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Society in the Byzantine Empire

Society in the Byzantine Empire

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The society in the Byzantine Empire (4th-15th century CE) was dominated by the imperial family and the male aristocracy but there were opportunities for social advancement thanks to wars, population movements, imperial gifts of lands and titles, and intermarriage. The majority of the lower classes would have followed the profession of their parents, but inheritance, the accumulation of wealth, and a lack of any formal prohibition for one class to move to another did at least offer a small possibility for a person to better their social position. In Constantinople and other cities, foreign merchants, mercenaries, refugees, travellers, and pilgrims were constantly passing through or establishing themselves permanently within the empire so that Byzantium became famously cosmopolitan; a fact noted by contemporary visitors who recorded their astonishment at the diversity of the society they visited.


There was a huge divide in terms of living standards between the haves and have-nots, a situation commented on and criticised by many Byzantine Christian writers. This division was perpetuated by the importance given to the family name, inherited wealth, and the respectable birth of an individual so that it was very difficult, but certainly not impossible, for a person to rise the social ladder. There was no aristocracy of blood as such in Byzantine society, and the ever-changing dynasties of emperors over the centuries and their often random dispensing of favours, lands and titles, as well as indiscriminate demotions and the hazards of foreign invasions and wars, all meant that the individual components of the nobility were not static and families rose and fell over the centuries.

One method of gaining access to the higher levels of society, even if one was handicapped by not possessing a noteworthy family name or patron, was education.

The aristocracy derived their wealth and status from land ownership. Initially, this was based on the old Roman system of large estates worked on by peasants who were bound to the land (coloni), but there developed a new military aristocracy (dynatoi) from the 10th century CE. This latter group derived their authority and ownership from the administrative division of the empire's territory into regions (themes), which was in response to the increasing number of attacks and invasions from such enemies as the Bulgars and Arab caliphates.

Land ownership was inherited but it could also be granted by the emperor or removed, especially when an emperor thought certain families were becoming too much of a threat to his own position. The emperors were constantly fighting the tax evasion of the landed aristocracy, too, and attempts were made (largely unsuccessful ones) to prevent greedy aristocrats from buying up land and reducing the peasantry to no more than tenant farmers (paroikoi). The all-encompassing power of the emperor over not only the aristocracy but everyone else is here summarised by the historian J. Herrin:

The court exercised a hegemonic power which integrated all sectors of society and reinforced imperial authority; it was recognized as the centre of superior culture and unrivalled brilliance. Ambitious provincial inhabitants usually identified with it and aspired to a place in it. (172)

Within the upper classes, there were further layers of status based on one's family name and who one knew. Patronage was an important factor in easing one's progress through life, and just as today, who one went to school with, who were one's friends, family, and who one shared political and religious views with helped determine one's career and the opportunities available for social advancement.

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One method of gaining access to the higher levels of society, even if one was handicapped by not possessing a noteworthy family name or patron, was education, as here explained by Herrin:

And because leading positions in all spheres were open to talent, education was seen as a means of social mobility, a key to the rewards of high office and social prominence. In a circular process, the education of younger members might bring an increase in family fortunes, which benefitted all relations, who in turn invested in the educational facilities and intellectual activities which consolidated and enhanced the status of scholars in Byzantium. (119)

Besides titles and forms of address, the aristocracy were easily identified by their status symbols such as fine jewellery and silk clothing. Certain high-ranking officials even had their own distinct clothes of office. The colour of a cloak, tunic, belt, and shoes, or the particular design and material of a fibula could indicate visually the wearer's office. Indeed, some of the buckles worn were so precious and the risk of theft so high that many officials wore imitations made from gilded bronze. Additional badges of rank included small ivory plaques, metal stamped disks, a gold collar or gilded whip. Even the correspondence of people of rank contained clear indicators of their status such as titles and stamped lead seals.

Lower Classes

The lower classes of Byzantine society worked for a living in all the industries of the day with the more successful ones owning their own small businesses. Thus, this section of society would include the middle class if we were to apply modern terms. There were, at the top, what we would today call 'white-collar' workers who had acquired specific knowledge through education such as lawyers, accountants, scribes, minor officials and diplomats, all of whom were essential to the efficient running of the state.

Even at the top end of this broad social group, there was not much respectability to be had in the eyes of the upper classes. Traders, merchants, and even bankers might have been extremely rich, but they were held in low esteem by the aristocracy and Byzantine religious art frequently portrays these professions being tormented in hell for their dishonesty and sharp practices. It is also no coincidence that the state imposed all kinds of checks and controls on markets, the prices of goods, and the weights used by merchants. Those who made money from others had to be watched carefully. Nevertheless, the steady march of commerce meant that by the 12th century CE merchants were beginning to join the ruling, land-owner class.

The next level down was the craftsmen and food producers who were rather less socially mobile as members of the major guilds (collegia) were expected to remain in their professions and pass on their skills to their children. Whether the expectation was met in practice is a moot point, but there must certainly have been a feeling of constraint which perpetuated the convention that everyone had their place in society and it was a fixed one.

