Essay: Cultural and Construction History of the Byzantine Empire

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Byzantine Empire: Cultural and Construction History

Cultural Environment

The Byzantine Empire denotes the east of the Roman Empire after a political, cultural, and religious schism in the fourth century AD. Byzantium itself, located in a strategic area between the Adriatic and Black seas, was a major trading port founded by Greek traders. It was the strategic location of the city that allowed trade, commerce, and ultimately political hegemony to transfer power from West to East when it became apparent that Rome could no longer manage its political domain appropriately (Harris).

Scholars of the period often point to the advancement of the Eastern Roman Empire whilst the west subsequently was defeated by invaders as a question of how the east did prevail whilst the west succumbed. The relative continuity of the east relative to the west was an issue research and to which a book was written by Edward N. Luttwak. (Karras, Sauers, 2010)

Luttwak asserts that the time was ripe during the fifth century as a function of the fervor of the rulers coupled to the strategies that would lead to combating attacks to the Eastern Roman Empire, such as the Huns and Attila. (Karras, Sauers, 2010) Hence, the defeat of the Eastern Roman Empire was a function of the lack of strategic military strength to defend the western portion of the empire.

Luttwak continues by promoting paradoxical logic as salient logic via the proposed 'grand strategy' uncontested by the Byzantines as the empire was viewed as under constant threat. (Karras, Sauers, 2010)

Relationship to Previous Periods

The separation of the Roman and Byzantine empires is really a current concept based on the idea that it was logical for Byzantium to take on the mantle of Rome when the culture of the Italian peninsula began to decay. In AD 324 the official capital of the Roman Empire was moved to Byzantium and renamed Constantinople (after Emperor Constantine) or "New Rome." Thus, Byzantium was a continuation of the Roman legacy, although with evolving technologies and, most importantly, the new officially sanctioned Christian religion (Adena).

The Byzantine Empire was a powerful 1,000-year empire whose influence in political, cultural, religious, economic, and military areas extended throughout the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world. It provided a vehicle for the Greco-Roman cultural heritage to maintain power during a period in which much of Western Europe was in turmoil. Many scholars believe that without the Byzantine Empire, many Western traditions may have been lost to the Islamic or Mongol empires. Yet as power in the West rose, Byzantium's power decreased, culminating in the Ottoman Turks' defeat of Constantinople in the fifteenth century (Halson).

As ironic as is the decrease in the Byzantium power relative to the increasing powers of the west, the Turks subsequently would move westward in the eighth century and establish independency within the borders of what is now known as Afghanistan, Eastern Iran and Northern India. (Artner, 1987)

The reason for the strength of the Asian empire was due to the development of the Seljuk Turks of the eleventh century (Artner, 1987). The tribal band ruled over what is now Iran, Iraq and Syria until the commencement of the fourteenth century (Artner, 1987).

Contribution(s) to Western Civilisation

The Byzantine Empire was the only stable, long-term political and cultural system in Europe which both protected and isolated western Europe from the emerging Islamic empire. Its primary cultural importance lies in economics and religion. It had the most progressive economy in the area until the Renaissance. Its well-established trading network stretched across most of Eurasia and North Africa and incorporated the Silk Road. These economic trade routes were key to the dissemination of Western culture throughout the known world, as well as bringing into Byzantium Asian and Middle Eastern culture. It is likely that without the Byzantine trade routes and economy, there would not have been enough funding for the Crusades, which resulted in the redevelopment and revitalization of Europe (Laiou). The intricate network of inter-state relations and treaties that formed the basis of Byzantine diplomacy allowed the rest of the world to assimilate its institutions, values, and attitudes (Neumann). The need for continual attacks on the Byzantine Empire gave rise to strong empires in the West, like Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire. Out of Byzantine feudalism grew the incipient structures of economic capitalism.

