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The World of Byzantium

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The World of Byzantium

Course No. 367
Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
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Course No. 367
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Course Overview

Try this thought experiment: Mentally chart the main phases of European history to 1500. If you're like most of us, you probably hopscotched from classical Greece through Alexander the Great, from the Rome of the Caesars to the Renaissance, with a detour into the long post-Roman hiatus known as the Dark and Middle Ages.

But this storyline is woefully incomplete, even misleading.

Why? It leaves out Byzantium.

And you're not alone. The mental charts drawn by most educated people would show the same gap.

As Professor Kenneth Harl notes:

"Far from being merely the eastern rump of the old Roman Empire, Byzantium was without a doubt the greatest state in Christendom through much of the Middle Ages.

"This story is far more important than any number of tales of palace intrigue, and is not as well known as it deserves to be.

"These lectures are a small attempt to help redress the balance."

Curious and Even Unsettling Civilization

The civilization of East Rome, or Byzantium, is seldom studied on its own merits because this seemingly remote world is a curious, even unsettling, mix of the classical and medieval.

Byzantine arts and letters, deeply steeped in traditional orthodoxy, seldom appeal to the modern Westerner, a product of the Enlightenment and the changes wrought by modernization. And the same can be said for Muslims, as well, whose own civilization owes much to Byzantium.

These lectures by Professor Kenneth W. Harl are designed to fill that gap. You come away with a widened perspective on everything from the decline of imperial Rome to the rise of the Renaissance.

Professor Harl's tellingly detailed lectures show how the Greek-speaking empire of Byzantium, or East Rome, occupied a crucial place in both time and space that began with Constantine the Great and endured for more than a millennium.

A Crux of Civilizations

You can take the word "crucial" literally.

Centered on its magnificent fortified capital at the lucrative crossroads of Europe and Asia, Byzantium was a crux of civilizations.

It was a colossus that bestrode two continents: a crucible where peoples, cultures, and ideas met and melded to create a world at once Eastern and Western, Greek and Latin, classical and Christian.

It was truly a fulcrum of world history.

A Grandeur That Still Awes

Byzantium's spiritual grandeur and mystical vision of humanity, God, and the cosmos can still be glimpsed. You can see them in:

  • the awesome, soaring dome of the Hagia Sophia, 100 feet across and tall enough to hold a 17-story building, still the greatest domed building in Istanbul and the model for the great domed churches of the empire
  • the luminous mosaics of San Vitale at Ravenna, Italy
  • countless Orthodox churches on several continents.

For century after century, the Byzantines kept alive Hellenic arts and letters and Roman legal-political achievements over a vast arena of space and time.

The influence of this grand Orthodox Christian state was felt in Russia and southeastern Europe and throughout the Islamic world. And it influenced the Italian Renaissance, as well.

Renaissance scholars would name this powerful and brilliant civilization "Byzantium" after the ancient town that occupied the strategic spot where Constantine built his new capital.

The Byzantines called themselves simply hoi Romaioi—Greek for "the Romans."

An Empire of Accomplishment

A list of the achievements of Byzantium's emperors, patriarchs, priests, monks, artists, architects, scholars, soldiers, and officials would have to include:

  • actively preserving and extending the literary, intellectual, and aesthetic legacy of Classical and Hellenistic Greece (the Byzantine patriarch Photius was doing serious Platonic scholarship at a time when only three of Plato's dialogues were even known in the Latin West)
  • carrying forward pathbreaking Roman accomplishments not only in law and politics but in engineering, architecture, urban design, and military affairs—at a time when these had mostly been forgotten in the West
  • deepening and articulating Christian thought and belief through church councils and the work of brilliant theologians such as St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Gregory of Nazienzus while spreading the faith to Russia and the rest of what would become the Orthodox world
  • developing the Christian monastic institutions whose eventual diffusion from the deserts of Egypt to the shores of the Irish Sea would help to sustain faith and learning through centuries of hardship and peril
  • shielding the comparatively weak and politically fragmented lands of western Europe from the full force of eastern nomadic and Islamic invasions
  • fusing classical, Christian, and eastern influences to create an art and culture of stunning beauty and splendor
  • helping to shape the course of the humanist revival and the Renaissance in Western Europe through the writings of the Greek Fathers of the church, the preservation of classical texts, and the example of church mosaics and the work of El Greco.
Three Chapters of the Byzantine Story

To tell this pivotal story, Professor Harl has divided his lectures into three conceptual phases.