Finally, and by far the largest population group, there were the small-scale farmers who owned their own land and the most humble citizens of all who worked as agricultural labourers (coloni) for others. This latter group were not very much higher or treated better than slaves who were the lowest of the low.

It is one of the oddities of Byzantium that slavery continued despite the acknowledgement from the Church that all humans were equal before God.


Slaves were ever-present in Byzantine society, and they came from conquered peoples, prisoners of war, and from slave markets. They were brought into the empire in great numbers, especially from the Balkan peninsula and around the Black Sea, but they never outnumbered free-peasant labour in rural areas. This is probably because a slave was always a pricey commodity costing around 30 gold coins in the 5th century CE (a pig would set you back one and a donkey three). It is one of the oddities of Byzantium that slavery continued despite the acknowledgement from the Church that all humans were equal before God whatever their social status. Such was the importance of slavery to the functioning of the state, and especially the imperial workshops that the Church adopted a conciliatory policy of toleration rather than seek its cessation.

Women & Children

Aristocratic women were largely expected to run the family home, look after the children, and supervise the servants and property. They did not live a secluded life but neither could they hold any public office of note. They learnt to spin, weave, and to read and write but had no formal education. Expected to marry, women could own their own property and their dowry. They could also assume the role as head of the family if they were left a widow. Divorce procedures were in favour of the male and not easy to achieve, in any case, for either party.

Working women earned their living doing pretty much what many working men did - they could own their own businesses or work for others such as in the agricultural, manufacturing, medical, and retail sectors. The lowest class of women were actresses and prostitutes. Social advancement could be achieved through marriage but, as with men, most women would have learnt the profession of their mothers. Some women did make spectacular progress up the social ladder by marrying into higher-class families, even sometimes into the imperial family itself and to become empresses by winning bride shows organised for that purpose.

As mentioned above, education (for males) was an important opportunity for social advancement, and most cities had a school ran by the local bishop. Young men whose parents could afford it were first taught to read and write in Greek and then schooled in the seven classical arts of antiquity: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, harmonics, and astronomy. Higher education consisted in the study of philosophy, especially the works of Plato and Aristotle, as well as Christian theology.


Although not unique to Byzantium, an interesting feature of society and government was the use of eunuchs in the royal court at Constantinople and the wider state administration. Indeed, the great number of eunuchs in Constantinople in general often astonished foreign visitors. As they had no heirs and no sexual appetite (in theory anyway), the idea was that eunuchs could be trusted to serve the emperor and the state without lining their own pockets or philandering with the ladies of the imperial household. The personal attendants of the emperor - those who served his food and dressed him - were eunuchs too, as were many important figures in the Church, including bishops, and several successful generals in the army.

Many parents were very willing to send their children as eunuchs to the palace in the hope of gaining positions of favour there, just as girls were sent to try and gain positions as ladies-in-waiting. There was also a significant slave trade specialising in eunuchs, castration not being an uncommon treatment of prisoners of war. Consequently, many upper-class households had eunuch slaves to look after the women of the house and teach the children. The practice of self-harm was at odds with the Church, and self-castration was officially prohibited. Still, the churches of Constantinople were happy enough to employ choirs of castrati, a practice later copied in Rome and the Vatican. Finally, castration and other physical mutilations were a common punishment in Byzantine law, indicating the general social disdain in which eunuchs were held by just about everybody.

The Clergy

As Christianity was widely practised, the members of its clergy were many and important to their communities. The clergy and church were headed by the Patriarch (bishop) of Constantinople but emperors, too, sometimes concerned themselves with church policies and even doctrines. The appointment and removal of the Patriarch was also the prerogative of the emperor, a right used many times to install like-minded bishops or remove those who proved an obstacle to imperial plans such as re-marriages or the destruction of icons. Local bishops, who presided over larger towns and their surrounding territories and who represented both the church and emperor, had considerable wealth and powers.

There were some social restrictions on the clergy. Priests and deacons were permitted to have wives if they had married before being ordained while bishops were obliged to separate from their spouses. The bishop's wife's position was even worse as she had to then retire to a monastery. Naturally, many women could freely choose an ecclesiastical life in the many monasteries dedicated specifically to them where nuns devoted themselves to Christ and helped the poor and ill.


Amongst all the different social levels already mentioned there were foreigners and non-Christians who made Byzantium a very cosmopolitan society. The Byzantine Empire conquered many lands and these peoples were incorporated into the existing structure of society - many thousands of people were forcibly displaced, still more sought a better life than that in their birthplace, and the army itself gave employment to Scandinavians, Russians, Armenians, Anglo-Saxons, and Germans amongst others. Traders, merchants, and craftworkers migrated to where they could earn a living from their skills and goods. Jews were prevalent in the areas of money-lending and textiles, Muslim traders from Arabia peddled their wares in the local markets, and Italian merchants came from the great trading cities of Genova, Pisa, and Venice. There was not always harmony between these groups, however, as shown by the infamous riot of 1042 CE when the local traders of Constantinople attacked their foreign rivals. Finally, Christian pilgrims from all over Europe passed through to see the Empire's sacred sites and relics on their way to the Holy Lands.

