O sages standing in God’s holy fire

English poet William Butler Yeats wrote a poem about Byzantium: “O sages standing in God’s holy fire/As in the gold mosaic of a wall,/Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,/And be the singing-masters of my soul.” Byzantium is full of contradictions, full of anachronisms.

By AD3 64 , the Roman Empire had been definitively split into two separate states: The Eastern Roman Empire, and the Western Roman Empire. The Western Empire soon collapsed under the weight of attacks by barbarians, and Europe entered the so called Dark Ages or Medieval era. While the Western Roman Empire collapsed, imperial rule in the East survived for almost a 1000 years. The Byzantines were especially important to Eastern Europe, for its influences in art and religion. However, as Western Europe grew more prominent, foreign pressure brought the Eastern Roman Empire to a decline. The empire collapsed to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, one of events that also precipitated the end of the Medieval period.

Byzantium is the name given to both the state and the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire in the middle ages. Both the state and the inhabitants always called themselves Roman, as did most of their neighbors, until the Empire succumbed to Ottoman invaders in the 15th century. Western Europeans, who had their own Holy Roman Empire called them Orientals or Greeks, and later Byzantines after the former name of the Empire’s capital city, Constantinople. Again, though, if we stopped a resident of 12th century Byzantium and asked him who he was, he would not know what Byzantium meant—he saw himself as a Roman citizen.

Such is the diverse history of Byzantium. Whatever it became, it was the continuation of the Roman state, and until the seventh century, preserved the basic structures of Late Roman Empire culture– a large multi-ethnic urban Christian state and defended by a mobile, highly specialized, effective army.

After the Arab/Islamic conquest of Egypt and Syria, Byzantium became much more of a Hellenistic state, all the cities except Constantinople faded away to small fortified outposts. The Byzantines governed and administrated their declining empire the same way earlier Romans handled Roman Britain.

There is then a persistent contradiction about the beginning of Byzantine history – between the building of Constantinople by Constantine I and the mid-7th century collapse of late antique urban culture. Who were the Byzantiums? Greeks? Romans?

The seventh to ninth centuries were tough times in Byzantine history. This was a time when Roman Christian Byzantium changed to Eastern Orthodox Byzantium.

The main struggle in the Church, and in the Empire, was the struggle over icons. Until the Eastern Orthodox Church prevailed, there was some unease in the Byzantium Empire.

From AD 900-1100 Byzantium’s political power reached its apogee as former colonies were annexed into the Empire, and the military carved out a small, but secure Empire between emerging Russia and nascent Medieval Europe.

This period is also significant as the time in which Byzantine culture was spread among the Balkan peoples. Following massive Turkish attacks in the late eleventh century, the Empire quickly declined until it was conquered by the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. (From Vol. 1, Studies in World History, Master Books, 2014)

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