achievement. It is very characteristic of the spiritual life in the Eastern Roman Empire in the days of Justinian, that the Emperor chose to build, as his own greatest church --which was also intended to be the greatest church in the world-- a shrine dedicated to Christ as "Hagia Sophia" or Holy Wisdom in English. Christ, the Wisdom (Sophia) and Power( dynamis) of God, in St. Paul's words, was a manifestation of the holy trinity, projecting the action of God from the realm of the divine to the world of man. It is by no means coincidence that the chief temples of Pagan Athens and Christian Constantinople were both dedicated to Wisdom. The Parthenon as the shrine of the Goddess Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, and Justinian's Great Church both showed respect for "Sophia" which has always been one of the chief traits of the Greek mind. Christ as the Wisdom of God was a familiar idea to Greek Christianity; the Hymn of the Resurrection, sung during the Eucharist, invokes Christ as "the Wisdom and the Word and Power of God". Near St. Sophia stood St. Eirene, representing the peace of God. Like St. Sophia, St. Eirene had been originally built by Constantine the Great. It is highly indicative of the Eastern Roman Empire's connection with its Classical Greek roots, that when both St. Sophia and St. Eirene were burnt down and rebuilt, Wisdom was given first place.
Just as Justinian had found skilled legal scholars (Tribonian) to re codify the laws, as well as skilled generals to recapture lost lands (Belisarius), so too he was fortunate enough to have found two builders of the highest talents to build St. Sophia. They were Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Melitus. As well as builders they were also noted mathematicians, which was to be of basic importance in the accomplishing the task Justinian set for them. St. Sophia was built in the traditional Greco-Roman style, but it represented a design and scale never before attempted. The main area of the interior, designed for the services, was a great oval 250 by 107 feet; with side aisles, the main floor made almost a square, 250 by 220 feet. The nave was covered by a dome 107 feet in diameter, rising 180 feet high above the ground.
The design created the impression of a vast enclosed space. This was made possible by an intricate series of supports, all of which were arranged so as to lead the observers eye from the ground level up to the dome. At the east and west of the nave were hemicycles crowned by semi-domes, which provided some support for the superstructure. Each hemicycle was flanked and supported by two semicircular exedras carrying smaller semidomes. At the eastern end the hemicycle opened into the apse with its semi-dome. With rows of columns supporting the upper galleries on the north and south of the naive, and numbers of clear windows in the walls, in the semidomes, and around the base of the main dome, the supporting elements looked incredibly slender and light. The ring of forty-two arched windows placed close side by side at the springing of the main dome seemed almost to separate the dome itself from the main building. The historian Procopius in his accounts of St. Sophia tells us of the astonishing effect of these details. The weight of the upper part of the building appeared to be borne on terrifyingly inadequate supports, although it was very carefully braced. The dome itself, Procopius tells us, seemed not to rest upon solid masonry at all; instead it appeared to be suspended by a golden chain from heaven. The bold conception and design of the building were matched by the skill with which it was constructed. A structure of such size and plan were never again attempted in Constantinople.
As with the design and fabric of the building, its decoration was chosen to produce a transcendent spiritual effect. Typically in Greek-Orthodox churches, applied ornament was concentrated on the inside leaving the outside to show the mass of the structure and bring out its geometric patterns of curves and lines, which the Byzantine mind so greatly appreciated. The interior decoration was sumptuous but risked being gaudy. It contained a richness indicative of the prosperity of the empire as a whole. Paul the Silentiary, one of the members of Justinian's court, wrote an elaborate description of the church in verse which shows what the magnificence of the decoration must have been like when St. Sophia was in its original state. Many lands, Paul tells us, sent their own characteristic marbles, each of with its distinct features; black stone from the Bosporus region, green marble from mainland Greece, polychrome stone from Phrygia, and porphyry from Egypt and yellow stone from Syria. The different stones were used in carefully planned combinations in the columns, in the pavement, and in the revetments of the walls.
Rising above was the main dome, showing the cross outlined against a background of gold mosaic. The semidomes were also finished in gold mosaic, and the pendentives beneath the dome were filled with mosaic figures of Seraphim, their wings like peacock feathers. Against the background of marbles and mosaics the church was filled with objects of shining metal, gold, silver, and brass. From the rim of the dome hung brass chains supporting innumerable oil lamps of silver, containing glass cups in which the burning wick floated in oil. Beside the side colonnades which separated the aisles from the nave hung other rows of silver lamps.
