The effect of Christianity upon Byzantine life and culture

Fully as important as the question of the effect of the Byzantine environment upon Christianity is that of the influence of Christianity upon those peoples and individuals who lived under Byzantine rule.

First it must be noted that Christianity contributed markedly to the unity of the Byzantine Empire, Christianity was the official faith of that realm. Closely associated as it was from near its outset with Hellenism, it furthered the assimilation of the non-Hellenistic elements in the Empire. Especially after the Teutonic and Arab conquests lopped from the Empire most of its non-Hellenistic provinces, that realm was a Greek Christian state. The remaining non-Hellenistic constituencies were absorbed, together with those northern invaders who settled within the imperial domains. Wars against the Zoroastrian Persians and the Moslem Arabs were regarded as holy, and religious enthusiasm contributed to the resolution with which they were waged.

In the second place, Christian influence was increasingly seen in the laws of the Byzantine Empire. When the famous Institutes of Justinian are compared with those of the non-Christian Gaius of the second century, they are seen to have alterations in the laws of marriage and succession, in regard to chastity, and concerning the exposure of infants which reflect the Christian convictions of the later rulers. In the Ecloga, promulgated in the eighth century, after Christianity had a longer time in which to make itself felt, the marks of that faith are even more evident. References to the Scriptures for confirmation for legal principles are numerous, every concubine was made a wife, and punishment for fornication, formerly left to the Church, was included. In the Basilics, issued in the latter part of the ninth century, Christianity is still more prominent. The first book is devoted to the Holy Trinity and the Catholic faith, and three books are given to ecclesiastical law.

In the third place, the Christian impress on Byzantine architecture and art was profound and creative. Byzantine architecture had its most glorious expression in Saint Sophia, built, as we have seen, at the command of Justinian. It embodied a pattern which appears to have had one of its roots in the churches in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Armenia and which was developed primarily for the purposes of Christian worship. Much of pre-Christian art persisted, including pagan themes, but the mosaics and frescoes for which

Byzantine churches are famous were inspired primarily by Christ, his mother, and Christian saints and stories. Manuscripts were illuminated, often with Christian scenes.

Byzantine literature was to a large degree religious and concerned itself with Christian subjects. Theology, the devotional life, hymns, lives of the saints, and sermons were obviously from Christian sources and made up a large proportion of Byzantine libraries. The hymns of Romanos of the sixth century, of Andrew of Crete of the seventh and eighth centuries, and of John of Damascus are especially memorable. Romanos developed the form of hymn which became characteristic of the Byzantine Church.

The effects of Christianity in individual lives were marked and varied. We have seen it in a few outstanding figures, some of them Patriarchs and others of them monks. Always it is difficult to measure precisely. Perhaps it is best observed in the ideals portrayed in the biographies of those who were regarded as saints. Even when men did not conform to them these standards reveal what was believed to be Christian.

We must frankly recognize, however, that Byzantine culture fell far short of the full realization of the new life stressed by Christ. There was much study of the pre-Christian Greek philosophers and many of the Byzantine scholars were basically pagan with only a superficial and quite perfunctory conformity with the official Christianity. Something of a revival of classical studies came in the ninth and tenth centuries, and this in spite of the opposition of monks who condemned it as a reversion to heathenism and associated it with the iconoclasm which was so repugnant to them. The centuries-long absorption with doctrine controversy led to an emphasis upon orthodoxy in intellectual belief and verbal profession, but tended to belittle ethical practice. Constantinople was a commercial city and its inhabitants were noted for suavity and a trickery in trade which their professed faith did little to amend. There was also much of perfidy and cruelty. Now and again an ascetic or a Patriarch would admonish an Emperor not to take life, but this seems to have had little effect upon the behaviour of the rulers or their officials.

Yet not all teaching and preaching was purely doctrinal. In the writings of the period we come across emphasis upon following the example of Christ in gentleness, humility, pardoning the sinner, not repaying evil for evil, and forgiving one's enemies. Theodore of Studius taught that the true Christian is a copy or impression of Christ. Here and there, too, comes a gleam in an individual in high ecclesiastical position. Thus, at the time of the Byzantine-Persian wars of the early years of the seventh century, the Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria was John, who was known as the Almsgiver. From an eminent family in Cyprus, a devout layman whose wife and children had died, he had been chosen for the post at the desire of the Emperor Heraclius. A prelate who refused compromising presents, he lived simply, almost austerely, and devoted the revenues of his see chiefly to the poor and to the refugees from the Persian conquest of Palestine. He humbly sought reconciliation with one of his clergy who had become alienated from him, endeavoured to enforce uniformity in weights and measures in that commercial city where variable standards had made for much dishonesty, and increased the salaries of his stewards to render it unnecessary for them to eke out their stipends by receiving bribes. The fact that his biography, recounting his deeds of virtue, could be written in popular literary style and have a wide circulation is evidence chat when such a life appeared it was recognized as Christian and was held up for emulation. Presumably to every record of one such individual which has been preserved, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives which bore the impress of Christ which have not left any written evidence of their existence.

0 0

Post a comment