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The Byzantine Empire

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The Byzantine Empire, in western Asia and southeastern Europe, expanded into eastern Europe. The Byzantine Empire, with territory in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the eastern Mediterranean, maintained very high levels of political, economic, and cultural life between 500 and 1450 C.E. The empire continued many Roman patterns and spread its Orthodox Christian civilization through most of eastern Europe, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Catholic Christianity, without an imperial center, spread in western Europe. Two separate civilizations emerged from the differing Christian influences.
The Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire, once part of the greater Roman Empire, continued flourishing from an eastern Mediterranean base after Roman decline. Although it inherited and continued some of Rome’s patterns, the eastern Mediterranean state developed its own form of civilization.
The Origins of the Empire. Separate emperors ruled from it even before Rome fell. The empire benefited from the high level of civilization in the former Hellenistic world and from the region's prosperous commerce.
Justinian's Achievements. The military efforts weakened the empire as Slavs and Persians attacked frontiers, and they also created serious financial pressures. The code later spread Roman legal concepts throughout Europe.
Arab Pressure and the Empire's Defenses. Justinian's successors concentrated on the defense of their Eastern territories. The empire henceforth centered in the Balkans and western and central Turkey, a location blending a rich Hellenistic culture with Christianity. The free rural population, the provider of military recruits and taxes, was weakened. Aristocratic estates grew larger, and aristocratic generals became stronger.
Byzantine Society and Politics. Byzantine political patterns resembled the earlier Chinese system. An emperor, ordained by god and surrounded by elaborate court ritual, headed both church and state. A careful military organization defended the empire. The empire socially and economically depended on Constantinople's control of the countryside. The bureaucracy regulated trade and food prices. A widespread commercial network extended into Asia, Russia, Scandinavia, western Europe, and Africa. Despite the busy trade, the large merchant class never developed political power. Cultural life centered on Hellenistic secular traditions and Orthodox Christianity. Domed buildings, colored mosaics, and painted icons expressed an art linked to religion.
Byzantine culture, political organization, and economic orientation help to explain the rift between the eastern and western versions of Christianity. Emperors resisted papal attempts to interfere in religious issues.
The Empire's Decline. Independent Slavic states appeared in the Balkans. An appeal for western European assistance did not help the Byzantines. Crusaders, led by Venetian merchants, sacked Constantinople in 1204. A smaller empire struggled to survive for another two centuries against western Europeans, Muslims, and Slavic kingdoms. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople.
The Spread of Civilization in Eastern Europe. The Byzantine Empire’s influence spread among the people of the Balkans and southern Russia through conquest, commerce, and Christianity. Unlike Western Christians, the Byzantines allowed the use of local languages in church services.
The East Central Borderlands. Both eastern and western Christian missionaries competed in eastern Europe. Roman Catholics, and their Latin alphabet, prevailed in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. A series of regional monarchies—Poland, Bohemia, Lithuania—with powerful landowning aristocracies developed. Eastern Europe also received an influx of Jews from the Middle East and western Europe. Slavic peoples from Asia migrated into Russia and eastern Europe during the period of the Roman Empire. Political organization centered in family tribes and villages. Some traders won political control. Kiev became a prosperous commercial center. The ruler, on the Byzantine pattern, controlled church appointments. Kiev's rulers issued a formal law code. They ruled the largest single European state.
Institutions and Culture in Kievan Rus'. Cultural, social, and economic patterns developed differently from the western European experience. Rulers favored Byzantine ceremonials and the concept of a strong central ruler. Orthodox Christian practices entered Russian culture—devotion to God's power and to saints, ornate churches, icons, and monasticism. Church architecture adapted Byzantine themes to local conditions.
Kievan Decline. Asian invaders seized territory as trade diminished because of Byzantine decay. The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century incorporated Russian lands into their territories. Mongol (Tatar) dominance further separated Russia from western European developments. Commercial contacts lapsed. Russian Orthodox Christianity survived because the tolerant Mongols did not interfere with Russian religious beliefs or daily life as long as tribute was paid.
In Depth: Eastern and Western Europe: The Problem of Boundaries. Political organization is more complicated because of loosely organized regional kingdoms. Commercial patterns and Mongol and Russian expansion also influenced cultural identities.
The End of an Era in Eastern Europe. With the Mongol invasions, the decline of Russia, and the collapse of Byzantium, eastern Europe entered into a difficult period. Western and eastern Europe evolved separately, with the former pushing ahead in power and cross-cultural sophistication.
Global Connections: Eastern Europe and the World. The Byzantine Empire was active in interregional trade; Constantinople was one of the world’s great trading cities, and the empire served as a link between northern Europe and the Mediterranean. When Byzantium declined and the Mongols conquered Russia, a period of isolation began.

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