It was in the sanctuary that the precious metal was used to its fullest. The visitor would first see an iconostasis, the columnar screen which stood in front of the altar. The screen itself was made of silver plated with gold. Depicted on it were Christ, the virgin Mary and the apostles. At intervals in front of the screen were lamp stands shaped like trees, broad at the base, tapering at the top. In the center of the screen was the Cross Christ, brightly illuminated. The gates leading into the sanctuary bore the monogram of Justinian and the empress Theodora. Within the sanctuary was the Holy Table, a slab of gold inlaid with precious stones, supported by four gold columns. Behind the altar, in the semicircular curve of the apse, were the seven seats of the priests and the throne of the Patriarch, all of gilded silver. Over the altar hung cone-shaped ciborium or canopy, with nielloed designs. Above the ciborium was a globe of solid gold, weighing 118 pounds, surmounted by a cross, inlaid with precious stones. The eucharistic vessels -chalices, patens, spoons, basins, ewers, fans- were all of solid gold set with precious stones and pearls, as were the candelabra and censurs.
Around the altar hung red curtains bearing woven figures of Christ, flanked by St. Paul, full of divine wisdom and St. Peter, the mighty doorkeeper of the gates of heaven. One holds a book filled with sacred words, and the other the form of the Cross on a staff of gold. On the borders of the curtain, Paul the Silentiary tells us, indescribable art has "figured the works of mercy of our city's rulers". Here one sees hospitals for the sick, there sacred churches, while on either side are displayed the miracles of Christ. On the other curtains you see the kings of the earth, on one side joined with their hands to those of the Virgin Mary, and on the other side to joined to those of Christ. All this design is cunningly wrought by the threads of the woof with the sheen of a golden wrap.
To the feeling of space and of regal splendor there was also joined the magnificent impression of light. If one entered St. Sophia by day the building seemed flooded by sunlight. Procopius tells us that the reflection of the sun from the marbles made one think that the building was not illuminated from without but that the light was created within the building. At night the thousands of oil lamps, all hung at different levels, gave the whole building a brilliant illumination without any shadows.
This effect of light had perhaps the highest effect on the worshipers. As Procopius puts it: "whenever anyone comes to the church to pray, he realizes at once that it is not by human power or skill, but by divine influence that this church has been so wonderfully built. His mind is lifted up on high to God, feeling that he cannot be far away but must love to dwell in this place he has chosen. And this does not happen only when one sees the church for the first time, but the same thing occurs to the visitor on each successive occasion, as if the sight were ever a new one. No one has ever had a surfeit of this spectacle, but when they are present in the building men rejoice in what they see, and when they are away from it, they take delight in talking about it". Paul the Silentiary also tells us how that the Great Church, with its light shining through its windows at night, dominated the whole of Constantinople. The lighted building, he tells us, rising above the dark mass of the promontory, cheered the sailors who saw it from their ships in the Bosporus or the sea of Marmara.
It took five years to complete St. Sophia. Tradition has it that it took ten thousand workers, under the direction of one hundred foremen. Before it was completed, Justinian fixed the staff of the church at sixty priests, one hundred deacons, forty deaconesses, ninety subdeacons, and one hundred readers and twenty-five singers to assist in the services. There were also one hundred custodians and porters.
The story of the dedication of the church is that when the building was ready to be consecrated, the Emperor walked in procession from the gate of the palace across the Augustaeum to the outer doors of the church. Preceded by the Cross, Justinian and the patriarch then entered the vestibule. Then the Emperor passed into the building alone and walked to the pulpit, where he stretched his hands to heaven and cried, "Glory be to God, who has thought me worthy to finish this work! Solomon, I have surpassed thee!"
Perhaps the most lasting monument of Justinian's reign was his codification of Roman law. By this time it had become necessary to rewrite many of the laws as they had become obsolete since their last codification by Theodosius is 348. In an absolute monarchy the people ceased to be the source of the laws. It was now the monarch, by virtue of his office, that was responsible for putting into effect a new law, as well as the way in which it was interpreted and enforced. The heritage of Roman law represented an unbroken tradition that continued down to the time of Justinian. Preservation and renewal of the laws, Justinian felt, offered the possibility of emphasizing one of major roots of the empire's strength. This immense accomplishment, far outlasted the Byzantine empire and survived to form the basis of European jurisprudence. On February 13, 528, Justinian appointed ten jurists to compile a new codification of the statute law. The ten-man commission appointed to the task of compiling the new code included two men of particular significance. The first was Tribonian, a jurist in the civil service and Theophilus, a professor of law at the university of Constantinople. Under their diligent supervision, the new "Codex Iustinianus" was published in a little over one year, April 7, 529. With the writing of this code, the administration of the law was put on a new basis.
However, no sooner was this work completed than an even more ambitious undertaking was begun. This was the compilation of a digest of the jurisprudence of the great Roman lawyers of the second and third centuries AD, something that had never before been attempted on such a scale. The order to start work on the Digest was given on December 15, 530. In December, 533 the Digest, called the "Digesta Iustiniani Augusti" was completed. It was expected to take ten years but was finished in less than three. Its writing had involved, among other things, the reading of 2000 books, representing 39 authors, and including 3 million lines. The final code was reduced to 150 thousand lines. Many of the authors read came from Tribonian's private library. With both law and jurisprudence now established, any further commentary on the law was forbidden. The Code and the Digest represented the whole of the valid law, along with its interpretation -with the exception of such imperial legislation as might subsequently be issued.
