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                                                   Byzantine Period - Political and Cultural Achievements
byzantine mosaic     


The Byzantine Empire showed in its long history a remarkable power of survival. Although the throne was often occupied by utterly incompetent rulers, and political assassination was common, sometimes resulting in destructive, if brief, civil wars between competitors for the throne, the administrative service was so efficiently organized that it could function effectively even when the throne was occupied by men (and women) of neither ability or character. Though the administration itself was often scandalously corrupt, the empire never went bankrupt. Taxes were always collected, the bureaucracy and the armies were paid,  and the peasants never sank to the poverty and misery experienced in the contemporary West. Though the boundaries of the empire frequently expanded and contracted with the fortunes of war, its rump could and did always support itself and had enough strength to fight back and retake a considerable portion of what it had lost when the tide of  war was against it. Thus the Greeks, having inherited much of the Roman system of administration and law, showed that they could rule and administer an empire which survived even longer than that of their former masters.

The upper and middle classes of the empire enjoyed a high standard of living, unmatched in the West until very recent times. Trade and industry prospered. The emperor lived in Oriental luxury and maintained an Oriental ceremonial which emphasized the immense distance between himself and his subjects—a ceremonial that impressed even while it excited the verbal derision of Western ambassadors from countries that were still little removed from barbarism. This ritual, like that introduced by Diocletian, was for political purposes. It served the same purposes among the Byzantines as among the later Romans; but it had now borrowed so much from the East that it was hardly to be distinguished from the splendor of an Oriental court, and the daily life of a Byzantine monarch was as marked by a prescribed protocol as that of an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh.

Probably the chief intellectual interest of the Byzantines and Greeks for many centuries was theological speculation, which at times permeated even the lower urban classes. There were endless disputes over the difficult questions concerned with the Christian Trinity—the relation of each Person to the others, the nature of Christ and how it was to be distinguished from that of God the Father, and similar matters incapable of definitive solution. The emperor and his patriarch, with the aid of Church councils, defined dogmas; but always there were dissident groups that could not accept the "orthodox" ("right opinion") solution and thus became heretics ("choosers"). These heretics were persecuted and sometimes expelled from the empire, and on occasion took their religious beliefs to other parts of the world, where they proselytized among the native peoples (for example, they founded the Nestorian Church in China).

There was much excellent literary scholarship in the empire, but on the whole little new creative work, nothing in any way to be compared in originality and depth with the work of the fifth and fourth centuries b.c. Byzantine art, however, though not always to the taste of the West, was profoundly religious and in many respects quite original, especially its mosaics and icons (when they were allowed); the craftsmanship of Constantinople was often superb and quite beyond comparison with anything in the West until at least the High Middle Ages. Byzantine law was a development of Roman law, frequently codified again after the great Corpus of Justinian and sometimes humanized under Christian influence. This was especially true of the Ecloga of Leo III, perhaps the most humane law code that had been drawn up in history until that time—though it did not prevent the Byzantine rulers from inflicting the most barbarous atrocities upon their political enemies and on prisoners of war when such deeds appeared to be justified by their political purposes.







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