The Cultural Impact of the Byzantine Empire
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It’s a shame that “Byzantine,” when not used in reference to the Eastern Roman Empire, tends to have a negative connotation. Not only did the Byzantine Empire last for over a thousand years, it reached out so far that countries from Libya to Bulgaria and Slovenia to Egypt can claim a legacy from it, keeping the fallen West safe from invading barbarians until the time of its own spectacular decline. When you realize that, it is especially shameful that the West no longer considered the Eastern Roman Empire any sort of “Roman Empire” at all, naming it the “Byzantine Empire” after its capital in Byzantium, in Greece. Meanwhile, despite the obligatory political turmoil in the East, scholars were tending to the flames of knowledge and would until the fall of Constantinople. Why would the West no longer consider the East part of the Roman Empire, and when did they become separate entities in the first place? This is the first part of determining the legacy of the Byzantines. The split was brought about by Emperor Diocletian, not because of war or arguments, but because he was a shrewd man who saw that the Roman Empire was too big.
It was collapsing upon itself, too large to withstand its constant invasions and bloody political ordeals. In a decisive action, he gave the western half of the Roman Empire to a friend named Maximian, appointing him as Augustus, or “senior emperor.” Then, in 293, establishing what would be called the Tetrarchy, he appointed two junior emperors, called Caesares. Not only had he revolutionized the way the Roman Empire would be run, he also had neatly given himself and Maximian the means to succession in the Caesares. Usually, the heir of the emperor was chosen as the successor, but if there had been no heir produced, the entire empire would be thrown into chaos until a suitable one battled his way through.
When Diocletian and Maximian voluntarily abdicated their thrones – another unprecedented move – their Caesares, respectively Galerius and Constantius, were promoted to Augustus. Though the Tetrarchy was too good to last, it brought about a new, peaceful era. The second event that helped with the rift between the two sides was the changing of the capital of the Roman Empire. Seeing that Rome was no longer practical, Emperor Constantine (often called “Constantine the Great”) found his new capital in Byzantium. Byzantium, already around a thousand years old, was perfectly situated between the eastern and western frontiers. The new and glorious capital was built on top of Byzantium in just six years and consecrated in 330.
Besides making the astute decision to change the capital of the empire, Constantine was also the very first Christian Roman Emperor, converting after supposedly receiving a vision from Jesus telling him to bear the cross on his shields in battle. Though there would be one last pagan emperor at the end of the first Christian dynasty, he would also prove to be the last. Paganism was a dying thing, only practiced fashionably by social elite. One of the many religious legacies left by the Byzantine Empire, is, of course, Eastern Orthodoxy. Most of the countries where Eastern Orthodoxy is common can trace a fairly direct route back to the Eastern Roman Empire. During Constantine’s time, Christianity saw its very first split – something that would foreshadow the worse ones that were yet to come. A man named Arius from Alexandria began teaching that there was no Holy Trinity, that God was eternal, and that the Son of God was not eternal or unlimited in his knowledge and power, as he had been created by God.
Arius was deemed a heretic, exonerated, and then deemed a heretic yet again long after his death. His followers, however, were given a loophole by the Council of Nicaea that allowed them to save face, in that they were allowed to “interpret” the divinity of Christ however they wished. Arianism resurfaced much later, but is not practiced today, though there are sects of Christianity that deny the Trinity and are not Arian. Though the Councils Ephesus and Chalcedon (in 431 and 451, respectively) caused two new branches of Christianity, the Assyrian Church of the East and Oriental Orthodoxy, to form, no split in Christianity was as large or terrible as the Great Schism in the 11th century. The Great Schism represented the final straw in the gaping void between the East and the West, where Christianity was split between the two sides. This was caused by many disagreements about scripture and ecclesiastical differences between the East and West. The religion in the East became Eastern Orthodoxy, following the Patriarch of Constantinople, while the religion in the West came to be known as Roman Catholicism, following the Pope. There would be many more splits like this in the Church, but none would be quite so dramatic.
The art of Byzantium
Byzantine art is mostly concerned with theological ideals and religious iconography. Through conquest and trade, it spread was taught (especially in Renaissance Italy) throughout the world, its forms appearing in Russian icon paintings and even the geometric patterns of Arabic designs. Byzantine architecture also tends to show up, often in religious buildings. However, when most people think of the art of the Byzantine Empire, the iconic image of wall-sized mosaics with glittering golden tesserae, such as the ones that decorated the Hagia Sophia, comes to mind. Painted over and plastered to make room for a mosque when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, they have since been rediscovered and some are visible again today.
The East and the world
Now comes the reason why the West’s forgetfulness of the Byzantine era is so undeserved. As mentioned earlier, scholars in Constantinople and the rest of the Eastern Roman Empire were busy keeping knowledge and classical writings alive while the West sank into illiteracy and ignorance. When Constantinople fell, many of the fugitives that flooded into the West carried with them rescued classical writings and humanist philosophies. Many historians argue that this is what pushed the West off of the edge and into a full cultural rebirth, culminating in the Renaissance. Despite this, scholars in the West often used the term “Byzantinism” as a byword for decadency and excessive complexity, viewing everything that transpired in the East as distinctly contrary to traditions in the West, even as the Byzantines held off the Seljuk Turks, Persians, and Arabs and carried the Roman Empire’s torch for a millennium and a century.
During the First Crusade, when warriors from the West came to the aid of the East in repelling the Seljuk Turks and reclaiming the Holy Lands, they were awed by the size and the splendor of Constantinople, which was huge in comparison to London and Paris at the time, but were also shocked by the eunuchs, the perfumes, the flowing clothing, and the sheer wealth they saw in the gold and white marble. This pretty much describes the relationship between the East and West in those times – the West looking upon the East with awe tempered by slight disgust, the East seeing the West as barbaric but fascinating. When the Ottoman Empire conquered the Byzantines, they immediately adopted the image created by their predecessors, as the Sultan Mehmed II desperately wanted the Ottomans to be the “heirs” of the Roman Empire. He even took the title Kaysar-i-Rûm, meaning “Caesar of Rome” in Turkish.
If you add up all the incarnations of the Roman Empire, including the Byzantine Empire, you end up with an entity that existed for 2206 years and saw over one hundred generations. It was a sprawling, far-reaching empire that only fell when cannons broke through the ancient walls of Constantinople. It had many pitfalls before then, and not just ones inflicted by others. It had its share of greedy, mediocre, and downright idiotic rulers that reproduced and put even worse ones on the throne, and in that it was just like any other great empire. But it had a few stars that shone in the murk of an uncertain age. These were people who built grand churches and palaces, rewrote ancient laws, and led their armies through unwinnable battles and won. Most importantly, the Byzantine Empire was like an incubator of its fetal western neighbor. It cradled the beginnings of a new age and saw that they were safe for when the time was right, and when it fell, it fell proudly with one of the best emperors it had had in years fighting beside his people. The era wasn’t one of heroes, gods, and legends. It was one of people, good and bad, lighting the way to something better.
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