How the Byzantines Preserved Greek & Roman Traditions

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  • 0:01 Roman Law & Culture
  • 2:05 Greek Culture Maintained
  • 3:00 Music & Art
  • 3:54 Legacy
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

Although the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, its Eastern half survived for almost another thousand years. The Eastern Roman Empire, popularly called the Byzantine Empire, kept Greek and Roman culture alive.

Roman Law and Culture

The Eastern Roman Empire, or the Byzantine Empire as it is often known, survived for nearly a thousand years after the fall of Rome in the West. Ruled from Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), the Byzantine Empire was a direct continuation of the later Roman Empire and lasted from the year 330 CE to 1453. This connection to Rome was very important to the Byzantine Emperors and the people, as it defined how they saw themselves. As such, old Roman institutions, such as the Senate were maintained. When the Emperor, Constantine, commissioned the building of his new capital of Constantinople, he tried to copy the institutions of the West as closely as possible. He created an Eastern Senate to match the one in the West, despite the fact that the Western Senate was nearly powerless at the time. The Byzantine Senate outlasted that in the West by centuries.

As might be expected, the Byzantines also maintained the Roman legal tradition. In Rome, the law was seen as a science, and the scientific method of Greek philosophy was applied to the law by jurists. Jurists were those who studied and interpreted the law. Furthermore, the law was seen as evolving, with later interpretations of laws based on previous decisions. This is called precedence. Because of this, in order to truly understand the law, it was important that previous laws were maintained along with important decisions and interpretations. In order to maintain the legal stability of the Empire, several attempts were made to compile all known Roman laws, going back a thousand years, so that they might be preserved and consulted. The most famous of these was the Justinian Code. Compiled under the direction of Emperor Justinian I and completed by 533 AD, the Justinian Code was based on over 2000 previous legal works that were studied and codified. The Code was also distributed in the West and would, centuries later, become the basis for the legal traditions of much of Western Europe.

Greek Culture Maintained

Byzantium maintained not only Roman legal traditions and institutions but also the science and cultural works of Ancient Rome and Greece. In the West, the collapse of the Roman Empire had seen literacy fall away as fewer and fewer outside of the Church could read and write. This did not happen in the East. Instead, many of the important works of Greek culture, such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and the works of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle continued to be read and reproduced. Also, unlike in the West, new works continued to be produced, such as The Alexiad, a history of the Byzantine Empire under the reign of Alexios I, written by his daughter, historian Anna Komnene. Many of these new works continued to be written in the form of Greek used during the Classical period. That it continued to be taught would be of great importance to Western scholars in later years who were attempting to learn the language.

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