The greatest of medieval civilizations was the Eastern Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was divided in 395. The Western half, ruled from Rome, was ruled by the barbarians in the 5th century. The Eastern half, known as the Byzantine Empire, lasted for more than over 1,000 years. The Byzantine Empire was one of the leading civilizations in the world.
In 324, Constantine, the first Christian emperor, became the single ruler of the Roman Empire. He set up his Eastern headquarters at the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium in 330. This city, later renamed Constantinople, was also known as “new Rome.” It became the capital of the Byzantines after the Roman Empire was divided.
Constantinople was located on the European shore of the Bosporus, between the Aegean and Black seas, in what is now the countryside of Turkey. The city brought together people from Europe and Asia. During the ten and a half centuries that the Byzantine Empire lasted, its boundaries continually changed. The territory that made up the empire in 565 included Italy, Sicily, North Africa, southern Spain and Syria. At its largest during 1000, the Byzantine Empire included Greece, Italy, Egypt, Syria, North Africa, and southern Spain.
The first era of Byzantine civilization lasted from about 324 to 640. During this time, the separate identity of the empire was established. The first great period of the Byzantines occurred during the reign of Justinian I, who took the throne in 527. Justinian had reconquered much of the territory that had fallen into barbarian hands. He also built Constantinople into one of the most magnificent cities of the world. There was much conflict during the first years of the Byzantine empire. Barbarian people, eager for land and power, pushed at its boundaries during the 5th century. At first, the Byzantines attempted to form an uneasy peace with the barbarians who surrounded them.
Justinian I became emperor in 527, and ruled until 565. Empress Theodora, his wife, ruled with him until her death in 548. Justinian built Constantinople into a glorious city of domed churches, palaces, and public arenas. By the end of his reign, the city was surrounded by a 12 mile border of walls. Inside, spacious streets were lined with buildings of marble and alabaster. Goods from around the world filled the shops: silk, purple cloth, and gold from Greece; spices, drugs, and precious stones from India.
The greatest of the public buildings was the Hippodrome, an arena that could seat over 40,000 people. Byzantines gathered there to sit and watch chariot races, jugglers, circus acts, and fights between wild animals. In a city of churches, the most magnificent was St. Sophia Cathedral. Also known as Hagia Sophia, or the church of Holy Wisdom. It was completed by Justinian in 537. It is an enormous building, shaped like across, with a dome reaching 180 feet from the ground. It has a beautiful interior of colored marble, gold, silver, and mosaics.
Justinian contributed more then just a wonderful city. He is also known for the Justinian Code, a collection of Roman laws from the time of the 2nd century. This code was composed in 529. The code listed all valid edicts of the time and set the legal basis for the absolute and God-given authority of an emperor over his subjects. These laws had an impact on France, Germany, Italy, Russian, and Serbia.
Trade thrived during Justinians reign, and Byzantine art and architecture flourished. But the empires funds were used up by the high cost of the wars and improvements that took place under Justinian. As a result, the empire was bankrupt when he died in 565.
The period from about 641 and 1025 is considered to be the golden age of the Byzantine Empire. Advances in military strength, religious influence, and the arts made the Byzantines one of the most powerful forces in the world of the Middle Ages.
Byzantine art if the Eastern Christian art that flourished during the time of the Byzantine Empire. In the West, Byzantine art is known for domed churches with magnificent interiors that feature a variety of highly crafted religious images. Byzantine artists used many costly materials, such as gold, silver, and lapis lazuli, to create colorful murals. Many Byzantine works of art were produced to serve the Eastern Orthodox Church. Churches are almost all that survive of Byzantine architecture. Byzantine churches were built mainly of stone, brick, and mortar. The most well known church is the Hagia Sophia. Magnificent frescoes and mosaics decorated the interiors of Byzantine Churches.
Other strengths of the Byzantine empire included a strong central government and successful economy. When much of the Mediterranean world was conquered by the Arabs, the Byzantines still managed to hold onto their mainland in the Balkans and in Asia Minor. Peasants in the empire worked hard maintaining the land, paying taxes, and providing soldiers for the military. Throughout the cities in the empire, industry and trade thrived. As Western Europe changed into a barter economy, the Byzantine empire managed to control a money economy.
Weaknesses in the Byzantine empire concluded in the loss of territory. Throughout the Golden Age territories in the empire continued to change. Lands were lost to Islam in North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Arab forces troubled Constantinople in 674 and again in 717. Slavs and Buglars threatened Byzantine lands in the Balkans. However, Byzantine leaders still managed to protect their empire. Other events that occurred during the reign of Justinian I were anti-government riots that destroyed much of the city. Also invasions from the east protected the rest of west Europe. Other fightings during Justinian times weakened defense.