Lectures 1 to 12 provide you with essential background as they explain how the Roman world slowly gave way to distinct new blended cultures in the Latin, Celtic, and Germanic north and west, the Greek-speaking east (Byzantium), and later the Islamic south and east from Morocco to India.

You learn how the later Roman Empire under the forceful soldier-emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) responded to political and military crises, setting the stage for Constantine (r. 306-337), whose conversion to Christianity would point the Roman world in new directions.

You also meet the amazing emperor Justinian (r. 527-565).

This brilliant visionary built the Hagia Sophia, sponsored the magnificent codification of Roman law that bears his name, and sought to restore the entire Mediterranean world to his vision of a Christian and Constantinian empire.

But even the brilliant generalship of Belisarius and Narses could not make Justinian's policies a success. In the end came fresh crises that ended the classical world forever.

Lectures 13 to 21 deal with the achievements of medieval Byzantium, familiar to poets and novelists.

Its emperors warded off new invaders, checked the power of Islam, and directed a transformation of government, society, and culture.

The Byzantine State went through downs and ups of crisis and recovery, the latter sometimes directed by remarkable emperors like Alexius I Comnenus and the dynasty he sired (r. 1081-1185).

But the pressures from the Seljuk Turks and others were relentless and eventually triggered the Byzantine cry for help that led to the First Crusade (1095-99).

Lectures 22 to 24 run from the Fourth Crusade's horrifying sack of Constantinople (1204) to the Ottoman triumph of 1453. They tell a tale of political decline but enduring cultural and spiritual achievement.

Each in its own way, the Italian quattrocento and the Orthodox realm of Russia and Eastern Europe emerged as a legatee of Byzantium's mind and spirit.