The Byzantine Empire

The different levels of society in the Byzantine Empire consisted of mainly three different classes. The upper class included the local aristocrats (people who were very wealthy), state functionaries (government officials), senior military officers, and large landowners. The middle class included merchants (people who traded), industrialists, and owners of medium-sized landed properties. The lower class included wage-earners and paupers (people who were very poor). Clergy (people who held religious services) however, didn’t have a specific social class but they recieved special privileges and they were distributed throughout all of the social classes.

  • Was your place in the hierarchy determined by your birth or by your skills? Could people move between different social classes?

Your place in hierarchy was mostly determined by your skills. Depending on the job you had and your skill level, you could move into different classes. An example of this movement was a strong warrior who was a great leader in battle could move up to be an emperor. A middle class merchant could become very successful in international trade and move up to the upper class as a wealthy aristocrat.

They did have slaves in the Byzantine Empire but the slaves were able to earn their freedom, such as fighting for their freedom in a battle or working as a servant for an aristocrat for many years.

The citizens of the Byzantine Empire enjoyed rights that were protected by the laws of the Twelve Tables. Each table had about 5 to 11 laws each. Some of these rights included the right to ownership and property and the right to take legal action if something happened to your property.

1 The Historical Impact of the Byzantine and Islamic Empires

The civilizations of the East had a profound impact on the development of the modern world -- when the Roman Empire collapsed, the Byzantine and Islamic empires preserved knowledge in the form of books, and kept artistic and scientific innovations alive. The Silk Road, a trade network that stretched from China to Turkey, was maintained by Islamic rulers and ended in Constantinople. Though made famous by the trade in silk, this essential trade route also transmitted technologies and ideas like gunpowder, paper and the waterwheel. The contributions traveled to European economic centers from Byzantine and Islamic cities like Constantinople and Alexandria.

Society in the Byzantine Empire - History


Constantinople was built on the site of an ancient Greek trading city called Byzantium. It lay near both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea . This location between the two seas protected the city from attack and let the city control trade between Europe and Asia. Constantinople was in an ideal place to grow in wealth and power.


After Rome fell in 476, the emperors of the eastern Roman Empire dreamed of taking it back and reuniting the old Roman Empire. For Justinian, an emperor who ruled from 527 to 565, reuniting the empire was a passion. He couldn't live with a Roman Empire that didn't include the city of Rome, so he sent his army to retake Italy. In the end this army conquered not only Italy but also much land around the Mediterranean.

Justinian's other passions were the law and the church. He ordered officials to examine all of Rome's laws and remove any out-of-date or unchristian laws. He then organized all the laws into a legal system called Justinian's Code. By simplifying Roman law, this code helped guarantee fair treatment for all.

Despite his achievements, Justinian made many enemies. Two groups of these enemies joined together and tried to overthrow him in 532. These groups led riots in the streets and set fire to buildings. Scared for his life, Justinian prepared to leave Constantinople.

Justinian was stopped from leaving by his wife, Theodora . She convinced Justinian to stay in the city. Smart and powerful, Theodora helped her husband rule effectively. With her advice, he found a way to end the riots. Justinian's soldiers killed all the rioters - some 30,000 people - and saved the emperor's throne.

After the death of Justinian in 565, the eastern empire began to decline. Faced with invasions by barbarians, Persians, and Muslims, later emperors lost all the land Justinian had gained. The eastern empire remained a major power for several hundred years, but it never regained its former strength.

The eastern empire's struggles finally ended nearly 700 years after the death of Justinian. In 1453 a group called the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople. With this defeat the 1,000-year history of the eastern Roman Empire came to an end.


In many ways Justinian was the last Roman emperor of the eastern empire. After he died, non-Roman influences took hold throughout the empire. People began to speak Greek, the language of the eastern empire, rather than Latin. Scholars studied Greek, the language of the eastern empire, rather than Latin. Scholars studied Greek, not Roman, philosophy. Gradually, the empire lost its ties to the old Roman Empire, and a new society developed.

The people who lived in this society never stopped thinking of themselves as Romans. But modern historians have given their society a new name. They call the society that developed in the eastern Roman Empire after the west fell the Byzantine Empire, named after the Greek town of Byzantium.

One reason eastern and western Roman society was different was the Byzantines' interaction with other groups. This interaction was largely a result of trade. Because Constantinople's location was ideal for trading between Europe and Asia, it became the greatest trading city in Europe. Merchants from all around Europe, Asia, and Africa traveled to Constantinople to trade. Over time Byzantine society began to reflect these outside influences as well as its Roman and Greek roots.

The forms of government that developed in the eastern and western empires also created differences. Byzantine emperors had more power than western emperors did. They liked to show off their great power. For example, people could not stand while they were in the presence of the eastern emperor. They had to crawl on their hands and knees to talk to him.

