[Partly edited Spring 2008 and Spring 2016.  Use with caution.  The last part is really rough.]


For convenience sake, historians divide history up into three major periods, the ancient period, the medieval period and the modern period.  The first 2/3 of this course we spent on the ancient period.  We now move on to the medieval period.  Once again, for convenience sake, we divide the medieval period into three phases:
Today, we'll talk about the first important great society to arise during the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantine Empire probably should be thought of simply as the Eastern Roman Empire, a direct continuation of the empire of Augustus and his successors.  So how does this empire get it's start?

You will remember that, in the 3rd century, Rome was in tremendous trouble, no longer able to provide physical security, ethical guidance, and emotional fulfillment the way that it once had.  The emperor Diocletian started to get things on track again, but, shortly after his reign, civil war and confusion broke out again.  In the midst of all these struggles came the great surprise, the rise of Christianity.

Christianity gave Roma a new lease on life.  Particularly in the east, the Christianized Roman Empire, what we call the Byzantine empire, remained strong for centuries.  But the Byzantine empire wasn't always quite as Christian as it might have  been, nor was Christianity always as helpful as it might have been.

The key figure in establishing the Byzantine empire was Constantine.  Constantine became co-emperor in 312 AD, and sole emperor in 324.  He continued to rule until his death in 337 AD.

Constantine faced enormous challenges, and he realized he was going to have to make major changes if Rome was to survive.  But old Rome was not the place to do this.  The entrenched Roman bureaucracy (led by the senators) was not going to be easy to get on board with any significant changes.  So Consantine decided to create for himself a new capital.  He chose the old Greek city of Byzantium for this capital, calling it "New Rome."  Later, the city was called Constantinople, the city of Constantine, and today that same city is called Istanbul.

[Instandbul *was* Constaninople.  Now it's Istanbul, not Constaninople.  Been a long time gone, old Constaninople...]

Constantinople was well situated for dealing with some of the most important threats to Roman security, e.g., invasion across the Danube and across the Euphrates.  Also, the new capital gave Constantine the chance to appoint new senators, senators who would support his changes rather than stand in the way.  It was a perfect place from which to Christianize the empire.  Perhaps 50% of the population in that region was Christian already, and that proportion soon increased.  Constantine favored Christianity, building beautiful churches and subsidizing Christian clergy.
The latter was particularly important in trying to restore Roman morality.  Consantine, like earlier emperors, issued laws designed to restore Roman morals.  Now you've all heard people say you can't legislate morality.  Thats' a phenomenally stupid thing to say.  All law is legislated morality.  Legislating against murder is legislating morality.  Passing laws to help the poor is legislating morality.  As we've talked about "ethical guidance" in the various societies we've studied, we end up again and again looking at the laws of those societies.

But there is a small element of truth in the "can't legislate morality" view.  One can't get a moral people *only* through legislation.  New Kingdom Egypt is a great example.  There were many laws with lots of  harsh penalties, but ethical standards still collapsed.  In addition to law, one needs something else.  People must internalize the values of their society.  And here's where Constantine had a great advantage.  His moral legislation wasn't much different than that of earlier emperors, but it was a lot more effective because he had the help of Christian preachers in getting people to internalize sound ethical precepts.  And many of  Rome's ethical problems did begin to disappear.  Marriages became more stable.  Infanticide comes to and end.  Reliance on slavery decreases as well.  Consantine also influences morality by a change in entertainment emphasis: no longer the bloody gladiatorial shows, but now entertainments in the hippodrome--chariot races!

Further, Christianity helped Constantine unify  his people.  Christians regarded him as a 13th apostle, a man who had done as much as Simon, Andrew, James, John and the rest to further the gospel.  And, in many ways he did.   Within a few decades, 90% of people in the empire were Christians, at least nominally.  This gave Constantine and his successors a fervent core of supporters.  More than that, Constantine had found a tremendous force for unity in the empire.  The old idea of a god-leader had sometimes worked to unify people, but it carried with it enormous problems as well.  Christianity taught people to respect leadership ("There is no power but of God," says Paul, "and the powers that be are ordained of God.") But now the leader can have peoples allegiance without the psychological baggage of being a God-man.

