Heirs of Rome: The Church and the Byzantines

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  • 0:05 Constantinople
  • 2:29 Catholicism Endures
  • 4:30 Islamic Development
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

The Roman Empire covered a vast area, and when it fell, its people were in danger of losing their civilization. This lesson explores some of the things that remained as the Empire fell, as well as how they affected Roman citizens.


At its height in the early second century AD, the Roman Empire was powerful and expanded into vast areas. However, it weakened and began to fall apart in the West after the invasion of Germanic tribes like the Goths, Vandals, Franks and Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century. In the eastern part of the Empire, though, a new culture developed in Constantinople, a large, important city in the Roman Empire. The society in this area included influences from both Romans and Greeks. It also included influences from the dominant Christian religion.

A disagreement over the display of religious images and clergy rights led to a split of the church.
Divsion of Church

However, as Christianity spread, many people in this area developed disagreements with the church. Some of these disagreements were over the display of religious images (resulting in iconoclasm, or the destruction of religious images) and clergy members' rights. Eventually, the church split into two major divisions: Western Roman Catholicism and Eastern Greek Orthodox. In addition to this split, a preference for language further separated the eastern and western parts of the Empire. In the East, Greek was preferred, but in the West, Latin was dominant.

Byzantine emperors were rulers who succeeded Roman emperors and claimed to rule the entirety of the Roman Empire from the East. One of the most well-known Byzantine emperors was named Justinian. Justinian's major accomplishment in Roman history was to codify Roman law. Justinian made Roman law official throughout the Roman Empire, and it eventually spread into Western Europe as well. The text in which the Roman laws were written was called Corpus Juris Civilis, or 'Body of Civil Law.' Justinian also fought to gain control over lands that had been conquered by Germanic tribes like the ones mentioned earlier.

After Justinian, Constantinople faced perpetual invasions. The first threat came from the Persian Empire. Soon the Muslims joined in the assault. The Byzantines held strong, but eventually fell to Ottoman Turk invaders around 1453. However, the Byzantine Empire had a lasting impact in several areas. Byzantines codified Roman law, prevented Muslims from invading further into Europe and also preserved the knowledge of ancient Greek philosophers and scientists that would become popular again during the European Renaissance.

Catholicism Endures

Western Europe underwent a change in economy and politics as the Roman Empire declined. As Germanic peoples expanded in power, urban areas and systems of government declined and stratified. As people spread out into more rural areas, commercialism also underwent a decline. One of the only unifying factors left for peoples formerly of the Roman Empire was religion. Catholicism had spread and remained dominant over much of the Empire's lifespan. In those times of uncertainty, people were searching for something to provide continuity and authority. Although people no longer belonged to the Roman Empire, they could still belong to the Catholic Church.

Of course, Europe was not without its conflicts. But, when Germanic tribes invaded the Roman Empire with force, they were met with a new culture. Some tribes assimilated into this culture by adopting many of the practices they saw. For instance, after a victory in battle, a Frankish king named Clovis converted from paganism to Christianity, and his fellow tribesmen followed suit.

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