The Early Centuries of the Greek Roman East (1)
27 Μαΐου 2009
I.The Foundation of Constantinople and the Adoption of Christianity
We begin our story about the history of Romiosini or the Greek Middle ages with the founding of Constantinople, the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire. Constantinople was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine I (324-337) who wanted to establish, for various political reasons, a new capital city for the Roman Empire in the east. Ultimately, this change was brought about because of the turmoil which the Roman Empire was facing in the west at the time. With much of the western territories having been destroyed by the invasions of the Germanic tribes, Rome was in constant danger of being attacked. Moreover, with the eastern frontier of the Empire stretching over all of Asia Minor and Syria, Rome was no longer in a position to check the ongoing hostilities with Persia. Consequently, after a series of internal struggles among the ruling powers of the Empire, Constantine -who emerged victorious-chose as the location of his new capital the ancient Greek city of Byzantion. In 324 Constantine transformed Byzantion into “The New Rome” or “Constantinopolis”, the City of Constantine. The people often referred to it simply as “The City” or, in Greek, “Hi Polis”. MORE…
A look at a map of the late Roman empire shows that Constantinople was right at the heart of the Roman Empire. Approaching the city via the Sea of Marmara, one could see the city as it first rose above the water on its triangular peninsula. The city was protected on three sides by the sea of Marmara, the Bosporus and the Golden horn, a natural barrier which the historian Procopius tells us “surrounded the city like a garland”. Later on the garrison of the city was to be made complete by the addition of a wall, erected by the Emperor Theodosius, which stretched along the land side of the city from the Golden Horn down to the Sea of Marmara. Being at the crossroads between the east and west of the Greco-Roman world, Constantinople was also in a strategic position both militarily and commercially. Militarily the New Rome was in a much better position to fight invasions on the Empire’s eastern frontiers, as well as trouble on the Danube. Commercially it was in a position to control trade to and from the Euxine sea, Asia, Europe and the Mediterranean.
It was at this period in time that the Roman Empire also acquired a new official religion: Christianity. In time Christianity itself was transformed into a “new” Christian culture, being couched into the framework of the philosophies, symbolism’s and customs of the ancient Greek world. The natural theology of the fourth-century eastern Fathers Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil and Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostomos of Ambrose, represented, to a large extent, the metapsychosis and fusion of Ancient Greek thought and Christian Dogma into a new philosophical tradition. These issues will be dealt with later in this work, when we deal with Christianity and the Greek-Orthodox Church. Along with the Greek language and customs, the Greek-Orthodox faith was to form one of the links of continuity between the cultures of the ancient Greek and Greco-Roman worlds and the Medieval world of the Greek Roman East.
In the world of the Eastern Roman Empire, the ancient love of philosophical speculation and disputation now transformed itself into passionate theological argumentation, popular throughout the Roman East. The Greek Orthodox Church treasured its vigorous tradition of democracy and the laity felt that theological questions concerned them directly. In some quarters, inevitably, discussion was not always well informed, but always zealous, and any new theological development immediately became a matter of public concern. In Constantinople as in every eastern city of the empire, one could hear lively theological talk in the streets and shops, as well as at dinner tables. In the Eastern Roman Empire, an absolute monarchy, theology in many ways came to absorb people’s passions in much the same way that politics did in the classical world and in later societies.
Christianity was also to form the strongest cohesive glue that bound the peoples of the Eastern Roman Empire, regardless of their language and ethnic origin. To the inhabitants of the Eastern Roman Empire, the words “Romaios” -Roman- and “Christian” were often synonymous. It is not therefore uncommon to find the citizens of the Byzantine empire calling themselves “The Christian People”, even though there were other Christian people outside Byzantine boarders. It should be noted here that words such as “Byzantine Empire”, which are taken here to be synonymous with Eastern Roman Empire, were introduced by French Scholars as late as the seventeenth century.
With a new capital in Constantinople, the synthesis between Classical and Christian culture complete, and a new sense of unity and stability, the world of the Eastern Roman empire, was ready for another thousand years of life in the Middle ages. By the time the emperor Justinian came to power in Constantinople the old Hellenic and Roman sense of pride and the new Christian sense of mission conspired to urge upon the rulers of Constantinople a policy of re- conquest.
II.The Empire at the time of Justinian
In 527 emperor Justinian succeeded to the throne in Constantinople. Justinian was clever and ambitious and saw himself as the restorer of Roman power and prestige. His reign saw the codification of Roman law the flourishing of the arts, architecture, and the re-building of the magnificent St. Sophia –the Church of Holy Wisdom. Militarily, he used clever diplomacy to create enough turmoil among the various Germanic kingdoms so that with little effort he recaptured many of the lands that had previously been lost from the empire. These included Africa, Italy and southern Spain.