The power of an eastern emperor was greater, in part, because the emperor was considered the head of the church as well as the political ruler. The Byzantines thought the emperor had been chosen by God to lead both the empire and the church. In the west the emperor was limited to political power. Popes and bishops were the leaders of the church.

Even more magnificent than their mosaics were Byzantine churches, especially Hagia Sophia . Built by Justinian in the 530s, its huge domes rose high above Constantinople. According to legend, when Justinian saw the church he exclaimed in delight "Glory to God who has judged me worthy of accomplishing such as work as this! O Solomon I have outdone you!". As time passed, people in the east and west began to interpret and practice Christianity differently. For example, eastern priests could get married, while priests in the west could not. Religious services were performed in Greek in the east. In the west they were held in Latin.

For hundreds of years, church leaders from the east and west worked together peacefully despite their differences. However, the differences between their ideas continued to grow. In time the differences led to a split within the Christian Church . In the 1000s Christians in the east broke away from the rest of the church and formed what became known as the Eastern Orthodox Church . As a result, eastern and western Europe were completely divided.

After the decline of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Judaism in ancient times, the use of the Greek language and the integration of the Greek culture into Judaism continued to be an integral part of the life in Jewish communities in the Byzantine Empire. [1] The legal standing of the Jews of the Byzantine Empire was unique during the entire history of the Empire they did not belong to the Christian Eastern Orthodox faith, which was the state religion, nor were they—in most circumstances—grouped together with heretics and pagans. They were placed in a legal position somewhere between the two worlds. The place along the spectrum of social freedom in which Byzantine Jews found themselves varied somewhat—though far from drastically—with time, and depended largely on three factors: the theological desire of the state to maintain the Jews as a living testament to the victory of Christianity, the desire of the state to strengthen its control, and the ability of centralized rule from Constantinople to enforce its legislation. [ citation needed ]

In 212, Caracalla bestowed citizenship on all the residents of the Roman Empire, including the Jews. This granted Jews legal equality to all other citizens, and formed the foundation of their legal status in Byzantium following the founding of Constantinople in 330. [2] Indeed, Jews enjoyed the right to practice their faith under the rule of the Byzantines, as long as they paid the Fiscus Judaicus. For example, circumcision, which was considered mutilation and therefore punishable by death if performed on a non-Jewish child, and by exile if performed on a non-Jewish adult, was legally permitted within Jewish religious practices. Byzantine law recognized synagogues as places of worship, which could not be arbitrarily molested, Jewish courts had the force of law in civil cases, and Jews could not be forced to violate Shabbat and their festivals. [3]

Since the year 390 nearly all of the territory of present-day Israel came under Byzantine suzerainty. The area was divided into the following provinces: Palestina Prima, Palestina Secunda and Palestina Tertia. These provinces were part of the Diocese of the East. [4]

In 404, Jews were excluded from certain governmental posts. [5] In 418, they were barred from the civil service, and from all military positions. [6] In 425, they were excluded from all remaining public offices, both civilian and military—a prohibition which Justinian I reiterated. [5] Such restrictions, however, inevitably compromised the theological arguments for restricting the Jewish religion although they empowered the Christian citizens of the empire at the expense of its Jews, all laws dealing with the Jews implicitly recognized the continued existence and legality of the Jewish religion. [7]

Thus Emperor Theodosius II found that he had to balance the first two of the three factors governing the treatment of Jews in the empire—theology, political pragmatism and enforceability. He could not, however, effectively control the third. In 438, Theodosius had to reaffirm the prohibition on Jews holding public office, because it had been poorly enforced. [8] Even in 527, a decree which renewed this prohibition began by observing that "heedless of the laws' command [they have] infiltrated public offices". [9]

There was one office, however, that Jews were not forbidden from assuming. This was the office of decurion, a tax collector who was required to pay all deficits in revenue from his own pocket. Theodosius II, who laid out much of the legal precedent and foundation for Byzantine law in his Theodosian Code, permitted Jews, like other citizens, to hire a substitute to perform the duties of decurion in their place. [5] Justinian, whose legal code included 33 laws relating to the Jews, [10] initially maintained this ability, but it was abolished in 537. [5] Sharf explains that the purpose of this was so that the Jews "never enjoy the fruits of office, but only suffer its pains and penalties". [5]

In addition to the matter of holding public office, Jews were also unequal to Christians with respect to the ownership of slaves. Restrictions on the ownership of Christian slaves by Jews were in place through the reign of many emperors, under the fear that Jews would use conversion of slaves as a means to increase their number. Additionally, this was designed to provide an incentive for non-Christian slaves to convert into Christianity, and an economic restriction on the Jews. Restrictions on slave-owning could not, however, be excessively burdensome, because slaves, although numerous, were between 10-15% of the population. [11] Under the Theodosian Code, therefore, ownership of Christian slaves by Jews was not prohibited, although their purchase was. Thus, one who gained possession of a slave by means such as inheritance would remain his or her owner. Purchase of slaves was usually penalized by compelled sale at the original purchase price. [12]

