The Enduring Legacy of the Byzantine Empire

Louise Adena, Dickson College 2008

Emperor Constantine I
Emperor Constantine I
The Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire with Constantinople at its heart was established at the beginning of the fourth century AD by the Roman Emperor Constantine (272-337AD). While it remained a major world cultural and commercial centre for over 1000 years, it has been only during the twentieth century that European historians have come to acknowledge its profound influence on Western Europe. Its enduring legacies are seen in European art and legal systems. It was also key to the widespread adoption of Christianity in Europe; it was the base for the spread of learning in Europe providing continuity between ancient Greek and Roman civilisations and into the European Renaissance

The Byzantine Empire was established because the western part of the Empire was in decline. Constant migrations from Germanic tribes exacerbated the need to shift the capital from Rome to the eastern city of Byzantium, renamed Constantinople. Over coming centuries, the Eastern (Byzantine) and the Western parts of the Empire slowly diverged, but contact between the two ensured that the knowledge and learnings from the early Roman Empire and the Arab world were not lost to Western Europe, in fact it was preserved, and indeed shaped its development:

…although it has been shunned and almost forgotten in the history of the world up to now, the spirit of Byzantium still resonates in the world...By preserving the ancient world, and forging the medieval, the Byzantine Empire’s influence is hard to truly grasp. However, to deny history the chance to acknowledge its existence, is to deny the origins of Western civilization as we know it. [1]

The Eastern Empire was the most politically stable state in Europe during the Middle Ages. Through its military and diplomatic power it provided protection to Western Europe from devastating invasions from Persians, Arabs, the Ottomans and other eastern people.[2] The Eastern Empire shared a mutual relationship with the Arab world. The Arabs were content with leaving the Eastern Empire in relative peace, as long as it accommodated their expansionist ideals in the West.[3] This relationship allowed the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic people to tolerate each others' existence which also ensured their exchange of knowledge.[4]

external image Constantinople.jpgWhile the Byzantines saw themselves as Romans they evolved by absorbing cultural influences from surrounding cultures. At its beginning, its culture, language and laws were derived from the Roman section of the Empire. It then began to draw on the influences from the Hellenic and Arab worlds, evolving to become a new multicultural society ‘based on the synthesis of Greek, Roman, European and Islamic elements.”[5] The language changed from the classical Western Latin to Greek. The Eastern Empire continued to be governed by Roman laws but gradually adopted Greek practices, in both Church and State. This led to an exchange of knowledge between the Eastern and European worlds through Constantinople. By the ninth century, many of the Eastern texts had been translated into Arabic. The two different empires shared their gained knowledge about “medicine, geometry, mathematics, astronomy, geography, philosophy and science.”[6] in a reciprocal relationship. This exchange with the Eastern Empire ensured that it would eventually reach Western Europe, and thus, the Western Empire was able to rebuild itself as an intellectual centre by the end of the Middle Ages, drawing on Eastern inventions and knowledge.[7]

Constantinople was the most important commercial centre of medieval Europe and an important terminal of the Silk Road. Thus, it acted as a route for goods from China to Europe, including inventions such as gunpowder and the compass.[8] The trade routes through Constantinople also had an adverse affect on Europe, as it was through the commercial trade points that the Bubonic Plague was spread, killing millions over the next one thousand years in Western Europe.[9]

The Eastern Empire left an enduring mark on art and architecture. This is particularly evident in neighbouring regions, such as Kievan Rus, Bulgaria, Georgia and Armenia.[10] The influences continue today in Georgian and Armenian art, architecture and culture.[11] In Georgia, despite Islamic control, metalwork, ceramics and embroidery styles can be traced back to the Byzantine styles of the eleventh century, and many religious icons are still based on the original Byzantine templates.[12] Many of the churches erected from the ninth and tenth centuries were constructed using the Eastern design of Greek Cross Churches. The design was first used in Constantinople to construct smaller churches to accommodate the declining wealth of the Eastern Empire.[13] This design continued to be utilised by the West during the European Renaissance. The Armenian influences are largely seen in their religion. Armenia had adopted Christianity very early in its development and translated the Bible into the Armenian language. However, the Armenian people branched off from the Byzantine faith, in a similar way to which the East had denounced the Western faith. The Armenian people adopted Christianity but changed it to suit their society. They borrowed the icons from the East, and many of the Eastern concepts, but modified sections of the faith to reflect their “culture’s specific concerns.”[14] The adoption of Christianity into their society was a huge influence as when conquered by the Muslims, they rejected the Islamic faith, continuing their ties with the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantine influence over art expanded much further than their diminishing borders would suggest. Although the Empire at the end of the twelfth century was comprised of only Constantinople and a few outposts, the Greeks, Russians, Arabic world and most of Europe were being influenced strongly by Byzantine art.[15] The main influence was in the humanization and naturalism of people displayed in mosaics.[16] The mosaics of the Virgin Mary changed from being regal and of noble grandeur, to having realistic human emotion.[17] Mary was now depicted as interacting with Jesus, nuzzling him and portraying a strong emotional intensity, something that was never portrayed in previous depictions.[18] The use of mosaics to cover walls and ceilings was also adopted by the Muslims. After the final siege of Constantinople in 1453AD, the Haghia Sophia was converted from a site of Christian faith to a mosque.[19] The Byzantine mosaics were covered by Islamic depictions of their own faith; however, the Byzantine traces of emotion are seen in the Islamic mosaics .[20]

