What Were Elements of Byzantine Culture?

Ray Hawk

Byzantine culture comprised a crossroads of influences. Its geographic location centered in the heart of Greece gave it a fundamental Greek character, while connections to the ancient foundations of the Roman empire in the west defined its political aspirations. Influences from the growing Islamic Persian Empire and Ottoman Arab influences of Turkey gave it a synthesis of eastern and western thinking. Well-established trading with the Middle East and Orient also contributed to making Byzantine culture one of the most advanced and diverse civilizations of its time.

The Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, extended into what is now known as Turkey.
The Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, extended into what is now known as Turkey.

The Byzantine empire is generally considered to have come into existence when Constantinople was made the capital of Rome in the year 324 AD. The Eastern Roman Empire survived for 1,129 years until Constantinople was conquered by Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottomans in 1453 AD with an army of 80,000 to 200,000 men. Prior to its fall, the capital city of Byzantine culture had peaked at one time at a population of nearly 1,000,000, and was a cultural center of the world.

The political structure of Byzantine society was modeled on that of ancient Roman tradition. Emperors ruled with the advice of a small circle of advisers, and a Senate body prepared laws to rule the majority. A small segment of the population was composed of wealthy aristocracy, followed by a prosperous middle class minority of merchants and shop owners. The bulk of the population were urban laborers or farmers who worked for wealthy landowners in the countryside.

Christian religion dominated the culture from its founding, through the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, a letter by Constantine the Great which supported religious tolerance. Emperor Constantine in the east and Emperor Licinius I in the west both signed the letter, and Constantine became the first Byzantine emperor to convert to Christianity. Eastern Roman views of Christianity were highly speculative, however, and involved mysticism and metaphysical philosophies acquired from other cultures. This later led to persecution of some Christian groups labeled as heretics under the rule of Emperor Justinian from 527 to 565 AD.

Justinian is also credited with many significant positive contributions to Byzantine culture. He initiated an enduring imagery in Byzantine art traditions through mosaics by commissioning the building of the Santa Sophia Basilica in Constantinople on a lavish scale that had not been seen to date. The legal system was also reformed under his rule through the Corpus iuris civilis, or Body of Civil Law, which came to be known as the Code of Justinian. It was a systematic unification of established Roman laws and Christian principles, which is, in modern times, seen as the foundation for continental European law overall.

The Greek love of learning had a fundamental influence on Byzantine culture and character. Their openness to diverse ideas resulted in the export of their own classical Greek and Roman thinking to neighboring Islam and Slavic peoples, such as those of Russia. The elite of society spoke in Latin, yet the everyday populace spoke Greek and was taught in the Greek intellectual traditions of literature, rhetoric, and democratic thinking.

Since Constantinople sat on trade routes both by land and sea between Europe and eastern empires, it prospered greatly. Constantine built a multitude of covered walkways, baths, and palaces in the city. He also imported large quantities of art from throughout the region to embellish the capital. So great was the influence of Byzantine culture that, when the empire fell to the Ottomans, Russian rulers took on the title of Tsar, a translated form of Caesar which was used by Byzantine emperors, through an attempt to restart the empire. They claimed Moscow as the third Rome, a successor to the divided Roman empire which had now fallen to invaders in both the eastern and western regions.

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