Know who Justinian was, why he was important, and the big things he did.
Know who Belisaurius was and why he was important.
Know about the Hagia Sophia (no, don’t need to know about pendentives).
What’s the Justinian Code?
Know why the Byzantine Empire was able to hold out for so long and why it’s important to Western culture.
Know what happened to Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.
Know how the city finally fell and by whom.
Know about the Great Schism.
The Western empire was falling, what with all the invasions and such. After Constantine moved the capital to Byzantium, the center of Roman power shifted there.
While the empire is split into eastern and western halves, the eastern empire, or Byzantine Empire as we now call it, still considered itself to be the Roman Empire proper and its emperors were part of the unbroken Roman line.
The term ‘Byzantine Empire’ doesn’t sprout up until the 15 th century and isn’t in common usage until the 18 th century.
There was a recognition of the difference between the empires, though. The Western folks liked to call it the Greek Empire and the emperor there the emperor of the Greeks.
This was because of the heavy Hellenic influence among the Byzantines (they spoke Greek, not Latin, for example), but also because the Western rulers wanted the Roman name and history for themselves.
Becomes emperor in 527.
Quickly begins reconquering Roman territory from the Barbarians.
Starts off with the Eastern Empire and then by the end of his reign had conquered the orange parts.
Justinian did most of his conquering with Belisaurius.
Belisaurius is actually one of history’s greatest generals, but he doesn’t get as much credit or name-recognition.
Justinian used Belisaurius’s military ability but also feared it as a threat to his rule… though Belisaurius never showed any inclination for overthrow.
He put down the 532 Nika Riots
Led by chariot hooligans – supporters of different chariot racing teams. These groups had political overtones, though and were often separated by interests, wealth, and class.
Only lasted a week, but nearly half the city was severely damaged and the mobs nearly overthrew Justinian.
The populace was also a little annoyed by high taxes and some Senators didn’t like Justinian much and supported the riots.
Belisaurius trapped the rioters in the Hippodrome (the racing stadium). His troops stormed the place, killing nearly 30,000 people.
Belisaurius proceeded to reconquer North Africa from the Vandals by 534 and then Italy and Rome from the Ostrogoths by 545 (although this one had trouble sticking)
He retires, but is called back up by Justinian in 559 to repel the Bulgar invasion.
He’s tried on trumped-up charges, convicted, but then pardoned by Justinian. One account says Belisaurius’s eyes were put out before the pardon and he became a blind beggar.
Back to Justinian…
Creates the Justinian Code
From 528 to 533, a special commission examines nearly all Roman law and court cases. The goal is to create a uniform code of law to govern the empire.
The result is the Codex Justinianus , which consists of four works: The Code, the Digest, the Institutes, and the Novellae.
This code not only serves as the basis for Byzantine law for the next 900 years, but also becomes the basis for nearly all European legal systems.
Scholars discovered the code, commented on it, and used it. These are civil law countries.
Justinian also engages in a massive building program.
One of the first orders of business was to repair the walls.
The walls were virtually impregnable.
The Walls of Theodosius were double layered. The inner wall was 16 feet thick and 40 feet tall. It had 96 staggered towers that were 70 feet tall. The external wall was 6.5 feet thick and 28 feet tall. In between the two was a ditch 65 feet wide and 20 feet deep.
The walls are breached only twice in 1,000 years: when the Crusaders get over the sea walls during the fourth crusade and when the city is finally conquered by Mehmed and the Turks in 1453.
Justinian commissioned the building of one of the world’s great structures (it replaced a version that was burned down during the Nika Riots).
The Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was built in just six years.
The main dome is 102 feet in diameter and 183 feet high.
The dome is architecturally the most interesting part.
First note all those windows going around the outside. Windows are not weight-bearing structures. That means the weight of the dome is distributed around them by arches.
Then you have a circular dome that is placed on a rectangular building, which is awkward. The Pantheon in Rome, you’ll recall, was a circular dome on a circular building so the dome’s weight is evenly distributed. But what about a rectangular building?
The solution was pendentives.
The triangular pendentives at each of the four corners took the weight of the dome and distributed downward.
Obvious, you say? This was the first time it was ever done.
In its prime, the Hagia Sophia would have been awe-inspiring.
