Brief History and Significance of the Byzantine Empire

From the beginning of the fourth century to approximately 1453 A.D., the Byzantine era was a critically important time in history as the Byzantine Empire was a significantly important area in the world not just in terms of geographic region, but also in terms of economic, political, and militaristic strength. The Byzantine Empire also included the landmasses of contemporary Israel, Italy, Spain and Turkey, among many other European, African, and Asian countries. The Byzantine Empire was a significant part of the Roman Empire and many citizens of Byzantium harbored strong Athenian cultural ties. A great amount of historical research has helped lead to the “unraveling” of the strong relationship between the Byzantine Empire and Greek heritage and culture. However, the Byzantine Empire seems to be an empire that is not addressed in sufficient detail in many history books. Therefore, the objective of this paper is to discuss a brief overview of the Byzantine Empire, discuss three Greek Byzantine scholars who have greatly helped the Byzantine Empire, and to emphasize that the “other” medieval history should be integrated into the Western narrative. The three Byzantine Greek scholars that will be discussed in this presentation are the scholar and philosopher John Argyropoulos, Cardinal Basilios Bessarion and Gemistus Pletho. In addition, the Byzantine Empire has a significant connection to a strong sense of Greek culture and heritage, but this relationship is not addressed in the Western narrative as currently taught; therefore, the standard history curriculum should be made to reflect a more current understanding of these connections.

Based on national standards, history has been given new importance with the creation of the National Standards for History Basic Edition in 1996; and, there was some mention of the Byzantine Empire within the basic edition, (National Center for History in the Schools UCLA: “History Standards”). With four years of work from history teachers, students, school administrators, academic historians, history standards were revised significantly, and the National Standards for History even created a history course syllabus for the Byzantine Empire for grades seven to ten. The title of the course syllabus is “The Byzantine Empire in the Age of Justinian.” This course syllabus gave great mention to the Byzantine Empire, but only the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century was addressed. In effect, there was no mention of the beginning of the Byzantine Empire, how Constantinople influenced Catholicism throughout the Empire and Europe, and the revival of a sense of “Greekness”. In essence, this course could have been more encompassing and could have included the entire history of the Byzantine Empire. Although one can make the claim that the teacher would not have had enough time to cover the entire history, the teacher still could have addressed the major themes and facets; instead, she addressed only one small aspect of the Byzantine Empire- Emperor Justinian.

Furthermore, there have been some reviews by history teachers and academic historians that advocate that teachers should pay more attention to the Western civilization in history textbooks than on the “non-west” (American Historical Association: “Western Civ in the Global Curriculum: A Response”). The argument for increasing the amount of time and attention on the Western civilization is that young Americans should feel a sense of national pride for belonging to such an incredibly diverse and historically significant civilization. According to two history professors in California, “They (educators who are in favor of more academic attention given to the Western civilization) have also argued that all cultures, in one way or another, have transgressed their core values but that Western civilization’s essential qualities, despite periodic outbreaks of militarism, racism, social oppression, and other anomalies, are on the whole particularly appealing and beneficial to humankind.” From this passage, the academic teachers and historians seem to advocate that history teachers should feel an obligation to teach Western civilization courses with detail given to Western countries than countries that are non-Western. However, teaching Western civilization courses without significant detail given to the Byzantine Empire would not benefit students as students would not be aware of the connection between the Byzantine Empire and modern-day Greece. Also, students would lack an understanding of the early foundations of Catholicism as the first Byzantine emperor promoted and influenced Catholicism within the Empire and Europe, and students would not have the opportunity to learn about renaissance humanists and philosophers, such as Gemistus Pletho, Cardinal Bessarion, and John Argyropoulos.

According to the Massachusetts current curriculum framework for history, Massachusetts students in the eighth grade are, required to learn about the “World from the Fall of Rome through the Enlightenment” (“Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks”). The “World from the Fall of Rome through the Enlightenment” covers the many empires under the Roman Empire and these empires include the Ottoman Empire, the Moghul Empire, the Chinese dynasties, and the major pre-Columbian civilizations that were from Central and South America. Even with a reference to the Byzantine Empire, the current history curriculum should still be made to reflect a greater understanding of the Byzantine Empire as one can assume that a minor topic within a history course does not receive enough detail and attention as it should deserve.

