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The Byzantine Empire

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire lasted from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 467 A.D. to 1453 A.D., when Constantinople was lost to the Ottoman Turks. In its thousand year history Byzantium had many important rulers although Justinian and Theodora were perhaps the greatest among them. After Western Rome fell the Eastern emperors still saw themselves as rulers of all of Rome. In the year 527 Justinian, succeeded his uncle as emperor and Justinian make this a reality. After many campaigns lead by his best general, Belisarius, Justinian had conquered all the territory Rome ever ruled and could now truly call himself a Caesar. Justinian did not rule the empire alone, his wife Theodora also worked with foreign leaders, passed laws, and took part in politics. In 532, during the Nika Rebellion, Theodora convinced Justinian to stay in the city when he had wanted to flee to safety. To rule his vast empire Justinian created a set of laws know as the Justinian code. Justinian created the code from old Roman laws that still applied for Justinian’s time.

Byzantium was constantly attacked from its beginning to its end. Thus, the Byzantines became skilled warriors and shrewd diplomats. They employed tactics such as diplomacy, bribery, and military power to fight their foes. Like the fallen Eastern Empire they found that they could trust mercenaries, sometimes even more than their own soldiers. A company of Scandinavian mercenaries known as the Varangian Guard remained under the control of the Byzantine emperor and they could be trusted far more than Byzantine soldiers.

The Byzantine Imperial flag is yellow with a double-headed eagle wearing black crowns.

The double-headed eagle was the symbol of the Palaiologos, the last Byzantine dynasty to rule from Constantinople from 1258-1453. The double-headed eagle symbolized the dynasty’s interests in both Asia and Europe, and was kept despite the fact that nearly all of the Empire’s Asian possessions were seized by the Ottomans. The two headed eagle would eventually become identified with the empire itself, and with institutions outside the Byzantine Empire that were connected to Constantinople. Thus, it is not surprising that the flag was in use by the Russian Czars and the Greek Orthodox Church.

Another flag of the Byzantine Empire is a combination of the St. George cross (which is a red cross on a white field) and the arms of the Palaiologos family (yellow crosses on a red field). The four symbols in the corners of the two crosses in the arms of the Palaiologos family could be either firesteels, which were used in badges of the Order of the Golden Fleece, or as the Greek letter Β, which makes up the initial letters of the Paleologues’s motto: Βασιλευς Βασιλεων Βασιλευων Βασιλευσιν which means: King of Kings, ruling over Kings.

The Byzantine Empire also developed its own unique culture that separated it from its Roman ancestors while still preserving Greco-Roman culture and its many great works. Justinian worked to beautify Constantinople by repairing buildings and building a stone wall along its Western half. He also built the Hagia Sophia, which was considered to be the greatest church built in medieval times and still stands today. The Hagia Sophia symbolizes the union of Church and State in the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine art was heavily influenced by its Roman ancestors, which was influenced by Greek art. Therefore Byzantine artists never lost sight of their classical heritage. Because of this, the Roman art of creating mosaics was retained by the Byzantines. Byzantine art, while influenced by its ancestors, had developed its unique style. Byzantine painting and mosaics use many colors and figures but the figures were typically seen as stiff or flat. The figures have large eyes with golden or gold toned backgrounds and were mainly produced for churches and as such the art often portrays people as somber and solemn. Byzantine art also shows only a small attempt made at creating realism.

Throughout the centuries Byzantine emperors issued coins in gold (the solidus), silver, and copper. Their picture and name would be imprinted on the coins. The main function of coins was the collection of taxes.

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