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Rome had fallen, but New Rome, the city of Constantinople, stood firm. Here, the vision of Constantine - of a perfect Christian state, with the emperor presiding over civil and religious life - was realized. As western Europe degenerated into squabbling barbarian kingdoms, and the Middle East and North Africa fell to the followers of the Prophet, Byzantium stood as a bastion of Christian civilization.
BYZANTIUM AND THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
From the founding of Constantinople by Constantine the Great in AD 330 to the fall of the city to the Ottomans in 1453, the Byzantine empire endured for 1,123 years and 18 days. Over such a vast time span there was inevitably great change, both social and political, yet the degree of cultural uniformity throughout that time is striking. That was due, in large part, to the central role that Christianity played in the empire.
EMPERORS, CHURCHES AND HEAVEN ON EARTH
Perhaps the most obvious element of this role was the near-perfect union of church and state, above all in the person of the emperor. The tendency of 'caesaropapism', pioneered by Constantine and his sons, was taken further than ever before. The emperor was regarded as Christ's regent on earth. In the Golden Hall, the imperial throne room, a magnificent icon of Christ in majesty towered over the throne itself. Nearby was an icon of the Virgin Mary, the protector of the city of Constantinople. From AD 641 onwards, each new emperor would be crowned in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia by the patriarch of Constantinople and acclaimed by the people with the words 'God gave you to us. God will guard you'; a Eucharist would follow. The emperor played a key role in the great religious ceremonies of the empire. Indeed, although he could not perform any of the sacraments, the emperor was regarded as having the office of a priest.
Quite what all this meant was not always clear. In general, the emperor was regarded as the protector of the faith: he called church councils and enacted laws against heretics. Theological decisions, by contrast, were the task of the bishops, above all the four patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, particularly the patriarch of Constantinople, the first among equals, known as the ecumenical patriarch - that is, the leader of the Orthodox Church. But the line between the emperor's authority and that of the patriarch was not always clearly drawn. Patriarchs were elected by other bishops, but after the sixth century the final choice lay with the emperor, and on some occasions emperors chose none of the candidates suggested by the bishops. To add to the confusion, the political system of the Byzantine empire was enormously complex, based upon a complicated court and bureaucracy - indeed, we still use the word 'byzantine' to mean an incomprehensibly dense political or legal system. This was especially so in later years, and the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, who ruled in the tenth century, wrote an extraordinary book describing the rituals that the court had to perform throughout the year, all in a sumptuous detail that would put Gormenghast to shame. Patriarchs might move in this court world as readily as they did in the ecclesiastical world. Emperors sometimes chose various court officials to act as close advisers or, in effect, prime ministers, especially if they were away campaigning. Sometimes, the ecumenical patriarch might be the one so appointed.
If Constantine was regarded as the originator and founder of the Christian Roman empire, its greatest emperor after the fall of Rome itself, and the model for all subsequent emperors, was Justinian the Great, whom we have already met. Born in AD 482, Justinian was a Thracian and always spoke Greek with a foreign accent. His uncle, Justin, was a general who became emperor in AD 518. He quickly made his nephew one of his closest advisers, and Justinian became the true power behind the throne. Thus he remained until AD 527, when Justin died and Justinian succeeded him. He shared his throne with his wife, Theodora, a woman at least as remarkable as her husband; since she was a former actress and circus performer (and, it was said, prostitute), Justin had had to change the law to allow his nephew to marry her. Strong-willed and charismatic, she captivated her powerful husband. Justinian was nothing if not audacious: not content with warring upon the Persians in the traditional manner, he sent his brilliant general Belisarius to reconquer much of the western half of the old Roman empire, successfully capturing North Africa and Italy, although many areas were devastated in the wars.