Slave ownership produces another example of the threefold balancing act of Legislation dealing with the Jewish minority of Byzantium: ownership of Christian slaves undermined the "living testament" theology, but was a pragmatic requirement of the time, and the prohibition thereof could not be entirely enforced, since freedom may not necessarily have been a desirable option for a slave who was well-treated by his masters. [13]

The third important restriction on Judaism—in addition to the limitations on public service and slave ownership—was that the Jewish religion, though allowed to survive, was not allowed to thrive. Theologically, the victory of Christianity could be successfully asserted by maintaining a small contingent of Jews within the empire, although allowing them to become too sizable a minority would threaten the theological monopoly of Orthodox Christianity within the Empire. [12]

One important ramification of this policy was the prohibition on the construction of new synagogues within the Empire, though the repair of old synagogues was permitted. This prohibition was difficult to enforce, as archaeological evidence in Israel indicates that illegal synagogue construction continued throughout the sixth century. [14] The synagogue did continue to be respected as an inviolable place of worship until the reign of Justinian.

Beginning at this time, most legislation regarding the Jews—even laws which expanded the rights which they were afforded—were "prefaced by unambiguous expressions of hatred and contempt for Judaism". [15]

The Civil Code of Justinian tightened the regulations on the ownership of Christian slaves by non-Christians. It abolished compensation for illegal purchases of Christian slaves, and added a 30 lb gold fine for this offense. Jews owning Christian slaves during the time of Justinian could be punished by execution. [12]

In 545, Justinian legislated that the right of existence of any synagogue on land belonging to an ecclesiastical institution be nullified. [12] He was also the first emperor to order that existing synagogues be converted into churches. There is, however, only one example of such a conversion taking place by force: the synagogue in Borem. This synagogue was most likely converted for military reasons, in light of its strategic position on the frontier with the territory of the Berber tribes. [16] In fact, Justinian banned all non-Christian places of worship in northern Africa, in legislation that grouped Jews with pagans and heretics. This legislation was hardly enforced, but set a precedent for the violability of synagogues and the blurring of the difference between Jews and other non-Christians. [17] Once more, this represents the divergence between the Empire's theological objectives, its pragmatic goals and its capability to enforce its legislation. The poor efficacy of legislation points to the dominating power of the latter in restraining the two former factors, which, in this case, coincided.

The Jews also found that they were positioned in law somewhere between other non-Christians and the Christian majority. For instance, Justinian demanded that Passover be shown as subservient to Easter in cases in which the former would fall before the latter, the Jews were forbidden from celebrating it on its appointed day, and were compelled to delay it. [15] Jews were also forbidden from giving testimony concerning Christians in a court of law—a restriction already present in the Theodosian code—although Justinian eased this restriction in 537 to allow them to testify in cases between Christian individuals and the state. This privilege was not enjoyed by any other non-Christian group. [16] Once more, the state sacrificed the doctrinal subordination of the Jews in order to gain practical benefits, in this case testimony against those who faced it in court.

Questions of internal Jewish discourse—which could, under the Theodosian Code, be arbitrated only by Jewish courts—could, under the Justinian Code, be officiated by the state, [18] a power which Justinian did not shy away from utilizing. In 553 for instance, Justinian required that the public reading of the Pentateuch proceed in vernacular, rather than Hebrew, and forbade altogether the reading of the Mishna. [19] In this way, Justinian not only restricted the religious freedom of the Jews, but also expanded his own power in order to reinforce the principle that, "in theory, there is no area that falls outside of the Empire's legislative power". [7] Justinian's restrictions were, however, poorly enforced. Ironically, what little enforcement they did enjoy contributed to a notable growth in Jewish culture and liturgy. For instance, the banning of the reading of Mishna prompted Jewish scholars to write the piyutim, important works of poetry which refer strongly to the Mishna. Because these were not banned by the Civil Code, they afforded Jews the ability to circumvent it. Accordingly, this form of religious expression flourished under Justinian. [20]

Although the Justinian Code remained in force in the Eastern Empire until the ninth century, [10] the period following Justinian's reign was generally characterized by toleration of non-Christians, particularly the Jews. However, during the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628 many Jews sided against the Byzantine Empire in the Jewish revolt against Heraclius, which successfully assisted the invading Persian Sassanids in conquering all of Roman Egypt and Syria. In reaction to this, anti-Jewish measures were enacted throughout the Byzantine realm and as far away as Merovingian France. [21] Soon thereafter, in 634 the Muslim conquests began, during which many Jews initially rose up again against their Byzantine rulers. [22] During this time Heraclius became the first emperor to force the conversion of Jews to Christianity. [23] Following his death, and until 1204, the Jews suffered only three notable legal persecutions, the sum of whose span was roughly fifty years. [24] It is even debated whether the first of these—the anti-Jewish measures passed during the reign of Leo III the Isaurian—could be considered a persecution. [25] The second of these, during the reign of Basil I from 867 to 886, briefly punctuated the tolerance of the ninth century. [23] The last of these persecutions took place under John Tzimiskes, who reigned from 969 to 976. Accordingly, there were no recorded legal persecutions of the Jews for nearly two and a half centuries following his reign. [25]

