Back to History 151 Page

Terms to know:

Emperor Constantine
second Rome
Council of Nicaea
Nicene Creed
Justinian I
Empress Theodora
Code of Justinian
Hagia Sophia
Theme System
Leo the Isaurian
Emperor Nicepherous
Seljuk Turks
Alexius Comnenus
Pope Urban II
First Crusade
Fourth Crusade
Ottoman Turks

Between 307 and 456CE, from the reign of Diocletian, who divided the Roman Empire into a tetrarchy, through the reign of Romulus Augustus, the western half of the Roman Empire was gradually overrun by "barbarian" groups, and fell into what some have called chaos. In the East, though, from roughly the eastern edge of the Italian peninsula Eastwards, and including North Africa from the same spot, the Byzantine Empire continued on where the West failed.

There is little doubt that in terms of its creativity, sustainable power projection capability, and contribution to later culture, the Byzantine Empire pales in comparison to the Roman. Yet it was a product of the Roman Empire, and is sometimes referred to as the second Rome. It is important to study this empire for a number of reasons. First, the Byzantine Empire preserved and organized Roman culture and law. Second, this was the site of the development of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Last, the Byzantine Empire provided the religious and political model for the tsars of Russia.

To put all of these major contributions into perspective, we will start with the Emperor Constantine. After several minor emperors following the abdication of Diocletian, Constantine defeated his chief rival Licinius in 324 during a siege at Byzantium, a Greek colonial city-state on the western side of the Bosporus Straight, thus becoming the sole emperor of Rome. Constantine's success in battle against Licinius as well as earlier foes he had attributed to his support (though he was still a pagan himself) of the Christian God, and in 325, in appreciation for his victories, he made the practice of Christianity legal throughout the empire. He then made his new capitol at Byzantium, and renamed the city Constantinopolis (Constantinople).

In 325 CE, Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, an ecumenical council of bishops of the various Christian churches. During the course of the Council, a number of major events in the development of the institutions of Christianity and the Roman Empire took place. First, and perhaps politically most important, Constantine came to be seen as a thirteenth Apostle of Christ. (see for more on this). This made him, in a sense, the de facto leader of the Church along with the bishop of Rome, a man called Sylvester I. Sylvester was also powerful in the early Christian church because he was the inheritor of the position of Peter, the first bishop of Rome, about whom Christ had said, according to the Gospel of Matthew, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my church." This statement was taken to mean that Peter was to be the head of Christ's church on earth. Sylvester held the office that was the forerunner to the papacy.

In any case, Constantine's efforts to call the council, primarily to settle a dispute over the nature of Christ, and his willingness to spend money on putting the bishops up in Nicaea over the length of the Council, as well as his obvious interest in the controversy over Arianism made him quite popular among the bishops, who came to think of him as a leader in the church. It seems clear Constantine, looking from the political position as emperor, was hoping that Christian monotheism would create the unified ethical system he needed to construct a more unified society in his empire. This gives him an obvious interest in the Council of Nicaea, whatever his religious beliefs were (he did not himself convert to Christianity, as far as we know, until later in life, near 337 CE).

In any case, Constantine's efforts were important in the formation of Christianity. The Council of Nicaea resulted in several major organizational achievements. First, of course, was the Nicene Creed, a concise statement of the orthodox elements of the Christian Faith. Second was a set of Cannons that established Church policies as regards apostacy, heresy, and the rights of many of the members of the leadership. Together, these things constitute the first statements that create an orthodoxy within the Catholic church, and as such were a major step toward its institutionalization. Constantine's participation, and his legalization and encouragement of Christianity also made the Church a political organization with a place in the secular world. By Constantine's death, Christianity was all but the official religion of the empire.

Constantine's contribution to what was to become the Byzantine Empire did not stop with religion, however. After unifying the empire under himself as sole emperor, Constantine established his new capitol at Byzantium/Constantinople and began to improve the fortifications of the city. By the time the western half of the empire had fallen to the barbarians, Constantinople was secure as the seat of an eastern empire that could defend itself, and by extension the western part of what would come to be called Europe from the resurgent power of the Persian Empire and Arab raiders who by 632 would create a religion of their own that would make them a nearly irresistible empire-building force in the Asian world. Thanks to Constantine and his successors, then, Europe may have been given a reprieve from further conquest for several centuries - enough time for it to develop into a unique culture bounded by the Catholic Church.

