Guess the Test #1: the byzantine empire

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In 395 AD when the Roman Empire was still in business, Emperor Constantine the Great founded the city of Constantinople. The city sits at the end of a peninsula, protected by towering walls on the land side and a strait called the Dardanelles on the other three. Until 1453, it served as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, which became known as the Byzantine Empire after the Roman Empire fell apart in 476 AD. Constantinople grew rich and powerful because it controlled a major crossroads of land and sea routes between Asia and Europe. Ships sailing between the Black Sea to the north, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south would dock at Constantinople. The Silk Road coming west from China crossed the Dardanelles into Constantinople before continuing west towards Europe.

The most famous Byzantine emperor was Justinian I, who came to power in 527 AD. With his wife and co-ruler Theodora, Justinian launched three ambitious projects during his reign.

The first was a campaign to recapture the lands and prestige of the former Roman Empire, which had collapsed almost 100 years before. He sent his top general Belisarius to conquer North Africa, where he quickly broke down the Vandal tribe’s defenses and marched victoriously into Carthage.

In Italy, Belisarius’s 8,000 soldiers attacked and outmaneuvered a much larger Ostrogoth army. When he marched into Rome in 536, Belisarius was hailed as a hero and liberator. However, the fighting was not over. The Ostrogoths recaptured Rome, and then were kicked out a second time. In the next 18 years, Rome changed hands 6
times! Belisarius eventually won, but by then Rome lay in ruins. The aqueducts were destroyed and water no longer flowed into Rome’s magnificent baths. The streets were littered with broken statues and looters were tearing apart the Coliseum. The population had dropped from over a million to 40,000 people, many of whom roamed the deserted streets begging to survive. The Byzantines who had come to save Rome, wound up destroying it.

Justinian’s second project, which was more successful, was to codify all of Rome’s laws since the time of Emperor Hadrian, 400 years before! Every law and legal opinion was examined to see if it duplicated or contradicted other laws. The result was the Code of Justinian, which consisted of four works: the Codex of 5,000 laws, the Digest (50 books!) that summarized the opinions of Rome’s greatest legal writers, the Institutes, which explained to law students how to use Justinian’s Code, and the Novellae, which contained the laws created after 534 AD. Not only did Justinian’s Code guide the Byzantine Empire, it also formed the basis for Western European law in countries like France during the Middle Ages.

Justinian’s last project was to rebuild and beautify Constantinople. The city had been greatly damaged in 532 during a critical moment in Justinian’s reign. A riot called the Nika Revolt broke out after a chariot race that resulted in nearly half the city burned or destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed. The crowds came after Justinian himself, who decided to flee the city, but Theodora counseled him to remain and take charge, which he did. Afterward, Justinian rebuilt Constantinople with grand new monuments, including the spectacular Christian church, the

Hagia Sophia. An awe-inspiring blend of domes and arches, the church still stands today.


Byzantine culture centered around two things: the emperor and Christianity. The emperor was a priest-king, who was considered the deputy of Jesus Christ on Earth and His co-ruler. Although the people of Constantinople referred to themselves as Romans, Greek cultural influences grew stronger. Greek eventually became the official language, replacing Latin.

Most Byzantine art, architecture, and literature had strong religious themes. An important example of this is mosaics, which are pictures created by fitting tiny colored tile fragments together in cement. Mosaics decorated the walls, floors and ceilings of many Byzantine buildings. Not only were they beautiful, but they never faded or chipped - and they were fireproof!

In the 700s the use of art in churches deeply divided Byzantine Christian society. A group of protestors called the iconoclasts objected to the use of icons (paintings, sculptures or mosaics of Jesus, Mary and other holy people from the Bible). Iconoclasts claimed that having images of holy figures in the churches was the same as idol worship – a practice forbidden in the Ten Commandments. Byzantine Emperor Leo III banned icons from all churches in Constantinople. Iconoclasts were happy, but many others were not. Priests had used icons for years to teach people who couldn’t read about Christianity. Illiterate people could understand and remember a story in stained glass or

mosaics even if they couldn’t read the Bible for themselves. Soon a strong reaction against iconoclasm soon set in and

riots and bloody fights broke out. The pope in Rome liked icons and excommunicated (kicked out of the church permanently) the head of the Byzantine church (the patriarch)! Eventually the Byzantines went back to accepting icons, but the divide between the churches continued to grow. The Eastern Church conducted services in local languages (Greek, Russian, etc.), while Catholics services were in Latin. Eastern Church priests could marry and have families, Catholic priests could not.

In 1054 the differences caused a final schism, or split when the Catholic pope and The Eastern Church patriarch excommunicated each other! From then on, the Eastern Church was known as the Orthodox Church; the western church remained the Roman Catholic Church.

In the 600s the Byzantine provinces of Egypt and Syria fell to Muslim conquerors. Emperor Leo III managed to stop advancing Muslim forces twice, in 719 and 740. From 867 to 1056, parts of Syria were recovered from the Arabs and the Bulgarian kingdom to the north was annexed. However, internal conflict with the military and incompetent emperors caused the Byzantine Empire to lose strength and land. By 1391, the empire was reduced to the city of Constantinople itself and a few outlying districts. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks after a fierce battle in 1453. The Ottomans renamed the city Istanbul and turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. All in all, the eastern half of the old Roman Empire lasted almost 1000 years after the fall of Rome!



The Byzantine Empire


Justinian I




General Belisarius


The Code of Justinian


The Nika Revolts

The Orthodox Church

The Hagia Sophia

Istanbul, Turkey

Guess the Test #1 Name: ____________________

1. Write about Justinian I and list his ambitious projects.

2. Describe Belisarius’s efforts to recapture the Roman Empire.

3. Explain what the Code of Justinian is and describe the 4 works that it contains:

4. Explain how and why the Roman Catholic Church split in two:

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