Byzantium: The Eye of All the World

by Dexter Satterwhite

Map of the (Roman) Byzantine Empire

In 330 AD, an aged Roman emperor led a procession of priests and officials, both pagan and Christian, to a site in Thrace. Carried in the procession were numerous containers of relics brought from all over the Roman world to be buried at the site of a new city.Image of Constantine I on gold coin.

Roman coin with Constantine I

Constantine I had chosen the old Greek town of Byzantium to be the site of his new capital. He chose it because of its central location, its excellent relationship to shipping and trade routes, and its position at the very end of a headland, which would greatly aid in its defense. This city was to be the center of the Roman Empire. Constantine would rename it Constantinople in honor of himself, and he built it to be the heart of the Christian world. Although modern historians have referred to the city as Byzantium and its people as the Byzantines, the people who lived there never referred to themselves as anything but Romans, and while their society eventually developed an eastern orientation, there is little doubt today that their culture was a continuation of the Roman Empire until the later middle ages.

The history of this city and its empire is explored by John Romer in the series, Byzantium: The Lost Empire, presented by The Learning Channel in 1997. In this series, Romer, a native of England, a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, a prominent art expert, an Egyptologist, the organizer of an excavation of the tomb of Rameses XI, and a producer of numerous documentaries on various topics from antiquity, discusses the history and culture of Byzantium, which according to many ancients, represented the first capital of Christ's government on earth.

Emperor Justinian The Great and Councillors
Emperor Justinian and Councillors

Not surprisingly in Constantine's new Christian Empire, the Emperor was placed just below the level of a deity. More than divinely anointed, the emperors of Constantinople were viewed as God's representatives on Earth. One of the strongest expressions of divine right rule, their palace was built to be a paradise on earth as well as the center of worldly government. The wall around the city was the largest and longest in the ancient world. The marble for the buildings came from only one place, the Island of Marmara, which was a three days' sail from the city. There, tens of thousands of slaves worked in pits the ancients called "The Quarries of the Mother of God." Byzantine marble would become so highly prized that, after Byzantium's conquest in 1204, it was stripped from the buildings of Constantinople to beautify Venice and other cities in the West. Today heavy machinery replaces slave labor, but Marmara still produces the finest marble for modern uses.

The Byzantine economy was driven, to a large degree, by trade in olive oil from the Near East, and the trade made Constantinople very rich. As the East grew in wealth, so the West declined. The great cities of late antiquity were located in the East, and these eastern economies continued to thrive as the western economies faded under the collapse of Rome and the barbarian invasions. As a result, throughout most of its history Constantinople would be the richest city in the world, famous for its bazaars where one could buy magnificent jewelry, exotic foods, vivid silks, scholarly books by classical authors, and all the finery of the world. So in the end, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, Constantinople remained strong, to a large extent, because of its wealth. Even centuries later, the words of the poet Yeats evoke this grandeur in the poem, "Sailing to Byzantium."

This wealth enabled Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century, after he had conquered a large part of the Italian peninsula, to build one of the grandest structures of the ancient world at Constantinople: the Hagia Sophia or simply St. Sophia, The Church of the Holy Wisdom.Interior of St. Sophia Church

Interior of the Hagia Sophia

In every way St. Sophia was the climax of ancient engineering. A new interlocking cornice technique made it possible to construct the largest dome ever to be built until the sixteenth century. According to tradition, the church contained columns taken from the Temple of the Sun in Rome. The ancients claimed the doors to be made of wood from Noah's ark. Bronze plating supposedly came from the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Poets referred to the church as possessing the "size of the sunset and the scale of quarries." More than anything else, this building symbolized the glory of Byzantium.

Justinian's conquests in the West, however, bankrupted the Byzantine state, and the task of putting imperial finances right fell to Heraclius I. Although he was successful, he fought several expensive wars with Byzantium's great rival, the Persian Empire. In the end, Heraclius destroyed the Persian state, but it proved to be a Pyrrhic victory. The Byzantine Empire lay in ruins with all its cities sacked except Constantinople itself. At this very moment in time, a new menace appeared in the form of Islam. Byzantium would soon lose half its territory as Egypt and Syria quickly fell to the Arabs in the seventh century. Pressured by the Arabs in the south and threatened by barbaric tribes from the Russian steppes, it seemed likely that the end of Byzantium was near when Leo III ascended to the throne in 717. Leo, however, proved a match for the Arabs as he repulsed what would be the last Arabic attempt to take Constantinople.