Our focus on the role the Byzantine Empire played in Christianity, Law, and the development of Russian civilization forces us to skip forward through the fall of the western empire, and through the reigns of several eastern emperors until we get to Justinian I, who reigned from 527 to 565 CE.

Depending on how you look at him, Justinian was either one of the most successful, or one of the most pitiful emperors in Byzantine history. Certainly at his high moments, he achieved great things. He was, however, plagued by the same major problem that would beset Byzantine emperors until the fall of the empire itself: finance.

Early on in his reign, Justinian nearly emptied his treasury rebuilding the walls of the capitol, Constantinople, and repairing the defenses of the empire. He then spent twenty years, and untold sums of cash building and equipping an army that was nearly successful at reclaiming the western part of the old Roman Empire. He even succeeded in gaining and keeping Italy for some time. However, financial problems, and continued attacks from the descendants of the barbarian hordes who now occupied the west eventually sent him back home.

At home, Justinian was also facing problems. Social difficulties including rather violent gangs of street hoodlums. These gangs, in their more peaceful moments, fought each other over chariot races at the Hippodrome (the Byzantine version of soccer hooligans). They also had a political interest, however, and were not averse to using their rumble tactics to make political points through riots. By Justinian's time, at least some of these points had to do with the Catholic Church's use of icons in its worship ceremonies. Churches were burned, icons stolen, and the streets in a panic. Justinian thought of fleeing for his life, but his wife, Empress Theodora, colorful character that she was, refused to leave and lose her status as empress. Justinian gave in to her argument and stayed as well.

In any case, Justinian's most lasting act was to order to major efforts to be undertaken in Constantinople itself. First was the review and compilation of Roman Law as it had existed in the East and West. Justinian had this law reviewed and edited, then recorded. This has come to be known as the Code of Justinian, and has had a significant impact upon western legal thinking for centuries.

The second act Justinian ordered was the construction of a massive church. In fact, the Hagia Sophia, as it came to be called, was the largest structure in the ancient world. It has since become a mosque, and had minarets added to its exterior, but it remains today in largely its original architectural form. The significance of this building lies not in its function as a church, but in the grandeur of its form. This was not a place where ordinary Byzantines, no matter how devout, were allowed to hear Mass. This was for Justinian and those few whom he chose to have with him. It was a rare privilege to be in the Hagia Sophia, and when you were there, the most important fact that you were expected to notice is that Justinian could defend an empire, compile a law code, live in a lavish palace, and even reconquer the west for a time, while still having the money and manpower to build the Hagia Sophia. . . and you couldn't. Power, and the exhibition of power, were the primary objects of the construction of this vast structure.

Following Justinian's death in 565 CE, the Byzantine empire began to feel the pressure from various directions. Persians from the East, Moors from the south, Germans from the West, and Mongols and other steppe nomads from the north and east pressed on the frontiers of the empire and gave the army a good running around. The push of steppe nomads from the north east, including groups of Turks, Huns, and others, forced more sedentary people, including Slavs, from their eastern areas of settlement and into the empire. The slavs were allowed to enter and settle, but their mass migration took the Byzantines by surprise, and their presence caused major economic shifts in Byzantine society, thus causing serious internal unrest.

During this period, as well, Christian missionaries, most of whom spoke Greek, were moving into Eastern Europe, and converted large numbers of Slavs and other migrants to the empire. It was around the time of 565 CE that Greek replaced Latin as the common language of the empire.

By 610, the leadership of the empire was poor, and the problems stirred up by pressure on defenses and mass immigration had caused serious economic problems. It was at this time that a general of the Byzantine Empire by the name of Heraclius, who had been stationed in North Africa, took it upon himself to save the empire from what appeared to him to be ruin. Through violence, he overthrew the emperor (Phocas, the emperor, was probably having severe psychological problems, and was clearly incompetent as a ruler). He was able to stave off numerous invasion attempts, and to pacify the society itself. He then set about addressing the key concerns that had led to much of the violence and social dissolution: financial troubles. In order to minimize the costs of defending the empire against so many threats from so many sides, Heraclius created the "Theme System". He gave free land along the frontiers of the empire to anyone who would farm it, provided they agree to also submit to military training and defend the empire in their area should it be threatened. In this way, farmers who were most affected by an invasion also became the soldiers who would defend their families and land in an attack, and the Byzantine Emperor got a 2/3 reduction in his military budget, as he didn't have to pay these people to defend their land.

