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Sunday, 25 September 2016

World History: Byzantine Empire

A mosaic in the Hagia Sophia
Last time on World History we spoke about the origin of Islam, and how it managed to spread thanks to the weakness of the Byzantine Empire (as well as the Sassanid Empire). Please see here. Quite often the Byzantine Empire is mentioned in history but very rarely do any world history books or series focus on this empire. Born through a desire to better handle the larger Roman Empire the Byzantines lasted until either 1453 or 1461, (which we'll get onto later). First though we have to see how this empire came into being.

By 284 Rome was just too big to administer effectively. Covering most of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa the empire was just too big for it to be stably ruled from Rome. As a result various civil wars took place as powerful regional generals vied for the title of emperor. After one such civil war the general Diocletian took power and in 284 divided the empire. His ally Maximian would rule the west, (Italy, France, Britain, Iberia and most of North Africa), while he placed himself in charge of the east, (the Balkans, Greece, Egypt and Turkey). Each half of the empire would work with one another but, each emperor would have their own courts and could make their own decisions. However, there would be attempts to bring together the two halves of the empire. In 312 Constantine managed to defeat his enemy Maxentius outside Rome which he then used to declare tolerance for all Christians, and was baptized into Christianity, (he attributed his victory to help from the Christian God). Although he united the two halves of the empire he spent most of his time in the east from a new city. This new city was built on the Greek colony of Byzantium and soon was named after Constantine, Constantinople, (modern day Istanbul). Under his rule he started supporting Christians by reinstating ones who had been dismissed from the eastern army or government, banned pagan sacrifices, and banned any pagan rituals which went against Christian chastity such as sacred prostitutes or religious orgies. In 363 the last pagan emperor, Julian, died when trying to fight the Persians.

Later emperor Theodosius I (r.379-395) made Christianity the main religion of both the west and the east. He would later in 391 close all pagan temples solidifying Christianity in the empire. However, following Theodosius's death the east/west divide became a permanent one. The east had started to outstrip the west with it facing far fewer 'barbarian' invasions, (although it too would be invaded having to rely on the west to fight the Huns), getting loot from fighting the Persians, and benefiting from a better administration. In 476 Odoacer deposed the western emperor Romulus Augustulus with the east not lifting a finger to stop them. Although Rome had collapsed in the west it lived on in the east with a new empire: the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantine Culture and Administration
Despite the capital of Constantinople not being in Italy the Byzantines saw themselves as Romans. Although everyone spoke Greek Latin was the official language and many people referred to themselves as being Roman, not Greek or Byzantine. Often you will see the Byzantines called the Eastern Roman Empire as a result. From this we get the merging of Greek and Roman ideas; the term 'Greco-Roman' is very applicable here. As a result both the Byzantine court and culture came off as appearing Rome with Hellenistic themes, something which Edward Gibbon was highly critical of in his book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon and many later historians often paint the Byzantine court and world as being eastern influenced, debauched, hedonistic, corrupt, and full of scheming power-hungry empresses. Out of all these accusations only the eastern influenced is true and in itself is not a bad thing. Edward Said's criticism of orientalism can be applied here, although his theory best applies to the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia. Said says that western historians who knew little on eastern cultures assumed western culture was better so then painted eastern cultures in a negative light. This is not the case and the Byzantine Empire is evidence for this.

The Byzantine tax system was extremely efficient so it managed to collect taxes from its subjects which the western empire failed to do. Similarly, the Byzantines managed to effectively administer its land which allowed it to keep the empire stable. Not only that but Constantinople's location straddling the Bosporus Strait allowed the capital to receive goods from both the Mediterranean and the Black Sea as well as the proximity to the Silk Road trade routes allowing goods to be traded from Asia making the empire very wealthy. We can even see this wealth in the foods, (shown in mosaics), that they ate with honey being a big component in their diet. The Byzantines also restored Greek philosophy, (something which the Romans looked down upon as it was something created by a conquered people), with even the emperor taking part in philosophical and theological discourse. (It should be noted that the general masses rarely took part in these debates). We shall get onto this later but the Council of Chalcedon happened in the empire for this reason. Science also prospered under the Byzantines but it was set back by Emperor Justinian closing Plato's Academy of Athens in 529. Although the Byzantines did not contribute as much to science as the predecessors they were responsible for the preservation of the knowledge which was later picked up by Muslims who expanded on the knowledge, and later helped Europeans explore this knowledge during the Renaissance.

Justinian and Theodora
Justinian and Theodora
One of the best known of the Byzantine rulers are Justinian and Theodora. His legacy is such great that he is depicted in Dante's Divine Comedy sitting in Heaven where he is shown as being the defender of Christianity to only confess that he did it through glory, not God. In 525 Justinian and Theodora wed, both from poor or peasant backgrounds, and two years later Justinian became emperor of the Byzantines. Justinian was a native Latin speaker which ended a tradition that Greek speakers became emperors. Justinian is best remembered for his conquests with his general Balisarius managing to conquer African from the Vandals in a campaign lasting from 533-534. However, his better known conquest is that of Italy where after twenty years of fighting in 554 he managed to expel the Ostrogoths from Italy. Finally the Roman empire had been united. However, his rule was not fully secure. In 532 riots between political factions at a Hippodrome race, (called the Nika riots with nika meaning 'Win' or 'Conquer'), almost overthrowing his rule. Each faction supported opposing teams and eventually a riot broke out causing widespread fires as well as the palace being placed under siege. Justinian's political opponents disliking his taxes and legal codes chose to use this by calling for Justinian to step down, even crowning a new emperor Hypatius. He would have done this if not for Theodora who convinced him to stay saying: Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress. Justinian managed to get one faction to support him and crushed the riots. In 541 there was also an outbreak of the bubonic plague killing up to 25 million worldwide. Justinian even contracted the plague but survived.