In fact Samuel Krauss writes in his famous work on Byzantine Jewry that Constantinople at the time of the Byzantine Empire was "the center of the Jewish, Samaritan and Karaite scholarship". Eleazar ben Killir a Byzantine Jew from a Greek-speaking area wrote his famous piyutim, which are still in use in the most Machzorim and became the teacher of all paytanim who came after him. [26] Asaph the Jew wrote in Byzantium the first Hebrew medical treatise. [27]

The Sefer Yosippon was written down in the 10th century in the Byzantine south Italy by the Greek-speaking Jewish community there. Judah Leon ben Moses Mosconi, a Romaniote Jew from Achrida edited and expanded the Sefer Josippon later. [28] [29] This community of Byzantine Jews of southern Italy produced such prominent works like the Sefer Ahimaaz of Ahimaaz ben Paltiel, the Sefer Hachmoni of Shabbethai Donnolo, the Aggadath Bereshit and many piyyutim. [30] [31] [32] [33] [34] The liturgical writings of these Romaniote Jews, especially the piyyut were eminent for the development of the Ashkenazi Mahzor, as they found their way through Italy to Ashkenaz and are preserved to this day in the most ashkenazi mahzorim. [35] Like in the case of the Hellenistic Jewish authorship some of the Byzantine Jewish manuscripts show the use of the Greek language in religious and communal aspects. The language of this manuscripts is not in Ancient Greek, but rather in an older form of Modern Greek. These texts are the oldest known written texts in Modern Greek. [36] Beside these Rabbanites and as a part of the Empire's Romaniote Jews, important Karaite communities like the Constantinopolitan Karaites and the Karaites of Adrianople flourished and produced eminent personalities for the Karaite movement like Caleb Afendopolo, Elijah Bashyazi, Aaron ben Joseph of Constantinople, Aaron ben Elijah, Judah Hadassi and other. [37]

In the twelfth century, there were about 2,500 Jews in Constantinople, 2,000 Jews in Thebes and 500 Jews in Thessalonica. Halmyrus, Rhaedestus, Chios, and Rhodes each housed 400 Jews. [38] Also, there were about 300 Jews each in Corinth and Samos, and 200 Jews in Gallipoli. [39]

It was in the 12th century that the passing Crusaders wrought havoc upon the Jewish communities of Byzantium, in a foretaste of what the later Latin occupation would bring upon the Byzantine Christians. Although most crusading bands did not adopt a policy of violence or forced conversion against the Jews, the First Crusade certainly undertook an anti-Jewish face in certain communities. Because the Crusade was undertaken with the goal of "subjugating all non-believers to the faith," many crusaders compelled Jews to convert on pain of death, and there is a large number of recorded cases of mass suicides within Jewish communities—particularly among Jewish maidens—in order to avoid such conversions. [40]

The Fourth Crusade further degraded the position of Byzantine Jews. As smaller states separated from a weakened empire, the rulers of these states found themselves more capable of enforcing legislation than their Byzantine counterparts. The most powerful protection on the rights of Jews—governmental impotence to enforce laws—was thus abolished. Theodore Doukas, who crowned himself emperor of Epiros after he conquered Thessalonica, was known for his persecution of the Jews, which began in 1229, a year before the end of his reign. [25] Theodore's disdain for the Jews is well-established. Still, his waiting until 1229—five years after capturing Thessalonica and declaring himself emperor—indicates that antisemitism may not have been the cause of his anti-Jewish edicts. Rather, they appear to have been motivated by a desire to confiscate Jewish property at a time when his empire was short of funds. This explains the expropriations of Jewish property under Theodore, as well as his regime's abstention from religious persecution for its own sake. [41]

John Vatatzes, the emperor of Nicaea, commenced legal persecution of the Jews in 1253. [25] Unlike Theodore, Vatatzes ordered that the Jews within the Empire of Nicaea be converted to Christianity, though he did not order the expropriation of Jewish property. [42] Although these measures began only a year before Vatatzes' death, they seemed to have set a precedent of persecution which his son, Theodore II Laskaris, followed. [25]

It was in this environment of persecution that the Palaiologoi rose to the imperial throne. Michael VIII Palaiologos largely ended persecution of the Jews. Bowman writes the following:

Michael VIII summoned the Jewish leaders in his realm and invited them to support him as emperor. Thus Michael's first act toward the Jews […] was the revocation of John Vatatzes's order of forced baptism. At the same time, however, he made it clear to the Jews that he expected them to show their appreciation for his assistance. [42]