Attacks continued, though, and in 717 another usurper took the throne in the name of defense. This was Leo I, or Leo the Isaurian. In 717, Leo and a small military force, through excellent planning and fighting skills, successfully defended Constantinople from a 3-way attack. Following that performance, it was not long before Leo became emperor.

Under Leo I, the Byzantine empire strengthened the Theme System, and began to reconquer territory lost in earlier wars. Leo limited capital punishment, and utilized more mutilation in its place. He was also very devout as a Christian, and he proved this regularly by encouraging the punishment to include more mutilations, and less death penalty. He also showed piety by beginning what became known as the "iconoclasm controversy".

The Catholic church at this time often recruited members by going among the pagans of Europe. To do this successfully, they often adopted or adapted the events, ceremonies, and ideas of the target culture. Thus, the Catholic Church had been using icons - objects connected to events or believed to be imbued with spiritual powers - as objects through which believers could focus their attention upon Christ. For the western Catholic Church, these seemed to be an absolutely necessary part of the process of Evangelism, helping people to refocus their attention on the God of the Christians by giving their traditional feast days and objects of worship new, Christian meaning. The eastern Catholic Church, though, was by 717 already very successful in converting non-Christians to Christianity, and the need for icons was apparently felt less in the Byzantine Empire than in the west of Europe. Therefore, the idea that "graven images" were in fact contrary to the proper worship of the Christian God was more strongly held in this empire. Speculatively, it seems that from several angles this idea was useful in the Byzantine Empire. From the point of view of an emperor who was also a leading figure in the Church, reducing the number of images of saints, meant a better the opportunity to focus public attention on the emperor and his connection to the service of God. This probably increased his popularity as the (de-facto) thirteenth apostle and as a political figure. Thus the congregational and political needs of the Church and emperor were both served. From the point of view of the devout, the emperor and the clergy were probably seen to be purifying the Church, thus making the connection with God so much closer and more serviceable.

So, probably with both political and religious motives in mind, Leo the Isaurian in 726 began ordering his army to take icons out of churches and destroy them. This was known as "iconoclasm" - the destruction of icons. It set off a fierce east-west controversy in the Catholic Church. Aghast at the eastern actions, whose claim to piety threatened his own position, and the authority of his church in the west, Pope Gregory II condemned the policy of iconoclasm in 731. Before the controversy fell into an uneasy stalemate (a condition in which it still finds itself today), the Church had divided itself into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths, and both the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church had excommunicated each other.

In 787, Empress Irene of the Byzantine Empire made an ill-fated attempt to restore icons to the eastern Church. This caused so much social protest and political controversy that Irene was exiled in 802. Her exile in turn, because of the implications of limited imperial power, and the corollary insinuation that the emperor/empress was not, in fact , the head of the eastern church theologically, caused doubts about imperial claims to legitimacy, thus destabilizing imperial power, really for the rest of the Byzantine Empire's existence.

Complimenting the new doubts about the rights of emperors to rule and the limits of their power, renewed problems with barbarian violence surfaced in the early to mid-9th century CE. Emperor Nicepherous was unsuccessful in defending much of Byzantine territory from invading Bulgars. These nomadic warriors showed the weakness of the empire by capturing Nicepherous and carrying him back to their temporary base in a caged cart. In 811 Nicepherous suffered the ultimate insult by being captured again, and this time killed. His skull was made into a mug by the Bulgar chieftain.

The Bulgars continued to be a sporadic problem until 1014, when Emperor Basil I devastated their armies and created a long-lasting peace on the Empire's borders. This peace, though, created an illusion among Byzantines in general that the empire would last forever, and that Basil had demonstrated its power so forcefully that war was not likely to occur again. Such an attitude led to an administration that, in the generations after Basil, neglected defense in favor of dealing with other financial and social problems in the empire.

While the period after 1014 CE was a kind of golden age for the empire, during which peace reigned, and financial and economic success was common, it was also an era of great and wrenching change.

