The Byzantine Empire – or rather the later Roman Empire as its people thought of it – was undoubtedly great. The greatest empire of its day. To be there in Constantinople in office was to be at the very cutting edge of the world.
In technology, Byzantium, being a great empire had to look to its armies and navy, and consequently it was inventive in weaponry with flame throwers, grenades and trebuchets. Manufacture and innovation of weaponry were highly regarded, particularly in metallurgy, chemistry and mechanics.
Hand grenades with shrapnel
Mathematics, and science with Greek and Arabic influence, was to the forefront, there were places here for innovators and academics. Byzantine scientists continued the tradition of the great Greek mathematicians, but went further and put their mathematics into practical use. In early Byzantium the mathematicians Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus used mathematical formulae to build the great Hagia Sophia cathedral, a technological breakthrough for its time (and for centuries afterwards) due to its geometry, design and height.
Hagia Sophia Cathedral as it was built
More than this however, here in the great city was the centre, for here was also the centre of Christianity, here was the great cathedral – the architecturally innovative greatest church in the world.
The clergy held a special place, in part due to education, but also having more freedom than their Western counterparts, and having a Patriarch in Constantinople who was considered to be the head of the Church. The Church in fact ruled a much larger empire and dealt personally with the Master of the Cosmos.
Hagia Sophia Cathedral today close to 1,500 years later
And it was here in the great palace that the Emperor and his administration ruled a far-flung empire, requiring a civil service of magnitude to rule so ethnically diverse an empire as gradually the people became better educated throughout it.
The Eastern and Western Roman Empire
The Bucoleon palace
Education within the population was considerably more advanced than in the western countries, primarily because there was a school system, meaning that there were high literacy rates.
Men who would study, and who were themselves capable and outstanding, travelled to Constantinople to take their place in this great city whether in the Church or as academics.
Byzantine education was based upon the ancient Greek system that comprised a tripartite structure but was far more widespread throughout the country than in ancient Greece. The structure included the elementary school, secondary school, and higher education.
Schools were spread throughout the countryside and in towns. This ensured that literacy was fairly widespread – quite different from Western Europe where there was no real system except in some particular places. Secondary schools in Byzantium were mostly in the larger towns and tertiary education took place only in Constantinople itself.
Constantinople was a bustling place to be, by AD 400 there were some 300,000 people in it – by AD 560 there were around 800,000. So it was no mean city by any standards. A centre of learning, of the Church, and especially of trade, set on the Golden Horn where ships from the north and ships from the south came to trade.
Here, if one had the intellect, one could soar, here was the one place in the universe where it really happened, where one was at the centre of real influence, where the universe – material and spiritual – came together.
So, by the standards of its day (and a whole lot later) Constantinople was indeed the place to be.
But what of us, in these British islands? Well, despite Victorian ignorance of this period, it was certainly not a dark age and modern scholarship is finally making that clear.
The Church – the same Church that was in Constantinople actually arrived here earlier than it arrived in Greece or Rome. It is historically recorded by a number of contemporary/near contemporary writers that it came here with the first bishop Aristobulus sent from the Church in Jerusalem via Tyre in AD 37 – and it never went away. With the Church usually comes education. However the Church as it established itself in Britain, while believing the same things that the rest of the Church did, organised itself somewhat differently. Unlike other places it did not see itself as an institution. It was more a movement amongst the people. It had bishops, but they had no dioceses, they were with the people, more clan based than anything. By the AD 400s it had many monasteries and these rather than dioceses tended to be the centres of learning, the hubs of the Church.
The Britons generally could be fairly well educated, particularly on topics such as religion, philosophy, geography and astronomy. The Romans often employed Britons as tutors for their sons. There was, however no British education system. The Druids had “colleges” where there was real learning of renown and these colleges converted quite easily to Christianity, continuing their role as teachers and community leaders. Indeed these colleges in many instances turned into Christian monasteries.
Such was the learning associated with the Church in the British Isles, that its fame spread across Europe, especially with the British missionaries who went as far as Germany and even Kiev.
The incoming Anglo-Saxons were however pagans and destroyed the Church wherever they gained control. The Church and its learning retreated, only to send missionaries back. Eventually by the eighth century most of the country was again Christian with the exception of those parts invaded late in the first millennium.