Indeed, even the Ottoman sultans, creators of the last great Islamic empire, owed a huge debt to their vanquished foes.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2001
  • 1
    Imperial Crisis and Reform
    A century of crisis between A.D. 193 and 305 propelled the Roman world out of the classical into the early medieval age. After A.D. 235, a series of civil wars and invasions shattered the peace of the 60-million-subject Empire, profoundly changed all aspects of life, and set the stage for the rise of the civilization that would be known as Byzantium. x
  • 2
    Convinced that the Christian God had given him a signal victory, Constantine (r. 306–337) embraced the new faith and pointed the Empire in new directions. His sponsorship of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325) and his decision to build a "New Rome" on the strategic Bosporus laid the foundations of Byzantium. x
  • 3
    State and Society Under the Dominate
    Abandoning republican fictions, emperors after the 3rd century A.D. ruled as autocrats. Imperial demands eroded civic life and put classical religion and civilization in jeopardy. As the 5th century dawned, the bonds that had tied local elites to Rome had loosened, and in the West the outlines of medieval localism were emerging. x
  • 4
    Imperial Rome and the Barbarians
    Citizen legions had long guarded Rome's frontiers. But after 235, emperors increasingly recruited barbarian tribal fighters under native leaders, thereby creating the very forces that would topple imperial power in the West. x
  • 5
    The Rise of Christianity
    Until the conversion of Constantine, Christians remained relatively few in number, mostly in Mediterranean cities. But Christian self-definition was well-honed by 312, putting Christian emperors and bishops into a position to reshape a classical world whose people mostly remained pagans into the 5th century. x
  • 6
    Imperial Church and Christian Dogma
    The Council of Nicaea in 325 endorsed the Trinitarian theology of Athanasius but did not settle all debate. Later councils at Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) condemned Nestorians and Monophyistes, respectively. Emperors would continue striving to reconcile the latter, who commanded loyalty in the crucial provinces of Egypt, Syria, and eastern Anatolia. x
  • 7
    The Friends of God—Ascetics and Monks
    Solitary anchorites of the Egyptian desert inspired the 4th-century ascetic movement that led to medieval monasticism. St. Basil of Caesarea (330–379) penned rules regulating monastic life. His Latin counterpart, St. Benedict of Nursia (480–543), followed suit four generations later. Monasteries would play a decisive role in civilizing and converting Europe. x
  • 8
    The Fall of the Western Empire
    By 425, the western portion of the Roman Empire had shrunk to its Mediterranean core. The eastern court, secure behind Constantinople's Theodosian Walls, defied barbarian invaders, paid off Attila, and reformed its army. But it was too late to save the West, whose fall is usually dated to the deposition of Emperor Romulus Augustus by Odoacer in 476. x
  • 9
    The Age of Justinian
    Justinian (r. 527–565) was a cultured visionary, tireless public servant, and the last of the great Roman emperors. His supporting cast, headed by his wife Theodora (a former courtesan) and his superb general Belisarius, was similarly brilliant. x
  • 10
    The Reconquest of the West
    Justinian knew he could not afford long wars, but felt he had to fight the Arian German kingdoms in Italy, the Vandals in Africa, and the Persians to his east. Commanding small, often-outnumbered armies, both Belisarius and Narses (the eunuch general) worked military wonders, though the former was driven from command by the emperor's distrust. x
  • 11
    The Search for Religious Unity
    Well schooled in theology, Justinian believed that a common creed could unite Chalcedonians and Monophysites. But he failed to reckon with the depth of the disagreements among Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria. Despite all his efforts, the imperial church at the end of his reign was even more bitterly divided than before. x
  • 12
    The Birth of Christian Aesthetics and Letters
    Justinian presided over the synthesis of Jewish, classical, and provincial arts into a Christian art and architecture that shaped medieval aesthetics and created such glories as the church mosaics of Ravenna and the magnificent dome of the Hagia Sophia. This lecture also contains a fascinating discussion of the origins and design features of basilicas and other Christian church buildings in the Eastern Empire. x
  • 13
    The Emperor Heraclius
    Heraclius (r. 610–641), the next great emperor after Justinian, managed to tame the Persian threat and restore the empire's fortunes on other fronts as well. But as Heraclius lay dying, his achievement was being nullified by the might of Arab horsemen and their powerful new faith, Islam. x
