Byzantine Empire

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Byzantine Empire (native Greek name: Βασιλεία τῶν Ρωμαίων - Basileia tōn Rōmaiōn, latin: Imperium Romanum) is the term conventionally used since the 19th century to describe the Greek-speaking Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, centered at its capital in Constantinople. In certain specific contexts, usually referring to the time before the fall of the Western Roman Empire, it is also often referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire. To its inhabitants the Empire was simply the Roman Empire and its emperors continued the unbroken succession of Roman emperors. During much of its history it was known to many of its Western contemporaries as The Empire of the Greeks due to the increasing dominance of its Greek population and distinct culture. Today most scholars acknowledge that the Byzantine Empire was the direct continuation of the Hellenistic World.

There is no consensus on the starting date of the Byzantine period. Some place it during the reign of Diocletian (284–305) due to the administrative reforms he introduced, dividing the empire into a pars Orientis and a pars Occidentis. Some consider Constantine I its founder. Others place it during the reign of Theodosius I (379–395) and Christendom's victory over pagan Roman religion, or, following his death in 395, with the division of the empire into western and eastern halves. Others place it yet further in 476, when the last western emperor, Romulus Augustus, was forced to abdicate, thus leaving sole imperial authority to the emperor in the Greek East. Others again point to the reorganisation of the empire in the time of Heraclius (ca. 620) when Greek was made the official language. In any case, the changeover was gradual and by 330, when Constantine inaugurated his new capital, the process of further Hellenization and increasing Christianization was already under way.


The Byzantine Empire had a major influence upon Orthodox Christianity. This was embodied in the Byzantine version of Christianity, which spread Orthodoxy and eventually led to the creation of the "Byzantine commonwealth" (a term coined by 20th-century historians) throughout Eastern Europe. Early Byzantine missionary work spread Orthodox Christianity to various Slavic peoples, where it still is a predominant religion. Such modern-day countries are Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Romania, and Ukraine; of course, it has also remained the official religion of the Greeks via the uninterrupted continuity of the Greek Orthodox Church. Less well known is the influence of the Byzantine religious sensibility on the millions of Christians in Ethiopia, the Coptic Christians of Egypt, and the Christians of Armenia, though they all belong to the Oriental Orthodox (as opposed to the Byzantine Eastern Orthodox) faith.

Robert Byron, one of the first 20th century Philhellenes, argued that the greatness of Byzantium lay in what he described as "the Triple Fusion": that of a Roman body, a Greek mind and an oriental, mystical soul.

Art, architecture, and literature

Byzantine Art and Byzantine Architecture were largely based around the Christian story and its heralds, and the importance of icons in Orthodox society. In terms of architecture, Byzantines emphasized the Dome, the arch and the Grecian cross lay out. It is evidenced today in countless examples of old Byzantine Churches with their traditional mosaics depicting Saints and figures from the Bible. Its impact was such that it spawned a Neo-Byzantine architectural revival in later years. Byzantine Art was also important in this respect, its impact on Orthodoxy can be witnessed across southeast Europe, Russia, the Holy Land and parts of the Middle East, but also in those areas of Turkey where it was allowed to survive.

The finest Byzantine literary works were Hymns and devotionals. The other area where the Byzantines excelled was in practical writing. While rarely works of genius, a series of competent, diligent writers, both male and female, produced many works of practical value in the fields of public administration, military affairs, and the practical sciences. The early theological work of the Byzantines was important in the development of western thought. Historiography influenced later Russian chroniclers.

Most of the writing was in classical Greek. Vernacular literature developed much more slowly than in the west. There was little fiction, the best-known work being the epic poem Digenis Acritas, written in something approaching the vernacular. Much of the writing of the day was history, theology, biography, and hagiography. Many letters have survived, some work-a-day correspondence, a few minor masterpieces, as well as a few large encyclopedic works, such as the huge Suda. Perhaps the Byzantine empire's greatest contribution to literature was their careful preservation of the best works of the ancient world, as well as compilations of works on certain subjects, with certain revisions, most specifically in the fields of medicine and history.


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