For several centuries after the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Roman-occupied Judea, the western world was the Roman world. Thefrontiers of the Roman empire stretched from Britain in the North tothe Sahara Desert in the south, from the Atlantic Ocean in the west toRome’s old and formidable enemy -- the Persians -- in the east.Constantine the Great in York, UK, by Philip Jackson.In the three hundred years after the birth of Jesus the conflict betweenpaganism and Christianity intensified until in 313 of the common erathe emperor Constantine I -- called The Great -- legalized the practiceof Christianity. He ended the persecution of the new religion andallowed it to flourish openly. Then he, himself, became a Christian.
Very soon Roman paganism declined, At the same time Constantinedecided that the empire was too large to be ruled from one center andfounded a new city -- a Christian city -- in the eastern part of theempire where Asia meets Europe at the Bosporus. He called it NewRome, today’s Istanbul; but it has always been commonly known asConstantinople.The common speech of the Roman Empire in its eastern half hadalways been Greek rather than the Romans’ Latin and soon Greekbecame the official language of that part of the empire ruled fromByzantium. Little by little the two halves of the Roman world drewapart. Within two hundred years the center of power in the Westernpart had shifted away from the Mediterranean Sea, to the developingstates north of the Alps.The reconstructed land walls of Constantinople.
In the east, however, Constantinople and the empire flourished. Theyflourished and prospered for another thousand years. The Byzantineempire survived almost constant war against enemies from the newwestern states, from attacks by Slavic tribes north of the Black Sea,and from Arab armies under the standard of Mohammed. Not untilless than fifty years before Columbus expanded the horizon of allEuropeans did it finally succumb to two-hundred years of attacks byTurkish armies coming out of Asia.The triple walls of the city were themarvel of the middle ages. They stood against attack after attack foralmost a thousand years. Below the author, his daughter, andshepherds pose near ruined sections of the wall.
The Later Roman -- or Byzantine -- Empire was far and away thehighest civilization of the European and Western Asiatic worldthroughout the middle ages. Its only competitors in culturalachievements were far-off China, and the Islamic states which hadthemselves founded their architecture on Byzantine designs and muchof their science and philosophy on Greek learning which had beenpassed on by Byzantium. Below is the Church of the Holy Wisdom inIstanbul, later the Ayasofya mosque, and now a museum.The Hagia Sophia Cathedral, later the Ayasofya Mosque.
Cataphract from the The Vinkhuijzen collection of The Barberini diptych, showing a victoriousmilitary uniforms emperor in armor, The Louvre Museum,Always, the strength of Byzantium were its mighty armies of heavilyarmored cavalrymen, and the use of “Greek Fire” a combustiblemixture which burned even on water and many times preservedConstantinople and the empire when they were attacked. Greek fire in use, from the 11th century Skylitzes manuscript now in Madrid.
Yet for most of its history the empire was rich and preferred diplomacyto war whatever the cost, buying the services of potential invaders andeither enlisting them in its own armies or setting them against otherenemies. Barbarian emissaries were astounded by the wealth of thecourt. Organ music filled the vault of Hagia Sophia and marvelousclockwork beasts decorated the palaces. Imperial eunuchs imitatedthe angels, and princesses might be married to Russian royalty.Missionaries were sent into the wilderness north of the empire wherethey would evangelize barbarian tribes pushing west. In the processthey would use the Greek alphabet to provide the tribes with the firstdocuments written in their own language.Diplomacy was funded by luxury trade from the Asian silk road, adangerous overland passage from China which terminated at theBosporus; and by the trade in furs and natural resources that werecarried by water down the Bosporus from the Black Sea, pastConstantinople, and on to the west.For centuries the Near East was a part of the Eastern Empire. Egyptsupplied grain for the populace of Constantinople while Greece andAsia Minor provided cavalrymen and horses to defend it from attacksby Persia. Then in the sixth century Arab armies under the banner ofMohammed conquered Persia, Egypt, and the Holy Land. There wasstill trade but the empire took a hit from which it never fully recovered.A Byzantine cavalry force engages retreating Bulgars.
The defining characteristic of the empire was its devout Christianity;the empire was dotted with monasteries and covered with churches.The Byzantines left to the Orthodox churches the heritage of beautywith which they decorated both secular and religious buildings withreligious frescoes and gold mosaics. Most of the secular buildingshave been destroyed but many churches remain. This strikinglymodern wall painting is from the church of St. Saviour in Chora inIstanbul. Christ is seen raising both Adam and Eve from the dead,together at the end of time. Christ raises Adam and Eve from the grave. A 14th century Fresco in St. Saviour in Chora.
