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From Iconoclasm to Monasticism
During the eighth and early ninth centuries, Byzantine emperors (beginning with Leo III in 730) spearheaded a movement that denied the holiness of icons, or religious images, and prohibited their worship or veneration. Known as Iconoclasm–literally "the smashing of images"–the movement waxed and waned under various rulers, but did not end definitively until 843, when a Church council under Emperor Michael III ruled in favor of the display of religious images.
During the late 10th and early 11th centuries, under the rule of the Macedonian dynasty founded by Michael III's successor, Basil, the Byzantine Empire enjoyed a golden age. Though it stretched over less territory, Byzantium had more control over trade, more wealth and more international prestige than under Justinian. The strong imperial government patronized the arts, restored churches, palaces and other cultural institutions and promoted the study of ancient Greek history and literature. Greek became the official language of the state, and a flourishing culture of monasticism centered on Mount Athos in northeastern Greece. Monks administered many institutions (orphanages, schools, hospitals) in everyday life, and Byzantine missionaries won many converts to Christianity among the Slavic peoples of the central and eastern Balkans (including Bulgaria and Serbia) and Russia.
Byzantium and the Crusades
The end of the 11th century saw the beginning of the Crusades, the series of holy wars waged by Western Christians against Muslims in the Near East from 1095 to 1291. With the Seijuk Turks of central Asia bearing down on Constantinople, Emperor Alexius I turned to the West for help, resulting in the declaration of "holy war" by Pope Urban II at Clermont (France) that began the First Crusade. As armies from France, Germany and Italy poured into Byzantium, Alexius tried to force their leaders to swear an oath of loyalty to him in order to guarantee that land regained from the Turks would be restored to his empire. After Western and Byzantine forces recaptured Nicaea in Asia Minor from the Turks, Alexius and his army retreated, drawing accusations of betrayal from the Crusaders.
During the subsequent Crusades, animosity continued to build between Byzantium and the West, culminating in the conquest and looting of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The Latin regime established in Constantinople existed on shaky ground due to the open hostility of the city's population and its lack of money. Many refugees from Constantinople fled to Nicaea, site of a Byzantine government-in-exile that would retake the capital and overthrow Latin rule in 1261.
The Fall of the Byzantine Empire & Its Legacy
During the rule of the Palaiologan emperors, beginning with Michael VIII in 1261, the economy of the once-mighty Byzantine state was crippled, and never regained its former stature. In 1369, Emperor John V unsuccessfully sought financial help from the West to confront the growing Turkish threat, but was arrested as an insolvent debtor in Venice. Four years later, he was forced–like the Serbian princes and the ruler of Bulgaria–to become a vassal of the mighty Turks. As a vassal state, Byzantium paid tribute to the sultan and provided him with military support. Under John's successors, the empire gained sporadic relief from Ottoman oppression, but the rise of Murad II as sultan in 1421 marked the end of the final respite. Murad revoked all privileges given to the Byzantines and laid siege to Constantinople; his successor, Mehmed II, completed this process when he launched the final attack on the city. On May 29, 1453, after an Ottoman army stormed Constantinople, Mehmed triumphantly entered the Hagia Sophia, which would become the city's leading mosque. Emperor Constantine XI died in battle that day, and the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire was complete.
In the centuries leading up to the final Ottoman conquest in 1453, the culture of the Byzantine Empire–including literature, art and theology–flourished once again, even as the empire itself faltered. Byzantine culture would exert a great influence on the Western intellectual tradition, as scholars of the Italian Renaissance sought help from Byzantine scholars in translating Greek pagan and Christian writings. (This process would continue after 1453, when many of these scholars fled to Italy from Constantinople.) Long after its "end," Byzantine culture and civilization continued to exercise an influence on countries that practiced its Orthodox religion, including Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece, among others.
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