The Elusive Eastern Empire: As the Royal Academy in London Opens a Major New Exhibition on the Artistic Splendours of the Byzantine Empire, Dionysios Stathakopoulos Surveys Its History, from Its Foundation in 324 to Its Conquest in 1453

By Stathakopoulos, Dionysios | History Today, November 2008 | Go to article overview

The Elusive Eastern Empire: As the Royal Academy in London Opens a Major New Exhibition on the Artistic Splendours of the Byzantine Empire, Dionysios Stathakopoulos Surveys Its History, from Its Foundation in 324 to Its Conquest in 1453


Stathakopoulos, Dionysios, History Today


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The Byzantine empire means different things to different people. Some associate it with gold: the golden tesserae in the mosaics of Ravenna, the golden background in icons, the much coveted golden coins (besaunt as Wycliffe calls them), the golden-hued threads of Byzantine silks used to shroud Charlemagne. Others think of court intrigues, poisonings and scores of eunuchs. Most will think of Constantinople, which used to be Byzantium and is now Istanbul, and will possibly bring to mind the city's skyline with the huge dome of the Hagia Sophia. Little else perhaps exists in the collective imagination. All this is indeed evocative of Byzantium, but there is so much more to explore. The fascinating exhibition that has just opened at the Royal Academy is a unique chance to revisit familiar themes and be surprised by new discoveries.

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To begin at the beginning is tricky. Did the empire begin when the emperor Constantine (r. 306-337) moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople in 324? When the city was consecrated by both pagan and Christian priests in May 3309 Or did it begin in 395 when the two halves of the vast Roman empire were officially divided into East and West, or even later in the late 5th century when Rome was sacked, conquered and governed by the Goths, leaving Constantinople and the East as the sole heir of the empire? But, if its beginning is unclear, its demise is not: on May 29th, 1453, the armies of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II entered the city and brought the existence of this state to an end after more than a millennium.

When Constantine moved his capital from Rome to the hitherto relatively obscure, though strategically placed, city of Byzantium and gave the city his name, it signalled a shift of interest towards the East, but perhaps little else initially. After the troubled third century a number of cities had functioned as imperial residences without necessarily challenging the idea of Rome as the centre: Trier, Split, Thessalonica, Nicomedia (modern Izmit). But with the advantage of hindsight we can see that this case was different: Constantinople was enlarged, decorated with famous statues and objects from the whole empire (some of which are still in place today), endowed with a Senate and its citizens given the traditional free bread handed out to Romans.

A number of the most important constituting traits of the Byzantine empire date back to this early era. The Byzantine state was, more or less from the beginning, a Christian Roman empire. After the edict of Milan in 313 ended the persecutions and made Christianity a tolerated religion, Constantine showed a marked (though not exclusive) preference for Christianity. He presided over the first ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325 which defined the creed and dealt with heresies, thus setting the tone for the intimate relation between Church and state. This bond was made clear by a number of sacred buildings that Constantine erected, in his capital as well as in Palestine (both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity go back to this period), and by a number of relics of Christ and the Virgin that his mother, Helena, purchased in the Holy Land and sent back to Constantinople. Unlike Rome or Antioch, the new capital had not been graced by the presence of any apostle, but certainly entered Christian topography with the bonus of imperial patronage.

In the eleven hundred years that separate the first Constantine from the last emperor, another Constantine (the XI), the empire underwent many and significant changes. First came expansion. From the fourth to the early sixth centuries the East flourished: population boomed, cities proliferated and Constantinople itself grew to be the largest city in Europe with over 400,000 inhabitants. To support this growth its city walls were yet again enlarged in between 404 and 413, a triple system of inner wall, outer wall and moat that did not fail to protect it until the very end (large parts of which are still visible, albeit over-restored, today). …

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