What are the Byzantine Empire’s Most Important Accomplishments?

The Byzantine Empire, a term coined after its fall, was originally the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Following the division of the Roman Empire in the late 3rd century, the Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkiye), endured for over a thousand years after the fall of its Western counterpart.

The Byzantine Empire was a beacon of art, culture, and political power from its foundation in 330 AD by Constantine the Great until its fall in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. Its accomplishments are vast and varied, encompassing fields such as art, architecture, law, and diplomacy.

Through its preservation of the past and innovation for the future, the Byzantine Empire bridged the classical and modern worlds, marking it as one of history’s most remarkable civilizations. Image: A statue of the head of Constantine.

In the article below, WHE will delve into some of the most significant achievements of the Byzantine Empire.

Preservation and Transmission of Classical Knowledge

One of the Byzantine Empire’s paramount contributions was the preservation and transmission of classical Greek and Roman knowledge.

During the Middle Ages, much of the West lost access to classical scholarship, but Byzantine scholars meticulously copied and preserved Greek and Roman manuscripts. Works on philosophy, science, and literature were kept in monastic libraries and copied in scriptoria.

The preservation of this knowledge was critical for the Renaissance in Western Europe, where many texts were reintroduced from Byzantine sources. Thus, the Byzantine Empire played a crucial role in the cultural and intellectual foundations of the modern Western world.

Codification of Roman Law

The codification of Roman law under Emperor Justinian I (also known as Justinian the Great) in the 6th century, known as the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law), stands as a monumental legal achievement.

This compilation of laws, jurisprudence, and legal commentary served not only as the basis of Byzantine law but also had a profound influence on the development of law in Europe. It is considered the foundation of modern civil law systems and has impacted legal thought worldwide.

The Corpus Juris Civilis was studied extensively in the West during the Renaissance and continues to be a critical source for understanding Roman law.

The Byzantine Empire, initially the Eastern Roman Empire, was the continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Image: A map showing the territory (in red) of the Byzantine Empire circa 1025.

Byzantine Art and Architectural Marvels

Byzantine art and architecture are renowned for their innovation and beauty, significantly influencing the development of visual arts in both the Eastern Orthodox world and the West.

The Hagia Sophia, with its massive dome and intricate mosaics, epitomizes Byzantine architectural and artistic achievements. It served as a center of Christian worship and an emblem of the empire’s wealth and sophisticated culture.

Byzantine art, characterized by its mosaics, icons, and frescoes, played a pivotal role in the development of medieval art in Europe, introducing techniques and styles that would influence the Renaissance.

Military Innovations

The Byzantine Empire was renowned for its military strategies and innovations, including the use of Greek fire, a highly effective and closely guarded incendiary weapon.

The empire’s strategic position at the crossroads of Europe and Asia necessitated advanced military tactics and fortifications. The Byzantine military was a formidable force, adept at defending its vast borders against numerous foes.

Its military manuals, such as the Strategikon of Maurice, offer insight into the sophisticated tactics and organization that allowed the empire to survive for centuries.

Economic and Diplomatic Power

The Byzantine Empire was an economic powerhouse, controlling vital trade routes between Europe and Asia.

Its capital, Constantinople (today’s Istanbul in Turkiye) was the heart of this economic network. The city was a bustling metropolis where goods from the Silk Road were traded alongside those from the Mediterranean and northern Europe.

Byzantine gold coins, the solidus, and later the hyperpyron, were standard currencies used in international trade for centuries, underscoring the empire’s economic influence.

Furthermore, the Byzantine diplomatic approach, characterized by marriage alliances, espionage, and the strategic use of religion (notably the conversion of the Slavs and Russians to Orthodox Christianity), showcased its sophistication in international relations. This diplomacy often allowed the empire to leverage more powerful neighbors against each other, maintaining its independence and influence.

The Spread of Christianity

The Byzantine Empire played a central role in the spread and development of Christianity. Through missionary work, notably by Saints Cyril and Methodius to the Slavic peoples, the Byzantines facilitated the spread of Orthodox Christianity throughout Eastern Europe.

This expansion included the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet, enabling the translation of the Bible and liturgical texts, thus solidifying the cultural and religious ties between the Byzantine Empire and the Slavic world. The Byzantine theological tradition, rich in liturgy and church fathers, significantly shaped the Christian doctrine, impacting both the Eastern Orthodox and, indirectly, the Western Christian traditions.

The Byzantine Empire’s accomplishments are multifaceted, deeply influencing the course of Western civilization, the Orthodox Christian world, and beyond. Image: A painting depicting a vision by Justinian, where angel shows him a model of the Hagia Sofia. 

