[Partly edited Spring 2008 and
Use with caution. The last part is really rough.]
For convenience sake, historians divide history up into three
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 Early Middle Ages (AD 325-AD 1000)
- The High Middle Ages (AD 1000-1300)
- The Late Middle Ages (AD 1300-15000)
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
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
laws with lots of harsh penalties, but ethical standards still
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
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
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
"Finally, on July 29,
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
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
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
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.