Michael's road to the throne had been of questionable legality, and that fact earned him many enemies. Additionally, he oversaw an empire which was strongly dependent on foreign powers, and had an immense need for gold to fund its great military expenses. It is not surprising, therefore, that he turned to the Jews and other minorities (most notably the Armenians) as a source of support in an embattled state of affairs, and when the ethnic majority and the mainstream elite had grown unfriendly toward him. [43]

Andronikos II Palaiologos followed his father's precedent. The tolerance of Andronikos was quite notable, even drawing condemnation from Patriarch Athanasius III of Alexandria, against what he saw as "excessive" tolerance of Jews and other non-Christians, in particular for permitting them to live amongst Christians. [44] The patriarch's complaint indicates that, in spite of the tolerance of the Palaiologoi, the norm of imperial law was to require non-Christians to live separately from Christians. This apparent trend of segregation between the peoples of Byzantium, which certainly included the Jews, is confirmed in a letter by John, bishop of Citrus, in the latter half of the twelfth century, which declared that, "People of alien tongues and alien beliefs, such as Jews, Armenians, Ishmaelites, Hagarites and other such as these were permitted from of old to dwell in Christian countries and cities, except that they had to live separately and not together with the Christians". [45] In Constantinople, there was a Jewish quarter near the eponymous gate in the modern Yenikapı area. [46]

By the fourteenth century, the Jewish question of Byzantium seemed to be most concerned with Venetian Jews. Venetians had come to reside in the Empire in large numbers by the early 14th century, and treaties between the Empire and Venice granted the Venetians living in the empire, including Jews of Venetian origin, special privileges, though they also carried certain minor economic prohibitions. Under the aegis of these treaties, Venetian Jews could buy, sell or rent land anywhere in Constantinople. They also enjoyed a more favorable tax structure than Byzantine citizens, as well as the freedom of movement and settlement anywhere in the Empire. [47]

Further complicating this legal status, some Jews obtained Venetian citizenship either "by coming from areas subject to the Republic or by purchasing naturalization", thus obtaining the same privileges as Venetian nationals in the Empire. [48] At this time, the Empire was in rapid decay, and could not seriously enforce laws intended to curtail these rights and regain economic control within its borders. Thus, an exception to the general trend of Byzantine history emerged during this century, whereby Jews were entitled to a broader set of rights than Christians. However, it is important to note that these liberties were conferred based on their being Venetian, not based on their Jewish identity. Non-Venetian Jews did not profit from the Venetian-Byzantine treaties, and non-Jewish Venetians enjoyed the same liberties as their Jewish compatriots.

The Byzantine vs. The Roman Empire

The Byzantine empire, which lasted roughly one thousand years (established in 330 A.D. by Constantine, conquered in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks), grew out of the previous Roman empire (which lasted roughly five hundred years, from year 31 B.C.E. to 476 A.D.) to the east. The growth of the Byzantine empire out of the Roman empire directly resulted from the political and military turmoil toward the end of the Roman empire’s time. In 285 A.D., the Roman emperor Diocletian divided the Roman empire in half in an effort to manage the empire more efficiently. He helped to establish the tetrarchy, a political unit of three emperors who were supposed to work hand in hand to manage the empire’s territory. However, after Diocletian voluntarily retired from the emperor’s position, the two other members of the tetrarchy, Maxentius and Constantine, began a civil war against each other for control of the whole empire. Constantine eventually defeated Maxentius, and credited his victory to the Christian god. He subsequently established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire and moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city of Byzantium, or “New Rome,” in the east. Constantine later renamed the city of Byzantium after himself, calling it Constantinople, which remained the capital of the Byzantine empire for the remainder of the Byzantine empire’s existence. Soon after Constantine’s death, the two empires became officially divided, and the Roman empire fell roughly one hundred years later.

There are certain similarities between the two empires, though they lasted during different time periods. Both the Byzantine and the Roman empires were centers of trade, and much of the wealth in the empires was generated through their extensive trade routes. During the Pax Romana (peace of Rome) trade flourished in the Roman empire. Widespread roads were built all throughout the empire, which aided in land transportation and general travel/communication between cities. The Byzantine capital of Constantinople was located at a key location for water travel and trade between Asia (through the Black Sea) and the rest of Western Europe (through the Mediterranean Sea). Therefore, the Byzantine Empire was able to support merchants and traders.

Additionally, both empires established large-scale building projects. The Roman Empire established aqueduct systems throughout their empire to distribute fresh water into cities and towns, and this water often was carried from faraway sources. The Roman Empire under Vespasian and the Flavian Dynasty was especially influential in constructing large buildings and is known for its ambition in construction projects. For example, Vespasian began the building process of the Flavian Amphitheatre (more commonly known as the Coliseum of Rome). His son Titus later finished construction of the Coliseum. In the east during the Byzantine Empire, the emperor Justinian constructed the Hagia Sophia. The reign of Justinian and information concerning the Hagia Sophia church is more fully outlined in sections below dedicated to those topics.