The old teaching manuals, now obsolete, were replaced by new ones. While the Digest was being compiled Tribonian had work started on an introductory manual, the "institutes", which was to take the place of the classic manual of Gaius. The new manual was published on November 21, 533, and came into effect on the same day as the Digest, December 30, 533. The teaching of law was also overhauled. To ensure better control of instruction, the teaching of law was allowed only at the universities in Constantinople and Beyrouth; the schools at Alexandria and Caesarea were closed down as their teaching of law was found to be unsatisfactory.
By the end of 533, it had become apparent that the original Code of April 533 had already been rendered obsolete by the publication of a large amount of legislation. As a result Tribonian and his colleagues, because of their remarkable skill and competence, were once again summoned, after the completion of the Digest, to compile a new Code. This work was to be done by Tribonian, Dorotheus of Beyrouth and three lawyers, all of whom had been engaged on the Digest. The work was published on November 16, 534 and went into effect of December 30 of the same year. This edition of the Code, which is extant, is divided into twelve books. Book I deals with ecclesiastical law; the sources of the law; and the duties of higher officials. It should be noted here that ecclesiastical law has a place of honor in this Code, whereas it did not in the Code of Theodosius. Books 2-8 deal with private law. Book 9 with criminal law, and Books 10-12 with administrative law. There are a 4652 laws in total in this collection.
Following this, any new legislation, when needed, was from that point onward issued in the form of "New Constitutions", known as "Novels". These dealt with such issues as ecclesiastical and public affairs, private law, and one very long Novel in particular constitutes a code of Christian marriage law.
A sign of the change between the Roman Empire of old and the Eastern Roman Empire at the time of Justinian was the fact that all Novels were now written in Greek. While the Codes were in Latin, the traditional language of the law, this was not the natural language of judges, lawyers, litigants, and the general populace in the Eastern Roman Empire. Also, while Justinian was guided by old tradition in the recodifying of the law, he saw that he could not automatically perpetuate all laws of the old Roman Empire. Many Roman laws had never been popular in the Greek east, and local preferences, both Hellenic and oriental in origin, were now brought within the new legal system to replace old Roman doctrines. The influence of Greek philosophical thought, which was at the heart of the educational system, was manifest in many of the classifications and reasonings of Justinian's legislation. A definite Hellenic and oriental shade in the new legislation can also be seen in the laws concerning family, inheritance and dowry. The power of the father, traditional in old Roman thought, was now considerably weakened. Also attesting to the difference in the times was the fact that the new laws had a definite Christian sense about them. There was a desire to make the laws more humane in some ways, in line with the emperors current emphasis on the concept of Philanthropia, or love of mankind. There was a marked increase in laws aiming to protect persons of weaker social position against persons whose position gave them increased power. Justinian's law, for instance, favoured slave against master, debtor against creditor and wife against husband. Of course, there still existed laws that seem, by today's standards quite cruel, and there were still laws that differentiated between different classes of society, but it was a definite advance in the legal system since the days of the old Roman Empire.
Outside the Augustaeum, in Constantinople, one would notice a statue of Justinian wearing what was known at the time as the armour of Achilles. But the Emperor carried no weapon. Instead he held in his left hand the symbol of power of the Christian Roman Emperor, the globe, which signified his dominion over land and sea, and on the globe was a cross, the emblem of the source of his rule. Justinian as Achilles was a natural example of the fusion of classical culture with Christianity in the Eastern Roman Empire. This fusion begun before Justinian's time but was to continue to be one of the distinguishing marks of education and literature in the age of Justinian. Along with the legal and architectural splendours discussed above, the reign of Justinian also saw a flowering of literature such as the Greco-Roman world had not enjoyed for many years.
The earliest Christians avoided the worldly learning of the Greeks with their "philosophy and deceit", and saw no way in which the blasphemous literature could be brought into any sort of relationship with Christian teaching. This reaction of many Christians, as late as the second century, could be summed up in Tertullian's famous phrase, "what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" In time, however, Christian thinkers began to realize that there was much to be carried over into Christian teaching from the Classical Greeks. Socrates and Plato, for example, often seemed to approximate Christian thought. Likewise many of the writings of Aristotle could be fit right into the teachings of the Church. Indeed after the adoption of Christianity people such as St. Basil and the other fathers of the Church, all trained in Greek literature, were able to show that Pagan literature contained a wealth of teaching that was in accord with the philosophies, dogmas and symbolism's of Christianity. It is true that such literary themes as the loves of the Olympians, and the witty humor of Aristophanes, represented views of life that Christianity came to replace. However, the fathers of the Christian Church and other later thinkers had the insight to perceive that it was possible to make some basic distinctions, and separate those elements from classical literature that were not in accord with Christianity, keeping all the rest. The writings of the Fathers of the Church, and many others after them show an established conviction which was vital for the future of the Byzantine civilization, and indeed, all Christian cultures. This conviction brought about the establishment of a "new" Christian culture, one utilizing all the best writings of the classical Greek thought and fusing it into the writings and teachings of the Orthodox Church. The process of such a fusion took centuries, and its final step was not to be completed till the age of Justinian.