Leo had another important influence on Byzantine society. His initiation of state sponsored Iconoclasm changed Byzantine culture forever. The pagan world had been full of images, but Christianity had swept the pagan world away. Images, however, proved to be deeply rooted in the human psyche. The early church recognized the need to replace them, and replace them they did. Royal patronage allowed for the creation of a richly textured new expression of Christian motifs. Icon image of Byzantium Art The first imperial images were created in Constantinople and told the story of the Bible. Many such early icons were made at a studio in the Monastery of St. John. So enthralling was the hold of earlier deities, however, that the Byzantines ironically modeled their image of Christ on that of the great Zeus at Olympia, also considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

By the eighth century, icons, more than simply representing the image of Christ and the Saints, were being worshiped for themselves as in earlier pagan times. Many people came to believe that simply possessing certain icons would bring them luck and protect them from misfortune. Not surprisingly many clerics and church officials rejected such subjugation and came to look upon icon worship as idolatry at best, and heresy at worst. Finally in 726 A.D., Leo III, after defeating the Arabs at the gates of Byzantium, turned his attention to this issue. The Emperor removed the statue of Christ that stood above the Chalk Gate of his palace and destroyed it. Riots followed and army units revolted. Leo, who was very familiar with Islam and was almost surely influenced by the Moslem ban against images, stood firm in his action and decreed that all religious icons were to be destroyed. State sponsored Iconoclasm lasted for more than a century and furthered a widening schism between the eastern and western churches. Finally, in 867 A.D., the eastern patriarch Photius dedicated the first mosaic in St. Sophia since Leo III had rejected images. Photius' action signified that Iconoclasm, at last, had come to an end. This episode did not damage imperial standing with the people even though, over the century of iconoclasm, many of the faithful had died trying to save their beloved images. According to John Romer, the issue of Iconoclasm was settled by an implicit compromise. The Emperors, who wanted all the power and holiness of the church centered upon the crown, allowed the public to venerate the image of the Emperor in order to regain the icons they so revered. Local legend maintains that, on the eve of Constantinople's final destruction in 1453 A.D., the Virgin Mary descended from heaven to retrieve her image from the church of St. Sophia.

Although the Byzantine State was bankrupted by Justinian, threatened with destruction by both Arab and Slav, and later fractured by Iconoclasm, nevertheless, it remained the greatest seaport of the ancient world. The fame of Constantinople's wealth was restored to new heights by later emperors such as Basil II in the eleventh century. Wealth often breeds haughtiness, and haughty the Byzantines were. Reinforced in their pride fueled by their prosperity, the Byzantines believed that the emperor represented the will of God on earth, and that the world would end when the emperor took off his crown and placed it on the Rock of Calvary. Accordingly, the Byzantines had a knack for making even great kings feel, according to John Romer, "like little lads from the country."

Interestingly, the Byzantines did not need to dominate by military force. They, instead, employed a form of cultural imperialism. In 987 A.D., a group of Russian ambassadors arrived in Constantinople and were so impressed by the wonder and beauty of St. Sophia that they were baptized on the spot. St. Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev Returning with priests to Kiev and Novgorod, Byzantine culture and influence spread into the North where it can be observed in the culture of the Slavs and Scandinavians to this day. For the Swedish Rus, their capital at Kiev came increasingly to reflect Micklegard, "The Wonder City," as they dubbed Constantinople.

If wealth breeds awe, it can also breed envy, and envy eventually brought about Byzantium's demise. Venice, long one of Byzantium's possessions in Italy, grew restive and envious. In 1204 A.D., the Venetians diverted part of the fourth crusade to attack Constantinople. Unlike the infidel Huns, Persians, Avars, and Arabs who had tried repeatedly, Christian warriors, by treachery and surprise, took the city. As a result, the Venetians gained control of Byzantium for the next fifty years. Legend has it that more booty was taken from the city than from all the other looted cities since creation. Much Byzantine art and treasure remains in Venice to this day. Although arriving visitors often assume it is Italian in origin, the stoic Statue of the Four Emperors in St. Marks Square clearly reflects the art of the "Second Rome." In fact, most of the courts of Western Europe received part of Byzantium's plunder. Many relics stolen from Constantinople were believed to have come originally from the Holy Land, which made them very important to westerners.

Plunder or not, the western knights eventually found their enterprise in Byzantium to be one of diminishing returns, and they abandoned the city which enabled Michael VIII to return as emperor in 1261 A.D.. Byzantine imperial power, however, had been broken forever. Gone were most of Byzantium's eastern provinces in Asia Minor and Syria from which Constantinople had drawn most of its wealth and military might. Only a ghost of the territory ruled by Basil II remained under Byzantine control, but at least the city was now free. When the bones of Inricus Dandolo, Constantinople's Italian conqueror, were removed from their burial place in St. Sophia and thrown into the street, according to John Romer, it was said, "even the dogs wouldn't eat them."