Despite the centrality of Christianity to Byzantium, there seems always to have been a certain savagery to the empire. The belief of the early church that Christianity and killing were fundamentally incompatible had long since been abandoned in Byzantium, just as it had in western Europe. The conversion of Rome to Christianity in the fourth century had led to a rapid reinterpretation of warfare as potentially undertaken in the service of God: the Christian soldier could fight for his emperor safe in the belief that the emperor's cause was that of God. The Persian campaigns of Heraclius in the AD 620s were just one dramatic consequence of this pragmatic U-turn on the part of the church. Capital punishment, too, was now no longer regarded as unchristian; the main remnant of the church's earlier opposition to the practice was that priests could not order an execution or carry one out, an injunction that remained in force in western Europe too. In addition to 'lawful' violence such as this, Byzantium was often at the mercy of lawless acts of savagery. Throughout its history, emperors were routinely murdered, often by those they trusted, and their killers would become emperor themselves despite, often, having no dynastic claim to the throne at all. The people themselves could be prone to violence, often associated with the 'demes'. These organizations, which have no real modern parallel, were like a cross between football supporters' clubs, political parties and street gangs. There were two main ones - the 'Blues' and the 'Greens' - in addition to the less powerful 'Reds' and 'Whites' (all named after the colours of the chariot teams they supported); and they were based around the Hippodrome, the main sporting venue and centre of social life in Constantinople. The demes could inspire riots, between the four groups or in unison against unpopular emperors or their policies. On one famous occasion in AD 532, one such riot at the Hippodrome, which lasted a week and destroyed many buildings in the city, almost scared the emperor Justinian into fleeing the capital, until his wife Theodora persuaded him to stay. Until then both Justinian and Theodora had supported the Blues, but the rioters were put down savagely. Some 30,000 people were killed.
Justinian used the destruction this had caused as the occasion to start a new building programme. He was already addicted to the creation of splendid public monuments, such as the magnificent Great Palace with its Bronze Gate. But by far his most famous monument was the church of Hagia Sophia - the 'Holy Wisdom' - in the capital. Originally built by Constantius in AD 360 and rebuilt in AD 415, this had been a standard basilica-type church which was destroyed by the rioters of AD 532. Justinian was determined to build something much bigger and more ambitious, to a completely new design. He hired the two best architects of the day - Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus - and told them not to worry about expense. They did not disappoint. A team of 10,000 workmen laboured for five years to construct the vast square church, surmounted by an enormous dome - the largest the world had ever seen. At its completion Justinian is said to have declared, 'Solomon, I have surpassed you!' Its square-round design was ultimately inspired by the baptisteries and martyri, first seen in the fourth century, which preserved the basic plan of pagan temples. The dome, as a feature of ecclesiastical design, had only recently been invented; so one of this size - 31 metres (103 ft) across, 50 metres (163 ft) high, and supported by an innovative system of arches and vaults - was a truly radical step forward. The general design of this church, especially its dome, would be copied for centuries, creating the distinctive Byzantine style of architecture.
Inside, the cathedral was finished with vast quantities of gold, marble and precious stones imported from the furthest reaches of the known world. In addition to this there was a 15-metre (50-ft) solid silver iconostasis - the screen before the altar - which itself was covered in gold and jewels. All this was not just for show. It was intended to express the glory of God and the beauty of his worship. In AD 555 the historian Procopius, in his On the buildings, commented:
[Hagia Sophia] is remarkably full of light and sunshine. You would say that the place is not lit by the sun from outside, but that the rays are produced within itself, there is so much light poured into this church ... When you enter this building to pray, you feel that it is not the work of human power ... The soul, lifting itself to the sky, realizes that here God is close, and that he delights in this, the home he has chosen.
To the Byzantines, the church on earth was a reflection of the church in heaven: to enter a cathedral such as Hagia Sophia was to be transported closer to God. To the Byzantine mind, heaven and earth could meet at certain well-defined points. A church service in Hagia Sophia, perhaps featuring a procession of priests with the emperor at its head, was an obvious such point. In the earlier years of the empire the really grand services were held throughout the whole city of Constantinople, as the procession, headed by the emperor, marched through, holding services at special locations along the way. After the sixth century these celebrations of the city's life and faith were discontinued, and all the processions were held inside the church itself.
Thus there developed a greater understanding of the church building itself as the place where God was most present. In addition to being dazzled by the golden mosaics, a member of the congregation would find the very air itself conveying beauty and holiness, as incense hung in a dense mist throughout the church. The building was a reflection of heaven. The seventh-century theologian Maximus the Confessor claimed that the building symbolized the whole of creation, just as the whole of creation was there to praise God's glory:
God's holy church is itself a symbol of the sensible world, since it possesses the divine sanctuary as heaven and the beauty of the nave as earth. Likewise the world is a church since it possesses heaven corresponding to a sanctuary, and for a nave it has the adornment of the earth.
The music also expressed the beauty of heaven. It was sung by the priests and people together, without accompaniment, like the 'plainsong' that was also developing in the western church. The liturgy, in general, was a complex web of elements, mostly drawn from the Bible. For example, an extremely popular element in later years was the 'canon', invented by Andrew of Crete in the eighth century. A 'canon' was a cycle of nine odes, reflecting the nine canticles or songs of the Old Testament. Andrew's Great Canon was basically a patchwork of biblical texts arranged in this way on the theme of repentance. Orthodox churches still sing this canon twice every Lent, making it one of the most often-recited long poems ever written.