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Centered around its capital in Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire was a beacon of art, culture, and political might from about 330 AD, when Constantine the Great dedicated the city, to its fall in 1453 AD to the Ottoman Turks.

Below are some frequently asked questions about the Byzantine Empire:

Why is it called the Byzantine Empire instead of the Eastern Roman Empire?

The term “Byzantine Empire” is a modern designation introduced after the fall of the empire. The inhabitants referred to themselves as Romans, and their state as the Roman Empire or Romania. The term “Byzantine” comes from Byzantium, the original name of the empire’s capital before it was renamed Constantinople. Historians adopted this name to distinguish the later, Greek-speaking empire from the earlier, Latin-speaking Roman Empire.

What were the official languages of the Byzantine Empire?

Initially, Latin was the official language of the Byzantine Empire, reflecting its Roman heritage. However, Greek gradually became more prevalent, eventually becoming the primary language of government, commerce, and culture by the 7th century, reflecting the demographic and cultural realities of the eastern Mediterranean.

How did the Byzantine Empire preserve classical knowledge?

The Byzantine Empire played a crucial role in preserving classical Greek and Roman knowledge through its monasteries and libraries, where texts were meticulously copied and studied. Byzantine scholars preserved works of science, philosophy, and literature that might have otherwise been lost, later transmitting this knowledge to the West, especially during the Renaissance.

What is the significance of the Hagia Sophia?

The Hagia Sophia, constructed under Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, is one of the most significant architectural achievements of the Byzantine Empire. Its innovative dome and stunning mosaics set new standards for architectural beauty and engineering, influencing both Islamic and Western Christian architecture. Initially a cathedral, it became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest.

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The structure was turned into a museum in 1935 by secularist and first president of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It remained a museum until July 2020, when the Islamist Turkish government under Tayyip Erdoğan ordered the Hagia Sophia to be reverted to a mosque. The decision came following the supreme court (officially called the Supreme Court of Appeals of the Republic of Turkey; Turkish: Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Yargıtay Başkanlığı) annulment of a 1934 presidential decree that made it a museum.

The Byzantine Empire’s role in preserving classical knowledge, codifying Roman law, and contributing to art, architecture, and military strategy, underscores its significance in world history. Image: A photo of the Hagia Sophia.

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What was Greek Fire?

Greek Fire was an incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine Empire in naval warfare. Its composition remains a closely guarded secret, known only to a few select members of the Byzantine military. Greek Fire could continue burning even on water, making it particularly effective during sea battles. As a result, it played a critical role in defending Constantinople from various sieges.

Read More: What is the controversy surrounding the Hagia Sophia?

How did the Byzantine Empire fall?

The Byzantine Empire fell after a prolonged period of decline in territory and economic power, culminating in the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, Mehmed the Conqueror rode straight to the Hagia Sophia and asked that the building not be harmed. Shortly after he called for an imam to lead a Muslim prayer in the church, which later got converted into a Mosque.

It’s widely acknowledged that factors contributing to the fall of the Byzantine Empire include internal political instability, economic difficulties, and military pressures from both the West (Crusades) and the East (Seljuk Turks, later the Ottomans).

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What was the relationship between the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades?

The Crusades had a complex relationship with the Byzantine Empire. Initially, the Byzantines requested military assistance from the West against Seljuk Turkish advances, leading to the First Crusade.

However, subsequent Crusades often strained Byzantine-Western relations, culminating in the Fourth Crusade’s sack of Constantinople in 1204, which severely weakened the Byzantine Empire and contributed to its eventual fall.

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What impact did the Byzantine Empire have on Christianity?

The Byzantine Empire had a profound impact on Christianity, especially Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It was instrumental in the spread of Christianity through missionary work, notably to the Slavic peoples.

The Byzantine religious tradition, including its theology, liturgy, and art, shaped the development of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and had a lasting cultural and religious impact on Eastern Europe and beyond.

How did the Byzantine Empire influence modern civilizations?

The Byzantine Empire influenced modern civilizations through its preservation and transmission of classical knowledge, its legal codifications (especially the Corpus Juris Civilis), and its contributions to art, architecture, and military strategy.

The Renaissance in Western Europe was significantly influenced by Byzantine scholars who brought classical texts to Italy.

Furthermore, the legal and governmental systems of many modern states reflect the influence of Byzantine law.

The cultural and religious legacy of the Byzantine Empire also continues to influence Eastern Orthodox countries.

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