The eastern emperors maintained an outpost in Ravenna, Italy, longafter Rome itself had fallen to Gothic invaders. These sixth centurymosaics from the Church of San Apollinaire Nuovo show the wise menbringing gifts to the Christ child, and a procession of holy virginsapproaching the enthroned Christ.
Two views of San Apollinaire in Classe, Ravenna, Italy, 6th century.
Despite the Roman heritage of the early Byzantine state its culturewas as largely Greek and Asiatic. As Christians, representativepainting and sculpture of God and the saints were forbidden. This ledto a period in the seventh century when only the cross could bedisplayed. In this Iconoclastic period much early Christian art wasdestroyed. Eventually images of Christ and the saints were permittedagain but sculpture in the round was forbidden. Purely religiouspaintings and mosaics took on the abstract two dimensional qualitythat is associated with icons. Icons could be a spiritual bond betweenheaven and earth but they were not to be worshiped as idols. In theicons above Mary is seen as the Christ bearer. The image on the leftemphasized Christs divinity, that on the right the humanity of bothmother and child.
Byzantine dedication to Christ is to be seen in the representations ofChrist as ruler of the world which dominated every church. Theimages below are from the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Istanbul.The emperor was depicted as Christs representative. Jesus was theruler of all. The emperor was the ruler of Christ’s empire on earth, an
absolute authority in civil affairs, and the temporal head of His church.Here he is depicted in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia with an emperorand empress.A warmer faith depicted the mother of Jesus. The devotion ofByzantines to her was next only to their fear of a forgiving but aweinspiring Christ; for Mary was accessible on a human level, a personlike themselves, who, like themselves, had suffered all the tribulationsof life in faithfulness to God. Here the emperor Justinian I presents theHagia Sophia cathedral, and the emperor the city of Constantinople,to Mary to whom the city was dedicated.
Our Lady of Kazan, origin unknown. The Annunciation from the Church of St. Discovered in 1579 in Russia. Clement In Macedonia.Mary is often depicted at the point of death. Jesus holds his motherssoul.
Only next in regard to the mother of Christ were the saints of theOrthodox church to whom prayers were constantly offered for theirintercession before the heavenly throne. Their deliberately stylizedrepresentations - icons usually painted on wood and often obscuredwith silver and jewels - remain models for icons of the Easternchurches today.St. Michael the Archangel and St. Peter from the St. CatherineMonastery in the Sinai; and St. George from the Christian andByzantine Museum, Athens.
Less has survived of secular art, partly because even secularbuildings were decorated with religious motifs. Yet some, though oftendamaged, remain. Above is the so-called shroud of Charlemagnemade in Constantinople, and a Bishops vestment with Byzantineembroidery from a collection in the Kremlin Armoury. Below are somelate Roman floor mosaics from the Great Palace in Constantinople.These images maintained the Roman tradition of realism in art.
The greatest rulers after Constantine in Byzantium’s early centurieswere the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora. It is to one of hisgenerals, Belisarius, that Justinian owed the reconquest of much ofthe Roman empire in the early sixth century and its defense againstPersia. Belisarius, though little known in the west, was certainly one ofthe world’s best generals and one of its most honorable. He refusedon several occasions to betray Justinian and take the crown himself.He was also deeply devoted to his wife Antonina,`
In these Ravenna mosaics of Justinian and Theodora, Belisariusstands next to the emperor and Antonia next to the empress. Althoughthe empress was a very beautiful woman she died of cancer and herillness is clearly captured in these glass tiles. Such portraiturecontrasts with the deliberately abstract symbolism of Byzantinereligious art.
It is to Justinian that the world owes the codification of Roman law andalso the construction of Hagia Sophia, one of the most impressivebuildings in the world. Hagia Sophia, meaning the church of the HolyWisdom, still stands as a museum in modern Istanbul. The roundelswith Arabic writing date from the period when it was a mosque. Someof its mosaic decoration has been uncovered after having been longhidden in accordance with Islamic law. An exterior of the building isshown on page 4.
But it is not for its rulers and generals that the Byzantine world shouldbe most regarded. Monks throughout the empire patiently copied overand over the Roman and Greek authors, preserving the knowledgeand wisdom of the ancient world. Much of this knowledge was passedto medieval Europe by way of Islamic scholars who received it frommonastic libraries in the Holy land and carried it through North Africato Spain. Below is a Greek herbal, the Vienna Dioscorides, with Arabicnotations.
