Chapter 6 Byzantium and the Orthodox World: Byzantium, Eastern Europe, and Russia 325-1500

The Byzantine Empire (312-1453) is also known as the Later Roman Empire or the Eastern Roman Empire.

(Whereas the fall of Rome in 500 CE marks the end the ancient world or “antiquity” (and, of course, the end of the [western] Roman Empire), the Byzantine Empire developed during the Middle Ages. In other words, the Roman Empire was part of the ancient world. The Byzantine Empire was a later development (generally speaking, technically it began before 500) and belonged, not to the ancient world, but to the subsequent period known as the Middle Ages.)

The Byzantine Empire begins with the reign of the first Christian emperor, the Roman emperor Constantine. His reign marked the beginning of a new period in the history of the Roman Empire (called the Byzantine Empire). This new period or empire is characterized by

1) The empire and its influence moves to the East (east of Europe and the Mediterranean where the Roman Empire dominated from around 1-500). This move east begins with Constantine moving the capital of the empire from Rome (Italy) to Constantinople (on the “frontier of Europe and Asia” in present-day Turkey, see Brummett page 118). Constantinople is, of course, a name that honors the emperor Constantine; the city (in present-day Turkey, but called Anatolia back then) was once a Greek colony called Byzantium (remember how the ancient Greeks colonized so much of the Mediterranean, present-day Turkey is just west of present day Greece). Later the name of this city will be changed to Istanbul (its name today) when the Byzantine Empire is conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 (hence the name Anatolia changes to Turkey).

2) Christianity and Christians play a central role in the Byzantine Empire. Whereas the several of the Roman emperors of the West persecuted the followers of this brand new religion, the emperor Constantine passed a law that required the toleration of Christians (the Edict of Milan). Constantine became the central figure in the Christian church of the East and Greek became its language. This is the Orthodox Christianity of the East (of Eastern Europe and Russia). Meanwhile in Europe in the Middle Ages Christianity spread and continued to center around Rome-- the Roman Pope and the Latin language.

However, the Byzantine Empire does retain several characteristic of the Roman Empire such as the legal and political structure and its economy and military. Even the Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantine Empire incorporated some elements of Greco-Roman culture.
While Europe was struggling though its Dark Ages (in the Middle Ages), Constantinople developed into a world trade center with a money economy, industries, and guilds. (Europe, after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century had a feudal economy based on barter not money.) Residents of Constantinople enjoyed a high standard of living (e.g. abundant food, sewage and water systems, luxury items). “The widespread literacy and education among men and women [in Constantinople]…would not be matched in Europe until 18th century Paris.” (Brummett p. 118).

Constantine is well known for founding the founding the Byzantine Empire (its religion and capital), but a high point of Byzantine power and cultural creativity came under the emperor Justinian (527-565) and his empress, Theodora. Justinian is known for building the Hagia Sophia (once a huge church, now a huge mosque, see p.121) and for producing the Code of Justinian (a published summary of Roman and church law that is the foundation of modern Western law). Empress Theodora is known for her strength and particularly her courage (unlike Justinian) in not fleeing during the Nika rebellion (an uprising of urban street gangs that almost succeeded). A later emperor, Heraclius (610-641) is best known for establishing the theme system (districts where free, land-holding peasants served as very efficient fighting forces and tax payers, both of which greatly strengthened the empire) and his use of Greek Fire in battle. Later still, Empress Irene was the first woman to rule the empire in her own name….[ultimately she was sent] into exile on the island of Lesbos.” (Bennett p. 123)

Byzantium’s Golden Age (842-1071)

During the reign of the Macedonian dynasty (and the continuation of the theme system), Constantinople enjoyed relative peace and prosperity as well as cultural and political dominance. Byzantine art, scholarship, and theology flourished during this period. Secular and theological universities developed in Constantinople, while scholarship was almost nonexistent in western Europe.

During this Golden Age Constantinople made its major contributions to eastern Europe and Russia. Missionaries from Constantinople set out to convert the Bulgarians and Slavic Peoples in the 860s and in the process organized their language, laws, aesthetics, political patterns, ethics, and religion” (Bennett p. 123.) This created conflict and competition between the Byzantine and Roman churches.

Decline and Crusades

“Around the sixth century the first in series of Turkish bands migrated from the region north of China to southwestern Asia. These nomads converted to Islam and, moving westward, fought first with and then against the Persians, the Byzantines, and the Arabs….Byzantium lost the heart of its empire, and with it the reserves of soldiers, leaders, taxes, and food that had allowed it survive for…centuries” (Bennett p. 125.) First the Seljuk Turks defeat the Byzantines, and then the Fourth Crusade takes Constantinople. Finally, the Ottoman Turks’ conquest in 1453 marks the end of the Byzantine Empire that had begun in 300 and the start of the Ottoman Empire that would last until the 20th century (World War I).


