The Roman Empire had stretched so large by the fourth century CE that it had several provincial capitals. The two most important political centers were Rome in the West and Constantinople in the East, which had formerly been called Byzantium. The emperor, Constantine the Great, rebuilt Byzantium to resemble “Old Rome,” and so this political center became known as the “New Rome.” Although those who lived in Constantinople referred to themselves as Romans and were part of the Roman Empire, historians now refer to the peoples of the Eastern Roman Empire as Byzantines.
Though the Byzantine Empire no longer remains, evidence from the era exists across Southern Europe, North Africa, Southwest Asia, and beyond. The Byzantines are famous for their intricate mosaics, like the golden ones here inside a church in Istanbul, Turkey, which was once known as Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. How Did the Byzantines Continue the Roman Empire?
By the end of the fourth century CE, the Roman Empire was permanently split into East and West.
While the Byzantine Empire in the East thrived, the Western Roman Empire experienced a series of invasions, a declining economy, and poor leadership. In 476 CE, the last Roman emperor of the West, Romulus Augustulus, was overthrown by a Germanic prince named Odovacar. After the fall of Rome, Germanic kingdoms claimed former Roman lands. Roads and other public structures fell into disrepair. Likewise, trade and commerce in the West declined. Without a powerful Western Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church became a unifying and powerful force in western Europe. In contrast, Byzantine emperors in the East were successful in keeping a powerful army that they could send long distances. While the West was repeatedly invaded after the fourth century CE, the East succeeded in defending itself well enough that Constantinople survived nearly 1,000 years after the fall of Rome. Byzantine leaders continued Roman law and traditions. The Byzantine emperor Justinian is well known for codifying Roman laws. In the process, the authors removed conflicting, duplicated, and outdated Roman laws. Also during Justinian’s reign, artists revived Hellenistic art and literature. Many historians credit the Byzantine Empire for today’s knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman cultures. As the West went into decline, scholars in the
East maintained great libraries and established schools for the study of ancient Greek and Roman history. They also continued Roman culture by combining it with aspects of peoples closer to Constantinople. Most Byzantines were Greek, but a mix of North Africans, Arabs, Persians, and Turks also lived within the borders of the Eastern Roman Empire. Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire, but more people spoke Greek in the East. Eventually Greek became the official language in the Byzantine Empire. How Did Christianity Develop in the Byzantine Empire?
Time and distance from Rome caused the Byzantine Empire to develop practices that were different from the West. This was especially true of ChristianityByzantine emperors saw themselves as having authority over the whole Roman Empire, including the Catholic Church. The emperor had final authority on church matters. The Patriarch and otherbishops answered to the emperor. In the Byzantine Empire, the highest political authority and highest religious authority was the same person. However, in the West, kings and church leaders were separate, though kings answered to the popeChristianity helped unify the diverse people of the Byzantine Empire. Being head of the church gave the emperors the right to rule in the eyes of the people. Byzantine mosaics often show emperors with halos, emphasizing the connection to the church. The prominent role of Christianity in the empire is evident in the many Byzantine-era churches and the detailed works of art they contain. What Was the Iconoclast Controversy?
In the eighth and ninth centuries, the Byzantine Empire is probably most famous for theiconoclasm controversy. An icon is a holy image or sculpture of a revered holy figure such as Jesus Christ or a saint. A saint is someone who is recognized as holy or virtuous by the Church. Byzantine art frequently used human forms and symbols to represent important ideas and figures in Christianity. A great debate arose over whether this type of practice, including veneration of the icons, was acceptable.iconoclasts, meaning “icon breakers,” were those who were against the practice. They feared it could lead to idolatry, forbidden by the Bible.
How Did the Controversy Affect the Byzantine Empire?
The iconoclast debate became a political issue that lasted more than 100 years. Many historians say it was also the greatest intellectual debate over the purpose of art. The pope and bishops in the West supported the use of icons, as did most Byzantine bishops. The practice had existed for centuries. As the emperor was head of the Byzantine church, he did not need support from church leaders to ban icons. In fact, people who continued to support icons during those times experiencedpersecution.
What Other Issues Split East and West?
The use of icons as religious symbols was not the only issue dividing the Eastern and Western churches. One was the use of leavened instead of unleavened bread in worship. Church leaders attached special importance to breads made with or without yeast, per quotes in the Bible. They disagreed on the proper interpretations. Another issue was the power of the pope, who saw the position of the emperor over the patriarch in the East as a challenge to his own authority. In addition, the importance of Constantinople as an important Christian city was in debate. Church leaders in the West objected to Byzantine emperors’ claims of Constantinople having equal importance to Rome. What Was the Great Schism?
By 1054, the differences between East and West had grown too wide. That year, Pope Leo IX sent representatives to Constantinople. They insisted that Michael Cerularius, the patriarch of Constantinople, acknowledge the pope as his superior and Rome as the head of the Christian church. The delegates’ leader, acting on the pope’s behalf, excommunicated Cerularius. The patriarch excommunicated the delegates and the pope in return. This event marks the Great Schism, or split, in Christianity between East and West. The Church in the West became the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church continued to grow in the East, based in Constantinople. Roman Catholic Church| Similarities| Eastern Orthodox Church| * Latin was official language * Pope has highest authority, over kings and emperors as well * Priests cannot marry * Married couples could not divorce * Centered in Rome| * Both base teachings on Jesus and the Bible * Both offer sacraments, meaning special church services such as baptism * Both have priests and bishops as church leaders * Both seek to convert others
to Christianity| * Greek was official language * Patriarch and other bishops lead as a group * Emperor claimed authority over the patriarch * Priests can marry * Married couples could divorce under certain conditions * Centered in Constantinople| The Byzantine Empire’s culture was already spreading to Slavic and other peoples further east and north. Many of these groups converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, especially because of the work of saints Cyril and Methodius. St. Cyril was talented in learning languages and worked to create the first written alphabet for the Slavonic language. He and St. Methodius then were able to begin translating the Bible into the new alphabet. They were missionaries to the Slavs, credited with spreading Christianity and Byzantine influence. Western Roman Empire| Eastern (Byzantine) Empire|
Latin was official language| Iconoclast controversy|
Pope was highest authority| Orthodox Church|
Catholic Church| Greek was official language|
Excommunicated iconoclasts| Patriarch was highest church leader| Centered in Rome| Centered in Constantinople|