Even after Christianity had grown to the point where numbers of prominent people were Christians, public life was still in the hands of people who had a classical education By this time the educational system had come to be viewed as the embodiment of the ancient heritage, political and philosophical as well as literary. In the Greek East, even under Roman subjugation, Greek literature kept alive for centuries the tradition of the political, philosophical and artistic achievements of the classical Hellenic world. For a Greek Christian to give up all the classical teachings simply because parts of them were indelicate would have meant loosing a great deal. It would have meant, had he chose to accept only the teachings of the early Christians, that he would be cut off from a major part of his cultural heritage. Most people were not prepared for this.
It was into a world founded on this ideology that Justinian came. Indeed, Justinian immediately recognized the meaning of the classical spirit and set himself to absorb it and be absorbed by it. The Greek language itself also fascinated him and he took great pleasure in composing state papers in it, although he had a skilled secretariat for this purpose. A humorous anecdote in this vein comes to us in Procopius's "secret history", where he tells us rather wickedly that the Emperor took great pleasure in performing public readings of his works, in spite of his provincial accent, which he never lost when speaking Greek (of course, who was to tell the Emperor that his accent was provincial?)
Justinian decided to put an end to the idea of Paganism as heresy. He saw, however, that there was a major problem in the manner in which Pagan writing was being taught in the schools and universities. In particular, it was being taught in two different ways.
In the schools of Constantinople, Gaza and Alexandria, the classics were being taught by teachers who were themselves Christians. Procopius was typical of such Christian teachers steeped in the classics.He and his pupils and colleagues composed great ecclesiastical works based on the classical style. The theaters of Gaza were often filled with Christian professors who would give public exhibitions in which they declaimed before enthusiastic audiences their rhetorical compositions. Another such teacher, alive in Justinian's day, was John Philoponus. His works included both theological treatises and polemics, as well as commentaries on Aristotle. One center of learning that even until Justinian's time had never associated itself with Christianity was Athens. There the professors were still Pagan and were teaching the classics from entirely the Pagan point of view. This was found unacceptable. Not the fact that they were teaching classical works, but that they were themselves not Christians. Justinian gave them the opportunity to become Christian but they refused. As a result Justinian closed down their schools in 529, his second year as emperor. Of course, one could still continue to study the classics at Alexandria, Gaza, or Constantinople, where the teachers were Christians. Most of the Athenian professors went as refugees to the court of the King of Persia. However in time they found conditions there even worst and they petitioned to be allowed to return home. For better or for worst, this action of Justinian's was to be symbolic of what the "new" Christian education and literature, based on the classics, was to be like henceforth.
The favorable atmosphere of the capital city, Constantinople, produced a number of distinguished literary figures in Justinian's time. Many of their works were largely influenced by the teachings of Aristotle, Plato and other ancient Greek philosophers and play writers, whom they had all studied. Indeed men in public life were frequently scholars and poets. The work entitled "The Greek Anthology", for instance, preserves selected specimens of the verses of nine such poets. Included in this list is John the Lydian, who wrote some autobiographical passages about the scholarly side of the government, and also a history of the Persian war. As already mentioned, Procopius the historian, and Paul the Silentiary were also in this list of distinguished scholars at the time of Justinian.
Procopius studied at Gaza, then a university town, and learned to mimic the style of the great Greek historians such as Herodotus, and Thucydides. In 527 he went to Constantinople where he was to assume new heights as the leading historian of the day, as well as a legal advisor to Belissarius, the most brilliant of Justinian's generals. As we saw above he also wrote a panegyric in which Justinian's vast construction program was described with the resources of literary art. After Procopius's death another of his works, "The secret History" was published, in which he libelled the Emperor Justinian who, he believed, had failed to do justice to his hero Belissarius.
While Procopius went back to the classic Greek historians, Paul went back to Homer. He wrote a famous description of St. Sophia in 887 hexameters, about the length of one of the longer books of Homer. Homer became the vehicle for the praise of the noblest church in the empire. Like Procopius's earlier work Paul's monograph on Agia Sophia reflects a real Christian feeling via the subtlety and similies of the Homeric style. It was not only for his praise of Agia Sophia that Paul is known for, however. In his day and later Paul was one of the most appreciated writers of occasional verses in the Classical style. The seventy eight of his epigrams which are preserved in "The Greek Anthology" show that he was an accomplished practitioner of the classical style and, with an intimate knowledge of classical literature and a delicate feeling for language and meter.