  • 14
    The Christian Citadel
    For more than two centuries, the heirs of Heraclius battled Lombards in Italy, Slavs and Bulgars in the Balkans, and Arabs in Anatolia. At the Battle of Poson (863), imperial forces won a victory that made it possible to carry Christianity and the civilized arts to the peoples of Eastern Europe. In the crucible of these wars was born the Byzantine Empire: Roman in government, Orthodox in faith, and Hellenic in language. x
  • 15
    Life in the Byzantine Dark Age
    Emperors of the "Dark Age" cracked down on corruption, and Constantinople fueled economic recovery by offering ready markets, but war and plague led to a demographic collapse by 700. Desperate imperial officials settled Slavs, Armenians, and Christian sectarians as soldiers or peasants, sponsored trade, and regulated prices. In response to crisis, emperors and subjects heroically reformed their world. x
  • 16
    The Iconoclastic Controversy
    Many Byzantines became convinced that icons meant idolatry, and hence divine punishment. Iconoclasm ("the breaking of images") began under Leo III (r. 717–741) and was finally settled by a moderate compromise in 843. The dispute defined orthodox ritual and widened the divide between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Henceforth, Rome looked west and Constantinople became the "queen of cities" for Eastern Europe. x
  • 17
    Recovery Under the Macedonian Emperors
    The illiterate usurper Basil the Macedonian (867–886) and his heirs sought legitimacy via military victory and patronage of the arts. They could not have acted more opportunely. The 10th century was an era of battles won and peoples baptized, including the Varangians of Russia and the South Slavs. By 1025, Eastern Europe had taken on its early shape as a Byzantine Orthodox commonwealth—Slavic in speech, Byzantine in aesthetics, and imperial in institutions. x
  • 18
    Imperial Zenith—Basil II
    Basil II—nicknamed "The Bulgar-Slayer"—was the greatest warrior of his age. Scorning imperial ceremony and ruling in splendid isolation with Varangian mercenary guards, he crushed rebellions and annexed Armenia, Georgia, and Bulgaria. But Basil left no heir, and his very success had created a false sense of security among his inept successors. Once again, the Byzantine Empire was headed for crisis. x
  • 19
    Imperial Collapse
    How did the Byzantine state, which Basil II had left in perhaps its strongest position since the days of Justinian, so quickly become enfeebled and exposed to new invaders both east and west? In 1071, on the distant Armenian battlefield of Manzikert, Byzantine forces facing the Seljuk Turks suffered a staggering defeat that changed world history. x
  • 20
    Alexius I and the First Crusade
    Alexius, committed to reversing the verdict of Manzikert by reconquering Anatolia, asked Western princes to send him knights. Pope Urban II took this appeal for mercenaries as a summons to liberate the Holy Land, unleashing the Crusades and the eventual ruin of Byzantium. x
  • 21
    Comnenian Emperors and Crusaders
    When the Crusades of the 12th century ended in failure, Westerners blamed Byzantine treachery rather than their own poor logistics and strategy. Distracted by the Crusades, meanwhile, Constantinople neglected the Seljuk threat and lost to the Turks again at Myriocephalon (1176). The fecklessness of a new and weak dynasty, the Angelans, left Byzantium's great capital vulnerable to Crusader assault. x
  • 22
    Imperial Exile and Restoration
    In April 1204, members of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople. Crusader barons and Byzantine generals carved out pieces of the faltering Empire. Michael VIII Palaeologus (1258–1282) eventually retook Constantinople, but neither he nor his less-than-brilliant heirs could reverse Byzantium's loss of even regional power or status. x
  • 23
    Byzantine Letters and Aesthetics
    Guardians of the classical heritage, Byzantine scholars saved many priceless Greek texts. From the 10th century on, emperors endowed schools and promoted intellectual life. Byzantine authors wrote in the tradition of Thucydides and Plutarch, and Photius revived the study of Plato. The mannerist church frescoes of the Byzantine 14th century compare with the best of contemporary Italian art, and exercised considerable influence on the Italian Renaissance. x
  • 24
    The Fall of Constantinople
    The Palaeologan emperors hoped to preserve their shrunken realm with Western aid but could not stop the Ottomans. The last emperor, Constantine XI, and his 7,000 gallant comrades went down fighting as the historic capital of the Christian East fell to the guns and bigger battalions of Sultan Mehmet II in May 1453. From the ashes of Constantinople, Mehmet built Istanbul, seat of a new Islamic empire that would last through World War I. x

