Byzantine Empire

Prominence of the Byzantine Empire

Dr. Margo Stavros has a Ph. D. in Byzantine History.  On Monday, April 11th, Dr. Stavros began a three day lecture series on Byzantium covering from the 4th century to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century.  Although time constraints forced Dr. Stavros to only briefly cover each century of the empire’s existence, she was able to give out a tremendous amount of information.

In my opinion, the significance of Byzantium lies in the growth of Christianity.  Constantine was the first emperor to support this minority religion.  In 313, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which promoted religious toleration; this legalized the profession of Christianity.  During his reign, Constantine supported the Christian Church by restoring previously seized Church property, ending gladiatorial shows, restricting divorce, penalizing rape and adultery, making Sunday a holiday, forbidding animal sacrifice and divination, and financially supporting large building projects.  Three of the greatest buildings constructed during this period were the Basilica of St. Peter, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Anastasis Rotunda.

In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine decided that it was his responsibility to clarify the Christian beliefs due to lingering theological controversy.  As a result, he organized the first Ecumenical Church Council at Nicaea.  This council was composed of Christian bishops who were charged with the duty of determining the nature of Christ and creating imperial policy toward dissident Christian groups.  The council defined Christ as being of the same substance as the Father; this meant that the Son and the Father were separate, but were considered one God.  This statement by the ecumenical council came to be known as the Nicene Creed, and is still recited today.  Because of Emperor Constantine’s involvement in this matter, the ecumenical statement had the effect of law.  Upon his death, the Christian Church canonized Constantine as a saint.

Although Emperor Constantine had a great effect on the promotion of Christianity, he was not the only ruler to endorse the Christian religion.  Emperor Theodosius I was also a supporter of Christianity.  Upon falling ill in 380 AD, he received the Christian sacrament of baptism; this act made him an official member of the Christian church.  Ten years later, Theodosius created a number of laws that prohibited the practice of any religion but Christianity.  However, issuing imperial laws that made Christianity the state religion would not cause every person within the empire to automatically switch to Christianity.  Because Christianity was a minority religion in the Roman Empire, it took a long time for it to be widely accepted in society.

The most interesting part of the presentation was Dr. Stavros’ analysis of the Arch of Constantine.  Constructed by the Roman Senate in 312 AD, the Arch of Constantine commemorated Constantine’s victory over Maxentius.  The triumphal arch stood on the main thoroughfare of the Roman forum, measuring 82 feet by 69 feet.  The following message was inscribed on the arch:

           To the emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine Maximus, Pius Felix Augustus, since through divine inspiration and great wisdom he has delivered the state from the tyrant and all his factions, by his army and noble arms, the Senate and Roman People, dedicate this arch decorated with triumphal insignia.

This message signifies that Constantine had the support of both the Senate and the Roman people.  On the left side of the arch was a Hadrianic ad locutio scene known as the Sacrifice to Diana.  This particular scene contained a bunch of symmetrically sculpted figures that were located in the front of the sculpture.  At that time, hierarchical scale was used to show the most important figure in a scene.  Therefore, the largest figure in the scene was meant to represent Constantine.  Something very interesting that Dr. Stavros pointed out was that the sculptors of this arch disregarded traditional sculptural methods by using schematic shapes to mold the figures in the scene.  The methods used in the arch’s construction made the scene appear more static, which went against traditional Greco-Roman artistic sculpture by decreasing its naturalism.  Dr. Stavros believes that these sculptural changes were made purposefully in an attempt to reflect the potential for change in the future of the Roman Empire with Constantine as the leader.  Out of all the buildings and pieces of art Dr. Stavros spoke about, I would like to be an expert on the Arch of Constantine.  Dr. Stavros did not have time to cover all of the sculptural elements of the arch, but the elements she did manage to cover were fascinating.

In comparison to the prominent Byzantine Empire of Eastern Europe, Western Europe was unable to achieve political unity and faced a steady economic decline (Bulliet 235).  Western Europe was split up into a handful of different kingdoms under various Germanic rulers.  The Franks controlled most of Gaul, the Visigoths controlled Spain, and the Ostrogoths controlled Italy, present-day Austria, and present-day Hungary.  These changes led to the rise of medieval Europe.  Lords maintained self-sufficient property by having serfs work the land and perform services for free; these serfs were agricultural laborers who were legally bound to the lord, and were forced to work on manors.  This became increasingly prevalent as Western Europe became less stable.

At the same time, the Islamic Empire was beginning to form, as the Muslims became more numerous.  Following the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, Muslims spread the monotheistic religion of Islam.  Muslim armies fought with great force to establish an office that would rule the Islamic Empire.  This office came to be known as the caliphate, and the ruler came to be known as the caliph.  Under the second caliph, Umar, Arab armies conquered the Byzantine provinces of Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia between 634 and 650.  By 711, Muslims had even conquered Spain.  These conquests continued to expand the Islamic Empire, as Byzantium began to slowly decline.

The lecture series given by Dr. Stavros was very extensive in regard to the number of years it covered.  Her insights were both factual and interesting.  Dr. Stavros not only emphasized the importance of Byzantium, but she emphasized Byzantium’s effect on the surrounding areas as well.  As the Roman Empire began its decline, Western Europe’s struggling economy fostered medieval practices, and the Islamic Empire became more prominent.