Escomb church – one of many surviving churches from the Anglo-Saxon period
A large body of literature survives from Anglo-Saxon England in both Latin and Old English. Some of it resulting from King Alfred’s policies of education when because of falling standards of literacy and learning, he focused on the production of manuscripts written in English rather than Latin. The Old English translation of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People written in Latin by Bede (AD673–735) and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an historical work in Old English were also instigated by King Alfred. Other writings in Old English include sermons, saints’ lives and wills. Anglo-Saxon laws were written in Old English rather than in Latin. Medical texts (and there were a few) were written in both Latin and Old English.
About 30,000 lines of Old English poetry survive in manuscripts dating from the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.
Part of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
There is no doubt that by the late second half of the millennium, Christian Britain was functioning in a similar harmony between Church and State that can be seen in Constantinople, we have examples of the Witenagemot passing legislation a number of times in the eighth century concerning the Church, and we know that particularly by King Alfred’s time there was no clear line dividing them.
A Witenagemot session
As far as we know, contact between Byzantium and Britain was due to The Church and trade. The trade that had existed between Britain and the Mediterranean for several thousand years, persisted mainly through the far western ports, the Bristol Channel and Cornwall. The Church, because there was a fair traffic of clergy to and from Britain right from the beginning. Britain – both British and later Anglo-Saxon-British was by no means cut off, a backwater indeed the scholarship of the British Church made it an important centre for European Christianity.
We also know that after the Great Schism of 1054, there were many British soldiers serving in the army of Byzantium, particularly the Varangian Guard.
With the papal-Norman invasion, Britain was forcibly taken into schism with the Church. King Harald’s widow and children fled to Byzanitine Kiev. 1500 ships full of English refugees arrived in Constantinople and were given a kingdom on the Crimea where they proceeded to build a London and a York
As you can see, the connecting thread through all of this is Orthodox Christianity in both places. That Christianity, while the same, was yet different. In Constantinople it was the Church of the Empire, an institution, very clearly defined and powerful while in Britain it was much more the Church of the people and while influential, it was not yet institutional. It did not become that grand institution until the coming of the papal Normans.
At the beginning of the second millennium the Church in the Byzantine Empire, was at the peak of its world influence and power. Rome, had become a provincial town and its church of little importance, the Carolingians couldn’t compare with Byzantium as a centre of power or Christian civilisation. The empire extended from Mesopotamia to Naples and from the Danube to Palestine. The Church extended its rule far beyond the empire, to Russia, and north Africa.
Since the early days of Constantine and Justinian I the idea was that there was to be a single, unified Christian society, run by the empire and the Church, and that was still the case in the late Byzantine empire. At the heart of this was the Emperor. The Emperor had a place in the Church’s worship whereby he could not celebrate the Liturgy, but he occasionally preached sermons and on some feasts censed the altar. The life of the empire was a unified whole, and there was no real line of separation between Church and State, they formed a single organisation, within which were two distinct roles, the clergy and the imperial power working in close co-operation, yet each being autonomous there was a ‘symphony’ or ‘harmony’ of the two.
The emperor with his army far left, civil servants and on his right a Bishop, a Priest and a Deacon.
This was evident in Byzantine law drawn up under Justinian. Emperor John Tzimisces: ‘I recognise two authorities, priesthood and empire; the Creator of the world entrusted to the first the care of souls and to the second the control of men’s bodies. Let neither authority be attacked, that the world may enjoy prosperity.”
A Byzantine church interior
Thus it was the Emperor’s duty to summons Church councils and to enforce their decrees, but it was beyond his power to dictate the decrees themselves: it was for the bishops and clergy gathered in council to decide what the true faith was. When for instance a serious question arose, the Church acted alone – the iconoclast controversy although involving emperors was successfully rejected by the Church. Church and State were closely associated in running the empire, but neither was subordinate to the other.
The Byzantines strove to create an empire that was entirely Christian in its principles of government and in its daily life, in fact nothing less than an attempt to apply the fullness of Christ’s Way.
Today we can see a modern version of this in Russia, with the selfsame Orthodox Church that was in Byzantium and the Russian State working very closely together under successive Orthodox Christian presidents, much as the former Tsarist government worked with the Orthodox Church in running its empire. So it continues today. One can hope that over the following decades Russia will sort out a method of making this work ever better.