Gilt everything, beautiful intricate mosaics, paintings, etc.
When the Turks conquer Constantinople in 1453, the building is turned into a mosque.
Muslim flourishes are added, mosaics are plastered over since depictions of the human form were banned, and those familiar minarets on the outside were added.
Note the large medallions with Arabic writing.
The loss of the Hagia Sophia is known as one of the great losses to the Eastern Orthodox Church.
It would be a bit like if the Vatican was turned into a mosque complex.
Some in the church want it back.
In 1935, the Hagia Sophia was secularized and turned into a museum. It’s now neither a church nor a mosque, though it bears the history of both and restoration can be a touchy subject.
Justinian’s building program also included aqueducts, other churches, hospitals, orphanages, baths, and other stuff.
He wanted a city with every bit the grandeur and prestige of old Rome.
The Byzantines’ big problem is that they had a bunch of enemies and they lacked the military to stop them all.
They could conquer, but they couldn’t hold well. Especially since the armies were stretched too thin in the east due to the conquering in the west.
The main tactic was to bribe potential invaders to stay out. This worked ok, but all it took was some sabre-rattling by an enemy to increase payment.
Not long after Justinian died, they lost control of much of Italy and Spain. Their Balkan territories were also hard-pressed and the Persians pressed from the east.
The emperor Heraclius was able to prop things up some.
He reorganized and consolidated the empire. Greek became the official language, Latin titles were done away with, and Romaness was replaced with a new identity.
Then Islam came to the Byzantines.
The Muslims rapidly conquered the land in North Africa and Egypt.
The Byzantine Empire looked like this in 565.
By 717, it looked like this.
Constantinople itself was still able to stand, though it was laid siege to multiple times by the Russians, Slavs, and Muslims.
It had a strong navy to bring in supplies and trade, the walls were amazing, and the Byzantines had that great Greek fire that nobody else could figure out.
The Byzantines’ worst point (next to its conquering) was in the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
Western crusaders were supposed to come to the aid of Byzantine emperor and attack Egypt.
There’s some complicated politics behind it, but the crusaders stopped in Constantinople, invaded, and then spent three days sacking the city.
They looted the city of many of its ancient and medieval artifacts and destroyed many others.
The churches were desecrated and destroyed.
Instead of the Christians attacking the Muslims, they attacked fellow Christians instead. The pope was appalled.
This severely weakened the empire.
Four bronze horses the Crusaders took from Constantinople’s Hippodrome as plunder. They now reside in Venice. The collars hide the marks where the Venetians cut off the heads in order to fit them on their boats.
The Muslims came back and took much of the Byzantine territory. By 1400, there was almost nothing left but Constantinople itself.
In 1453, the Turkish Sultan Mehmet laid siege to Constantinople with a force of 80,000 men.
The Byzantines were able to muster only 7,000 in defense.
Nevertheless, the siege lasted for over two months and wave after wave of Turks were repelled.
Tunnels meant to undermine the walls were discovered and flooded or attacked.
Mehmet finally broke through one of the gates and into the city. The defenders went down fighting, including the emperor Constantine XI.
The soldiers proceeded to rape, pillage, and plunder until Mehmet ordered a halt to it after 24 hours… too late for much of the city and the populace of 50,000.
The last vestige of the Roman Empire was conquered. The last strong eastern defense against Muslim aggression was also eliminated, opening the way for Islam to conquer Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, parts of eastern Europe and continually threaten western Europe in the form of the Ottoman Empire.
Oddly enough, the greatest protector of the West for nearly 1,000 years was in the east. The Byzantines protected Europe by holding back the Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Ottomans at a time when the Western kingdoms probably wouldn’t have been able to stop them because those kingdoms were so divided.
Going backward a little bit, the differences between the church in the west and that in the east continued to grow.
The head of the church in the east was the patriarch, the bishop of Constantinople.
The two sides continued widening and it’s complicated and as much based on power politics as doctrinal differences.
What it comes down to is that were disputes over the nature of the Trinity and who had authority over the eastern churches. The two church leaders wind up excommunicating each other (tossed him out of the Church, which at the time meant you were damned).
This is known as the Great Schism and the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches are split to this day.