Chapter 13: The Commonwealth of Byzantium


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Chapter 13:

The Commonwealth of Byzantium

Chapter 13 Reading Questions:

  1. What is the significance of the story of the monks smuggling the silkworm eggs to Byzantium? According to Procopius’s account, the two Christian monks observed the techniques of silk production during the course of a mission to China. The production of fine, Chinese-style silks required more than a few silkworm eggs. It called for understanding of sophisticated technologies and elaborate procedures that must have reached the Byzantine empire by several different routes. Byzantine craft workers soon held skills that matched the quality of Chinese products. The monks efforts contributed to the vibrance of Byzantine society, and their story highlights the significance of cross-cultural interactions during the postclassical era.

  2. What elements did Byzantium inherit from the Roman empire that helped it to survive? As the western Roman empire crumbled in the fifth century C.E., the eastern half of the empire remained intact, complete with roads, communications, lines of authority, and a set of functioning imperial institutions, all inherited from Roman predecessors.
  3. Describe the Byzantine form of government. The most important feature of the Byzantine state was tightly centralized rule that concentrated power in the hands of a highly exalted emperor. Constantine initiated a policy that historians call “caesaropapism,” whereby the emperor not only ruled as secular lord but also played an active and prominent role in ecclesiastical affairs. Particularly after the sixth century, Byzantine emperors became exalted, absolute rulers. They wielded absolute authority in political, military, judicial, financial, and religious matters. They also enjoyed the services of a large and complex bureaucracy. Its intricacy gave rise to the adjective, byzantine, which suggests unnecessary complexity and convolution. In combination, law and bureaucracy produced an exceptionally centralized state.

  4. What was the significance of Justinian's Body of Civil Law? Justinian’s most significant political contribution was his codification of Roman law. Almost immediately upon taking the throne, Justinian ordered a systematic review of Roman law that was more thorough than any that had taken place before. On the basis of this work, he issued the Corpus iuris civilis (Body of the Civil Law), which immediately won recognition as the definitive codification of Roman law. Justinian’s code continued to serve as a source of legal inspiration. Through Justinian’s code, for example, Roman law influenced civil law codes throughout much of Western Europe.

  5. What were the consequences of the rise of the Islamic empire for Byzantium? Inspired by their Islamic faith, Arab peoples conquered the Sasanid empire and overran large portions of the Byzantine empire as well. During the late seventh and early eighth centuries, Islamic forces threatened the kit heart of the empire and subjected Constantinople itself to prolonged siege. Though much reduced by the Islamic conquests, The Byzantine empire was more compact and manageable after the eight century. Byzantine rulers responded to the challenge of Islam with political and social adjustments that strengthened the empire that remained in their hands. The most important innovation was the reorganization of the Byzantine empire under the theme system.
  6. What was the theme system? How did it work? Why was it so successful? What led to its demise? Byzantine rulers responded to the challenge of Islam with political and social adjustments that strengthened the empire that remained in their hands. The most important innovation was the reorganization of the Byzantine empire under the theme system, which Byzantine rulers had tentatively experimented with during earlier periods of hostility with Sasanid Persia. The theme system placed an imperial province (theme) under the jurisdiction of a general, who assumed responsibility for both its military defense and civil administration. Generals received their appointments from the imperial government, which closely supervised their activities to prevent decentralization of power and authority. The armies were effective and the free peasants strengthened thus improving the agricultural economy. The theme system enabled Byzantine forces to mobilize quickly and resist further Islamic advances and also undergirded the political order and social organization of the empire from the eighth through twelfth century. Byzantines influence also expanded.

