The Cultural Impact of the Byzantine Empire

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It’s a shame that “Byzantine,” when not used in reference to the Eastern Roman Empire, tends to have a negative connotation. Not only did the Byzantine Empire last for over a thousand years, it reached out so far that countries from Libya to Bulgaria and Slovenia to Egypt can claim a legacy from it, keeping the fallen West safe from invading barbarians until the time of its own spectacular decline. When you realize that, it is especially shameful that the West no longer considered the Eastern Roman Empire any sort of “Roman Empire” at all, naming it the “Byzantine Empire” after its capital in Byzantium, in Greece. Meanwhile, despite the obligatory political turmoil in the East, scholars were tending to the flames of knowledge and would until the fall of Constantinople. Why would the West no longer consider the East part of the Roman Empire, and when did they become separate entities in the first place? This is the first part of determining the legacy of the Byzantines. The split was brought about by Emperor Diocletian, not because of war or arguments, but because he was a shrewd man who saw that the Roman Empire was too big. It was collapsing upon itself, too large to withstand its constant invasions and bloody political ordeals. In a decisive action, he gave the western half of the Roman Empire to a friend named Maximian, appointing him as Augustus, or “senior emperor.” Then, in 293, establishing what would be called the Tetrarchy, he appointed two junior emperors, called Caesares. Not only had he revolutionized the way the Roman Empire would be run, he also had neatly given himself and Maximian the means to succession in the Caesares. Usually, the heir of the emperor was chosen as the successor, but if there had been no heir produced, the entire empire would be thrown into chaos until a suitable one battled his way through. When Diocletian and Maximian voluntarily abdicated their thrones – another unprecedented move – their Caesares, respectively Galerius and Constantius, were promoted to Augustus. Though the Tetrarchy was too good to last, it brought about a new, peaceful era. The second event that helped with the rift between the two sides was the changing of the capital of the Roman Empire. Seeing that Rome was no longer practical, Emperor Constantine (often called “Constantine the Great”) found his new capital in Byzantium. Byzantium, already around a thousand years old, was perfectly situated between the eastern and western frontiers. The new and glorious capital was built on top of Byzantium in just six years and consecrated in 330.

Besides making the astute decision to change the capital of the empire, Constantine was also the very first Christian Roman Emperor, converting after supposedly receiving a vision from Jesus telling him to bear the cross on his shields in battle. Though there would be one last pagan emperor at the end of the first Christian dynasty, he would also prove to be the last. Paganism was a dying thing, only practiced fashionably by social elite. One of the many religious legacies left by the Byzantine Empire, is, of course, Eastern Orthodoxy. Most of the countries where Eastern Orthodoxy is common can trace a fairly direct route back to the Eastern Roman Empire. During Constantine’s time, Christianity saw its very first split – something that would foreshadow the worse ones that were yet to come. A man named Arius from Alexandria began teaching that there was no Holy Trinity, that God was eternal, and that the Son of God was not eternal or unlimited in his knowledge and power, as he had been created by God. Arius was deemed a heretic, exonerated, and then deemed a heretic yet again long after his death. His followers, however, were given a loophole by the Council of Nicaea that allowed them to save face, in that they were allowed to “interpret” the divinity of Christ however they wished. Arianism resurfaced much later, but is not practiced today, though there are sects of...
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