The Byzantine Empire, a Christian kingdom of a thousand years

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

One of the most enduring and fascinating empires in history, The Byzantine Empire appeared when Diocletian took the decision to split the Roman Empire in two parts. The decision was a practical one as the decaying Roman Empire was under siege by numerous barbarian tribes and the kingdom was too vast to manage from Rome. Since it stretched from the Middle East to Britain and North Africa, it literally took months for a ship to travel from one side to another, the effort of relocating armies being even greater.
Diocletian is known as a persecutor of Christians, but in the year 330 AD, when he created the East Roman Empire, Christianity was already a mass phenomenon spread among slaves and soldiers, especially in this Oriental part where it had its origins.

But his successor, Constantine the Great, is considered the real founder of the Byzantine Empire, after making Christianity legal throughout the empire and moving the capital to a city that he created and born his name: Constantinople. Later called Istanbul by the Turks, Constantinople was founded on the place of a Greek colony named Byzantium, thus the name of the Empire. But the name Byzantine Empire is a late creation of Enlightenment writers. The Byzantines themselves called their kingdom Romania and considered themselves the real successors of Rome. Latin was spoken in the beginning as official language, but the rulers themselves took Greek as their language after a generation.

The Romans had a profound admiration for the Greek culture. Though they despised the Greek army and considered them frail and effeminate, the Romans borrowed the Greek pantheon and turned it into their religion and were constantly imitating the Greeks in literature, politics, philosophy, sculpture and the rest of arts. Also, for the audacious Roman emperors, Alexander the Great, the Macedonian, was the model of military leader. Thus, the Byzantine Empire represents the high point of Greco-Roman fusion. The West side of the Roman Empire not only disappeared as a state in the 5th century, but the entire society degraded, conquered by barbarian tribes both spiritually and physically. While for the West the Dark Ages were to come, the East survived and flourished for more than a thousand years.

Our civilization owes to the Byzantine empire the survival of ancient Greek and oriental thought. For instance, the West Europeans will rediscover Plato and Aristotle in the Middle Ages when scholars translated Arab versions of their works that were known by Islamic sages from Byzantine sources. It’s impossible to think of the great period of Renaissance without the ideas and the learned men that migrated from Constantinople after the Ottoman conquest.

More important than that, the Byzantines used their knowledge of ancient philosophy to create a sophisticated Christian theology and their linguistic experience to transmit an accurate dogma. The dogmatic disputes were central to the development of Byzantine Empire, often being accompanied by political interests. The Byzantines created the concept of symphony, a way of harmonizing religion with political power: rulers acted as autocrats and controlled the Church, but were also often criticized by patriarchs, as interpreters of the Holy Word. It is less known that there were more Byzantine emperors excommunicated by the Patriarch of Constantinople than kings that received the same punishment from the Pope in Rome.

Heresies were a key issue that gave force to political disputes, as was the case with Arianism or the Monophysite dispute. The emperors themselves called for ecumenical councils to settle these, where wisest theologians from East and West took part. This was the case with the councils in Nicaea (Iznik, Turkey, today) and Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey, today), where the Christian Creed was elaborated.

But the most important dispute in the Byzantine world was that between iconoclasm and the defenders of icons. The two sides took power in turns, sometimes with iconoclast rulers at Constantinople and their adversaries in the West. In the end, the cult of icons was forever restored in the Orthodox world, and in fact this moment is the birth date for Orthodoxy, and not the later schism with the Catholic Church, as many would think. For Orthodox Christians, icons are a crucial element of their ritual and world view. Icons are not idols of worship, as their adversaries claimed, but a theological representation of Christian dogma. The icon is a symbolic representation of the after life, it presents the ineffable element of Divinity and sanctity. For Eastern artists the theological accuracy was of paramount importance, thus they were not concerned with reproducing physical shapes as the ancients and the moderns (post-Renaissance) were. The Orthodox believers are very found of their icons as they present the impenetrable mystery of the Embodiment of Christ and the other mysteries of the Trinity.

The advance of Byzantine theology in comparison with that of West Europe has several explanations. The core explanation is that while the Old Testament is written in Aramaic, the language of the Middle East, spoken in Palestine and its surroundings at the time, The New Testament (including the four Gospels) is written entirely in Greek. While the West used the Latin translation and prohibited the translation in national languages (considered immature and vulgar) until Luther’s Reform in the 15 century, the Orthodox world did not need any translation to understand the subtleties of the Holy Text. To this was added the uninterrupted connection with Greek philosophy and the contact with the speculative and mystical doctrines of the Orient.

Music, sculpture, literature and other arts accompanied the Greco-Roman painting to form a unique culture. Sitting at maritime crossroads and on path of the silk road, Constantinople was the greatest city of its time, surpassing Rome by far. It had complicated streets and amazing buildings. Hagia Sophia is still standing as a testimony of Byzantine architecture. For a thousand years it was the greatest and most spectacular church in the world, and after it was turned into a mosque, all Muslim places of worship copied its perfect shape.
The images above are from the Byzantine Museum in Thessaloniki.

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