Much of the art in Constantinople and the Asian parts of the empire islost -- though not all. Much still remains in modern Greece, the Balkancountries, and elsewhere. Below is the monastery church of HosiasLoukas in Greece, and Rumanias lovely Putna monastery, built justas the Ottoman Turks were conquering Byzantium itself.`
From elsewhere in the empire: a Byzantine fortress on the island ofCrete, and from Mt. Nebo in Jordan, a mosaic floor
In Sicily, the twelfth century Montreale Cathedral successfullycombined Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic architectural styleseven while the two churches were drawing apart.In 1130, Roger II became king of Sicily. In this mosaic from the Martorana, achurch in Palermo, he is invested by Christ while wearing the emblems of aByzantine emperor. Even the inscription is in Greek.
All Europe looked to Constantinople with regard and envy, mixed withthe disdain with which less sophisticated societies may regardcultures which they can perhaps copy but neither surpass nor evenmatch. The rude knights of western Europe often misunderstoodliterary and social achievement for decadence. Below are modernrepresentations of a Byzantine empress with her retinue, an armyofficer with a high official, and a domestic scene.
The western knights of the first crusade were welcomed by Byzantiumuntil it became clear that they intended to retake for themselves theHoly land which Byzantium had lost to Arab armies. Thereafterrelations continued to deteriorate. There was a split between theEastern and Western churches which had for a long time been driftingapart. In 1204 knights of the fourth crusade, sometimes called therobber crusade, deviated from their mission to the Holy Land andseized Constantinople. For fifty seven years it was occupied byforeign forces until freed by the emperor Michael VIII. Much wasdestroyed during the occupation. Much else was stolen and taken toItaly and other parts of western Europe. St. Marcos in Venice isperhaps the finest example of Byzantine art and architecture next toHagia Sophia for not only did the Venetians closely copy Byzantinemodels in its construction, many works of art including these ancientGreek horses were moved there.
The city and the empire could not completely recover. Byzantiumspower had depended upon controlling trade through and across theBosporus. But now for defense the weakened empire increasingly hadto bestow trade concessions on the emerging Italian city states.Turkish sultans who had displaced Arab emirs conquered theprovinces from which Byzantium recruited troops. By the fifteenthcentury most of the empire outside Constantinople and thePeloponnese in Greece had been occupied. Western Europe tried toolate to organize a relief expedition but each western state looked firstto its own advantage. The army of Mehmet II carried small shipsoverland and launched them into the citys principal harbor, theGolden Horn, behind the warships of the defenders. Even with thehelp of some troops from Genoa who chose to remain defending ahopeless cause, the city could not be held. By now the city facedcannon fire which eventually brought down a part of the great walls.Constantine XI Palaeologos, the last Roman emperor, fell in thebreach defending his city against the assault. The date was May 29,1453, just thirty nine years before Columbus ventured to America andeleven hundred and twenty three years after the citys founding.
Yet a fine example of what a Byzantine city looked like still exists.Near Sparta in Greece the city of Mistra was deserted intact after theconquest.On the Peloponnese the fortress of Monomvasia towers like Gibraltar.
However the truest heritage of Byzantium are the monasteries, theceremony, and the decor and vestments of the Eastern Orthodoxchurches, a living reminder of the thousand-year empire ofConstantines New Rome. Below is a Monastery in Metora, Greece,and a Russian Orthodox Church in Seldovia, Alaska.