In the age of Justinian, Greek classical literature was a part of the ancient heritage, and Christianity, as a custodian of this heritage, was well able to absorb the classical literary tradition so long as it was understood that the tradition now played a vital role as an element in the new and larger Christian way of life that Hellenism and the entire Eastern Roman Empire had gradually evolved into. Justinian knew that true patriotism and national pride would come from the teaching of the record of achievements of ancient Greece. Indeed, the Greek-speaking citizens of the empire were very conscious of their decent from the Greeks of ancient times who had produced the likes of Homer, Thucydides, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They saw no essential discontinuity between themselves and classical Greece. It was now Justinian's responsibility to see that the essential base of such a classical pedagogical system was maintained.Classical literature had proven its worth over many centuries, and was to survive alongside with Christianity. In the Christian Roman Empire Justinian hoped to shape what one could read and learn, and teach the classics, but only if he or she was Christian first.
Justinian's expensive and ambitious projects naturally triggered outbreaks of protest among the political gangs of Constantinople, the circus crowds of the Greens and Blues. Since ancient times city dwellers have formed groups, each pursuing a set of economic, social, and religious goals. Much like contemporary urban gangs, members of the circus factions moved about in groups and congregated at public events.
In Constantinople the Circus took place in the Hippodrome, a structure that could hold 80,000 spectators. There contests of various types were held, including chariot races. The Blues and Greens backed opposing drivers and usually neutralized each other's efforts. In 532, however, the Blues and Greens united to try to force Justinian from the throne. The so-called Nike rebellion, named after the victory cry of the rioters, nearly succeeded. In his Secret Histories, Procopius relates that Justinian was on the verge of running away, until Theodora stopped him and told the frightened emperor:
Assisted by his generals, the emperor remained and put down the rebellion.
Justinian momentarily achieved his dream of re-establishing the Mediterranean rim of the Roman Empire. To carry out his plan for regaining the lost half of the empire from the Germanic invaders, he first had to buy the neutrality of the Persian kings who threatened not only Constantinople but also Syria and Asia Minor. After securing his eastern flank through diplomacy and bribery, he took North Africa in 533 and the islands of the western Mediterranean from the Vandals.
The next phase of the conquest was much more exhausting. Like warriors before and after him, Justinian had a difficult time taking the Italian peninsula. After twenty years, he gained his prize from the Ostrogoths, but at the cost of draining his treasury and ruining Rome and Ravenna. Justinian's generals also reclaimed the southern part of Spain from the Visigoths, but no serious attempt was ever made to recover Gaul, Britain, or southern Germany.
By a decade after Justinian's death, most of the reconquest had been lost. The Moors in Africa, Germanic peoples across Europe, and waves of Asiatic nomadic tribes threatened the imperial boundaries. Ancient enemies such as the Persians, who had been bribed into a peaceful relationship, returned to threaten Constantinople when the money ran out. In addition, the full weight of the Slavic migrations came to be felt. Peaceful though they may have been, the primitive Slavs severely strained and sometimes broke the administrative links of the empire. Finally, the empire was split by debates over Christian doctrine. Two of Justinian's successors succumbed to madness under the stress of trying to maintain order in the empire.
Salvation appeared from the west when Heraclius (610-641), the Byzantine governor of North Africa, returned to Constantinople to overthrow the mad emperor Phocas. Conditions were so dismal and the future appeared so perilous when Heraclius arrived in the capital that he considered moving the government from Constantinople to Carthage in North Africa.
The situation did not improve soon. The Persians marched through Syria, took Jerusalem - capturing the "True Cross" - and entered Egypt. When Egypt fell to the Persians, the Byzantine Empire lost a large part of its grain supply. Two Asiatic invaders, the Avars and the Bulgars, pushed against the empire from the north. Pirates controlled the sea lanes and the Slavs cut land communication across the Balkans. At this moment of ultimate peril, the emperor decided to throw out the state structure that had been in place since the time of Diocletian and Constantine.
Heraclius created a new system that strengthened his army, tapped the support of the church and people, and erected a more efficient, streamlined administration. He determined that the foundation for the redefined empire would be Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and that the main supply of soldiers for his army would be the free peasants living there, rather than mercenaries. In place of the sprawling realm passed on by Justinian, Heraclius designed a compact state and an administration conceived to deal simultaneously with the needs of government and the challenges of defense.
Heraclius' system, known as the theme system, had been tested when the emperor had ruled North Africa. Acting on the lessons of the past four centuries, he assumed that defense was a constant need and that free peasant soldiers living in the theme (district) they were defending would be the most effective and efficient force. He installed the system first in Anatolia, and his successors spread it throughout the empire for the next two centuries. Heraclius' scheme provided sound administration and effective defense for half of the cost formerly required. As long as the theme system with its self-supporting, land-owning, free peasantry endured, Byzantium remained strong. When the theme system and its free peasantry were abandoned in the eleventh century, the empire became weak and vulnerable.
Heraclius fought history's first holy war to reclaim Jerusalem from the Persians. By 626 he stood poised to strike the final blow and refused to be distracted by the Avar siege of Constantinople. He defeated the Persians at Nineva, marched on to Ctesiphon, and finally reclaimed the "True Cross" and returned it to Jerusalem in 630.