Justinian's reign saw the revision of Roman law, the Corpus Juris Civilis, which would be spread to Italy and later western Europe. It is considered one of the founding documents of western legal tradition. He also passed many laws protecting women such as protecting prostitutes from exploitation and preventing women from being forced into prostitution, widows could have their dowry returned, women prisoners became guarded by women, and rapists got severe punishments. The secrets of Chinese silk also came to the Byzantines in the 550s when monks managed to bring silk worm eggs from China. Christianity also became more entrenched in society with there being mass church building including that of the Hagia Sophia. Although he did was very harsh against non-Christians having 70,000 pagans converted in Asia Minor, having civil rights for Jews reduced, intervening in synagogue affairs, and closing down Plato's school as he saw it as being pagan. After his death in 565 the empire he had built started to decline. Constant wars against the Sassanids of Persia had almost bankrupted the country, and he was finding it difficult to put in place the Greco-Roman laws onto Italy. Just three years after his death almost all of Italy was conquered by the Lombards. He managed to cripple the empire so it became easier later for the Muslim empires to dismantle it.

The Hagia Sophia: first a church, then a mosque and now a museum
Byzantium for centuries was the dominant Christian power but it was also the sight of Christianity's first major division, (another would come in the form of the Protestant Reformation). First quite a while Christianity was united under the influence of Constantinople. Initially Christianity was ruled by five patriarchs, each in the major Christian cities of the world: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. Later, in 451 the Council of Chalcedon was held to determine power in the church. It was here that the patriarch of Rome would be the highest authority in Christianity while the patriarch of Constantinople would be the second highest. The emperor of the Byzantines, however, was the protector of the eastern church and, would preside over ecumenical councils and choose the patriarch. As a result emperors, like Justinian, built churches, like the Hagia Sophia, for the church. However, by 1054 theological differences had started to rise between the Latin and Greek churches. These included whether unleavened or leavened bread should be used during the Eucharist, the source of the Holy Spirit, and power in the church. In 1053 churches conforming to eastern tradition in Italy either had conform to the Latin traditions or be closed down causing the patriarch to close down Latin churches. The following years relations broke down with the pope excommunicating the patriarch and the patriarch excommunicating the pope. Thus the Great Schism happened between Catholicism and Orthodoxy and since they have not reconciled.

1204 Siege of Constantinople
Despite the successes of the Macedonian dynasty (867-1057) the Byzantines started to decline. Still weakened thanks the Justinian's campaigns in the 630s the first caliphate started to conquer Byzantine provinces in the Levant, (please see here). Not only that but the wealth of the Byzantines had started to become eclipsed by the new wealth of the Italian republics of Venice and Amalfi. As these republics started cutting into world trade the Byzantines started to lose the importance that they once had. Making matters worse the Great Schism caused many kingdoms loyal to the Latin church to stop trading with the Byzantines. Eventually the Seljuk Turkish empire started expanding into Byzantine lands in Anatolia where the emperor himself was defeated in 1071 at the Battle of Manzikert. Eventually the emperor begged Pope Urban II for aid starting the First Crusade (something for a later World History post). The crusaders had to retake Byzantine lands from the Seljuks, but, they only returned the Anatolian provinces; instead they built kingdoms for themselves in Antioch, Edessa and the Holy Land. In 1204 during the Fourth Crusade crusaders sacked Constantinople, much of what was looted now is in Venice. This caused the remnants of the empire to crumble into three successor states: Nicaea, Epirus and Trebizond. However, historians consider Nicaea the true successor as it managed to reconquer Constantinople. The Seljuks eventually fell to the invading Mongols but the vacuum they left did not allow a resurgent Byzantium. Instead a ghazi or raider state led by Osman grew in Anatolia eventually forming the Ottoman Empire. This empire grew and grew until in 1453 it managed to conquer Constantinople. Many consider this the fall of the empire but one other successor state, Trebizond, existed in northern Anatolia. This fell in 1461 ending the Byzantines.

Although the fall of Constantinople and Trebizond spelled the end for the Byzantines it did spell the end for Rome. Although there would be no other Latin empire the idea of Rome never left Europe. In the north west since the tenth century there had been the Holy Roman Empire in Germany although it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. However, after 1453 a growing power whose ruler married the niece of the Byzantine emperor started styling itself as the Third Rome. Being Orthodox and with the ruler married to the old emperor's niece it tried to appear to the new Rome. Even the ruler's title is Caesar in their language. We are talking about Russia. We also have to notice the links between the fall of the western and eastern Roman empires: both suffered through overextension and land loss before being overshadowed by a new empire to their east. The Ottoman Empire would remain and constant power in Europe, Africa and Asia until 1922. Just like the Byzantines it lasted a very long time. Next World History will take us away from the Mediterranean, which we've focused a lot on the last two posts, to go to the other side of the world to Mexico where we will look at the Mayans.

The sources I have used are as follows:
-A History of the Byzantine State and Society by Warren Treadgold
-The Penguin History of the World by John Roberts
-The Times History of the World edited by Richard Overy

For a list of other World History posts please see here

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