With peace came economic success, but the generation of great wealth, and successful international trading led to a long period of inflation. This tended to make life harder for common farmers and shopkeepers, and that was compounded by the ever-growing needs of the administration to increase taxes to meet increasing expenditures and ever-bigger prices. This combination of inflation and rising taxes pinched many free peasants, and a trend occurred in which whole villages placed themselves under large landholders as servants in order to gain protection from taxes. Perhaps more importantly, high taxes meant landholding became prohibitively expensive for many small farmers, whose land was owned outright, but did not produce enough to pay taxes and survive. This situation led, for the first time in Byzantine history, to a market in land. Farmers would, for the first time, sell their property on the market, and those with the means to buy it would do so either to increase their property, and thus income, or to speculate that prices would rise - after which they would sell for a profit. Land had become a commodity, and free peasants had become serfs. The government was getting fewer taxes, and more importantly, the number of small independent farmers that the empire had depended upon to defend it through the Theme System was reduced so much that the defense of the Eastern Roman Empire proved impossible.

This became quite clear in 1071, when another group of steppe nomads, the Seljuk Turks, began their attacks on the empire. They came from the east, and the Theme system was so ineffective that the Turkish advance was limited only by the distance they could travel in a day. A Byzantine army was hastily assembled to meet them, but it was so poorly trained, and so inexperienced, that when the Turks charged, the story goes, the Byzantines did not even wait for contact before breaking ranks and running from the scene. Those few that stayed were slaughtered.

By 1081, the situation was so bad for Byzantium that the emperor, Alexius Comnenus, looking for allies, sent a letter to Pope Urban II of the Western Catholic Church. The letter asked the Pope to find some men who might fight for the emperor in the service of Byzantium. The Pope, however, took the opportunity to do much more.

This was the opportunity Urban was waiting for. A lawyer himself, Urban was one of a new breed of Popes who were determined to bring all of humanity under the umbrella of Catholicism. This was apparently done in the name of the mission of the Church: to save souls. The first step in this plan was to become politically the most powerful force in Europe. This would allow them to lead Christendom, as Europe was known to itself, in the conquest spiritually and politically, of the world.

It was also a brilliant way to get rid of some serious social problems that had arisen between the fall of Rome and the 11th century. First, Europe was becoming overpopulated. Second, several generations of men had grown up as hereditary warriors, whose social position as aristocracy rested on the fact that they had been, and were still, warriors for the various kings of Europe. These men were trained from early childhood that the sole purpose of their existence was to fight. The problem was, when there was no war on, they still fought - each other. They did this both in organized venues such as tournaments, and in less official, and often more brutal, altercations in other places. The problem for Urban and European kings was not, of course, that they didn't want warriors around. On the contrary, in wartime these men were effective and useful. The problem was that where there was no war on, rather than rest, they killed each other, thus reducing both the size of armies, and, worse, the population of Christendom - Christians killing Christians was too much like the proverbial house divided against itself.

Of course, many of these men (most of whom were in their 20's to 40's - most couldn't continue or didn't survive this intensely physical life longer than that) were what we today might call "conflicted". Their central problem was, of course, the fact that, as servants of God, who was, as they were told, their ultimate lord, they were told not to kill. But their existence was predicated on their hereditary job of fighting. Urban's solution was thus a good one on a social and an individual basis. He used the emperor's request to find an outlet for these men, and for the many people of the overpopulated peninsula of Europe who wanted to find a new place to live and farm. He sent them to fight the Saracens (Muslims) and to take the Holy Land of Canaan, where Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Although exactly what Urban said is lost to history, he apparently intimated to them that the injunction in the Bible to avoid killing meant simply that Christians should not kill other Christians. He then freed them of concerns by telling them, and providing an indulgence, that those who made it to the Holy Land would be forgiven of all their sins. This, of course, was carte blanche, and historians of the period agree that nothing in Christianity prior to this had suggested any interpretation like this. As Ekkehard of Aurach, a German historian writing in 1101, has said,
after Urban had aroused the spirits of all by the promise of forgiveness to those who undertook the expedition with single-hearted devotion, toward one hundred thousand men were appointed to the immediate service of God from Aquitaine and Normandy, England, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, Galicia, Gascony, France, Flanders, Lorraine, and from other Christian
peoples, whose names I no longer retain. It was truly an army of "crusaders," for they bore the sign of the cross on their garments as a reminder that they should mortify the flesh, and in the hope that they would in this way triumph over the enemies of the cross of Christ, as it had once come to pass in the case of the great Constantine. Thus, through the marvelous and unexampled working of divine dispensation, all these members of Christ, so different in speech, origin, and nationality, were suddenly brought together as one body through their love of Christ.
(From Ekkehard of Aurach: On the Opening of the First Crusade. Found at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.)

