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 historical Jesus

After Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, a theologian and historian named Dionysius began the custom of numbering years based on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. According to Dionysius’ plan, Jesus was born in the year 1 A.D. (which stands for Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord); the previous year was 1 B.C., so there was no Year Zero in his system. Unfortunately, Dionysius made a miscalculation in his counting. We know this today because Herod the Great, the king who tried to kill Jesus, died in the year 4 B.C. Having this knowledge, we could correct Dionysius’ arithmetic so that it is now the year 2026, Columbus first sailed west in 1497, the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1781, and so on… or we can just live with the odd statement that Jesus was born around 5 B.C., which is what we have chosen to do.

Few historians today doubt that Jesus from Nazareth lived two thousand years ago, even if some Internet commenters and pop-up pages claim otherwise. Even though the name of Jesus does not appear in first century documents not written by believers, the very existence of those believers demonstrates a historical Jesus in the first century. While some have tried to dismiss the New Testament writings as inaccurate summaries of the life and teaching of Jesus prepared two or three generations after his lifetime, the New Testament writings are clearly based on an oral tradition that is anchored in the time of Jesus and in the first generation of his followers. Paul’s understanding of Christ and the Gospel was formed while many eyewitnesses were still available. Theories that discount the accuracy of the New Testament rest upon presuppositions that miracles never happen, that accurate knowledge of the future is impossible, and that people always manipulate oral tradition to accommodate their beliefs. None of these presuppositions are scientific or logical, and the third of them has been thoroughly debunked by recent studies of oral tradition in a nonliterate community.

 Historians agree, then, that a person called Jesus stands at the heart of Christianity. “Christ” is not a last name (Jesus was not the son of Mary Christ); “Christ” is a title that means the Chosen One or the Anointed One—kings and priests were anointed in Israel and were called christs or messiahs. In Nazareth he was Jesus son of Joseph; elsewhere he was Jesus from Nazareth. Though he was not part of the official teaching structure in first century Judaism, he did preach and teach. He emphasized the Law of Moses, making its commandments even more strict than the experts at the time were teaching. Jesus emphasized that anger at another person, to the point of shouting insults, is equivalent to murder, and that looking at another person for the purpose of lust is equivalent to adultery. At the same time, he countered the detailed analysis of the Law regarding details such as work allowed on the Sabbath and the ceremonial washing of hands. Jesus viewed himself as consistent with the teachings of Moses and the prophets. More than that, he identified himself as fulfillment of Moses and the prophets. His parables—which, on the surface, seem to be lessons about living property and loving one another—centered on his identity and on his mission to bring unconditional forgiveness to sinners. Unlike most holy people, Jesus associated with sinners and was honored by sinners. Jesus did not proclaim revolution against political and religious authorities. His proclamation of the Kingdom of God was defined by his testimony when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus called upon people to repent (to confess their sins and throw themselves upon God’s mercy) and to believe the Gospel (the good news of God’s mercy as delivered through Christ Jesus).

Jesus accompanied his preaching with miracles. He healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed storms, and raised the dead. These miracles demonstrated his power over nature as the Creator of nature. They revealed his compassion for people in need. They fulfilled promises given to God’s people through Moses and the prophets. They sampled what Jesus promises to do on the Day of the Lord when all the dead will be raised, all sicknesses will be healed, and all evil will be cast out of the world. Suggestions that gullible and superstitious people were tricked by Jesus, or that later tradition attached stories from other myths and legends to the person of Jesus, are countered by Christian insistence that Jesus himself, having been killed, rose from the dead. Following that resurrection, the opponents of Jesus could not produce his body and were limited to claiming that his disciples stole his corpse. But those same disciples, risking their own lives, insisted that Jesus had died and was risen. His resurrection was presented as evidence that Jesus is who he claimed to be—the Christ, the Son of God—that his promise to defeat evil and rescue sinners has been kept, and that the Day of the Lord is coming, a Day when Jesus will raise all the dead and will invite those who trust in Jesus to live within forever in a healed and perfected world.

The opponents of Jesus accused him of blasphemy—of insulting God by claiming to be God. If Jesus did not believe himself to be the Son of God and the Christ, he could have escaped condemnation and execution by saying so. Instead, he confirmed the truth of the charges against him. Needing Roman permission to execute Jesus, his opponents brought him to a Roman governor who had a different understanding of what it meant to be the son of a god. Governor Pilate would not have dared affirm charges against another Hercules, or any heroic son of any god. But Jesus’ opponents rephrased their charge. They chose the foulest word in Latin and said that Jesus claimed to be a king—Rex Jesus. For this he was executed by the Romans, who posted the charge on his cross: “Jesus from Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (This charge is often abbreviated in artwork to the letters INRI.) The shameful suffering and death of Jesus would be an embarrassing contradiction in most religions, but Christians affirm that Jesus endured the cross to pay the debt of sinners and to defeat the forces of evil. Christians teach that Jesus took upon himself the punishment sinners deserve so he could give in exchange the rewards he deserves for his perfectly obedient life. He is the only Son of God, but those who trust in him become God’s children. He is the only one without sin, but he bears the burden of all sins so those who trust in him are now clothed in his righteousness.