Heraclius was unable to savor his victory for long, because the Muslim advance posed an even greater threat to Byzantium. The Muslims took Syria and Palestine at the battle of Yarmuk in 636. Persia fell the following year, and Egypt in 640. Constantinople's walls and the redefined Byzantine state withstood the challenge, enduring two sieges in 674-678 and in 717. When Byzantium faced a three-sided invasion from the Arabs, Avars, and Bulgarians in 717, the powerful leader Leo the Isaurian (717-741) came forward to save the empire. The Byzantines triumphed by using new techniques such as Greek fire, a sort of medieval equivalent of napalm. The substance, a powerful chemical mixture whose main ingredient was saltpeter, caught fire on contact with water and stuck to the hulls of the Arabs' wooden ships. Over the next ten years, Leo rebuilt those areas ruined by war and strengthened the theme system. He reformed the law, limiting capital punishment to crimes involving treason. He decreed the use of mutilation for a wide range of common crimes, a harsh but still less extreme punishment than execution.
From the beginning, the Byzantine emperors played active roles in the calling of church councils and the formation of Christian doctrine. Leo the Isaurian took seriously his role as religious leader of the empire. He vigorously persecuted heretics and Jews, ordering that the latter must be baptized. In 726 he launched a theological crusade against the use of icons, images or representations of Christ and other religious figures. The emperor was concerned that icons played too prominent a role in Byzantine life and that their common use as godparents, witnesses at weddings, and objects of adoration violated the Old Testament prohibition of the worship of graven images. Accordingly, the emperor ordered the army to destroy icons. This image-breaking, or iconoclastic, policy sparked a violent reaction in the western part of the empire, especially in the monasteries. The government responded by mercilessly persecuting those opposed to the policy. The eastern part of the empire, centered at Anatolia, supported the breaking of the images. By trying to remove what he considered an abuse, Leo split his empire in two.
In Byzantium's single-centered society, this religious conflict had far-reaching cultural, political, and social implications. In 731 Pope Gregory II condemned iconoclasm. Leo's decision to destroy icons stressed the fracture lines that had existed between east and west for the past four centuries, expressed in the linguistic differences between the Latin west and the Greek east. Leo's successors continued his religious and political policies, and in 754 Pope Stephen II turned to the north and struck an alliance with the Frankish king Pepin. This was the first step in a process that half a century later would lead to the birth of the Holy Roman Empire and the formal political split of Europe into the east and west.
There was a brief attempt under the regent, later empress, Irene (797-802), in 787, to restore icons. In 797 she gained power after having her son - the rightful but incompetent heir - blinded in the very room in which she had given him birth. Irene then became the first woman to rule the empire in her own name. She could neither win widespread support for her pro-icon policies, nor could she put together a marriage alliance with the newly proclaimed western emperor Charlemagne, a union which would have brought east and west together. As Irene spent the treasury into bankruptcy, her enemies increased. Finally in 802, they deposed her and exiled her to the island of Lesbos.
The conflict over iconoclasm and Irene's ineptitude placed the empire in jeopardy once again. Her successor, Nicepherous (802-811), after struggling to restore the bases of Byzantine power, was captured in battle with the Bulgarians in 811. The Khan Krum beheaded him and had his skull made into a drinking mug. Soon the iconoclasts made a comeback, but this phase of image-breaking lacked the vigor of the first, and by 842 the policy had been abandoned.
The iconoclastic controversy marked a period when the split between east and west became final. Eastern emperors were strongly impressed by Islamic culture, with its prohibition of images. The emperor Theophilus (829-842), for example, was a student of Muslim art and culture, and Constantinople's painting, architecture, and universities benefited from the vigor of Islamic culture. This focus on the east may have led to the final split with the west, but it also produced an eastern state with its theological house finally in order and its borders fairly secure by the middle of the ninth century.
For two centuries, roughly coinciding with the reign of the Macedonian dynasty (867-1056), Byzantium enjoyed political and cultural superiority over its western and eastern foes. Western Europe staggered under the blows dealt by the Saracens, Vikings, and Magyars. The Arabs lost the momentum that had carried them forward for two centuries. Constantinople enjoyed the relative calm, wealth, and balance bequeathed by the theme system and promoted by a series of powerful rulers. The time was marked by the flowering of artists, scholars, and theologians as much as it was by the presence of great warriors. It was during this golden age that Constantinople made its major contributions to Eastern Europe and Russia.
Missionaries from Constantinople set out in the 860s to convert the Bulgarian and Slavic peoples and in the process organized their language, laws, esthetics, political patterns, and ethics, as well as their religion. But such transformation did not take place without struggle. Conflict marked the relationship between the Roman and Byzantine churches. The most significant indication of this competition was seen in the contest between the patriarch Photius and Pope Nicholas I in the middle of the ninth century.