Christianity was as powerful in the Byzantine Empire as it was in the Western Europe. Throughout time differences grew between the Eastern Orthodox Church (Byzantine Christians) and the Roman Catholic Church to the west.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church a patriarch, or highest Church official, was chosen by the emperor. The Eastern Orthodox Church retained the right for clergy to marry. Greek was the official language of the church. Easter, the day Jesus rose from the dead, was the chief Byzantine holy day. Byzantine Christians rejected the popes claim to authority over all Christians. In matters of faith a council representing all bishops must make decisions. The Eastern Orthodox Churchs creed states that the Holy Spirit proceeds “From the Father.” The rules of fasting differed between the two churches. Leavened bread was used as the Eucharist in the Eastern church.
In the Roman Catholic Church the pope was the leader of the church. The clergy was not allowed to marry. The official language of the church was Latin. Christmas, the day Jesus was born, was the chief holy day. The Pope claimed to of had powers over the East and West churches. The wording of the creed changed to “From the Father and the Son.” Unleavened bread was served as the Eucharist. After 1204, the church went into a period of Scholasticism, which was studying the Christian doctrine in terms of philosophy.
During the Middle Ages these two branches of Christianity drifted apart. A fight over the use of icons leaded to the split. Many Byzantine Christians prayed to images such as Christ, the Virgin Mary, and many saints. In 700, a Byzantine emperor prohibited the worship of icons. It was said that praying to the icons broke the commandment against worshiping “graven objects.” This violation set off violent disputes in the empire. As a result the pope excommunicate the emperor. This conflict left great hatred towards the pope.
In 1054 a permanent split between the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church took place. Both the pope and patriarch excommunicated each other. After this the two different churches treated each other as rivals.
After Justinians death, barbarians attacked the empire on all fronts. Lombards from Germany took over parts of Italy, and Slavs and Avars invaded the Balkan Peninsula. Persian invasions weakened the empire during the late 500s and early 600s. Heraclius, who became ruler in 610, stopped the collapse by defeating the Persians.
The new enemy attacked the weakened empire in 634, when Muslim Arabs invaded its Middle Eastern territory. By 642, the Arabs had conquered Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. By the early 700s, the empire consisted only of Asia Minor, the Balkan coast, Crete and other Greek islands, southern Italy, and Sicily. In the 700s and early 800s, Byzantine emperors tried to end the worship of images of Jesus Christ and the saints. Churches in the western part of the empire opposed this action. This dispute almost split the empire.
During the 800s, the empire began to expand again. Byzantine armies drove the Arabs back on several fronts. From 867 to 1025, under Emperor Basil I and his descendants, the empire achieved another major period of success. Basil began work on a new code of laws. Leo VI, who came to power in 886, completed the code and encourages artists and scholars. Constantine the VII, who ruled from 913-959, continued to encourage the arts. Basil II, who became emperor in 976, regained territory in eastern Asia Minor and reconquered Bulgaria. Trade grew in addition to this expansion and the empire thrived.
The era from about 1025 to 1453 was the decline of the Byzantine Empire. Loss of territory and defeats by the crusaders were setbacks that the empire could not recover from. By 1071, the Normans had taken southern Italy. That same year, in Asia Minor, the Seljuk Turks defeated a Byzantine army in the Battle of Manzikert. This defeat began the decline of Byzantine control of Asia Minor. Emperor Alexius Comnenus, who came to power in 1081, asked the Christians of Western Europe to help defend the empire against the Turks. The Turks had invaded the Holy Land in addition to the Byzantine Empire. The military expeditions of the Christians against the invaders of the holy Land became known as the Crusades. During the first Crusade, from 1096 to 1099, crusaders regained the coastal regions of the Holy Land.
Later crusades resulted in increased tensions between the Byzantines and the West European Christians. In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, religious hatred played a key role in the capture of Constantinople by Western forces. This conquest occurred partly because merchants from the Italian city of Venice wanted to gain control over trade in the Middle East. The Venetians and the crusaders established a new empire and kept the government in Constantinople.
Members of the court of the defeated Byzantines established bases in Asia Minor. The Byzantines recaptured Constantinople in 1261. But Ottoman Turks soon invaded Asia Minor, and the Serbs advanced in the Balkans. Civil wars also weakened the empire.
By the late 1300s, Constantinople and part of Greece were all that remained of the empire. The empire ended in 1453, when Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople. They last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, died while defending the city.
For centuries, the Byzantines were the most powerful and influential people in Europe and the Middle East. Their contributions to the world were many. Scholars preserved the literature of Rome and Greece through the darkest centuries of the Middle Ages. Statesmen developed pioneering legal codes, which were used as a basis for imperial monarchies for more than 1,000 years. Artists created a distinctive style of mosaic work, painting, and domed architecture, which influenced the cultures of Greece, Italy, Spain, and Russia. The Byzantine state religion, the Eastern Orthodox Christianity, became dominant in the Balkan and Russian kingdoms as well as in Greece.
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