Now this didn't completely solve the instablility problem.  In the thousand-plus years of Byzantine history, there were 88 emperors, 29 of whom were assassinated.  Not so good, but much better than the 25 out of 26 emperors assassinated during the 235-284 AD period!  Constantine's reforms meant that civil war was far less of a problem, and, while Constantine himself was alive, he kept outside invaders pretty well in check.

After Constantine's death, however, the invasions resumed.  Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Vandals invaded, plundering the eastern empire, and occupying the west.  But here, too, Christianity helped somewhat.  Each of the Barbarian groups converted to Christianity, and, once converted, they could be absorbed into the empire.  Rome had for a long time been a sort of melting pot, but Christianity makes it even more effective, giving it an exceptional ability to assimilate people from all kinds of backgrounds.

Once assimilated, those with barbarian heritage could play important roles in the empire.  They were often recruited for the army, defending the empire against new waves of invaders.

The family of the emperor of Justinian is a good example.  Barbarian in background, they convert to Christianity, rise up through military service, and end up running the whole show!

Justinian (emperor between 527-565) at first looked like he was going to be a failure.  When he took over, the Western empire had already fallen to wave after wave of invasion.  There were riots in Constantinople as well, riots touched off by disputes among the sports fanatics.  Fans of the "greens" and the "blues" were engaged in violent altercations, and Justinian tried to bring these to an end and restore unity.  His plan sort of worked.  When Justinian arrested the leaders of both the Green and Blue factions, the two sides did indeed come to an agreement.  They both agreed that Justinian had to go! More ritots with a new slogan: Long live the merciful Greens and Blue!

Justinian would have abdicated, but his wife Theadora convinced him to gut it out.  Thirty thousand people died in the Nika riots, but, in the end, Justinian was in control of his capital.  And, from there, he set out to rebuild the empire once again.  He reqconquered much of what had been lost, winning back Italy, N. Africa, and much else.  Not only that, Justinian rebuilt much of the infrastructure of the empire: roads, canals, harbors, etc.  He built beautiful churches including Hagia Sophia.

Justininian, however, is probably most famous for his law code.  By the time of Justinian, Roman law was a confused jumble.  There were laws passed by the senate, laws passed by the assemply, laws issued by emperors.  Justinian had his lawyers take this mess and come up with a coherent, consistent code.  In addition, his jurists came up with a philosophy of law to go with the code--using, in part, Christian teachings to do so.  Here's another way, then, that Christianity was helping Rome get a new lease on life.

It's important to understand also that Byzantine Christians truly believed in their society.  "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," says the Lord's Prayer, and the Byzantines certainly had the sense that they were doing God's will on earth.  Could there be a better source of emotional fulfillment, i.e., of reasons to believe your society is a good one?

Did they succeed in putting Christ's teaching into practice?  To a large extent, they did.  But the Byzantines could occasionally be cruel.  The empress  Irene blinded her own son in order to keep power in her own hands.  And then there's Basil the Bulgar slayer--a successful emperor and general.  But note this comment from Wikipedia:

"Finally, on July 29, 1014, Basil II outmaneuvered the Bulgarian army in the Battle of Kleidion, with Samuil separated from his force. Having crushed the Bulgarians, Basil was said to have captured 15,000 prisoners and blinded 99 of every 100 men, leaving 150 one-eyed men to lead them back to their ruler, who fainted at the sight and died two days later suffering a stroke. Although this may be an exaggeration, this gave Basil his nickname Boulgaroktonos, "the Bulgar-slayer" in later tradition."

But though the Byzantines were occassionally cruel, in many ways no society on earth has lived more closely to the teaching of Christ--except in one major respect.  Christ had prayed that his followers would be one--and the Byzantine Christians just couldn't seem to stay unified, at least as far as doctrine was concerned.