Photius excelled both as a scholar and religious leader. He made impressive contributions to universities throughout the Byzantine empire and worked to increase the area of Orthodoxy's influence. Nicholas was his equal in ambition, ego, and intellect. They collided in their attempts to convert the pagan peoples such as the Bulgarians, who were caught between their spheres of influence.
The Bulgarian Khan Boris, as cunning and shrewd as either Photius or Nicholas, saw the trend toward conversion to Christianity that had been developing in Europe since the sixth century and realized the increased power he could gain by the heavenly approval of his rule. He wanted his own patriarch and church and dealt with the side that gave him the better bargain. Between 864 and 866 Boris changed his mind three times over the issue of which holy city to turn to. Finally, the Byzantines gave the Bulgarians the equivalent of an autonomous church, and in return the Bulgarians entered the Byzantine cultural orbit. The resulting schism between the churches set off a sputtering sequence of Christian warfare that went on for centuries.
The work of the Byzantine missionaries Cyril and Methodius was more important than Bulgarian ambitions or churchly competition. The two, who were brothers, were natives of Thessalonica, a city at the mouth of the Vardar-Morava waterway that gave access to the Slavic lands. They learned the Slavic language and led a mission to Moravia, which was ruled by King Rastislav. The king no doubt wanted to convert to Orthodoxy and enter the Byzantine orbit in order to preserve as much independence for his land as he could in the face of pressure from his powerful German neighbors. Cyril and Methodius went north, teaching their faith in the vernacular Slavic language. Cyril devised an alphabet for the Slavs, adapting Greek letters. The two brothers translated the liturgy and many religious books into Slavic. Although Germanic missionaries eventually converted the Moravians by sheer force, the efforts of Cyril and Methodius profoundly affected all the Slavic peoples, whose languages are rooted in the work of the two brothers.
Byzantium continued its military as well as its theological intensity. Arab armies made continual thrusts, including one at Thessalonica in 904 that led to the Byzantine loss of 22,000 people through death or slavery. But during the tenth century the combination of the decline in Muslim combativeness and the solidarity of Byzantine defenses brought an end to that conflict. Basil II (963-1025), surnamed Bulgaroctonus, or Bulgar-slayer, stopped the Bulgarians at the battle of Balathista in 1014. At the same time, the Macedonian emperors dealt from a position of strength with western European powers, especially in Italy, where their interests clashed. Western diplomats visiting the Byzantine court expressed outrage at the benign contempt with which the eastern emperors treated them, but this conduct merely reflected Constantinople's understanding of its role in the world.
By the eleventh century, succession to the Byzantine throne had degenerated into a power struggle between the civil and military aristocracies. On the other hand, the secular and theological universities flourished despite the political instability, and the emperors proved to be generous patrons of the arts. Basil I (867-886) and Leo VI (886-912) oversaw the collection and reform of the law codes. Leo, the most prolific lawgiver since Justinian, sponsored the greatest collection of laws of the medieval Byzantine empire, a work that would affect jurisprudence throughout Europe. Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (912-959) excelled as a military leader, lover of books, promoter of an encyclopedia, and surveyor of the empire's provinces. At a time when scholarship in western Europe was almost nonexistent, Byzantine society featured a rich cultural life and widespread literacy among men and women of different classes.
The greatest contribution to Western civilization made during the golden age was the preservation of ancient learning, especially in the areas of law, Greek science, Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, and Greek literature. Unlike in the West where the church maintained scholarship, the civil servants of Constantinople perpetuated the Greek tradition in philosophy, literature, and science. Byzantine monasteries produced many saints and mystics but showed little interest in learning and teaching.
As long as Constantinople strengthened the foundations laid by Heraclius - the theme system and reliance on the free peasant-soldier - the empire withstood the military attacks of the strongest armies. When the Byzantine leaders abandoned the pillars of their success, the empire began to falter.
Inflation and narrow ambition ate away at the Heraclian structure. Too much money chased too few goods during the golden age. Land came to be the most profitable investment for the rich, and the landowning magnates needed labor. As prices went up, taxes followed. The peasant villages were collectively responsible for paying taxes, and the rising tax burden overwhelmed them. In many parts of the empire, villagers sought relief by placing themselves under the control of large landowners, thus taking themselves out of the tax pool and lowering the number of peasant-soldiers. Both the state treasury and the army suffered. Until the time of Basil II, the Macedonian emperors tried to protect the peasantry through legislation, but the problem was not corrected. Even though the free peasantry never entirely disappeared and each free person was still theoretically a citizen of the empire, economic and social pressures effectively destroyed the theme system. Exacerbating the problem was the growth of the church's holdings and the large percentage of the population entering church service, thus becoming exempt from taxation.
In the fifty years after the death of Basil II in 1025, the illusion that eternal peace had been achieved encouraged the opportunistic civil aristocracy, which controlled the state, to weaken the army and ignore the provinces. When danger next appeared, no strong leader emerged to save Byzantium. Perhaps this was because no enemies appeared dramatically before the walls of Constantinople.