Key differences between the two empires concern their religions, relative amount of conquered territory, and their practices in artistry. Up until the Edict of Milan in 317 under Constantinople, which legalized Christianity throughout the empire and emphasized religious tolerance, the Roman empire was primarily pagan in nature. The official Roman pantheon drew much of its inspiration from the Greek gods. In contrast, the Byzantine Empire was officially Christian in nature throughout much of the heights of its reign, and specifically was Eastern Orthodox in nature after the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic church in the West and the Eastern Orthodox church in the East in 1054 CE. However, during the beginning centuries of the Byzantine empire paganism retained a significant role in the lives of many people. Even as orthodox Christianity remained the prominent religion in the empire throughout its thousand-year duration, due to the extensive trade and amounts of travelers throughout the region, other religions and cultures were tolerated more in Constantinople than in other areas throughout the middle ages.

Though both empires were quite expansive in nature, the Roman Empire ultimately covered more land area and territories than the Byzantine Empire, and this is due largely to the militaristic and disciplined structure of the Roman Empire. At its peak, the Roman Empire reached into regions of the British islands, Germania, Spain, parts of North Africa, and much of Asia Minor. In contrast, at the height of Byzantine militaristic power under Justinian throughout 527-565 CE, only some of the wealthy areas in Italy and parts of North Africa and Spain were reconquered. (Since the Roman Empire had fallen roughly fifty-seventy years prior, much of the area had to be re-conquered and occupied).

Roman art, especially sculpture, focused much more on imitating the true form of people and objects. Much of Roman art drew on the precepts founded in Greek art and architecture. Artwork was often funded by patricians and decorated triumphal columns or celebrated Roman achievement and advancement. Unlike Roman art, Byzantine art appears to the modern viewer to have made few attempts to mimic reality. Images are often two-dimensional and flat, and is anti-naturalistic in its most basic form. Art in the Byzantine Empire was largely dedicated to religious and imperial purposes, and decorated the interior of churches most prominently. However, the advent of iconoclasm in the late 700’s sparked a debate over the use of figural imagery in religious artwork, and at times resulted in the destruction of previous religious artistic depictions. Further description of art in the Byzantine Empire is outlined in the section below regarding Byzantine art.

All empires come to an end with time, and the Byzantine and Roman empires are similar in that their end was predicated by a slow decline. These declines were characterized by slow losses of territory and lack of strong leadership. The Byzantine empire extended the influence of the Roman empire after the fall of the Roman empire by incorporating similar themes of leadership, prioritization in building, and focus on trade in their structure, but altered the cultural sentiments of the Roman empire through its own religions, relative focus on military conquest, and artistic styles.

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The arrival of Emperor Michael VIII began the decline of the empire. During his mandate, the Turkish army was in charge of reducing the dominions of the Byzantine Empire. The changes that took place in society, also originated its fall, mainly on the part of the settlers and workers because they had to pay high taxes, and they decided to give up their lands.

  • At first, the empire’s territories included Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia.
  • Its population was very varied.
  • The settlers preferred to call themselves “Romans“.
  • The name Byzantine Empire was given in the sixteenth century by Hieronymus Wolf.
  • They adopted Hellenic traditions and Greek language.
  • The heyday of the empire came during the reign of Justinian I.
  • The crisis stages of the empire were the 6th and 7th centuries.

An Advanced Economy

For many centuries, the Byzantine economy was among the most advanced in all of Europe and the Mediterranean. As a prime trading location, Constantinople thrived by buying and selling goods with many parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa. Silk was a major export and this helped keep the empire's economy well ahead of the declining conditions in the Roman Empire. However, the Crusades would later diminish the economy and increased taxation to support these missions have been pinpointed as one reason for the empire's eventual decline.

Society in the Byzantine Empire - History

Silver reliquary
Nea Iraklia, late 4th century

"God-protected" Byzantine society had a strictly hierarchical structure and a centralized authority in accordance with absolutist concepts. The Emperor "by the grace of God" together with his family and court were at the tip of the social pinnacle.

The local aristocracy, state functionaries, senior military officers, and large landowners were all members of the upper class. The middle class comprised the urban population of merchants, industrialists, and owners of medium-sized landed properties, while the populace, that is, the lower class, was made up of wage-earners and paupers.

The clergy did not form a distinct class, despite the fact that they enjoyed special privileges they were distributed throughout all the social levels. Slaves did exist, although the state preferred their redemption to their subjugation.

There was an extensive network of small and large towns linked by a road system which carried a multiplicity of products to and from much frequented seaports. It was the village, though, that provided the basis of the financial system of the Byzantine state, and served as the primary unit of production. Thus, the growth and development of the institution of land ownership, and the well-being of the farming community were inseparably bound up with the rise and fall of the empire.

The organized guilds of craftsmen and artisans in the towns produced goods destined for demanding purchasers. Daily life, profoundly influenced by the commandments of the Christian religion, revolved around the home, in which women devoted themselves to the upbringing of their children, and various public places, where men sought relaxation in their leisure hours.

Watch the video: Why study the Byzantine Empire? (May 2022).