Particularly, they couldn't stay unified when it came to Christ himself.  In the early 3rd century, a presbyter named Arius claimed that "God the Son" was not co-erternal with God the father.  This led to the Arian controversy, phase one of what are called all together the Christological controversies.

Phase one ended rather easily.  Constantine simply asked his biships to decide the issue by getting together in a great ecumenical concil at a place called Nicaea. In AD 325, 218 or the 220 bishops assembled at Nicaea agreed to condemn Arianism as a heresy. They had likewise adopted the Nicene creed.  Unfortunately, the introduction of a non-Biblical term (homo-ousias) had created controversy, and in AD 381, Theodosius had called for another council to try to settle the new dispute.  The 2nd Ecumenical Council (Constaninople) ruled semi-Arianism a heresy and affirmed the Nicene creed.

Good enough.  Case closed.  But, having decided that Christ was as the same essence as God raised further questions in what comes to be called the Christological controversy:  What is the relationship of the human and divine elements in Christ?

    Jesus is God, yes.  But then, who did Mary give birth to?  Should we call her the "god-bearer," the woman that gave birth to God? Nestorius, an important and influential bishop, said no: but others disagreed and, in AD 431, a great ecumenical council came together at Ephesus to decide the issue.  Nestorianism ended up condemned as a heresy.

Next question: do the human and divine natures combine into a single new nature (the monophysite position) or do the two natures remain distinct?  At the Council of Calcedon (451) the majority of bishops end up condemning the monophysite position.  But monophysite views dominated some portions of the empire, and the ecumenical council was, to an extent, backfiring: creating, not unity, but an unacceptable insistance on uniformity that made folk angry.

So what is an emperor to do?  Naturally enough, some of them worked for a comporomise.  Zeno (AD 476-491) issued the Henoticon, a decree asking both sides to simply be quiet about the issue.  This made *both* sides angry!  Anastasius (AD 491-518) tried the Henoticon, and, when that didn't work, sided with the Monophysites in an attempt to keep Alexandria and Syria loyal to the empire.  He ended up almost losing his throne in the bedlam that followed!

Imagine trying to rule a people like this, a people constantly arguing over obscure religious distinctions.  Constantinople itself was particularly bad.  One western visitor said that if you asked a grocer for a price, he'd give you a discourse on the begotten and unbegotten.  Go to the baker for bread, and you'd be lectured on how the father is greater than the son.  Ask, "Is the bath ready," and you'd be told about how the son was created from nothing.

So why didn't these people quit arguing?  It's because they cared: they thought it mattered.  Nestorius made a promise, "Give me, o emperor, the earth purged from heretics, and I will give you heaven in return.  Help me destroy the heretics, and I will help you conquer the Persians."

And, in a way, Nestorius was right.  A united Rome would still have been strong.  What Nestorius couldn't see was that he was part of the problem, as much guilty as anyone sles for heresy, e.g., division in the church.

Justinian, for a time, solved the problem.  He called yet another ecomunecial council, the 2nd Council of Constantinope (AD 553).  But, unlike Constantine, Justinian insisted on a fore-ordained outcomed.  Justinian ran rough shod over pope Vigilius and over his own bishops: Justinian insisted on the affirmation of the Creed of Calcedon.  End of discussion.

Well, perhaps an end up discussion of the Christological controversies, but the church was soon torn apart by another issue, Iconoclasm.  The Byzantine emperors had spent all sort of money building beautiful churches with splending decorations.  But read the Ten Commandments.  One isn't supposed to make graven images.  And aren't these highly-decorated churches filled with images?  Yes they were.  And so some Christians (Iconoclasts) decided these images had to go.  But the other side insisted that to deny the possiblity of making images of divine things meant a denial of the incarnation!  Back and forth for years.

Well, if ye bite and devour one another, take heed lest ye be consumed one of another, said the Apostle Paul.  The warring factions among the Christians made the empire vulnerable when a new power rose up out of the Middle East: Islam.