Image: The ruins of the southern Byzantine church of Shivta

I have been deep diving into the world of early Byzantine Rome recently, mainly for two reasons: a) to prepare to engage myself into the era of Palestinian history, which came after Pagan Rome (or Classical Rome) and before the Islamic era, that is, a period where the world of Palestine was fully imbursed in Christianity, and b) to have a proper context to study and talk about Jewish existence in Palestine during this period. 

It is probably clear then, that my main purpose of this deep dive was not so much for the sake of studying Byzantine Rome itself, as much as to provide me with a context for the actual focus of my broader study project. However, I did enjoy it and I have found a new appreciation for a period of Western history (and Eastern in a sense), which is critically neglected. Don’t get me wrong, there surely is a lot of reading material, but when one considers the general subjects of history being studied in the West, the Roman empire seems to end in the fifth century, being followed by centuries of dark ages, with some Vikings thrown into it at some point, for then making history relevant again with the coming of the Renaissance.  

I grew up in Scandinavia though, so I cannot say if things differ in other places, but it is not my impression that people broadly have any particular knowledge of Byzantine Rome. Maybe some remember the names of Constantine (but he could be considered one of the Classical Roman emperors, and he did make the empire Christian after all) or Justinian (he has had a few movies based on him). 

But here are some things that I found fascinating, and which I believe people should know about the Byzantine Roman empire: 

1: The name “Byzantine” was never used by the Byzantine people themselves. They considered themselves Roman and saw no difference between the empire they lived in and the empire of such people as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, who turned the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who conquered Britain, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who burned down Rome and persecuted the early Christians, to Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, who built the famous wall in Britain. 

2: The Classical Roman empire never ended. Instead, it was split up into two parts, the Western with Rome as its capital and the Eastern with Constantinople as its capital. This process was started during the reign of Diocletian in the third century CE and finalized with the fall of Rome in the fifth century CE. After that, what we today call the Byzantine empire, was the remaining part of the Roman empire and it would continue as the Roman empire until the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century CE. 

3: The Byzantine empire, the name used to differentiate between the empire that was and the empire that would be, was thoroughly Christian and was constantly exposed to theological conflicts which never were solved, except a few times. These conflicts led to the creation of the Coptic Church in Egypt and the Syriac Church in the Middle East.  

4: The questions about theology were not some abstract theoretical discussions between learned scholars in closed rooms. They were essential parts of the citizens identities and understanding of the world, which led to riots and violent conflicts. People took these questions serious to a level, which we today would think of as radical and imagine only certain extremist religious people would go to. But for them it was a question about believing the right thing in the right way, which could make the difference between going to hell or heaven. 

5: The emperor was Christ’s representative on earth. While there definitely were controversies and disagreements between emperors and bishops, the emperor was the absolute ruler, almost being considered divine. This was particularly the case with an emperor like Justinian, who saw it as his outmost role to promote and spread Christianity. 

6: While the Byzantine empire was Roman, the language was primarily Greek. This was one of the main factors differing the western Rome from the eastern Rome during the separation of the two. Latin would remain the language in the west for some time, while Greek became the language of the empire in the east. 

Having mentioned this I need to emphasize that I did stop my deep dive with the Muslim conquest of Palestine. After all, my purpose was to create a context and background for my focus on Palestine, not so much to study Byzantine history. However, I will definitely continue to read about the continued Byzantine history, which still is important for the continued history of Palestine and, also, is interesting in its own right. 

I do want to recommend two books to those who might themselves be interested in learning more about Byzantine history: 

A History of Byzantium, by Thimothy E. Gregory 

A Concise History of Byzantium, by Warren Treadgold 

Particularly the former is of excellent value, going into the various aspects of the history, while not making it too extensive, as well as having info boxes about certain incidents and people worth knowing more about.