The Byzantine Achievement

Christine Ciesniewski, Dickson College, 2006

Following the decline of Roman authority in the West in the fifth century, Europe fell into what is commonly thought of as a time of disintegration. The west splintered into numerous kingdoms whose rulers sought greater authority and control, usually through conquest of other territories. Nevertheless, the eastern half of the empire, or Byzantium as it is nowadays known, developed its own achievements, particularly in Roman law, the preservation of Greek texts, and in the spread of Christianity — all of which left an enduring mark on Europe.

As the Western Roman Empire weakened, the competition for territory among invading barbarian tribes intensified. This, and the barbarian tradition of comitatus, which centred on warlords gaining prestige and support by proving their strength, usually through territorial conquests, made the West less stable than the government of the East. With the exception of Justinian and the Macedonian emperors such as Basil II, the Byzantines adopted a policy of defence rather than conquest. Byzantines saw themselves as preservers of the achievements of Roman civilization. This was reflected in Byzantium’s huge bureaucracy and its highly trained army, both of which followed non-audacious policies. Despite their reputation for preservation rather than for innovation, the Byzantines are credited with many achievements.

Perhaps the greatest achievement was the codification of Roman law during the reign of Justinian (r.527-565). At a time when government structures in the West were disappearing, Byzantine scholars were sifting through the tangles of legal precedents, juridical opinions and imperial edicts. Their work resulted in a coherent collection of jurisprudence known as the Corpus Juris Civilis or Body of Civil Law, one outcome of which was to support the autocracy of the state:

That which seems good to the emperor has also the force of law; for the people, by the Lex Regia, which is passed to confer on him his power, make over to him their whole power and authority...Therefore whatever the emperor ordains by rescript, or decides in adjudging a cause, or lays down by edict, is unquestionably law.” Corpus Juris Civilis, The Institutes, c. 535 (

This legal model helped provide stability and unity in the Eastern part of the Empire during a time of change and the survival of Byzantium can be, to a large measure, attributed to it. The West, meanwhile, continued to fragment into realms of warlords.

Justinian’s Code was diligently studied in the west from the late 11th century. Many western scholars turned towards Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis as the basis of their studies. The Corpus competed with custom-based law as a more efficient system. Scholars re-examined Justinian’s jurisprudence and produced elaborated versions which clarified confusing points. The Glossa Ordinaria (c. 1182-1260) by the Bolognese scholar Accursius, was one such work. It soon became a foremost basis of justice systems in the medieval courts of Italy, France, Iberia, the German states, and the canon law of the church, which was codified in 1140 into Gratian’s Decretum. Both the State and the Church reflected the autocratic cast of Corpus Juris Civilis by giving the monarch and the Church more defined and consolidated power:

A society in which everyone seeks only his own advantage will collapse and disintegrate unless it is ordered to the good of all by some one ruler who has charge of the common good” -John of Paris, On Royal and Papal Power, c.1300 (

Byzantium has been credited by many as the preserver of Greek texts that might otherwise have been lost in Latin Western Europe. The writings of Homer, Demosthenes, Plato, Aristotle and other ancient Greek works were zealously guarded and studied. This had a profound effect on intellectual advancement in the West. In that time, classical Greek texts were filtering into Western universities and were translated into Latin. Some of these rediscovered works introduced new ideas which did not always mirror what was popularly accepted in the West. The philosophical works of Aristotle epitomise this:

Theoretical philosophy and science are the pursuit of truth for its own sake alone... practical philosophy is the pursuit of truth for the sake of guiding human action” (p 611)

Aristotle’s words contradicted the teachings of Saint Augustine, who taught that in the search for truth man must depend upon the inner world of ideas more than upon sense experience:

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe. - St Augustine (

Aristotle’s work gave rise to a school of philosophers known as the Averroists who asserted that philosophy was independent of revelation — a concept that threatened the integrity and supremacy of Catholic doctrine. From this stemmed the writings of Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican friar of the 13th century. In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas addressed many theological issues. Most importantly, he concluded that reason and revelation were complementary to one another:

For faith rests upon infallible truth, and therefore its contrary cannot be demonstrated.” (Summa Theologica, c. 1266-1273 in Hollister)

This convergence of theology and philosophy would later become the scholastic basis of Catholic Christianity. Thus, the efforts of Byzantine scholars in preserving ancient Greek texts provided the stimulus that would later influence intellectual thinking and advancement of Western Europe in a major way.

Christianity played an important role in the Byzantine state. It promoted unity and patriotism, and helped uphold the rigid autocracy of the Emperor, who ruled both the Church and state. In Western Europe, this idea of using religion as a tool of unification was later employed by Clovis, king of the Franks. Byzantium also protected Christianity by providing a bulwark against the East. Byzantine defences helped weaken the Arab forces, holding back the later westward advance of Islam. It was not until the so-called Macedonian Revival (c. 850-1050), however, that Byzantium significantly extended its religious influence abroad. Through Byzantine missionaries, large portions of the Balkans and most notably Russia, converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity:

Finally, the [Byzantine] Greeks appeared, criticising all other faiths but commanding their own, and they spoke at length, telling the history of the whole world from its beginning. Their words were artful, and it was wondrous to listen and pleasant to hear them..” (

This helped establish a spiritual alliance between many Eastern European countries with the Orthodox Patriarch in Constantinople. Orthodoxy’s spread was assisted by the development of the first Slavonic alphabet by Byzantine missionaries, St Cyril (c.826-869) and St Methodius (c. 815-884). This helped solve the problem outlined by Rastislav, ruler of Moravia (r. 846-870):

Since our people rejected idolatry and came under Christian law...we have not had a teacher capable of explaining this faith to us in our own tongue.(

The ‘Cyrillic’ alphabet allowed Bibles and other religious texts to be published in vernacular languages. It is still used throughout Southern and Eastern Europe, Russia, and in many post-Soviet states in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. In fact, Orthodox Slavs continued for centuries to express the respect and universal admiration for Byzantium by referring to Constantinople as Tsargrad, meaning ‘the capital of Tsars’ or Caesars.
Although Byzantium’s significant achievements were not those of territorial expansion, its development of legal thought and preservation of ancient Greek texts that were lost to the Western Roman Empire, would provide the foundation for what would later characterise medieval Europe. This provided a basis for the establishment of autocratic monarchies and for intellectual advancement, especially in the areas of philosophy and theology. Most significantly, Byzantium helped Christianity take a firm root, and develop a Christian civilisation with a distinct culture and way of life. This had a profound religious and cultural impact on much of Eastern Europe and Russia, where it prevails to this day.

Christine Ciesniewski, Dickson College, 2006

Further Reading

Hollister, CW, & Bennett, JM, - 2002, Medieval Europe, McGraw Hill, NY
Holmes, George (chief editor), 1992, The Oxford History of Medieval Europe, Oxford University Press, New York
Plantagenet Somerset Fry, F.R.S.A, 1970, Constantinople, Purnell, London
Rice, Tamara Talbot, 1969, Byzantium, Rupert Hart-Davis Educational Publications, London
Joseph Laffan Morse (Editor in Chief), 1959, Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia (Volume 21), Standard Reference Works Publishing Company Inc, New York
Rowena Loverance, 1988, Byzantium, British Museum Publications Ltd, London
Foss, Clive & Magdalino, Paul, 1977, The Making of the Past: Rome and Byzantium, Elsevier-Phaidon Press Ltd, Oxford

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