Justinian (482 - 565 AD)
Justinian (482 - 565 AD)
The Byzantine Empire, under Emperor Justinian (482-565AD) compiled laws and legislations into one legal code, known as the ‘Codex Justinianus’.[21] The codex was made from four written texts, the Code, the Digest, the Institutes, and the Novellae.[22] The code was a collaboration of previous work, compiled together to state the laws which the citizens or subjects of the empire would follow. The Code was revolutionary as it introduced the idea of “innocent until proven guilty”, allowing all people to a trial.[23] The code is still used as the basis for modern legal systems across Europe today, vastly influential in the social construction of many societies, as it equalized people when dealing with the law, giving opportunities to the lower classes.

One of the enduring influences on European civilization was the rise of Christianity as the dominant religion. Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity under the Edict of Milan (313AD), removing penalties and persecutions for professing to Christianity.[24] This legalization led to the spread of Christianity, which had been rejected by other traditional faiths. Christianity was monotheistic where as previous religions, such as Mithraism, were polytheistic, a concept which Christianity rejected in order to have a personal relationship with a singular God.[25] Constantine’s death marked the beginning of the Christian faith as a State religion, which rose within years to become one of the world’s most dominant faiths.[26]

Over the following 600 years, the Orthodox Christian Church in the East diverged from the Roman Catholic faith based in Rome. Their different views of Christianity are highlighted in the Iconoclastic Controversy that dominated the eighth and ninth centuries in the Eastern Orthodox Church. At its simplest, the Controversy was a conflict of beliefs, both within the Eastern Church and between the Eastern and Roman Churches, over the role of icons in worship. However, at a deeper level, it marked a social and political battle between the two branches of the church and between the Church and the State.[27]

The East (iconophiles) believed that icons were important as they connected people with their religion by teaching “the illiterate about the Christian faith.” [28] However, this led to people worshipping the icons themselves, which was unacceptable to the Papacy as they were seen as a threat to its authority and therefore, power. Under Pope Leo the Isaurian (717-741AD) the Iconoclastic Controversy led to icons of religious representations being destroyed because “if there were no holy images, there would be no risk of improper worship.”[29] The crisis between the two branches reached a terminal point in 1054 AD when they finally split. After severing its connections, the Roman Catholic Church continued to shape itself, asserting the Pope as the supreme head of the Church. This had a profound influence on the development of Western European history as for the next five hundred years and more as the Church was fundamentally central to the social order.

The Byzantine Empire left an enduring mark on the Western European world. The Eastern Roman Empire began to split off from the West, burying it roots with other civilizations, assimilating them into a new culture, known as the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire expanded intellectually; assimilated into different cultures introducing widespread knowledge, also adopting similar styles of art and architecture. The development of the ‘Codex Justinianus’ compiled laws and legislation into one system, on which most European legal systems are based. Christianity was not just legalized, but became the state religion. The introduction of the Christian faith spread dramatically around Europe, and was embraced by many other cultures outside its borders leaving an enduring mark on Europe despite the material decline of the Eastern Roman Empire.

See Also

The Byzantine Achievement Christine Ciesniewski, 2006
Justinian and the Roman Empire Luke Williams, 1996
Justinian and the Nike riots. Sam Vancea, 2008
Theodora and the politics of sex Claire Thompson, 1999


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Treadgold W, 1997, The Byzantine Empire, viewed 2nd May, 2008.

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  2. ^ Davies, 1997
  3. ^ Ahrweiler, 1998
  4. ^ Hoare, 2007
  5. ^ Hooker, 1996
  6. ^ Ranchman, 1990
  7. ^ Norwich, 1995
  8. ^ Byrne, 2004
  9. ^ Barry, 2006
  10. ^ Hussey, 1966
  11. ^ Norwich, 1995
  12. ^ Bannerman, 1991
  13. ^ Treadgold, 1997
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  15. ^ Kitzinger, 1977
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  18. ^ Barrucand, 2002
  19. ^ Eglash, 1999
  20. ^ Accad, 2003
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  23. ^ Blume, 1943
  24. ^ Liberati, 1996
  25. ^ Jonathan, 2000
  26. ^ Boyce, 1962
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  28. ^ Bennett, 2002
  29. ^ Bennett, 2002