On the other hand, the Massachusetts current curriculum framework for history does include the objectives of students describing the rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Constantine’s influence on Christianity, and the continuation of Greek and Roman traditions. Two important comments are to be noted and these are that the time schools devote to history courses teaching the Byzantine Empire vary from school to school; and, the eighth grade may not be the best grade for Massachusetts to require students to learn about the Byzantine Empire as one can assume that eighth grade teachers and students are giving much more attention to English and mathematics in attempt to increase student scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

As for an example of a class that has accurately reflected the current understanding of the connections between the Byzantine Empire and Western civilization, the title of the course is “History 304: The Byzantine Empire” and is taught at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio (History 304: The Byzantine Empire). According to the course’s website, the course helps students learn about the history and culture of the Byzantine Empire from Constantinople founding Byzantium to the capture of the Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. “History 304: The Byzantine Empire” also addresses the political, military, and economic facets of the empire and how the empire considerably helped create Orthodox Christianity and the empire’s involvement with Western civilizations is also discussed.

One of the many reasons why history teachers should consider teaching a similar course like “History 304: The Byzantine Empire” is because the course requires students to read eight texts that are centered on general information about the Byzantine Empire, its militaristic strength, and the fall of the Empire in the middle of the 15th century. Also, the grading format helps students master the skills as students are required to complete two hourly long examinations, a final examination, a bibliographic essay, and attendance and preparation are also factors that determine the student’s grade. In addition, the grading format is important to note as the examinations help students think deeply about the Byzantine Empire from many angles as one of the questions from the tests is “Why did the religious schism develop between Rome and Constantinople?”

As mentioned with the “History 304: The Byzantine Empire” syllabus, it is important for history teachers to consider the quality and quantity of the texts that they assign for students to read on the Byzantine Empire. One example of a great text that history teachers should assign students to read is Colin Wells’ “Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World”. Wells suggested that even when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turkish Ottomans in 1453, the legacy of the Byzantine Empire still lived on as many historians have noted that the Byzantine Empire greatly helped as a “bridge” between the culture of classical Athenian Greece and modern-day Greece.

Also, Wells made an excellent case that showed that the Byzantine Empire was a significant Empire which strongly encouraged its citizens to retain cultural roots with classical Greece and Rome. A quotation that brilliantly captures how important the Byzantine Empire is to the western narrative is “Byzantium: the successor of Greece and Rome, this magnificent empire bridged the ancient and modern worlds for more than a thousand years. Without Byzantium, the works of Homer and Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and Aeschylus, would never have survived” (Wells 2006, front insert). Wells’ “Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World” should be incorporated into the current history curriculum as the text points out and gives great detail to the connection between classical Greece and modern-day Greece, how the Empire helped its citizens retain cultural roots from classical Rome and Greece, and Wells mentions significant philosophers who have greatly helped the advancement of Western civilization.

A similar text that also gives great importance to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire is Isaac Asimov’s “Constantinople: The Forgotten Empire”. Asimov’s “Constantinople: The Forgotten Empire” highlighted the notion that some historians and the general audience view the Roman Empire as a magnificent empire that collapsed in 476, but Asimov certainly disagrees. Asimov argues that the Byzantine Empire was culturally and historically significant and how the Byzantine Empire from the beginning of the fourth century to 1453 A.D. continued the great tradition and historical relevance of the Roman Empire. Specifically, Asimov argued that when the lands of the Roman Empire were being invaded and controlled by German tribesman, the Roman Empire had its legacy revived as the Byzantine Empire had great militaristic and political power, (Asimov 1970, 1-2). Asimov argued that the Byzantine Empire was a great land of spirited culture as he stated, “The empire of the southeast (the Byzantine Empire) transmitted to the West both Roman Law and Greek learning. It passed on art, architecture, and manners — what’s more, it gave all this and religion, too, to eastern Europe- and to Russia, in particular” (Ibid. 2).

Asimov’s analysis of the Byzantine Empire certainly brings to attention several reasons why the current standard history curriculum should be made to reflect a more current understanding of the Byzantine Empire and its historical contributions to Western Civilization. As Asimov pointed out, the Byzantine Empire helped continue the historical timeframe of and expanded the Roman Empire from Rome to the Mediterranean. Fundamentally, the Byzantine Empire also helped retain many cultural artifacts and works, especially Roman law that still has great relevance today in American legal systems. In addition, as mentioned before, Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire also helped launch Catholicism as a powerful religion, and Catholicism is still a popular religion with a worldwide audience of followers.