In any case, by 1096, the First Crusade was well underway. As western knights and their followers arrived near Byzantium, the Byzantines themselves, perhaps a bit surprised by the barbarian behavior of the Christian brothers, wisely and quickly helped them find their way across the Hellespont (the Bosporus) to the territory where the Muslims (Turks) were waiting. Eventually, after long, hard fought, and monstrous battles, the Christians took Jerusalem. The story of their rapine is infamous.

The pillage of Jerusalem
"Now that our men had possession of the walls and towers,
wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men (and this
was merciful) cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot
them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others
tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of
heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the
city. It was necessary to pick one's way over the bodies of
men and horses. But these were small matters compared
with what happened in the Temple of Solomon, a place
where religious services are normally chanted. What
happened there? If I tell the truth, you would not believe it.
Suffice to say that, in the Temple and Porch of Solomon, men
rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it
was a just and splendid judgement of God that this place
should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it
had suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was
filled with corpses and blood.
From Raymond d'Aguilers, Historia francorum qui ceprint

While the Crusades (there were ultimately 8) did in fact provide somewhat of a screen for the Byzantine Empire at first, they eventually became the problem rather than the solution. By the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the Crusaders actually began attacking each other. As a part of their transportation contract with the city-state of Venice, they stopped along the way to sack Zadar, a Christian city in direct competition with Venetian trade. They then proceeded to attack and sack Constantinople itself. This, of course, helped to weaken both the already edgy relationship between the former halves of the Roman Empire, and to weaken the defensive and financial capabilities of the Byzantines. This is not to mention the immeasurable damage done within the theological realm for Christians of both Orthodox and Catholic branches.

The Byzantine Empire seemed to totter on the edge of oblivion any number of times, but the end finally did come in May, of 1453, well after the end of the 8 crusades, the last of which had begun in 1270. In 1453, the Turks, this time the Ottoman Turks, a group that had conquered the Seljuks themselves in Anatolia, took Constantinople. This battle occurred after a long series of fights in which the Ottomans progressively conquered all of the land formerly governed by Constantinople - the city was the last part of the empire to fall. To its credit, the great walls built by Constantine, reinforced by Justinian, and kept in good repair by numerous emperors and laborers since, held. The City was under siege for seven weeks. The toll that the army of Constantinople took on the Turks may have been as high as twenty to one. But in May, the city surrendered. It soon became the capitol of the Ottoman Empire, and came to be known by a local pronunciation of its name, as Istanbul. The Hagia Sophia had its "graven images" removed, including and especially art that gave human form to figures in Jewish, Christian and Muslim scripture, and was made into a Mosque.

Western Slavic Culture

_Western Slavic Culture

_From the Bug to Gibraltar

_Part of Western Experience: _Latin language, belief in authority of the Pope, share in Catholic Christianity brought by German monks, subject to German migration that followed

Eastern Slavic Culture

_Bulgarians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Romanians, & Russians

_Heavily influenced by Byzantium _ Liturgy always in native languages _ Decentralized church organization _ culturally separated from Western Europe _ at times dominated by Mongols or Turks
_allowed religion, controlled politics _ no tradition of political/social participation _used to Mongol despots, Byz. autocrats

Russia, 1000 CE

Ryurik - Founder of Russia 862

_Ryurik, around 862, consolidated the Slavic tribes around Novgorod.

_ These people were known as Verangians, or Rus窶・ hence the name Rossiya, or Russia

Kiev Rus

_Early Slavic Culture spread from Baltic Sea to the Urals, White Sea to Black Sea.

_Primary trading towns in Kiev on Dnieper, & Novgorod

_Viking trade route

Russian Orthodox Icon

The Birth of Russia

_Russia dominated by Mongols from 1240 to 1480

_Primary tax collection site a fort called Moscow

_ Novgorod stayed out of the Mongol empire thanks to Alexander Nevsky

_Free trading town

_Nevsky's son Daniel est. Grand Duchy of Moscow - collected taxes for the Mongols

Ivan III and 3rd Rome


_Took Novgorod, began to drive Mongols eastward

_ Married niece of last emperor of Byzantium

_ Called Moscow 3rd Rome in year 7000 (1492)

_ Used title tsar