The Byzantine Church: Characteristics, Empire & Icons

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  • 0:04 Byzantine Church
  • 0:41 Background
  • 2:02 Byzantine Christianity
  • 3:19 Chalcedon
  • 4:28 Great Schism
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Christian Church in the Byzantine Empire, and the history of the issues the bishop in Constantinople had with other Christian bishops, especially in Rome.

Byzantine Church

Breakups and relationships can be tough. Even though you likely shared plenty in common with the person you were dating, for whatever reason things just weren't clicking anymore; it happens. While this happens so frequently between couples today that people rarely bat an eye, when it comes to worldwide organizations, breakups are a bit more newsworthy. Such was the case in the Christian Church in the early Middle Ages.

In this lesson, we will examine the characteristics and differences of the Christian Church in the Byzantine Empire with that of the Western Church based in Rome, as well as their eventual split.


The Roman Empire was one of the greatest states in human history. From the British Isles to Asia Minor and everywhere in between, Rome's power was felt everywhere in the ancient world. However, after several centuries of dominance, Rome's stranglehold on the Western world began to weaken. In the 4th century A.D., the Empire eventually split into two, with the Western half being ruled by Rome and the Eastern half being ruled by the capital built by Constantine, Constantinople. In the West, invaders cut down weakened Roman legions and sacked Rome itself. The Eastern half, however, maintained its power and became one of the premier empires of the Middle Ages: the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire shared something in common with the unlucky Western half: the Christian church.

In the first few centuries A.D., Christianity had remained a small, secretive cult often practiced in private homes rather than out in the open as it is today. Though Christianity was generally tolerated in the Empire, Christians also faced intermittent periods of persecution at the hands of Roman authorities who often used Christians as scapegoats in times of economic or political distress. This all changed in the early 4th century, when the Roman emperor Constantine officially converted to Christianity. By the end of the century, Christianity was the official state religion of the entire Roman Empire.

Byzantine Christianity

Christianity remained an important part of the Byzantine Empire long after the split between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. As the state religion, Byzantine emperors considered all non-Christians to be heretics, though they often did little to impose Christianity upon the populace. Furthermore, most Eastern emperors, especially Justinian the Great in the 6th century, considered it their duty to impose Christianity and foster its spread within the borders of the empire. However, according to some scholars, it's likely that Christianity remained the minority religion for several centuries despite imperial decrees.

Christianity spread throughout the Byzantine Empire, but did so gradually. Nonetheless, Constantinople, along with Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and others, became an important center for early Christianity. Constantinople's bishop was considered one of the most powerful in the Empire, and he often held complex theological debates with the bishop in Rome and those elsewhere. These debates centered on important issues of disagreement between the Eastern and Western churches, which had developed different customs and practices over the years. For example, in the Byzantine Empire, praying to or the worship of icons - that is, images or symbols that represent important religious figures - allowed the worshiper to communicate directly with that deity.

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