Photo Credits:The first cover illustration is of the Byzantine Double Eagle, a symbol of the Greek Orthodox Church. Copyright: Lakis Fourouklas, Dreamstime.com.The second cover illustration is from the 10th century Joshua Roll in the Vatican Library. The photograph is from the York Project via Wikipedia.The map is the authors.The statue of Constantine the Great was created by Phillip Jackson and photographed by Charles drakew. It is off Wikipedia.The first image of the triple land walls of Constantinople originates from Wikipedia, photographer unknown.The three photos of the ruined walls are the authors.The exterior view of Hagia Sophia is from Wikipedia. The photographer is not identified.The mounted Cataphract is from the the Vinkhuijzen collection of military uniforms by Dr. H. J. Vinkhuijzen, compliments of the New York PublicLibrary.The mounted figure of an armored emperor is from the early sixth Barberini diptych in the Louvre, photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen, from Wikipedia.The image of Greek fire being employed is from the 12th century Skylitzes manuscript in the Biblioteca Nacional de Espania in Madrid, photographerunknown, Wikipedia.The image of a mounted Byzantine force pursueing Russ is also from the Madrid Skylitzes ms. WikipediaThe remarkable fresco of Christ raising Adam and Eve from their graves is copyright Adrian Fletcher, www.paradoxplace.comThe two mosaics of the three wise men and a procession of virgins are from the church of Sant Apolinare Nuove in Ravenna, Italy. Copyright: NeilHarrison, Dreamstime.com.The next two images of the apse of Sant Apolinare in Classe are copyright Gian Marco Valente, Dreamstime.comThe photographs from the 6th century church of San Vitale in Ravenna are copyright Adrian Fletcher, www.paradoxplace.comThe two Madonna images, one emphasizing the divinity. The other the humanity of Christ are copyright Dmitry Kalinovsky, Dreamstime.com.The first image of Christ Pantocrator (Ruler of all) from the apse of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral museum in Istanbul is copyright Sadikgulec,Dreamstime.com.The second image of Christ Pantocrator is likewise from the Hagia Sophia, Wikipedia.The mosaic of Christ flanked by an emperor and empress is from Hagia Sophia, copyright Nexus7, Dreamstime.com.The mosaic of Christ flanked by Justinian and Constantine I is copyright Ahmet Ihsan Ariturk, Dreamstime.com.The icon of the Virgin Mary without Christ was first located in Greece but during the Turkish-Greek war was transferred to Russia where in 1984 itdisappeared. The photographer is unknown. Wikipedia.The annunciation icon is from Macedonia. the photographer is unidentified, Wikipedia.The icon of the dormition of Theotokos (the Christ bearer) was created by Theophan the Greek in 1392. The photographer is unidentified, Wikipedia.Michael the Archangel is a 13th century icon from the monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai; photographer unknown, Wikipediathe icon of St. George is located in the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens; photographer Ricardo Andre Frantz, WikipediaThe image of St.Peter is from the sixth century monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai; photographer unknown, Wikipedia.The Shroud of Charlemagne was a 9th century silk produced in Constantinople; presently in the Musee National de Moyen Age, Paris. Reproduced fromDe Byzance a Istambul, Wikipedia.The bishops vestment with Byzantine embroidery is in the Kremlin Armory; photograph from Shakko, Wikipedia.The two images of a woman with a basket and a boy with a basket and mule are fifth century floor mosaics from the Great Palace in Constantinople. Fromthe Yorx Project, Wikipedia.The floor mosaics of Nature personified and a fish are also from the Great Palace; Copyright Neilneil, Dreamstime.com.The image of two men hunting from the Great Palace is copyright Ukrphoto, dreamstime.com.The image of boys playing hoops from the Great Palace is copyright Pavle Marjanovic, Dreamstime.com.The eagle with a snake in its beak from the Great Palace is copyright Neil Harrison, Dreamstime.com.The mosaic depictions of the emperor Justinian and empress Theodora are from the church of San Vitale, Ravenna; copyright Mary Ann Sullivan, BlufftonUniversity.The interior view of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral (later a mosque and now a museum) shows the ongoing efforts to uncover and preserve the remainingmosaics, many of which were covered but not destroyed after the Turkish conquest. Copyright Vvoevale, Dreamstime.com.The Vienna Dioscorides is a 6th century Byzantine herbal in Greek which was much later annotated in arabic. Presently in the Osterreichischenationalbibliothek, Vienna. Wikipedia.The interior view of the monastery church at Hosios Loukas is from Napoleon Vier, ookaboo.comThe photograph of Putna Monastery is copyright Marianmoca, Dreamstime.com.The fortress on Crete is copyright Larisap, dreamstime.comThe mosaic floor from Mount Nebo, Jordan is copyright Jerzy Strzelecki, Wikipedia.The photograph of the Monreale cathedral in Sicily is by Jerzy Strzelecki, Wikipedia.The image of Christ crowning Roger II king in Sicily is copyright Max Buten, All rights reserved.The image of a Byzantine empress, and that of an officer and courtier are from the 19th century History of Costume by braun and Schneider.The drawing of a domestic scene in Byzantium was from George Barrie & Sons 1907 and is from the authors collection.The bronze horses in San Marco, Venice are from Tteske, Wikipedia.Painting of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks from the 1455 Bertrandon de la Broquière in Voyages dOutremer. No source, Wikipedia.The exterior of a Byzantine church is in the deserted city of Mistra in the Peloponnese is. No source, Wikipedia.The courtyard or cloister in Mistra is copyright Panagiotis Risvas, Dreamstime.com.The photo of the fortress of Monemvasia is copyright Georgios Alexandris, Dreamstime.com.The photo of Evlahos monastery in Meteora is by Vaggelis Vlahos, Wikipedia.The photo of the Russian Orthodox Church in Seldovia, Alaska is by Christopher Mertl, Wikipedia.