Manual Byzantium Between the Ottomans and the Latins: Politics and Society in the Late Empire

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The West was now divided into several Germanic kingdoms who adopted Latin for their administration.

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Enter Justinian r. The nephew and heir of a parvenu, an illiterate military man turned emperor for Byzantium was for centuries a quite open society in which one could get ahead in life based on talent , he put an indelible mark on his era. In his time the empire sought to regain the lost territories in the West in a series of long wars.

The Vandal kingdom in Africa was subdued in , but the reconquest of Italy took nearly twenty years until the final defeat and extinction of the Goths in At the same time there was almost constant warfare with Persia, although imperial victories and territorial gains were not as decisive as in the West. Roman law, the backbone of the administration of such a vast empire, had already been collected and organized in the mid-fifth century. Justinian undertook a review of this massive material early in his reign between and The result was the huge and hugely influential Corpus Iuris Civilis which updated the previous Theodosian collection, weeding out all laws no longer deemed relevant, while adding all those passed since that date.

Justinian, naturally, continued to legislate and his new laws the Novels were issued for the first time in Greek. This was an acknowledgment of the developments that the empire had undergone since Constantine. Justinian was also a great builder. The single most iconic Byzantine building, the Hagia Sophia, is a product of his drive and vision. Completed in after an earlier Theodosian church of the same name had been burned down during civil unrest in the city, the church dedicated to Holy Wisdom is still breathtaking today.

The majestic dome with a diameter of about 32 metres gave the impression to contemporaries of being suspended from heaven. This feat of engineering was only surpassed in the 15th century by the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore Il Duomo in Florence. The original decoration of Hagia Sophia was not figurative: mosaics with geometrical patterns, deeply cut capitals with the monograms of the emperor and his infamous wife, Theodora, and the interplay of coloured marble on the walls and pavement — all designed to reflect the light as it pierces the space from a multitude of windows.

Justinian not only adorned his capital with new buildings; he erected or restored a great number of edifices throughout his vast empire.

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He strove for order and tolerated no dissent; it appears as if he was determined to align everyone to the divine plan for salvation, whether they wanted it or not. The academy in Athens was closed; the Olympic Games and the mysteries in Eleusis had long ceased; and it was probably around this time that the Parthenon in Athens was transformed into a Christian church. This unification, however, allowed not only people and commodities to travel, but also germs.


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Bubonic plague broke out for the first time in pandemic form in and ran its deadly course throughout the Mediterranean. It was to return in some 18 waves until , causing a sharp demographic decline that was felt the strongest in coastal cities. Constantinople lost possibly as much as 20 per cent of its population in four months in the spring of By the early seventh century much of the regained territory had been lost.

The Lombards invaded Italy in and seized the Po valley; the Visigoths regained the few Byzantine holdings in Spain in , while the eastern front collapsed under renewed Persian attacks.

Moreover, a new force emerged in the Balkans: the Turkic Avars and the Slavs. From the s onwards the Slavs began their settlement of the Balkans, gradually taking almost the entire peninsula de facto out of Byzantine control for the next two centuries.

When Heraclius r. The Persians captured Syria, Egypt and Palestine between and and, in what must be seen as a calculated move of political warfare, they removed the True Cross of Christ from Jerusalem to their capital in Ctesiphon. It was almost brought to a halt before it produced any actual results when in , while the emperor was away, the Persians with the aid of Avars and Slavs besieged Constantinople. After this episode Heraclius took the war to Persia and ultimately defeated the Sassanian king in In a highly significant gesture, he restored the True Cross to Jerusalem in Byzantium might have been victorious, but the wars that had lasted more than 20 years left both empires exhausted.

The timing was perfect for the new emerging player in the Mediterranean, the Arabs. Their expansion began in the s. By the turn of the century the Byzantine Empire had irrevocably lost Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Northern Africa, while the Sassanid state had been overthrown. The Arab foray seemed unstoppable. It menaced Constantinople in and again in , though failing both times to capture the city. The seventh century was a period of massive restructuring and reorganization as the Byzantine empire fought for its survival.

From then on Byzantium concentrated on Asia Minor as an almost exclusive source for both. A large-scale reorganization of the army took place in that period, first in Asia Minor, spreading then to the entire empire. Territory was organized into administrative and military units, the themata , in which both civil and military powers were concentrated in the hands of one military commander. Soldiers were from then on recruited among the free peasant smallholders, who offered their military service in exchange for land that enjoyed certain privileges.

Disaster as a rule breeds the need for reform and in the Byzantine empire this was not only expressed in terms of administration. The movement of Iconoclasm literally icon-breaking has its roots in the traumatic experience of the seventh century. Surely the Arabic juggernaut must have seemed reason enough for this divine displeasure. And the Arabs did forbid figurative art. A sober look at this development would look like this: from the early-to-mid-eighth century Byzantine emperors had religious images removed and later destroyed.

