The Commonwealth of
Tracy Rosselle, M.A.T.
Tampa Bay Technical High School
The paradox of east and west
You’ll recall that Byzantium – the eastern portion of
the Roman Empire headquartered in Constantinople
– inherited the richness of late Roman society and
continued on as an empire long after the western
half of the Roman Empire fell into complete disarray
in the 5th century.
But we’ll see that despite the disparity in these
regions by 600, the two sides of Christian Europe
would follow much different historical trajectories
over the next six centuries and beyond: the East
would weaken and eventually fall, in 1453, to
Muslims while the West would one day rise to
dominate the world.
The Byzantine Empire
Byzantine emperors established Christianity as their official
religion, and the realm inherited Rome’s imperial law intact
… and this made for an easy transition to all-powerful
Christian monarchy.
Prior to 600, the emperor Justinian (r. 527-565):
 set up a panel of legal experts to sift through centuries
of Roman law to establish a single, uniform code – the
Justinian Code – for regulating Byzantium’s
increasingly complex society. This code laid the
foundation for modern European legal systems.
 embarked on a massive public building program,
constructing and repairing fortifications and erecting
numerous churches, including the rebuilding of the
Hagia Sophia (HAY-ee-uh soh-FEE-uh), an enormous
cathedral hailed as the most glorious in the Christian
The Church of the Holy Wisdom
The Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) still stands
today, but as a mosque (the Turks converted it
in the 15th century). The designers may have
been influenced by the dome-and-arch
architecture of the Sassanid Persians.
The Byzantine Empire
Lost territories
Although Justinian re-conquered North Africa, most of Italy and
parts of Spain, by the 7th century Byzantine power was being
sapped with the loss of sizable provinces to rival Arab armies in
Egypt, Syria and Tunisia.
It never regained the lost lands, though it did recover militarily to
resist further Muslim encroachments by using the theme system
 imperial provinces placed under jurisdiction of an appointed
general in charge of military and civil bureaucracy.
When Crusaders from western Europe helped re-establish
Christian principalities in the 11th century, the Byzantines viewed
them almost as problematic as the Muslims (who eventually
toppled the Byzantine Empire with the capture of Constantinople in
The Byzantine Empire
A study in contrasts
The Byzantine Empire vacillated between extremes:
During Justinian’s reign and more than a hundred years
following his death, Constantinople was hit repeatedly with
instances of bubonic plague (probably brought from India
on ships infested with rats), which greatly reduced the
Byzantine population.
Emperors became absolute rulers of a highly centralized
state, administered by a large and complex bureaucracy
(byzantine came to mean unnecessarily convoluted), at the
center of which was the court, where high officials kissed
the hands and feet of the regally dressed emperor.
The Byzantine Empire
A study in contrasts (cont.)
Constantinople was a
major center of crafts
and industry, where
value was added to
imported commodities
and re-exported
Beneath the glitter of the royal court and the
grandiosity of the public buildings of
Constantinople, some visitors noticed
Byzantium’s slow deterioration: the squalid,
crime-ridden underbelly of the city and its poor
inhabitants living in darkness.
Large wealth was generated by strictly
controlling trade and levying customs duties
on merchandise passing through the centrally
located empire, where the gold bezant
became the standard coin used in the
Mediterranean basin from the 6th to the 12th
The Byzantine Empire
Religious disputes with the West
The emperor was considered a friend and imitator of Christ,
and as the head of the Church appointed the patriarch (or
leading bishop of the East).
In 1054, differences between Christianity in the West and East
reached a breaking point, with the pope in Rome and patriarch
in Constantinople excommunicating each other  resulting
schism produced the Roman Catholic Church in the West and
the Eastern Orthodox Church in the East.
Differences stemmed from various religious doctrine (e.g.,
whether priests should be allowed to marry, the use of local
languages in church, the nature of God [as a trinity, whether the
Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from Father and Son]),
especially the use of icons, or religious images, used by
Eastern Christians to aid their devotions.
Christianity splits
An 11th-century comparison
Roman Catholic
Services are
conducted in Latin.
The pope has
authority over all
other bishops.
The pope claims
authority over all
kings and emperors.
Priests may not
Divorce is not
Eastern Orthodox
They base their faith
on the gospel of Jesus
and the Bible. They use
sacraments such as
baptism. Their religious
leaders are priests and
bishops. They seek
to convert people.
Services are conducted
in Greek or local
The patriarch and other
bishops head the
Church as a group.
The emperor claims
authority over the
patriarch and other
bishops of the empire.
Priests may be
Divorce is allowed
under certain
The Byzantine Empire
Cultural developments
Most subjects spoke Greek, but it was not forced on people.
Social mobility was rare but possible through bureaucracy,
army, trade or service to the Church.
Society was strongest when free peasants owned small plots of
land (distributed to them for military service), but over time this
class lost ground to owners of increasingly large estates.
Brothers Cyril and Methodius led a successful mission to the
Slavs of Moravia (part of modern-day Czech Republic) 
preached in the local language, and followers perfected a
writing system called Cyrillic (sih-RIL-ik) that came to be used
by Slavic Christians adhering to the Orthodox rite.
The Byzantine Empire
The battle for Slav allegiance
The careers of Cyril and Methodius gave
birth to the competition between Greek
and Latin Christianity for the allegiance of
the Slavs.
Evidence of the east-west tension in the
Christian realm of this region can be seen
in languages: the Cyrillic alphabet
remains in use today among Russians
and other Slavic peoples while the
Roman alphabet is used by Poles,
Czechs and Croatians.
The modern Russian
alphabet is a variant of
the Cyrillic alphabet.
and Russia
In the mid-ninth
century north of
Bulgaria, a Slavic
people known as
Russians organized
principalities along
thriving trade centers
between Scandinavia
and Byzantium.
Most notable was
Kiev, which emerged
as the most wealthy
and powerful center
from the 10th to the
13th century.
Kiev ●
Byzantine Empire
Byzantium and Russia
Prince Vladimir of Kiev converts
Byzantine influences flowed rapidly into Russia after
Prince Vladimir of Kiev converted to Orthodox
Christianity around 989 CE and ordered his subjects
to follow suit.
Byzantine teachers traveled north to establish
schools  Cyrillic writing and literacy spread, as did
other cultural influences (e.g., religious images
became main form of Russian art; Russian churches
with onion domes were architects’ attempts to copy
the domed structures of Constantinople using wood).
Byzantium and Russia
From Rome to Russia, and beyond
Russians eventually claimed to inherit the
imperial mantle of Byzantium, claiming in the
16th century Moscow had become the
world’s third Rome (after the original fell in
476 and Constantinople, the so-called
second Rome, fell in 1453).
Russian Orthodox missionaries thereafter
took their faith to lands as distant as Siberia,
Alaska and even California!
The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History
(Bulliet et al.)
Traditions & Encounters: A Global
Perspective on the Past (Bentley & Ziegler)