Unlike Wells or Asimov’s texts, Raymond Obstfeld and Loretta Obstfeld’s “The Renaissance” selects various primary sources from famed European humanists and philosophers to highlight how the European Renaissance was a culturally significant point of time in European history. In addition, the Obstfeld’s “The Renaissance” does not provide an adequate amount of detail about the Byzantine’s role in the Renaissance or medieval times. Instead, “The Renaissance” collected various primary sources from the likes of Francis Bacon, Christopher Columbus, and Rene Descartes, et al. The Obstfeld’s “The Renaissance” should have presented more information about the Byzantine Empire and Greek renaissance humanists that emerged from Byzantium, and these scholars include the Greek Renaissance humanist and Byzantine philosopher Gemistus Pletho, the Greek renaissance humanist Cardinal Bessarion, and the Greek renaissance humanist and Byzantine philosopher John Argyropoulos.

For the sake of three clear and succinct biographies, Colin Wells’ “Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World” will again be used to provide information on the cultural significance of Gemistus Pletho, Cardinal Bessarion, and John Argyropoulos.

Gemistus Pletho (1360-1452), as described by Wells, was a “philosopher and scholar; stimulated interest in Plato among Italian humanists” (Wells 2006, IV). Pletho also helped revive Plato’s work in classical Athenian Greece and was a main figure in Neo-Platonism as he “stimulated a new interest in the works of Plato” (Ibid. 93).

Among his many achievements in reviving classical Greek philosophy, Pletho helped compare Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophical documents and Pletho also gave considerable emphasis and analysis to Plato’s Republic, especially from a Renaissance political perspective. It is highly recommended that Western Civilization courses and Introduction to Philosophy courses that highlight Plato’s philosophical work include a reference to Gemistus Pletho.

Another important Greek renaissance humanist that current history curriculums should consider is Cardinal Bessarion (1399-1472). Wells describes Cardinal Bessarion as an “expatriate scholar, translator, patron of Byzantine and Italian humanists in Italy; helped draft the decree of union between Orthodox and Catholic churches (1439), then became a Catholic cardinal” (Ibid, x). Among Cardinal Bessarion’s great accomplishments, Bessarion helped establish the Platonic Academy in Florence and was a major figure at the Council of Florence as Cardinal Bessarion promoted Christianity and the study of Greek in Europe (Aston 1996, 293).

Because of Cardinal Bessarion’s religious contributions, Bessarion greatly helped advance Greek culture in Western Civilization. It is highly recommended that Western Civilization courses or religious courses based on the advancement of Catholicism in Western Europe include a reference to Cardinal Bessarion.

The third Greek renaissance humanist and Byzantine philosopher is John Argyropoulos (1415-87). As defined by Wells, Argyropoulos was a “teacher and philosopher; completed the shift in interest toward Plato that Pletho had initiated among the Italians” (Wells 2006, x). One of the remarkable elements of Argyropoulos’s life is that Argyropoulos was a world-renowned teacher and after the Byzantine collapse in 1453, Argyropoulos continued to teach Greek philosophy in Western European countries, especially in Italy. Along with Cardinal Bessarion, John Argyropoulos was also a main figure at the Council of Florence as he united with other Greek scholars and philosophers to promote Christianity, (Spelios 1967, 184).

John Argyropoulos also played a considerable role in developing Florentine humanism and it has been reported that Argyropoulos “fulfilled the hunger for Platonic knowledge that Pletho had aroused during the Council of Florence” (Wells, 104). Because of Argyropoulos’ work that helped revive Greek culture and his dedication to the Byzantine Empire, it is highly recommended that future Western Civilization history curriculums consider including a reference to John Argyropoulos’ contribution to Byzantium and his still significant philosophical and scholarly contribution to Western Civilization.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, there has been some historical research that has helped lead to the “unraveling” of the strong relationship between the Byzantine Empire and Greek heritage and culture and three sources will be analyzed in this paper to examine this powerful relationship. However, the Byzantine Empire still deserves a closer integration into the western narrative as the following sources have not presented an adequate amount of detail on the Byzantine Empire.

The first source that will help examine the significance between the Byzantine era and Renaissance era is Marvin Perry’s “Western Civilization: A Brief History, Volume I: to 1789”. The Western Civilization volume spans from classical times to 1789 and contains a decent, but not notable amount of information on the Byzantine Empire. Aspects of the Byzantine Empire that were covered were how Byzantium emerged and how Byzantine culture was greater and more sophisticated than the culture of the Latin West. Another example that demonstrates Byzantine’s prestige is that contemporary legal codes, especially in Europe and Latin America, emerged from the Byzantine era. In addition, the source includes the many significant developments that occurred within the Empire over the duration of more than 1,000 years, and even the intellectual advancements that occurred during the Byzantine era was given great detail. Despite these decent references to the Byzantine Empire, Perry’s “Western Civilization” only devoted five out of 245 pages to the Byzantine Empire. Thus, the Byzantine Empire did not receive much attention quantitatively in terms of number of pages. Unfortunately, the culture of the Byzantine Empire and the humanists involved with reviving the cultural concept of “greekness” was inadequately covered, as there was no mention of John Argyropoulos, Cardinal Bessarion, Gemistus Pletho or any other significant Greek renaissance humanist.