Persecution of those opposing these measures, mainly monks, varied, but some of the most fervent supporters of icons were executed. Iconoclasm was reversed by an empress: the widowed Irene r. Iconoclasm coincided with the successes of Constantine V r. However, after Irene, the empire suffered a series of setbacks that led to a second phase of Iconoclasm that began in and ended in Again, an empress acting as regent, Theodora r.

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At the end of Iconoclasm, Christian art had prevailed and became an essential aspect of worship. On Christmas Day , during the reign of Irene as empress, the coronation of Charlemagne, ruler of a western empire controlling France, the Rhineland and Northern Italy, in Rome gave the world a second Roman emperor. After the empire began a period of revival that lasted for two centuries and marked a long phase of territorial expansion, political and cultural radiance over its neighbours and a flourishing of education and the arts.

Gradually, imperial authority was restored in the Balkans and parts of Syria and Asia Minor were reconquered. In what is perhaps the most enduring consequence of Byzantine policy, a number of Slavic states embraced Christianity coming from Constantinople not without fierce competition with Rome. Byzantine missionaries developed the first Slavic alphabet and the newly converted were allowed to use it in their services.

With the state expanding and the economy growing, a cultural revival developed as well. It was marked by an effort at collecting and systematizing knowledge by compiling vast encyclopaedias with the most varied contents: ancient epigrams, lives of saints, dictionaries, medical and veterinary texts, practical agricultural wisdom and military treatises, as well as thematically organized volumes on embassies or hunting.

The central figure in this revival perhaps more as a result of imperial propaganda than of actual contribution was the learned emperor Constantine VII under whose auspices a number of works were created dealing with the imperial ceremonies, the administrative division of the empire and a secret manual of governance addressed to his son. This revival of learning was a direct result of the important scholars produced by the fostering of education from the ninth century. Classical Antiquity, no longer carrying the negative connotation of paganism, was studied and copied.

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Related Articles Death of the Byzantine Emperor Theophilus A Blueprint for Byzantine Power The economic and political stimulus behind the revival, however, fuelled some rather untoward trends as well. The military aristocracy gained more and more power, and, in its quest for more land, started to encroach on the villages and their free peasants, potentially stripping the state of tax revenues and the army of its manpower. The emperors legislated against this and civil wars ensued. It took as resolute an emperor as Basil II r. Following the general and growing disarray that ensued after his death, the aristocracy made a decisive comeback in the person of Alexius I Comnenus r.

When he took over the reins of the empire he faced a very different political situation from that which had existed less than half a century before him. Moreover, the Normans had taken over large parts of Italy and then attacked the empire in the Balkans, while Venice, aided by commercial privileges accorded to it by Byzantium, was branching out in the eastern Mediterranean. Certainly the schism between Rome and Constantinople that had occurred in was not a positive development, although it was hardly surprising given the troubled history of antagonism between the two sees.

The cities of the empire expanded, and affluence spread across the provinces because of the new-found security. The population rose, and production increased, stimulating new demand, while also helping to encourage trade. The iconoclast movement experienced a steep decline; the decline was advantageous to the emperors who had softly suppressed iconoclasm, and to the reconciliation of the religious strife that had drained the imperial resources in the previous centuries. A long period of military struggle for survival had recently dominated the life of the Byzantine Empire, but the Macedonians ushered in an age when art and literature once again flourished.

The classical Greco-Roman heritage of Byzantium was central to the writers and artists of the period. Byzantine scholars, most notably Leo the Mathematician, read the scientific and philosophical works of the ancient Greeks and expanded upon them. Artists adopted their naturalistic style and complex techniques from ancient Greek and Roman art, and mixed them with Christian themes. Byzantine painting from this period would have a strong influence on the later painters of the Italian Renaissance. The Macedonian Dynasty also oversaw the expansion of the Byzantine Empire, which went on the offensive against its enemies.

Before rising to the throne, he had conquered Crete from the Muslims, and as emperor he led the conquest of Cyprus and most of Syria. The Macedonian period also included events of momentous religious significance. Cyril and Methodius, two Byzantine Greek brothers, contributed significantly to the Christianization of the Slavs, and in the process devised the Glagolitic alphabet, ancestor to the Cyrillic script.

Throughout this period there was great competition among nobles for land in the theme system. Since such governors could collect taxes and control the military forces of their themes, they became independent of the emperors and acted independently, weakening the authority of the emperors. They tended to increase taxes on small farmers in order to enrich themselves, thereby causing massive dissatisfaction.

The centuries-long gradual religious separation between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires culminated in the institutional separation known as the East-West Schism.

Fellows and Visiting Scholars in Byzantine Studies — Dumbarton Oaks

The East-West Schism, also called the Great Schism and the Schism of , was the break of communion between what are now the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches, which has lasted since the 11th century. The ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes between the Greek east and Latin west pre-existed the formal rupture that occurred in The Western Church remained firmly in support of the use of religious images.

In response, Leo confiscated papal estates and placed them under the governance of Constantinople.