Eastern European and Russian Romes

The Slavs were generally tribal peasant societies that migrated to Eastern Europe after the German tribes. As a result of the competition of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches mentioned above, different Slavic peoples were converted to one or the other branch of Christianity. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Slovenes, and Croats became Catholic. Bulgarians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Romanians, and Russians converedt to Orthodox Christianity. Which type of Christianity a people converted to had a huge impact on their development. The textbook says that those who became Catholic (Hungary, Bohemia, Poland) enjoyed Golden Ages in the 14th century and shared in the western European developments of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the scientific revolution. The Orthodox cultures are portrayed as authoritarian and backward.

Among these states that are portrayed as authoritarian and backward but one that ultimately becomes very, very large and powerful, is Russia. (Geography is also said to play a role: vast land with small population, lack of sea access inhibited merchant class, rivers led to Byzantine culture: produce “inward looking” culture). Orthodox Christianity played a crucial role in the consolidation of Russian state. In 998 Vladimir, the most important ruler of Kiev, converted to Orthodoxy, married the sister of a Byzantine emperor, and incorporated Byzantine culture and political theory. But, in 1240, Kiev was conquered by the fierce and nomadic Mongols (united by Genghis Kahn for world conquest) which caused the decline of Kiev and the rise of Moscow (which developed internal markets and the Orthodox Church). After more than a century of domination, the Russians finally got rid of the Mongols. Ivan III (who defeated Mongols, married the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, declared Moscow the “Third Rome” and himself tsar [from the Roman “caesar”]) established the basis of the Russian national state in the late 1400s. He established diplomatic relations with the West and brought in architects and craftsmen to create the Kremlin.



Formation of a Christian Empire: 300-527

* 306-337: The Emperor Constantine
* 325: The Council of Nicea (Edict of Milan)
* 378: Battle of Adrianople
* 410: Rome is sacked by the Visigoths (German tribe)
* 354-430: St. Augustine of Hippo
* 455: Rome is sacked by the Vandals (German tribe)
* 476: Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor in the West is deposed.

The Restoration of the Roman Empire in the East: 527-1056

* 527-565: Reign of Justinian
* 532-537: Justinian builds the Church of Hagia Sophia
* 568: Lombards invade Italy
* 680: Monophysitism is declared unorthodox.
* 690s: Muslims conquer Byzantine North Africa
* c. 858-867: The Missionary Journeys of Sts. Cyril and Methodius
* 867-1056: Macedonian dynasty (Byzantine Golden Age)
* 988: Kievan Russ adopts Orthodoxy


1056-1453: Decline of the Byzantine Empire

* 1071: Seljuk Turks defeat Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert
* 1204: Constantinople falls to Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade.
* 1261: Constantinople is liberated from the Crusaders.
* 1453: Fall of Constantinople to Ottoman Turks

Byzantine history spans from the latter centuries of ancient Rome to the very beginning of the modern period. It transmited the classical culture of Greece and Rome but it also developed a unique historical and cultural character based on a synthesis of Greek, Roman, European, and Islamic elements.

Byzantine culture was crucial to the transmission of classical Greco-Roman culture. While classical studies, science, and philosophy largely disappeared in the western Europe, Byzantine education and philosophy zealously pursued these intellectual traditions. It was in Byzantium that Plato and Aristotle continued to be studied and were eventually transmitted first into the Islamic world and then back into western Europe. A basic education in Byzantium consisted of the mastery of classical Greek literature, such as Homer (largely unknown in the West during this period)—almost all of the Greek literature we have today was only preserved by the Byzantines.

Byzantine culture is important because of two lines of transmission. One of line of transmission involved the exporting of classical Greek and Roman culture into Islam. The second is the transmission of Byzantine culture and religion to Slavic peoples, especially to the Russians.

After Russian ruler Vladimir converted to Byzantine Christianity, the Slavs in Russia became a cultural inheritor of Byzantine culture, adopting the religion, theology, some social structures, and writing from the Byzantines to the south. In many ways Russian and Slavic culture is the continuance of Byzantine culture and many Byzantine cultural practices and beliefs are still practiced among Slavs today. Russian religion, art, philosophy, and even literature, such as the writings of Chekhov and Dostoevsky, show influences from Byzantine culture. The Byzantine inheritance also included the sense that Byzantine culture and practice was fundamentally different from (western) European culture and practice. This sense of Byzantine distinctiveness would also impress itself on Slavic cultures up until the present.

So close was this cultural connection, that Russians believed that they were the inheritors of the Byzantine Empire when it finally collapsed in 1453. The Russian rulers assumed the title of "Caesar," the title bestowed on Byzantine emperors—in Russian, the word is "Tsar." With the government centered in Moscow, the Russian Tsars declared Moscow to be the "third Rome," after Rome and Byzantium, and so located themselves in a cultural and historical trajectory that began with the Roman empire.