Instead, a new foe arose, moving haphazardly across the empire. Around the sixth century, the first in a series of waves of Turkish bands appeared in southwest Asia. These nomads converted to Islam and fought with, then against, the Persians, Byzantines, and Arabs. When the Seljuk Turk leader Alp Arslan ("Victorious Lion") made a tentative probe into the empire's eastern perimeter near Lake Van in 1071, the multilingual mercenary army from Constantinople fell apart even before fighting began at the battle of Manzikert. With the disintegration of the army, the only limit to the Turks' march for the next decade was the extent of their own ambition and energy.
Byzantium lost the heart of its empire, and with it the reserves of soldiers, leaders, taxes, and food that had enabled it to survive for the past four centuries. From its weakened position, the empire confronted Venice, a powerful commercial and later political rival. By the end of the eleventh century, the Venetians took undisputed trading supremacy in the Adriatic Sea and turned their attention to the eastern Mediterranean. The Byzantines also faced the challenges of the Normans, led by Robert Guiscard, who took the last Byzantine stronghold in Italy.
In 1081 the Comnenian family claimed the Byzantine throne. In an earlier time, with the empire in its strength this politically astute family might have accomplished great things. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, though, the best they could do was play a balance-of-power game between east and west. Fifteen years later, in 1096, the first crusaders appeared, partially in response to the Council of Clermont, partially in response to the opportunity for gold and glory. Alexium Comnenus (1081-1118) had appealed to Pope Urban II for help against the Turks, but the emperor had not bargained on finding a host of crusaders, including the dreaded Normans, on his doorstep. Alexius sent them quickly across the Dardanelles where they won some battles and permitted the Byzantines to reclaim some of their losses in Asia Minor.
Subsequent crusades, however, failed to bring good relations between east and west, whose churches had excommunicated each other in 1054. By the time of the Fourth Crusade, the combination of envy, hatred, and frustration that had been building up for some time led to an atrocity. The Venetians controlled the ships and money for this crusade and persuaded the fighters to attack the Christian city of Zara in Dalmatia - a commercial rival of Venice - and Constantinople before going on to the Holy Land. Venice wanted a trade monopoly in the eastern Mediterranean more than a fight with the Muslims. Constantinople was paralyzed by factional strife, and for the first time, an invading force captured the city and devastated it far more than the Turks would 250 years later. A French noble described the scene:
The Venetians made sure they got their share of the spoils, such as the bronze horses now found at St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, and played a key role in placing a new emperor on the throne. The invaders ruled Constantinople until 1261. The Venetians put a stranglehold on commerce in the region and then turned their hostility toward the Genoese, who threatened their monopoly.
The Paleologus Dynasty (1261-1453), which ruled the empire during its final two centuries, saw the formerly glorious realm become a pawn in a new game. Greeks may have regained control of the church and the state, but there was little strength left to carry on the ancient traditions. The free peasant became ever rarer, as a form of feudalism developed in which nobles resisted the authority of the emperor and the imperial bureaucracy. The solidus, the Byzantine coin which had resisted debasement from the fourth through the eleventh century, now fell victim to inflation. The church, once a major support for the state, became embroiled in continual doctrinal disputes. Slavic peoples such as the Serbs, who had posed no danger to the empire in its former strength became threats. After the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century destroyed the exhausted Seljuq Turks, a new, more formidable threat appeared - the Ottoman, or Osmanli, Turks.
Blessed after 1296 with a strong line of male successors and good fortune, the Ottomans rapidly expanded their power through the Balkans. They crossed the Straits into Europe in 1354 and moved up the Vardar-Morava valleys to take Serres (1383), Sofia (1385), Nish (1386), Thessalonica (1387), and finally Kossovo from the South Slavs in 1389. The Turks won their victories by virtue of their overwhelming superiority in both infantry and cavalry. But their administrative effectiveness, which combined strength and flexibility, solidified their rule in areas they conquered. In contrast to the Christians, both Roman and Byzantine, who were intolerant of religious differences, the Turks allowed monotheists, or any of the believers in a "religion of the book" (the Bible, Torah, or Koran), to retain their faith and be ruled by a religious superior through the millet system, a network of religious ghettoes.
In response to the Ottoman advance, the west mounted a poorly conceived and ill-fated crusade against the Turks at Nicopolis on the Danube in 1396 that led to the capture and slaughter of 10,000 knights and their attendants. Only the overwhelming force of Tamerlane (Timur the Lame), a Turko-Mongol ruler who devastated the Ottoman army in 1402, gave Constantinople and Europe some breathing space.
The end came finally in May 1453. The last emperor, Constantine XI, led his forces of 9,000, half of whom were Genoese, to hold off the 160,000 Turks for seven weeks. Finally, the Ottomans, with the help of Hungarian artillerymen, breached the walls of the beleaguered city. After 1123 years, the Christian capital fell.