All this did not come without a price, however. His immense military efforts in the west had all but exhausted the Empire’s treasury. His preoccupation with the west also neglected long standing problems in the east with Persia. Justinian essentially had to pay Persia for peace so that he could have a free hand in the west. Likewise, he never adequately protected the northern frontiers from the increasing pressure of the Slavs. So, on the one hand Justinian’s reign saw prosperity in the areas or Law, architecture and art, as well as the restoration of much of the lost western lands of the Empire. On the other hand the strain of his military achievements created a legacy of trouble for his successors. His campaigns were a last doomed attempt to revive a structure whose collapse was inevitable. Within a few years after his death, most of Italy, southern Spain and Africa were again recaptured, leaving only the eastern Roman Empire to carry on; Justinian’s dream to restore the full glory of the Roman Empire ended in failure. In the areas of Law, Architecture and the Arts, and literature however, innovations created during his reign were to have a lasting impact in the history of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Recodification of the Laws
Perhaps the most lasting monument of Justinian’s reign was his codification of Roman law. By this time it had become necessary to rewrite many of the laws as they had become obsolete since their last codification by Theodosius is 348. In an absolute monarchy the people ceased to be the source of the laws. It was now the monarch, by virtue of his office, that was responsible for putting into effect a new law, as well as the way in which it was interpreted and enforced. The heritage of Roman law represented an unbroken tradition that continued down to the time of Justinian. Preservation and renewal of the laws, Justinian felt, offered the possibility of emphasizing one of major roots of the empire’s strength. This immense accomplishment, far outlasted the Byzantine empire and survived to form the basis of European jurisprudence. On February 13, 528, Justinian appointed ten jurists to compile a new codification of the statute law. The ten-man commission appointed to the task of compiling the new code included two men of particular significance. The first was Tribonian, a jurist in the civil service and Theophilus, a professor of law at the university of Constantinople. Under their diligent supervision, the new “Codex Iustinianus” was published in a little over one year, April 7, 529. With the writing of this code, the administration of the law was put on a new basis.
However, no sooner was this work completed than an even more ambitious undertaking was begun. This was the compilation of a digest of the jurisprudence of the great Roman lawyers of the second and third centuries AD, something that had never before been attempted on such a scale. The order to start work on the Digest was given on December 15, 530. In December, 533 the Digest, called the “Digesta Iustiniani Augusti” was completed. It was expected to take ten years but was finished in less than three. Its writing had involved, among other things, the reading of 2000 books, representing 39 authors, and including 3 million lines. The final code was reduced to 150 thousand lines. Many of the authors read came from Tribonian’s private library. With both law and jurisprudence now established, any further commentary on the law was forbidden. The Code and the Digest represented the whole of the valid law, along with its interpretation -with the exception of such imperial legislation as might subsequently be issued.
The old teaching manuals, now obsolete, were replaced by new ones. While the Digest was being compiled Tribonian had work started on an introductory manual, the “institutes”, which was to take the place of the classic manual of Gaius. The new manual was published on November 21, 533, and came into effect on the same day as the Digest, December 30, 533. The teaching of law was also overhauled. To ensure better control of instruction, the teaching of law was allowed only at the universities in Constantinople and Beyrouth; the schools at Alexandria and Caesarea were closed down as their teaching of law was found to be unsatisfactory.
By the end of 533, it had become apparent that the original Code of April 533 had already been rendered obsolete by the publication of a large amount of legislation. As a result Tribonian and his colleagues, because of their remarkable skill and competence, were once again summoned, after the completion of the Digest, to compile a new Code. This work was to be done by Tribonian, Dorotheus of Beyrouth and three lawyers, all of whom had been engaged on the Digest. The work was published on November 16, 534 and went into effect of December 30 of the same year. This edition of the Code, which is extant, is divided into twelve books. Book I deals with ecclesiastical law; the sources of the law; and the duties of higher officials. It should be noted here that ecclesiastical law has a place of honor in this Code, whereas it did not in the Code of Theodosius. Books 2-8 deal with private law. Book 9 with criminal law, and Books 10-12 with administrative law. There are a 4652 laws in total in this collection.
Following this, any new legislation, when needed, was from that point onward issued in the form of “New Constitutions”, known as “Novels”. These dealt with such issues as ecclesiastical and public affairs, private law, and one very long Novel in particular constitutes a code of Christian marriage law.
A sign of the change between the Roman Empire of old and the Eastern Roman Empire at the time of Justinian was the fact that all Novels were now written in Greek. While the Codes were in Latin, the traditional language of the law, this was not the natural language of judges, lawyers, litigants, and the general populace in the Eastern Roman Empire. Also, while Justinian was guided by old tradition in the recodifying of the law, he saw that he could not automatically perpetuate all laws of the old Roman Empire. Many Roman laws had never been popular in the Greek east, and local preferences, both Hellenic and oriental in origin, were now brought within the new legal system to replace old Roman doctrines. The influence of Greek philosophical thought, which was at the heart of the educational system, was manifest in many of the classifications and reasonings of Justinian’s legislation. A definite Hellenic and oriental shade in the new legislation can also be seen in the laws concerning family, inheritance and dowry. The power of the father, traditional in old Roman thought, was now considerably weakened. Also attesting to the difference in the times was the fact that the new laws had a definite Christian sense about them. There was a desire to make the laws more humane in some ways, in line with the emperors current emphasis on the concept of Philanthropia, or love of mankind. There was a marked increase in laws aiming to protect persons of weaker social position against persons whose position gave them increased power. Justinian’s law, for instance, favoured slave against master, debtor against creditor and wife against husband. Of course, there still existed laws that seem, by today’s standards quite cruel, and there were still laws that differentiated between different classes of society, but it was a definite advance in the legal system since the days of the old Roman Empire.
To be continued…