The Golden Age of Byzantium

When Constantine moved the government of the Roman Empire to the small Greek port of Byzantium, he could hardly have imagined that the city would eventually give its Greek name to an entire civilization. Constantinople/Byzantium (today's Istanbul) survived in part because of its strategic location on a narrow peninsula protected by the waters of the Bosporus and the bay called the Golden Horn. The city commanded the overland trade routes between Europe and the East, as well as the shipping lanes leading to and from the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. In the fourth and fifth centuries, as Rome declined, Constantinople flourished. The political power, military strength, and economic prosperity of Constantinople generated more than mere physical growth. From the accession of Theodosius II in 408 until the arrival of the usurper Phocas in 602, the city was the nucleus of a brilliant civilization, one that historians admiringly refer to as the "Golden Age of Byzantium."

The "New Rome" grew into a beautiful metropolis laid out, like its ancient ancestor, with colonnaded avenues, open squares, and marketplaces, and splendid public buildings. The governmental center, with the emperor's palace, the Senate, and the Hippodrome, was on the site of the former Greek acropolis, a low hill at the eastern end of the peninsula. The palace Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was erected on the highest point, facing the palace across the imperial forum. From this complex of structures two avenues stretched inland to the gates in the defensive land wall. Near these western ramparts Constantine built his mausoleum, dedicated to the Holy Apostles.

Justinian (527-565), an emperor as remarkable in his own way as Constantine, led the Eastern Empire to new heights. With the help of brilliant advisers he achieved the earlier imperial goals of a revitalized, unified Empire. His closest adviser was his wife, Theodora, a beautiful, intelligent woman whose cunning no doubt derived in part from her early years as a performer in the circus. Justinian appointed Belisarius and Narses as generals; they stopped the barbarian threats and won new territories for the Empire. He called upon John of Cappadocia, an administrative genius, to help reorganize the government, revise its tax structure, and set up an efficient civil service. He ordered the scholar Tribonianus to sort out the maze of complex, contradictory, and often unjust laws and to direct the writing of a new code, the corpus jurus civilis, or "body of civil law," now known as the Justinianic Code. Byzantine law became the basis of many modern legal systems in the West.

With an exceptionally fine bureaucracy to administer clear and just laws, Justinian would seem, in the words of his biographer, Procopius, to have "wedded the whole state to a life of prosperity," but in reality Justinian's reign was never as prosperous or as benevolent as his understandably prejudiced historian


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