Recent scholarship understands the Byzantine Empire as a complex blend of Rome and the East. This balanced historical approach seems to point to the fact that the various stages in medieval development would have been unlikely without the influence of Byzantium. Indeed, the Byzantine Empire is now viewed as equally dynamic and successful to Rome, with a far-reaching influence on the West (Angelov). By no means does it fit the description of a society of decadence and decay. In addition, it was an instrumental social force for the dissemination of Christianity. This had a radical impact on building in the West.

Indirectly, the Byzantium facilitated the Muslim achievements in science as scholarly achievements by Muslims were shared with non-Muslims to further the societal benefit of Islamic non-fundamentalist scientific research. Such achievements from the Muslims as a function of the Byzantium led to the foundations of Western civilization (Aleph, 2011)

2. Scientific Environment

While the foundations of science were undoubtedly laid by ancient cultures, the Middle Ages proved to be a time where science moved out from under the wing of philosophy and became an independent discipline (Saliba 32). Byzantine knowledge and science preserved the writings of classical antiquity, particularly in philosophy and metaphysics (Anastos 410). The sophisticated Byzantine world preserved the previous Greco-Roman scientific discoveries and theories in medicine, mathematics, and science. The philosophical and scientific systems of Aristotle, Galen, and Ptolemy were spread around the empire to a new audience. Commentaries on their works proliferated and launched science through to the medieval period.

Nevertheless, after the sixth century AD and during the plague years and the Arab conquests, there were few novel contributions by Byzantine scholars (Cohen). Then, at the end of the first millennium, Byzantine scholars developed expertise in the astronomy, mathematics, and medicine of Persia and Arabia (Tatakes).

During the Byzantine Empire, religion proved unexpectedly to be no strong impediment to science and knowledge. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, western Europe saw a huge loss of religious knowledge. In the East, however, the Christian church retained this knowledge. Scholars such as Aquinas and Buridan allowed the spirit of scientific inquiry to continue. Science was contained in their texts. Thanks to later translations of many of these medieval works in the Renaissance, Europe reclaimed this knowledge. The Scientific Revolution in Europe was based on it. The medieval period, in other words, allowed science to flourish because its philosophy focused on logic, encouraged empiricism, and viewed nature in terms of a set of existing natural laws that could be understood and explained through reason.

Despite the initial setback, the Byzantine Empire hosted some exciting scientific developments. For instance, Byzantine scientists actively put mathematics into practise, continuing the efforts of the ancient Greeks. In the field of architecture, early Byzantium watched Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus construct the Hagia Sophia church using mathematical formulas. The significance of this building was enormous as it marked a technological breakthrough in its geometry, height, and design.

Perhaps the most important contribution the Byzantine Empire made to the progress of science was providing the medieval Islamic scholars with the ancient Greek works of mathematics and astronomy. These works were translated into Arabic, thus opening the Islamic world to a wealth of scientific information. This allowed Islamic countries not only to catch up scientifically, but to use the texts as a platform from which to devise their own theories and make fresh discoveries. As a result, the Islamic world became a scientific leader, extending knowledge in astronomy, mathematics, and other fields. The interchange of information between Byzantine Europe and the Arabic world fostered this trend. Byzantine scholars translated Arabic works into Byzantine Greek, thus continuing the exchange. The back-and-forth discovery and communication was beneficial for both and proved to be a sensational means of furthering human awareness and understanding of natural laws. Later, it was Byzantine grammarians who brought Ancient Greek grammar and literature to early Renaissance Italy.

One pertinent example of this process is the introduction into Europe of the Tusi-couple (named after Persian astronomer Nasr al-Din Tusi), an alternative to the equant put forth in Ptolemy's Almagest. It featured in the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, an astronomer who devised a working theory to demonstrate that the Earth is not the centre of the universe (Saliba 32). So important was Copernicus' theory that his On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres is not only considered the groundwork of modern astronomy, but the beginning of the Scientific Revolution itself.

In sum, the Byzantine Empire's influence on the progress of science was profound. It proved to be crucial to understanding natural laws and the universe. While Byzantine writers' contributions may not remain as well-known… [END OF PREVIEW]

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