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The World of Byzantium

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
    Constantine
    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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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 72 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent! A wish fulfilled. If I could have asked The Great Courses to cover just one topic, it would have been that of the Byzantine Empire. (I'd still love to see the Holy Roman Empire covered, and can hope!) I was absolutely thrilled to find this and bought it straightaway. I was not disappointed. I think I have probably read every book on this subject, not including specialist papers or books, of course. This is an excellent course on the subject, given the constraints of presenting it in a reasonable amount of time, and the areas that he chose to explore in more detail are the ones I myself would have chosen with few exceptions. I couldn't be more happy! I was surprised not to find John Julius Norwich represented in the bibliography, however. It was a couple of decades ago that I first picked up Norwich's first book of his superb Byzantine history in three volumes. I quickly read them all, have read them through twice and have revisited them in part many more times. I liked it so much I sought out and bought the Folio edition to grace my main 'presentation' bookcase. It was these books that kindled the fire of my interest in things Byzantine and, ultimately, led me to this GREAT Great Course! April 11, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Although I had heard of Byzantium, my actual knowledge had been quite limited. After doing Professor Harl's course "Rome and the Barbarians", my interest was stimulated to learn more. First of all, it is emphasized that the Byzantium Empire properly was the Eastern Roman Empire, which did not fall to the Barbarians as Rome itself did. It really was the creation of Constantine, who founded the city of Byzantium. I had read a short history of Byzantium before watching this course; Professor Harl did a much better job of presenting the history, culture, and the impact of Byzantium to the world of Europe, western Asia, the Middle East, and northern Africa. The visuals were a little rough, probably reflecting this as an earlier course. However, for the most part helped one to understand better the various expansions, contractions, and changes in major player states. Overall a course not to be missed, both for itself, as well as the importance upon the rise of Western Europe later on. March 6, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Another Winning Course from Professor Harl The World of Byzantium is the 10th course from Professor Harl offered by The Great Courses that I have completed and reviewed. This course also is one of the first courses from Professor Harl and was developed in 2001. This course uses a good amount of graphics and maps to support and illustrate the points being raised by Professor Harl. These graphics and maps were the state-of-the-art for 2001 and are very good at the time they were developed. However, if the student compares the maps and graphics of this course with courses which were developed in 2015, there will be a remarkable difference. The state-of-the-art for video productions including graphics, animations, and maps has made great strides in one and a half decades. A student who has taken recently developed courses should not expect the same level of video quality as was created almost 15 years ago. As I mentioned above, this is one of Professor Harl’s first courses for The Great Courses. It is very well organized and Professor Harl provides some entertainment side comments during the presentation of this material. Professor Harl’s side comments and occasional short anecdotes is what makes his course both informative and entertaining and it is one of his trademarks for his lectures. I am a bit saddened that I have now completed all of Professor Harl’s courses offered by The Great Courses. Hopefully, The Great Courses will be offering an 11th course from Professor Harl in 2016. I highly recommend all of Professor Harl’s lectures including his early ones like this one. February 5, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by The Civilization of Byzantium Profesor Kenneth W. Harl is a delight to learn from as his presentation is truly interesting due to his knowledge, humor and passion for his field of learning. February 3, 2016
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