The Byzantine Empire

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Describe the cultural aspects of the Byzantine Empire.

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The Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the Roman Empire which was strategically located in Asia Minor. In 330 C.E., Emperor Constantine relocated Rome’s ancient imperial capital and founded the city of Constantinople in Byzantium as the new capital. Byzantium would become the trading center of the world and a melting pot for the exchange of goods and ideas. The Byzantine Empire played a significant role that influenced the world in regards to government, religion, art, architecture, and education.

The Byzantine Empire’s complex system of aristocracy and bureaucracy was adopted from the Classical Roman Empire. A centralized system of civil officials controlled government functions that were divided amongst various bureaus. The emperor was the sovereign leader of the empire, and the title was passed down through heredity. Administrators collected taxes, planned civil building projects, and conducted court hearings. Emperor Justinian is regarded for his Corpus Juris Civilis, which is a collection of fundamental works in jurisprudence that influenced today’s court system. These Roman laws were translated from Latin to Greek, and cover both ecclesiastical and secular legislation.

The Byzantine Empire has long been synonymous with the Eastern Orthodox Church after the Great Schism of 1054 C.E. Moreover, Christianity has its roots in Constantinople after Constantine commissioned the First Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. to address the Arian heresy. The Byzantine Church was heavily influenced by the Greeks, who sought to harmonize the Jewish traditions with philosophy. Theologians used Greek philosophy to study aspects of the Christian doctrine, resulting in Classical Greek foundations and traditions that differed greatly from the Western Roman Empire’s Classical Latin foundations. These differences would result in the aforementioned Great Schism. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire competed against the rise of Islam and commissioned Crusades to stop the advancing Muslims. In 1453 C.E., under the leadership of Sultan Mehmed II, the Ottoman Turks laid siege to Constantinople and successfully usurped Byzantium.

Byzantine art combined Greek and Egyptian forms and styles that were often associated with Christian iconography. While Western Europe was experiencing the Dark Ages, the Byzantine Empire flourished as timeless mosaics, frescoes, and statues were created and preserved. Panel paintings created with encaustic wax paint depicted holy images that expressed Christian dogma. Emperor Justinian (527-565 C.E.), who was a patron of the arts, commissioned beautiful mosaics to be painted at the former Ostrogothic capital of Ravenna, Italy. Many of these mosaics reflect the ornately detailed icons typical of Byzantine art and imitate oriental techniques used in Asia. The Transfiguration is regarded as the most important surviving work of Byzantine art and remains in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, Egypt. Following the iconoclasm controversy (breaking of images of Christ) in 725 C.E., manuscript production, cloisonné enamel, and ivory carvings reached their apogee in the Middle Byzantine Period. Elaborate frescoes adorned domes in many monasteries, in particular the Hagia Sophia. Following the Islamic conquests many of the Byzantine Christian works of art were removed or destroyed. Surviving pieces of Byzantine art greatly influenced Italian Renaissance painters who sought to imitate the refined style.

Byzantine architecture was heavily influenced by the design of Roman temples. Byzantine architects combined the structures of traditional basilicas with distinct dome roofs that were ornately decorated with mosaics and gold coffered ceilings. Many churches featured dramatic rows of marble piers, complex brick patters, and intricately designed frescoes on walls. The most famous example of Byzantine architecture is the Hagia Sophia. Commissioned in 537 C.E. by Emperor Justinian, the massive domed monument was built as a cathedral and is the most recognized structure in Istanbul (then Constantinople). The Hagia Sophia, meaning “holy wisdom”, contains two floors under a giant dome with 40 windows that let sunlight in. After the Muslim conquest, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, and is presently a museum today.

Influenced by Rome, Athens, and Alexandria, Constantinople became the learning center of the world around 425 C.E. after Emperor Theodosius II founded the Pandidakterion. The Pandidakterion was essentially the Byzantine Empire’s educational system that included schools of medicine, philosophy and law. Primary education was widely available to both sexes, while higher education was reserved for males. Latin and Greek influences were evident in Byzantine schools of rhetoric, philosophy, and law. Philosophy schools focused on both Plato and Aristotle’s concepts and ideas, while medicinal and musical studies drew influences from Persian practitioners and Egyptian artists.

The Byzantine Empire combined cultural influences from both East and West. Its central location and significance resulted in the exchange of ideas and goods that had significant influences throughout the world. Scholars, artists, merchants, and theologians formed the basis for this diverse empire which drew inspiration from the Greeks, Romans, Persians, and Egyptians.

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