The Byzantine Empire

According to tradition, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BC. (Archaeology suggests that people lived at that location far earlier, but likely for most or all that time, they did not consider themselves “Romans.”) The last Roman king was deposed in 509 BC, creating the Republic of Rome, which expanded over the centuries to rule the Mediterranean basin. Under Octavian Caesar, called Augustus, the Republic was replaced by the Roman Empire in 27 BC. This Empire continued to be ruled from Rome until Emperor Constantine moved the government to Constantinople in 330 AD. Constantine thus began the Byzantine Empire, which was viewed as a continuation of Roman government and culture; this Empire survived until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD.

In other words, the duration of the Byzantine Empire from Constantine until the Ottoman success was more than eleven centuries, a few more years than those that encompass the entire traditional Roman history from the founding of the city to the moving of the government. Given continuity of Roman culture, the Roman civilization lasted more two thousand years. Even treating the Byzantine Empire as a separate entity from Rome, its existence for eleven centuries makes it far more durable than most other Empires and other centralized governments of human history.

When historians focus attention upon the immigration of Germanic groups into the western Empire and neglect the continuity of Roman civilization in the eastern Empire, they misinterpret history. The west blended Roman civilization, law, and traditions with their Germanic ways; the east became more Greek in its outlook, but remained as a major world power through dozens of emperors. The Byzantine Empire had challenges of its own from immigrants, including Goths and Bulgars and Slavs and Avars. Later, it protected Europe from the advance of Islamic civilization, although it lost north Africa and parts of western Asia in the process. Roman literature, science, architecture, and philosophy were preserved by the Byzantines, as was the Christian religion. All of these were them communicated with other civilizations. Missionaries from Constantinople brought Christianity north into eastern Europe, even inventing an alphabet so they could share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the Russians. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire remained a key link in the Silk Roads which united the continents in an economic system of trade (along with transportation of technology and of ideas) over the centuries. The Byzantine Empire was essential for world civilizations and particularly for the continuing development of western civilization while it remained in power.

The Emperor Justinian, two centuries after Constantine, was one of the most important rulers of the Byzantine Empire. He recodified Roman Law, enabling it to survive into modern times and to shape the legal codes of many current governments. He strengthened Byzantine power in the Mediterranean Sea, even recapturing some of the lands that had been claimed by Germanic governments. He also shared political power with his wife, Theodora—much to the dismay of many men in the eastern government and Church. Justinian, like Roman emperors before him, supported the arts and was responsible for beautification of the capitol city—in his case, including the construction of the church building called Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom.

In the eleventh century, Muslim military forces in western Asia were strengthened by the influx of Turks from central Asia, who had been displaced by the growth of China. Needing reinforcements to keep his borders secure, the Byzantine Emperor called for help from European Christianity. Thus began the Crusades. The Emperor was not impressed with the quality of warrior arriving from the west, but he prepared to place them as shock troops in front of his better-trained soldiers. Instead, they headed south and captured Jerusalem, establishing five western-style kingdoms in the Holy Land, kingdoms that lasted more than a century. The eventual decline of those kingdoms led to further crusades, including the disastrous Fourth Crusade, which sacked Constantinople and never made it to Jerusalem. This event, though eventually overturned by Byzantine fighters, was the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire, even though it held on for another two centuries after that catastrophe. Distrust between eastern Christianity and western Christianity had begun before the Crusades and only worsened during these times. The fall of Constantinople was not recognized in Europe for the turning point of history that it became, although not many more years would pass before Turkish warriors were at the gates of Vienna, threatening to overwhelm western civilization. But that story awaits another chapter. J.

The history of Rome–part three

After Julius Caesar died, five of his relatives followed him as leaders of Rome. Octavian was the first, who adopted the title of Emperor and brought an end to the Roman Republic. He was given the title Augustus. After Augustus came Tiberius, then Gaius (called Caligula for the little army boots he wore as a boy), then Claudius, and then Nero. None of them inherited their position from their father; the succession of the early emperors was far more complicated. But all of them gained power over the Roman Empire and ruled much of the known world from the city of Rome.

Augustus ruled as Emperor for more than forty years. His designated heir, Tiberius, ruled more than twenty years. Between them, they accustomed the Roman people to Imperial government, centered upon a single person. Gaius Caligula was far less competent. He saw that his predecessors, Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, were being honored as Roman gods, and he demanded the honor and worship of a god while he was still alive. After four years of expensive and chaotic rule, he was assassinated. The Senate appeared ready to restore the Republic, but soldiers found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace and declared him Emperor. Claudius ruled the Empire about a dozen years, and his heir—Nero—was even worse than Caligula. Nero focused the power and wealth of the Empire upon himself. He accused wealthy people of treason so he could execute them and claim their families’ money for his expenses. He also sought honor as a god. Before he could be assassinated, though, he killed himself—the last Caesar to be related to Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.

By this time, the family name of Caesar had become a title, and it was sought by several generals of the Roman army. After a period of competing Caesars, accompanied by wars and assassinations, the general Vespasian was able to gain and keep power over the Empire as Caesar. After he died, his sons—first Titus, then Domitian—held power. After Domitian died, another period of chaos followed. In the next century, a line of several emperors managed to maintain a stable government. One feature of their rule was that each adopted a capable man to be son and heir, training him to follow them as Caesar. The philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius broke this pattern, making his own son Commodus his heir. Commodus was a disappointment, and once again the empire was thrown into turmoil, as various generals battled one another for power. Always, even from the time of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, control of the army was necessary for control of the Empire. Rome never had a Caesar who was not experienced in military matters and supported by the Roman army.

Three hundred years after Octavian Caesar Augustus became Emperor, a general named Diocletian gained power over the Empire. Diocletian could see that maintaining control of the entire empire was difficult because of its size and the many challenges it faced in different places. He began a system that had four leaders—two called Augustus and two called Caesar, one pair in the east and another in the west. This system held for a while. Then Constantine rose to power. Constantine did three things that changed the course of history. First, he called upon Jesus Christ to help him in battle, promising to become a Christian if he won. Constantine won, gained control of the Empire, and announced that he was a Christian. (He delayed baptism until he was on his deathbed, but this does not mean that he was lacking Christian faith. Many Christians delayed baptism as long as they could, fearing that baptism removed only previous sins and would not bring forgiveness for sins that were committed after one was baptized.) Constantine also built a new capital city for the Empire. Near a town called Byzantium, in the land that is now called Turkey, Constantine built a new city, naming it Constantinople. He moved his government to this new city, leaving the original city of Rome under a leader who answered to his authority as Emperor. (The third major accomplishment of Constantine was to assemble a church meeting to clarify the identity of Jesus Christ—something I will describe in more detail in another post.)

The eventual result of Constantine’s public avowal of Christian faith was to make Christianity legal and respectable in the Empire. Due to persecution, Christians had often hid from the government; now they could build large houses of worship and could reclaim sites where important events (like the birth and the resurrection of Jesus) had happened. The eventual result of Constantine’s new capital city was a new name for the Empire. Not immediately, but eventually, the land ruled from Constantinople would be called the Byzantine Empire. The early kingdom of Rome lasted a century or two. The Republic lasted almost five hundred years. From Caesar Augustus to Constantine was another three hundred and some years. From Constantine to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks was another eleven centuries. The entire history of Roman power, then, lasted more than two thousand years, but more than half of it was ruled from outside of Rome, from Constantinople.

But the emergence and triumph of Christianity outweighs the accomplishments and consequences of all of the Caesars combined. J.