This song takes you to Constantinople, the heart of the Byzantine Empire. When Roman Emperor Diocletian split his territory in two, he made way for the Byzantine Empire. The song covers Emperor Justinian and his influential first lady, Theodora. Experience their unique practice of Christianity with Byzantine icons and mosaics before the Crusades weaken the capital city.
When the Roman Empire split apart, the biggest chunk was a large territory in the east. This land was ruled out of Constantinople, a beautiful city where Europe meets Asia. The empire later became known as the Byzantine Empire, and it became a powerful player in the region. Any country where a poor actress, the daughter of a bear trainer, can grow up to be Empress must be a cool place.
We have a very high standard of living in America today. People from all kinds of countries risk their lives just to get into America to live and work. We build mighty cities and fast cars; we create music and movies that the rest of the world loves. But will it always be that way?
Around 110 AD, the Romans were likewise on top of the world. They controlled most of Europe, the northern coast of Africa, the Nile, and the Middle East around the Mediterranean. Peace within the empire meant that people could relax and not worry too much about an army rolling through to destroy their town. Rich people could sit in their heated swimming pools, and have slaves feed them grapes and read them the hottest new poetry. Some must have figured that the good x would never end.
But then the Roman Empire split apart... But by the 400s, the Roman Empire was falling apart. Tribes of Germanic invaders had moved into what is now Italy and crowded everyone else out. The Roman Empire had basically split by this point into western and eastern halves. The Roman Emperor Diocletian thought it was too big for one person to rule, so he gave territory in the east to a co-emperor in 286 AD. The Eastern Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire. It flourished for 1,000 years after its counterpart in the west fell.
While the land in the west was / into fiefs ruled by king-warlords, the Byzantine Empire continued to expand. It centered on the old city of Byzantium, which we now know as Istanbul, Turkey. During the Byzantine Empire it was called Constantinople.
The Byzantine Empire was inspired not only by Rome, but by the Greeks as well. This part of the world was once a Greek outpost. The ancient city of Byzantium was Greek, and the people here spoke Greek rather than Roman Latin (though they still considered themselves Romans). The Emperor Constantine was an avowed fan of Greco-Roman culture. Much of what we know about the Greeks and Romans comes from this time because monks under Constantine copied old books to save them. Constantine was also a Christian and promoted his faith whenever he could.
Renamed after the emperor Constantine, Constantinople sat on the Bosporus, a narrow stretch of land between the Black Sea to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. The Roman emperor Constantine had made it the seat of his power in 330 AD. By the time the western Roman Empire collapsed, Constantinople was one of the world's most important cities - the largest in the world during the Middle Ages that would follow. In many ways it gave old Rome a run for its money. The city sat at the point where Europe and Asia met, and as such was in the perfect position to benefit from trade between the two. By the standards of the day, the city was wealthy - even richer than Rome. People were literate. There were libraries and stadiums, gardens and palaces. Many citizens dressed in silk rather than the rawhide everyone else wore. It was an impressive place.
Constantinople is now Istanbul because in 1453 the Ottoman Turks overran the city and put an end to the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople had been weakened during the Crusades and its battles with the Serbians and Bulgarians. It wasn't very stable by 1453, so the Turks used modern artillery to take it over.
Back when Byzantine was nearing its height of power, Justinian (483-565) became emperor. He was another fan of the Greeks and Romans and did much to restore the grandeur of old Rome. He took back many of the lands that the Roman Empire had lost in Italy, Africa, and Spain. He also had his scholars dig up the old laws of Rome, the Twelve Tables; made sure that there were no unchristian rules among them, and added his own laws to them. What resulted was called the Justinian Code. It was an important document in that it officially granted people under his rule a new set of civil rights, and paved the way for later documents like the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.
Justinian's wife was Theodora (c.500- 548). She was a perfect example of the old saying that behind every great man was a great woman. Amazingly, Theodora wasn't born a noble- she was the daughter of a circus bear-trainer. She joined the family business, working on stage in goofy and somex scandalous comedy shows, and as a courtesan, captured the heart of Justinian just before he became emperor. He had to change the laws to marry her, because until then, an emperor couldn't marry an actress.
Theodora more or less ruled alongside Justinian; she was considered the Empress. She was a very influential figure in a number of ways. She encouraged her husband to pass laws that were favorable to women and promoted women's rights, including making it illegal for husbands to beat their wives.
Theodora is probably most famous for stepping up when Justinian wanted to run and hide following the uprising in Constantinople in 532. Theodora convinced him to stay and fight. They overcame the rebels and rebuilt the city, which had been badly damaged. One of the buildings they had built was the Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom. One of the architectural wonders of the world, it still stands in Istanbul today.
The people of the Byzantine Empire were extremely religious. They were Christians, and their faith can be seen in their architecture, literature and art. One art form that flourished during the Byzantine Empire was mosaic art. Made from small tiles of ceramic or glass, these pictures were similar to those the Romans made, but the Byzantines took mosaics to a new level. In Constantinople, it was common to cover walls and ceilings with them. They were often made with a type of glass that sparkled or reflected light, and they typically depicted Christian scenes. Some art scholars consider Byzantine mosaics among the finest examples of the art.
The people of Constantinople combined religion and art in mosaics, as well as in paintings known as icons. Icons were portraits of important figures within the Church, from Jesus to the saints. Often painted with slightly elongated faces against a gold background, icons became very important in the Church. Many people in the empire considered icons windows into heaven, and believed they offered a direct connection to the person pictured. People who prayed to these images even claimed that they granted miracles.
Some important Church leaders weren't fans of icons, though. They thought that praying to an icon was a violation of the second Commandment, which says not to worship images of God. These people were called iconoclasts, and the battle over icons became known as the iconoclastic controversy. Since Christianity was so important in the empire, this issue quickly became a huge deal.
In 726, Byzantine Emperor Leo III outlawed the worship of icons. This really stirred things up, because the Pope thought icons were fine. The pope was (and still is) the leader of the Catholic Church, ruling from Rome. He wanted to allow icons because most people in Europe couldn't read; he thought icons helped them connect with their faith. So the Pope declared opposition to icons to be a heresy, something that went against Church doctrine. Saying or doing something that is a heresy made you a heretic. This was no small thing; at various x in history, people have been killed and tortured for being a heretic.
But the Pope wasn't about to kill or torture anyone. Instead, he threatened iconoclasts with excommunication - when the Church doesn't allow you to be a member anymore.
The iconoclastic controversy added to the tension between the Church leaders in Constantinople and Rome. The two cities were far apart and culturally different, which lead to many disagreements about how things should be run. Finally in 1054, things reached the breaking point. In what's known as the Great Schism, the Christian Church split in half: In the West it was the Roman Catholic Church, and in the East, the Eastern Orthodox Church. The two churches remain separate to this day.
One source of information on Theodora is a Byzantine scholar named Procopius. Procopius wasn't exactly a fan of Theodora; in his writings he describes her with some harsh language. Calling her the "most depraved of all courtesans," he accuses her of bewitching Justinian and torturing her enemies in ways that can't be described on these pages.
1. Describe some of the reasons for the Great Schism.
2. Would you rather have lived in Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire or Rome during its height? Why?