Byzantine Empire Justinian 550AD
Byzantine Empire Justinian 550AD

Overview Byzantine-Eastern Christian Empire

by Richard Hooker

It is not possible to effectually distinguish between the later empire in Rome and the Byzantine empire centered around Constantinople. For the Byzantines were the Roman Empire, not simply a continuation of it in the East. The capital city, Constantinople, had been founded as the capital of Rome by the Emperor Constantine, but a uniquely Greek or Byzantine character to the Roman Empire can be distinguished as early as Diocletian (244-311 AD).

When Rome was seized by Goths (479 AD), this was a great blow to the Roman Empire, but it didn't effectively end it. Although Rome was under the control of foreigners who themselves claimed to be continuing the empire, the Byzantine empire continued as before, believing themselves to be the Roman Empire.

Over the centuries, however, Byzantium evolved into a very different civilization. The eastern Empire had always had a predominately Greek character, but the Byzantines through the course of the first millennium AD had to deal with cultural influences and political threats from European cultures, Asian cultures and, primarily, Islam after the seventh century. The Byzantine Empire had come to an end with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

Byzantine history, then, stretches in a continuous line from the latter centuries of Rome to the very beginning of the modern period. It transmitted 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 Christianity

Byzantine Christianity was a substantially different religion and cultural practice than Latin Christianity. One of its predominant characteristics was the role of the emperor in matters of faith. The Latin church had battled emperors for control of the church and with the disintegration of centralized authority in Europe and the proliferation of European kingdoms, the primacy of the Pope in matters of faith was relatively solidified.

The Byzantines, however, inherited the Roman idea that the emperor was near divinity and practiced a form of Christianity where enormous ecclesiastical and theological authority was vested in the emperor. This would eventually create a permanent breach in the world of Christianity between west and east and the event that would produce this breach was the Iconoclastic controversy.

The Iconoclastic theologians believed that the worship of images, or icons, was a fundamentally pagan belief. Products of human hands should not be worshipped, they argued, but only Christ and God should be the proper objects of veneration. The movement was inaugurated by Leo the Isaurian. It was Leo, remember, that turned the tide against the Muslims in 717.

Islam is itself opposed to the worship of images, icons, and idols - one of the founding acts of Islam is Muhammad's destruction of all the idols and images in the sacred Ka'aba in Mecca. There is no doubt that the Iconoclasts were in part inspired by the religious purity of the Islamic faith. There is also little doubt that Iconoclasm would help the Byzantines regain territory conquered by the Muslims since it made Christianity more in line with the Islamic faith.

Iconoclasm, however, was fiercely opposed by the papacy which saw it as a threat not only to Latin ecclesiastical practices, but to the authority of the pope himself. When Leo's son, Constantine V even more zealously carried out the Iconoclastic program during his reign (740-775), the breach between the Latin and Byzantine church became permanent. Eventually, Iconoclasm would be abandoned in the ninth century - the breach, however, would never be healed.

The most significant result of the Iconoclastic controversy was the adoption of a strict traditionalism in the Byzantine church. The Eastern Church had long been characterized by speculation and innovation, but the Iconoclastic controversy was too disorienting. Almost overnight, the Byzantine church became averse to innovation and speculation. This created a more or less static religious culture and it also permanently ended the intellectual dynamism of Byzantine life.

Byzantine Philosophy

Perhaps the single most salient aspect of Byzantine culture was the transmission of classical culture. While classical studies, science, and philosophy largely dissipated in the Latin west, Byzantine education and philosophy still 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 first 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.

Unlike Greece and Rome during the classical period or the Latin West during the Middle Ages, women actively participated in the intellectual life of the culture. While they could not attend schools, aristocratic women were often well-educated at home by tutors in literature, history, composition, and philosophy.

The greatest of Byzantine writers, in fact, was the historian Anna Comnena, the daughter of the emperor Alexius. Her biography of her father is one of the greatest works of medieval historiography in existence - this includes the histories written in Europe.


Most historians consider the reign of Justinian (527-565) as marking a significant break with the Roman past. This is difficult to support - Justinian not only considered himself the emperor of all of Rome, including the territories occupied by the Goths, but also spoke Latin as his primary language.

After the fall of Rome, the Byzantine emperors never gave over the idea of reconquering Rome. They did, however, take a lesson from the fall of Rome and all throughout the fifth century, the Byzantine emperors wrought a series of administrative and financial reforms. They produced the single most extensive corpus of Roman law in 425 and reformed taxation dramatically. Most importantly, however, they did not entrust their military to German generals - this had been the downfall of the Latin portion of the empire. They could not, however, maintain a powerful military - the loss of territory in the west had dramatically shrunk their financial resources.

Justinian was perhaps the last emperor that seriously entertained notions of reconquering the west - the institution of the western emperor fell permanently vacant in 476 and the Byzantine emperors claimed as theirs. His expeditions against Italy, however, failed. Although he conquered North Africa and retook Italy from the Ostrogoths, this Gothic War drained the Byzantine Empire of much-needed resources. Most importantly, the Gothic War devastated Italy economically.

The economic destruction of Italy was so total that it destroyed Italian urban culture for centuries. The great cities of Rome and her allies would be abandoned as Italy would fall into a long period of backwardness. The impoverishment of Italy and the drain on Byzantium made it impossible for the Byzantines to hold Italy - only three years after the death of Justinian, the Italian territories fell into the hands of another Germanic tribe, the "Long Beards," or Lombards.

Justinian, however, is most famous for the body of laws that he promulgated - the Corpus iuris civilis. This was not only a great legal achievement in codifying Roman law, it was also the first systematic attempt to synthesize Roman law and jurisprudence with Christianity. Although Byzantium would eventually fade in influence, from the eleventh century onwards, Justinian's Corpus iuris civilis became the foundation of all European law and legal practice (except for England).

The most serious and lasting mistake of Justinian's reign was the persecution of heretical Christians. The eastern empire had always been distinguished from the western empire by the proliferation of religions and metaphysical speculation as a characteristic of religions..You might say that the model of Christian belief in the east was more mystical and philosophical while the Christian belief in the west was more practical and obedience-centered. This meant that a number of competing doctrines circulated in the Greek-centered areas of the Byzantine world...

But Justinian - and his father before him, Justin I needed the support of the Pope in order to retake Italy. So both Justin and Justinian renounced Monophysite belief and were reincorporated into the Latin church. But Justinian went even further - to demonstrate his commitment to Latin Christianity, he began a series of oppressive persecutions of Monophysites in Syria and Egypt. This would have a profound effect on later history - the Monophysite Christians, horribly persecuted by the Byzantines, welcomed Muslim conquerors with open arms based on their promise to tolerate their religion. (We all know what happened.)

Ref. Most parts copyright Richard Hooker

Religious Articles Index
Origins Christianity