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Your professor

Kenneth W. Harl

About Your Professor

Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
Dr. Kenneth W. Harl is Professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he teaches courses in Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader history. He earned his B.A. from Trinity College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Recognized as an outstanding lecturer, Professor Harl has received numerous teaching awards at Tulane, including the coveted Sheldon H. Hackney Award. He has...
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Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 65 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Byzantium: Constantinople, Crusades, & Islam The WORLD OF BYZANTIUM by Professor Kenneth W. Harl is an extremely detailed EMPIRICAL analysis and a penetrating INTERPRETATIVE history of three major periods stretching from Rome’s 3rd century imperial crisis to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Its implications for today’s conceptualization of the West and the Islamic world are profound. The professor’s chronology is as follows: Late Antiquity & Early Byzantium 200 – 700, Dark Age & Middle Byzantium 610 – 1204, and Late Byzantium 1204 – 1453. Evolving from Late Antiquity / Late Roman world are THREE EMERGING CIVILIZATIONS that are the macro-sociological characters in this historical drama: Western Europe / LATIN Christianity, Eastern Europe / ORTHODOX Christianity, and the Muslim world / ISLAM. It was the world of BYZANTIUM that filtered the political, cultural, religious, and philosophical boundaries of yesterday’s geographies and today’s worldviews. Understanding that role is essential for a fuller understanding of the Renaissance (cultural / classical tradition), Reformation (religious / theological beliefs), Enlightenment (philosophical / historiography), and Modernity (political / worldviews). These historical and intellectual disciplines are presented, analyzed, and explained in depth throughout the lectures. The professor’s presentation is excellent. He is at home with historical details (conquerors, emperors, generals, sultans, battles, jihad, etc. of Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Middle-East), aware of current CONTROVERSY and issues affecting the discipline (methodology, sources, and archaeology), knowledgeable in RELIGIOUS and CULTURAL matters of the periods (paganism, theologians, Trinity, Christology, Iconoclasm), and has the uncanny ability to draw substantive IMPLICATIONS to wider historical movements and periods (Europe and Islam yesterday and today). These areas of social research are all scholarly presented in the classical sense of the term. Finally, the only historical point not addressed concerns the Belgian scholar Henri Pirenne whose work MOHAMMED AND CHARLEMAGNE deals with this area and periodization of history. To quote from the book cover: “the cause of the break with the tradition of antiquity was the rapid and unexpected advance of Islam…an event of historical proportions…causing the axis of life to shift northwards from the Mediterranean for the first time in history”. To hear the professor discuss, critique, and interpret Pirenne’s thesis in light of the world of Byzantium would be very enlightening indeed. I originally planned to go forward from my study of antiquity and research the Middle-Ages on my historical journey but based on the professor’s comments on The Great Courses web-site, I took a one step sideways towards Byzantium and one back to Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor for my next encounter to round out my historical knowledge! *** VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED / AN HISTORICAL NECESSITY *** July 17, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by World of Byzantium Was a good background for the mid east and understanding the bigger picture. March 7, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great overview of the Byzantine Empire Professor Harl is a master at taking on history courses that are off the beaten track, and bringing focus to the histories of actors that seem to be on the fringe of Western culture. He did this with a course dedicated to the Vikings, with a course on the full history of Asia Minor until the invasion of the Ottoman Turks, and with a course focusing on the Barbarian empires of the Eurasian Steppes. Most courses on the medieval era focus on Western European kingdoms. However, there were three major powers that affected the Western culture in that era: the Western kingdoms such as France, England and Germany; the Muslim Empire; and the Byzantine Empire. The Muslim Empire, strangely enough, has not received a course dedicated to its history so far in the TGC, and it is in my opinion unfortunate. The Byzantine Empire, however, does go into the spotlight in this course. Professor Harl begins the survey from the rise of Constantine and the establishment of Constantinople as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Eventually the Western Roman Empire ceases to exist, and the Eastern one – that which will become the Byzantine Empire -continues on much as before. The Byzantine Empire never considered itself to be anything other than the Roman Empire, with the only major change being that the language eventually used was Greek instead of Latin. From there on, Professor Harl describes the narrative history of the Byzantine Empire, devoting some time to Emperor Justinian of the early 6th Century who would be the last Byzantine Emperor to try to reconquer the Western Empire. Professor Harl tells us, that one has to consider that the Eastern half of the Roman Empire had always been the richest, especially North Africa and Egypt. There are quite a few analytical lectures on the particular Eastern Christianity that was to develop in Byzantium. This different development of Christianity as related to the Western Catholic Christian faith was to have a huge role in the evolution of the Byzantine Empire in the future, and it would eventually take the form of the Orthodox Christian faith that we are familiar with to this day. One particularly important point is the Iconoclasm controversy. The Eastern Church came eventually to consider in the 8th Century that depiction of humans as holy works of art, such as portraits and statues of Jesus, are not really in sync with Monotheism, and as such they began to be frowned upon. This, along with other ritual issues created tension with the Catholic Church that caused what is today called the Iconoclasm Controversy and would lead to the eventual open conflict between the Catholic and Orthodox Church in the Great Schism of the 11th century. Next Professor Harl described the huge successes of Emperor Heraclius of the 7th century in his military conquests, unparalleled since Justinian, only to have the regained territories recaptured within his lifetime by the new, fantastically successful Muslim Empire. Professor Harl describes an Empire in the era of the middle ages that developed a political system very different than the feudal system that was finally adopted in the West. In Byzantium, the central imperial system managed to maintain its power through a well-organized bureaucratic administration and army, much as was the case in the classic era. Since the power could be thus maintained, there was no need for distributing vassalage for defense purposes and the whole messy deal was pretty much avoided. So overall Byzantium experienced the middle ages in a totally different way than Western Europe. The middle ages also saw a succession of highly competent Macedonian Emperors, Basil and Basil II who achieved large military conquests in Eastern Europe. The next important chapter has to do with the Seljuk Turks gaining control over Byzantine territory in Asia Minor. Alexius the first, desperate to stop the Turkish onslaught, sought aid from Western Europe – hinting to pope Urban II that this could help patch things between the two churches. Professor Harl emphasizes how much has changed since the time of Justinian: now the East is certainly not the overwhelmingly strong and dominant force compared to the Western Empire. In any case, what Alexius got was the first Crusade. Eventually the Crusades would not help Byzantium with the Turks, but instead create still more tension between East and West until the Fourth Crusade ended up being turned against Byzantium and Constantinople was sacked and conquered. This course, my tenth given by Professor Harl, has been fascinating, but I have come to expect nothing less. It put the spotlight on a key player in medieval history that did not receive the focus it required in all other medieval courses that I have heard, and it certainly helped in getting a much more comprehensive view of the history of that era. February 15, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Rome lives on in Russia? Audio Download For those considering listening to this set of lectures about what is generally considered an obscure part of world history, better be prepared for an excellent learning experience. Professor Harl dives into the complex history of the (eastern) Roman Empire...Byzantium...explaining how that empire is responsible not only for the preservation of Classical Greek culture, but the fostering of the Christian religion. Names like Constantine and Justinian may be familiar (to some), but who the heck is Basil II, the Bulgar-slayer and how did he help shape the current situation in the Middle East? And what actually happened to the legacy of Byzantium (Rome) after the Ottoman conquest in 1453? To Russia with love? Is that why those pesky Russians are so, well, Byzantine? These are a fascinating collection of lectures that are both detailed and superficial that require a scorecard to keep up with. Take the time...they are worth it. Harl is, again, well-organized, clearly spoken and at times quite witty...he is one of my favorite lecturers. Recommended when on sale with a coupon. January 8, 2015
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