Within the service, and outside it too, there were particular points where heaven and earth came together most closely. The sacraments - or 'mysteries', as they were known in the East - were examples of this. In contrast to the time of Constantine, in Byzantine times everyone was baptized as a baby, and confirmed at the same time (known as chrismation, because the baby was anointed with chrism, that is, oil). The Eucharist was central to church services, the central mystery of the liturgy, and the focal point of the union of human and divine. Another such focal point was the icon, developed in the sixth and seventh centuries. Icons were highly stylized portraits of Christ or the saints, intended to focus the mind of the viewer upon their subject and encourage imitation of their virtues. Many believed that icons served not simply as reminders of Christ or the saints but as extensions of their being, so that to look upon an icon was, in some way, to look upon what it represented. They were literally windows into heaven. Some believed that icons could even work miracles. To paint an icon was a deeply spiritual task, and artists would fast and spiritually prepare themselves before creating one. Their value as beautiful works of art was also important, since like the liturgy they represented the notion, which eastern Christianity had imbibed from Platonism and made its own, that God is the supreme beauty and is therefore known through the contemplation of beauty. The more beautiful the icon or the church, the closer it takes you to God.
All of this expressed the fundamental point of Christianity for the Byzantines, which was the incarnation. It was in Jesus Christ, above all, that heaven and earth met, for in him God and humanity were perfectly united. In Christ, heaven and earth had met perfectly, showing that such a thing was possible; this meant that the divine liturgy did not simply imitate heaven but really brought it to earth. The icons did not simply portray the presence of God in people's lives - they enabled it. This helps to explain the role that the Virgin Mary played in Byzantine religion, since as the mother of Jesus her womb was the place where God and man had met. The Virgin was regarded as the special protector of the city of Constantinople, and on more than one occasion its safe deliverance from besieging forces was believed to be the result of her direct intervention. The role of the incarnation in the church also helps to explain the incredibly drawn-out debates about the person of Christ and the relation of the human and divine in him. Rows between Chalcedonians and Monophysites were so heated because people recognized that they struck at the very heart of the faith.
Monasticism played a central role in Byzantine religion, just as it had in the life of the fourth-century church. Indeed, Byzantine monasticism was simply a continuation of the same movement. There never developed the different 'orders' of monasteries that appeared in the Middle Ages in western Europe. But there was still great variation in the ways that monasticism expressed itself. The style associated with Pachomius of Egypt, where everyone lived and worked together, remained very popular. There were a number of monasteries within cities that followed this pattern, which operated as large 'houses'. By the mid-sixth century there were seventy in Constantinople alone. Often such monastic houses were established with money provided by rich private individuals, or even emperors. Other monasteries followed the pattern of the desert fathers and were semi-communal, with monks living in separate cells and coming together only at weekends. These could also exist within cities. Most of these monasteries were quite small, with between three and twenty monks; sometimes, a small monastery would have been much like a family, with just a few monks living closely together. But a large one would have its own stables and kitchens, as well as its own chapel and dining room; it might own agricultural land and also a library and scriptorium for copying books. The ever-increasing size and complexity of the liturgy required an endless supply of service books of one kind or another, and these largely came from the monasteries: reading was compulsory for monks in such houses.
Some holy men became famous and could wield a spiritual authority that overruled even the highest political authority. There was a notable occasion in the AD 470s, when the emperor Basiliscus issued a statement endorsing Monophysitism. The horrified patriarch, Acacius, arranged for the intervention of Daniel Stylites, a hermit who lived on top of a pillar in Constantinople itself. This strange lifestyle had been pioneered by Symeon Stylites, a fifth-century Syrian who had spent thirty years on top of a pillar, and it had become quite popular in Syria. The pillars were typically about 18 metres (60 ft) high and surmounted by a small platform with a rail, so that the hermit didn't have to stand all the time. They were major tourist attractions, and crowds would flock to see the holy men standing, arms outstretched in imitation of Christ on the cross. Daniel, one of these pillar saints living in the capital itself, was enormously revered. He came down from the pillar - an unprecedented event - and went directly to the palace to confront the emperor. Aware that he could not realistically disobey this revered man, Basiliscus duly rescinded his decree.
Excerpted from Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity by Jonathan Hill Copyright © 2006 by Jonathan Hill. Excerpted by permission.
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