The World of the Ancient Romans - Culture
Art and literature
Architecture, painting, and other visual arts produced in the Byzantine Empire and in various areas that came under its influence. Byzantine art is almost entirely concerned with religious expression and, more specifically, with the impersonal translation of carefully controlled church theology into artistic terms. Byzantine forms were spread by trade and conquest to Italy and Sicily, where they persisted in modified form through the 12th century, and became formative influences on Italian Renaissance art. By means of the expansion of the Eastern Orthodox church, Byzantine forms spread to eastern European centers, particularly Russia. Influences from Byzantine architecture, particularly in religious buildings, can be found in diverse regions from Egypt and Arabia to Russia and Romania.
In Byzantine literature, therefore, four different cultural elements are to be reckoned with: the Greek, the Christian, the Roman, and the Oriental. Byzantine literature is often classified in five groups: historians and annalists, encyclopedists (Patriarch Photios, Michael Psellos, and Michael Choniates are regarded as the greatest encyclopedists of Byzantium) and essayists, and writers of secular poetry (The only genuine heroic epic of the Byzantines is the Digenis Acritas). The remaining two groups include the new literary species: ecclesiastical and theological literature, and popular poetry. Of the approximately two to three thousand volumes of Byzantine literature that survive, only three hundred and thirty consist of secular poetry, history, science and pseudo-science. While the most flourishing period of the secular literature of Byzantium runs from the ninth to the twelfth century, its religious literature (sermons, liturgical books and poetry, theology, devotional treatises etc.) developed much earlier with Romanos the Melodist being its most prominent representative.
Government and bureaucracy
In the Byzantine state, the emperor was the sole and absolute ruler, and his power was regarded as having divine origin. By the end of the 8th century, a civil administration focused on the court was formed as part of a large-scale consolidation of power in the capital (the rise to pre-eminence of the position of sakellarios is related to this change). The most important reform of this period is the creation of themes, where civil and military administration is exercised by one person, the strategos.
Despite the occasionally derogatory use of the word "Byzantine", the Byzantine bureaucracy had a distinct ability for reinventing itself in accordance with the Empire's situation. The Byzantine system of titulature and precedence makes the imperial administration look like an ordered bureaucracy to modern observers. Officials were arranged in strict order around the emperor, and depended upon the imperial will for their ranks. There were also actual administrative jobs, but authority could be vested in individuals rather than offices. In the 8th and 9th centuries civil service constituted the clearest path to aristocratic status, but, starting in the 9th century, the civil aristocracy was rivaled by an aristocracy of nobility. According to some studies of Byzantine government, 11th-century politics were dominated by competition between the civil and the military aristocracy. During this period, Alexios I undertook important administrative reforms, including the creation of new courtly dignities and offices.
According to Joseph Raya, "Byzantine culture and Orthodoxy are one and the same." The survival of the Empire in the East assured an active role of the Emperor in the affairs of the Church. The Byzantine state inherited from pagan times the administrative, and financial routine of administering religious affairs, and this routine was applied to the Christian Church. Following the pattern set by Eusebius of Caesarea, the Byzantines viewed the Emperor as a representative or messenger of Christ, responsible particularly for the propagation of Christianity among pagans, and for the "externals" of the religion, such as administration and finances. The imperial role, however, in the affairs of the Church never developed into a fixed, legally defined system.
It is a popular misconception that Christianity was ever fully united or that even Christians in the Byzantine Empire were united throughout the Empire's history. The imperial Roman Church, what came to be known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, never represented all Christians in the Empire. Nestorianism, a view promoted the Nestorius, a 5th-century Patriarch of Constantinople, split from the imperial Church leading to what is today the Assyrian Church of the East. In a greater schism during the 6th century the Oriental Orthodox churches split from the imperial Church over the declarations of the Council of Chalcedon. Aside from these communions, Arianism and other Christian sects existed in the early Empire, although by the time of Rome's fall in the 5th century Arianism was mostly confined to the Germanic peoples of Western Europe. By the Empire's late stages, though, Eastern Orthodoxy represented most Christians in what remained of the Empire. Jews were a significant minority in the Empire throughout its history. Despite periods of persecution, they were generally tolerated, if not always embraced, during most periods.
With the decline of Rome, and internal dissension in the other Eastern patriarchates, the church of Constantinople became, between the 6th and 11th centuries, the richest and most influential center of Christendom. Even when the Empire was reduced to only a shadow of its former self, the Church, as an institution, had never exercised so much influence both inside and outside of the imperial frontiers.
As the only stable long-term state in Europe during the Middle Ages, Byzantium isolated Western Europe from newly emerging forces to the East. Constantly under attack, it distanced Western Europe from Persians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, and for a time, the Ottomans. The Byzantine-Arab Wars, for example, are recognized by some historians as being a key factor behind the rise of Charlemagne, and a huge stimulus to feudalism and economic self-sufficiency.
For centuries, western historians used the terms Byzantine and Byzantinism as bywords for decadence, duplicitous politics and complex bureaucracy, and there was a strongly negative assessment of Byzantine civilization and its legacy in Southeastern Europe. Byzantinism in general was defined as a body of religious, political, and philosophical ideas which ran contrary to those of the West. The 20th and 21st centuries, however, have seen attempts by historians in the West to understand the Empire in a more balanced and accurate fashion including its influences on the West, and as a result the complex character of Byzantine culture has received more attention and a more objective treatment than previously.