Jesus was a teacher about love and righteousness, but he was far more than just a teacher. Jesus was an example of sacrificial love and righteousness, but he was far more than just an example. As the Christ, Jesus defeated evil, and he shares his victory with all who trust in him. Jesus rescued sinners from the power of evil; he paid a ransom that ends the debt of every sinner. He established a Church to proclaim news of his victory and to share his forgiveness with all people. He is with his people always, and he will appear in glory on the Day of the Lord to finalize the work that he finished on the cross.

All this happened in a small region of the world during the time of Caesar Augustus and Tiberius Caesar, emperors of Rome. The accomplishments of those Roman Emperors are largely forgotten, save to a few professional historians. The accomplishments of Jesus, King of the Jews, continue to shape the world today. J.

History of Rome, part two

The peninsula Italy looks much like a boot, with the city of Rome situated on the shin. The island Sicily appears to be a rock being kicked by the boot. When Rome had consolidated power over Italy, it turned its attention to Sicily, which brought it into conflict with the north African city Carthage, once a colony founded by the Phoenicians. War erupted between Rome and Carthage over control of Sicily. The result of that fight, known as the First Punic War, was that Rome gained control of Sicily and also damaged the Carthaginian navy, making Rome the prevalent power of the western Mediterranean Sea.

Treaties were signed between Rome and Carthage, but Roman leaders were not content with the treaties they had signed. Almost immediately, they sought ways to violate the treaties and return to war with Carthage—preferring, if possible, to make Carthage seem guilty of the breach rather than Rome. The desired conflict was sparked to the west, in what is now Spain. Rome sent its armies to defend Roman interests in Spain, but Hannibal—a general from Carthage—responded by transporting troops and supplies across southern Gaul (which is now France), over the Alps, and into Italy. (He was forced to use the land route because of the previous damage to Carthage’s naval forces.) His army was too weak to lay siege to Rome itself, largely because of reductions in strength during the long voyage to Italy; but they devastated the Italian countryside, hoping to draw Roman forces into an engaged battle. The Roman commander, Fabius, preferred to avoid battle and wait for Hannibal’s troops to run out of supplies. When Roman citizens tired of the impasse, other Roman generals took command and brought the fight to Hannibal. The Romans were solidly defeated. In the end, though, Hannibal still could not attack Rome itself. Another Roman general, Scipio (later given the title Africanus for his victory) moved his troops from Spain to north Africa, attacking Carthage and ending the Second Punic War in Rome’s favor.

Now masters of the western Mediterranean Sea, the Romans turned their attention to the east, to the land of Greece and the kingdoms ruled by descendants of Alexander’s generals. Over the course of many years, with a combination of negotiations, treaties, and military victories, Rome captured all the kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean basin. But some Roman politicians feared a revival of Carthage. A Senator named Cato ended every speech he gave, on any topic whatsoever, with the words, “Moreover, Carthage must be destroyed.” Eventually, his opinion prevailed. Rome attacked Carthage, initiating the Third Punic War, which Rome easily won, and Carthage was destroyed.

As Roman power expanded, the system of the Republic became increasingly unwieldy. Between bouts with other kingdoms, Rome was threatened with civil war. Several generals seized political power, generally with the support of their troops, who were demanding better retirement plans for veterans of the Roman army. Gaius Gracchus, his younger brother Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Marius, Cornelius Sulla, and Gnaeus “Pompey” Pompeius all sought power and influence to reform Roman law, to care for soldiers and veterans, and to establish a government capable of handling the larger land mass and population Rome was now ruling.

The most famous in this line of reformers was Julius Caesar. Like the other reformers, Julius Caesar rose to power within the Roman military system. Like the other reformers, he seized political power in Rome, working to adjust the government to face the changing reality of its power. Along the way, he reinvented the calendar (and the Julian Calendar, with some tinkering from a pope named Gregory, is still used around the world today). He revised the judicial system and the welfare system of Rome. He sent citizens to colonize various regions in conquered lands, relieving overpopulation in the city of Rome and other Italian municipalities. He rewrote the rules of local government in the places ruled by Rome. He planned new construction, including highways and harbors.


The opponents of Julius Caesar warned that their leader was becoming a king. (Remember that the word king—“rex”—was one of the most frightening words in the Latin language.) Graffiti even appeared in Rome with the words “Rex Julius.” To prevent his coronation, a group of Senators assassinated Caesar, stabbing him to death on the Senate floor. They believed that they had preserved the Republic. Instead, the provoked a new civil war, one which ended when Caesar’s grandnephew and heir, Octavian Caesar, defeated his opponents in battle. Octavian made it clear that he did not want to be a king. “Just call me Emperor,” he said, borrowing a word from legal practice that did not yet have the meaning it acquired. Octavian completed the reform that Julius began, finally bringing peace to the Roman Empire. A grateful Senate granted him a new title, making him Caesar Augustus. In time, the family name of Caesar would become a title equivalent to king or emperor—in Germany it was spelled Kaiser, and in Russia it was spelled Czar or Tsar.

But Caesar Augustus could not anticipate that a Jewish baby, born in his empire and counted in his census, would rise to outshine him in power and in glory. J.