  7. What economic advantages did the Byzantine empire possess? Egypt, Anatolia, and the lower Danube region served as the imperial breadbasket. They produced abundant harvests of what, which supported large populations. Byzantine economy was the strongest when the empire supported a large class of free peasants who owned small plots of land. Byzantine prosperity derived both from the empire’s productive capacity and from the importance of Constantinople as a center of trade. Constantinople, a major site of crafts and industry, became even more important as the capital of the Byzantine empire. They city was home to many artisans and crafts workers, not to mention thousands of imperial officials and bureaucrats. Silk was a most important addition to the economy, and Byzantine became the principal supplier of this fashionable fabric to lands in the Mediterranean basin. Constantinople served as the main clearing-house for trade in the Western part of Eurasia. Byzantine drew enormous wealth simply from the control of trade and the levying of customs duties on merchandise that passed through its lands. It revived silk roads of classical times. Banking and partnership was also apparent.
  8. Trace the development of the Byzantine church to the schism. What caused the schism? The most distinctive feature of Byzantine Christianity was its close relationship with the imperial government. From the time of Constantine on, caesaropapist emperors participated actively in religious and theological matters. For example, Constantine’s presence encouraged the council of Nicaea to endorse his preferred view as orthodox and to condemn Arianism as heresy. Throughout Byzantine history the emperors treated the church as a department of state. They appointed individuals to serve as patriarch of Constantinople –the highest ecclesiastical official in the Byzantine church, counterpart of the pope in Rome- and they instructed patriarchs, bishops, and priests to deliver sermons that supported imperial policy and encouraged obedience to imperial authorities. The most divisive ecclesiastical policy implemented by Byzantine emperors was iconoclasm, inaugurated by Emperor Leo III. He embarked on the policy of iconoclasm, destroying religious images and prohibiting their use in churches. The policy immediately sparked protests and riots throughout the empire since icons were extremely popular among the laity. Byzantine monasticism grew out of the efforts of devout individuals to lead especially holy lives. Byzantine Christianity developed in tension particularly with the Christian faith of western Europe. The specific issues that divided the two Christian communities were religious and theological. One of them was the iconoclastic movement of the eighth and ninth century. The Eastern peoples favored in whereas the westerners did not. Some ritual and doctrinal differences concerned forms of worship and the precise wording of theological teachings. Alongside these ritual and doctrinal differences, the Byzantine patriarchs and Roman popes disputed their respective rights and powers. Patriarchs argues for autonomy of all major Christian jurisdictions, including that of Constantinople, while popes asserted the primacy of Rome as the sole seat of authority for all Christendom. Ultimately, relations became so strained that the eastern and western churches went separate ways thus creating the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

  9. What kinds of problems eventually led to the constriction and fall of the Byzantine empire? Hemmed in and increasingly pressured by Islamic and western European societies, Byzantium entered a period of decline beginning about the late eleventh century. Within 50 years after Basil II’s death, the empire was suffering from serious internal weaknesses and had endured a series of military reverses. In fact, it had entered a long period of gradual but sustained decline from which it never fully recovered. Both domestic and foreign problems help to explain this decline. Domestic problems actually arose from the success of the theme system. Generals allied with local aristocrats creating an elite class who resisted policies of the imperial government and even mounted rebellions against central authorities. The rebels never managed to defeat the imperial forces, but their revolts seriously disrupted local economies. As domestic problems mounted, Byzantium also faced fresh foreign challenges. From the west came representatives of a dynamic and expanding western European society. The Normans had taken control of southern Italy and expelled Byzantine authorities there. Nomadic Turkish peoples, most importantly the Muslim Saljuqs, invaded from the east. The loss of Anatolia sealed the deal.
  10. What was the relationship between the Byzantines and the Slavic people, including the Russians? Relations between Byzantines and Slavic people date back to the sixth century. Relations between Byzantium and Bulgaria were especially tense. Byzantium had begun to influence Bulgarian politics and society. Byzantine emperors recognized Bulgarian rulers, enhancing their status as legitimate sovereigns. Byzantium and Bulgaria entered into political, commercial, and cultural relations. Byzantium also sent missionaries to Balkan lands, and Bulgars and other Slavic peoples began to convert to Orthodox Christianity. The Cyrillic alphabet stimulated that conversion. Russians Slavic people north of Bulgaria. They created several principalities governed from thriving trading centers, notably Kiev. Kiev linked Scandinavia and Byzantium. Russian merchants visited Constantinople in large numbers and became well acquainted with Byzantine society. Russian princes sought alliance with Byzantine rulers and began to express an interest in Orthodox Christianity. After Prince Vladimir’s conversion, Byzantine influences flew rapidly into Russia. Byzantine art and architecture dominated Kiev and other Russian cities. They drew inspiration from Byzantine law code and compiled a written law code.


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