After 1261 A.D., the astute people of Constantinople were ever predicting disaster. Ironically, at the time of their emperor's restoration, the instrument that would doom Byzantium was already migrating out of central Asia into eastern Anatolia. The Ottoman Turks, over the next two hundred years, would capture the territory of the old Byzantine Empire until all that was left to the Byzantines was the land immediately around Constantinople and the Peloponnese peninsula. There, near the site of ancient Sparta, the Byzantines built a city of philosophers and clerics called Mistra. For a short time, the Byzantine philosopher Plethon established a famed school of philosophy which studied and preserved classical thought. The last emperor, Constantine XI, was from Mistra, but classical thought and culture could not generate the strength to save the empire. In 1438 A.D., Emperor John VIII visited Venice and Florence in an attempt to heal the schism between the churches of East and West and enlist the aid of the West against the Turks. Ill will, however, undermined any real prospect of western military relief. When Constantine XI took the throne in 1449 A.D., he must have known that the end was near.Emperor Constantine IX

Constantine XI

In 1453 A.D., the new Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II, delivered an ultimatum: If the Byzantine Emperor would relinquish Constantinople to the Moslems, he would allow the Byzantine people to live at Mistra as his friends; if not, he would destroy them. Sultan Mehmet II Constantine refused to give up the city, although he surely recognized that his decision doomed his dynasty. What other decision could a Byzantine emperor make? For Constantine knew, as did all the emperors of Byzantium, that he was God's representative on Earth. Therefore, his decision to stay and fight for God's Holy City was preordained. The Turkish historians would later write that the emperor fought and died bravely defending the city walls. When Mehmet entered the city, he was amazed to find whole districts dilapidated and decaying. Although the name was not officially changed until 1930, the name of the city, over time, became Istanbul in Turkish, taken from the Arab word Istinpolin which was the rendering of an old Greek phrase that meant simply "The City." Pockets of Christians were now scattered in small churches and monasteries throughout the Turkish realm.

In the last years of Christian Byzantium, John Bessarion of Trebizond in Asia Minor, who became the archbishop of Nicaea and later a Cardinal in the Catholic Church, established an academy in Rome which reintroduced classical literature in the West and enhanced Byzantium's reputation. Indeed, modern scholars owe a great debt to the work of this academy, as it can never be known what literary wonders might have been lost if not for the efforts of these scholarly refugees from Byzantium.

Other than simply preserving classical literature, one Byzantine author produced one of the finest historical accounts of the Middle Ages. Anna Komnena Anna Comnena (Komnena), because of her sex, was bypassed as heir to the throne of Byzantium by her father Alexios I in 1092 A.D. Nevertheless, Anna chronicled Alexios' reign in The Alexiad. Comnena used eyewitness accounts, archival documents, and diplomatic correspondence, as well as the histories of Michael Psellos, Joannes Zonaras, Joannes Scylitzes, and Michael Ataleiates, to preserve a great deal of information that would have otherwise been lost. The Alexiad has also been prized as giving the modern reader special insight into the Norman conquest of Sicily and the contemporary Byzantine view of the First Crusade.

In addition to the preservation of classical literature and thought, the Byzantines passed cultural influences to the Arabs and the European world, as well as to the Slavic and Viking areas of Europe. Most importantly, Byzantium gave to subsequent ages the old Roman law code, magnificently codified by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Byzantium's influence, though often sadly underestimated or overlooked by western historians, remained, nevertheless, a crucial factor in western development after the Middle Ages. Indeed, the western world cannot understand its past if it neglects or ignores Byzantium.

Byzantium: The Lost Empire, is a well made documentary in which John Romer brings much of the flavor of Byzantium and Byzantine culture to life. The cinematography is excellent, and a fine musical score with an appropriate exotic eastern air supports the documentary. The commentary is somewhat broad, even shallow at times, for the scholar of Byzantine studies, but the visuals, especially those of icons, mosaics, and other decorations in Byzantine churches and monasteries, are striking and captivating. Romer's commentary, presented in a delightfully energetic style, is clear and is easily understood by the layman. Both the serious student of Byzantium and the novice should love this series.

Recommended Readings:

Robert Browning's The Byzantine Empire and George Ostrogorsky's History of the Byzantine State are well written general histories covering the entire history of the Byzantine civilization.

John Jules Norwich's Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Byzantium: The Apogee, and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall, a three volume series, takes an in-depth and thought provoking look at the history of Byzantium.

Cyril Mango's Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome explores the development of Byzantine society and culture.

Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades, in three volumes, remains an important scholarly introduction to the crusades and their relationship to Byzantium.