Another source is Marvin Perry’s “Western Civilization: A Brief History, Volume II from the 1400s” and this source contains a great wealth of information on the transition from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, the modern West, Western Civilization from 1914 to 1945, and the contemporary world. Unfortunately, this source does not contain much information about Greece as the Renaissance era received much greater attention than the Byzantine era. The only pertinent information on Greece that examined a strong Greek cultural relationship to the Roman Empire centered on how the Renaissance era was a significantly important time in history that experienced a “rebirth” in cultural history for both Athenian Greece and the Roman Empire. Even though the source did not give adequate attention to the Byzantine Empire, the source is still relevant for comparing the Renaissance and Byzantine eras as there was much more detail on the Renaissance era and, as a result, the Renaissance era might actually be more significant than the Byzantine era. This volume of the Perry “Western Civilization” series that states that it covers Western Civilization from the 1400s, actually does not cover any general information in the 14th or 15th centuries besides the Hundred Years’ War or history related to England, France, or Spain. Thus, the collapse of the Byzantine Empire did not receive any reference in this volume of the Perry “Western Civilization” series.

The third source that will help examine the significance between the Byzantine era and Renaissance era is Daniel Woolf’s “A Global History of History”. Woolf’s source contains the greatest amount of information about the Byzantine Empire, and attention was especially given to how the Byzantine emperors acquired their own relationship to the “Roman imperial past” while retaining strong Greek cultural heritage. Other pertinent information related to the Byzantine era includes the emergence of Christianity within the Byzantine Empire, the cultural similarities between the Byzantine Empire and the Latin West, and the Byzantine Empire and Orthodox Church’s significantly powerful influence on Mediterranean and European countries. Certainly, the Byzantine Empire received impressive details about the historical significance of the Byzantine Empire in a global and historical context. However, Daniel Woolf’s “A Global History to History” did not cover the Byzantine Empire in adequate detail as there were only nine out of 514 pages dedicated to the Byzantine Empire. Out of the three Western Civilization sources, Woolf’s textbook certainly provides the greatest amount of information, but teachers should look for other texts if they want to give their students a more adequate and encompassing perspective on Western Civilization.

As previously mentioned, the standard history curriculum does not adequately represent the historical significance of the Byzantine Empire. Academic organizations such as the Council of Education, the National Commission for Excellence in Education, and the Carnegie Foundation, are pushing are pushing for a stronger agenda for the standard history curriculum (“The History Teacher” 7). An emphasis on the Byzantine Empire could help students not only learn about an important historical period, but students could also subsequently learn about the humanities, classical Greece, philosophy, Catholicism and western civilization.

The article “Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools” also highlights the importance of history as a general subject taught in school. The article states that history in the past “broadened and cultivated the mind, counteracted a narrow and provincial spirit, prepared students for enlightenment and intellectual enjoyment in after years and assisted them to exercise a salutary influence upon the affairs of their country” (Ibid. 8). As this quotation illustrates, history has the potential to allow students to reach inside themselves and learn about not only their own culture, but other cultures that they otherwise would not have had the opportunity to learn about. As the world is becoming an increasingly globalized society, it is essential for students to learn the “roots” of Western Civilization and to understand how cultures have fallen and collapsed like the Byzantine Empire (Heywood 2007, 329). The Byzantine Empire can also play a pivotal role for students to learn about many subjects morphed into one, as previously mentioned. In a sense, if students learn more about the Byzantine Empire and its significant role in helping develop the Western Civilization, students will benefit from understanding history and how globalization can greatly help individuals live better lives.

It is also important to note that there has been research that suggests that the United States could be more effective with modern warfare if they learn from the military examples of the Byzantine Empire (“The Byzantine Doctrine; What the United States Could Learn from the Military and Foreign Policy of the Byzantine Empire” 2009). But, it is not clear if the author is correct as the United States has some of the finest war facilities that allows our military personnel to explore modern military tactics in a way that the Byzantine warriors would never have thought of. The computer models and war games that our defense department relies on have kept us in good stead. Now, we have had to adapt our military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to deal with the new terrorist that we have faced, but we seem to be making progress in both those wars. The Byzantine Empire was at the forefront of military and political power for more than eleven centuries, but its time has passed and the question for the United States is will we have such a long reign of power?


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