Byzantine Christianity is articulated primarily by the practical expression of its theological and spiritual life but may also be delineated by certain geographical and chronological boundaries. Christianity was the dominant, but not the sole, religion practised in the Byzantine Empire, the precise boundaries of which fluctuated according to imperial fortunes. The empire spread originally around the entire Mediterranean Sea, with the Balkan peninsula and Asia Minor economically dominant. In 560 the empire occupied a million square kilometres, but by the mid-fourteenth century, massive losses in both east and west reduced this to a fraction of its former status.

The city of Constantinople was established by Constantine the Great in 324 and dedicated on 11 May 330, on the site of a Greek city known as Byzantium. The citizens of the Byzantine Empire based on Constantinople, the New Rome, were known as Romaioi: Greeks who saw themselves as the true heirs of the Roman Empire. The use of the word 'Byzantium' to designate the state was adopted retrospectively in the sixteenth century. Between the fourth and sixth centuries, the city (and empire) expanded and thrived. As in the West, a relatively 'dark age' fell between the seventh and ninth centuries, when Constantinople became inward-looking, especially during the iconoclastic controversy spanning the eighth and ninth centuries.

The city occupied a strategic position between east and west, geographically and culturally poised between Europe and Asia. Its location had both strengths and weaknesses. Through the Golden Horn and the Bosporus, it controlled access to the Black Sea. However, lack of natural defences left the area vulnerable to occupation by land forces, although Constantinople was only taken twice, once by the crusaders in 1204 and again by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The massive walls and forts built by Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-50) and strengthened over the centuries acted as a deterrent to many invaders. The stability of the Christian Empire was always enmeshed with the political and military decisions of its emperors. In particular, Arab conquests on the fringes of the empire led in the middle Byzantine period to a demise of urban culture, with the exception of Constantinople itself; what had been thriving cities became fiercely defended forts, protected by local armies. The geographical juxtapositions of Byzantine Christianity gave rise to its diversity and its distinctiveness to contemporary western Christianity.

The Fourth Crusade resulted in exile for the emperor and patriarch during 1204-61: the imperial court moved temporarily to Nicaea when Byzantium came under Latin rule. This event formed the irreversible culmination of a process of schism between East and West which had started several centuries earlier. In terms of existence as a discrete entity, the empire experienced various reversals in its fortunes before it fell finally to Ottoman Turks in 1453, during the reign of Constantine XI Palaeologos (1149-53). His speech to the combined forces from Genoa and Venice, among others, as they faced defeat, articulates the enduring importance of the city, as its historical and geographical status was imperilled by:

the impious and infidel enemy . . . which threatens to capture the city of Constantine the Great, your fatherland, the place of ready refuge for all Christians, the guardian of all Greeks . . . Oh my lords, my brothers, my sons, the everlasting honour of Christians is in your hands.

Perceptions of Byzantium from other perspectives convey a colourful if romanticized image of a vibrant and exotic institution, which was known the world over. William Dalrymple, writing as a modern traveller and journalist, extols this capital of Christianity as being for a millennium the richest metropolis in Europe and the most populous city west of the great Chinese silk road terminus of Xian. He explains the extraordinary attention paid to Byzantium by other contemporary cultures, noting that:

To the Barbarian West Byzantium was an almost a mythical beacon of higher civilisation, the repository of all that had been salvaged from the wreck of classical antiquity. In their sagas, the Vikings called it merely Micklegarth, the Great City. It had no rival. (1998: 26)

Dalrymple captures the immense diversity of the city, which, when John Moschus, a Palestinian monk, visited it in the seventh century, had a population of nearly three quarters of a million. The cross-fertilization of different ethnicities brought specific challenges to the unity and coherence of Byzantine Christianity, and also gave rise to friction between various religious traditions and state structures.

Even within Byzantine Christianity, assorted spiritual and theological strands contribute to the tapestry. Constantinople was a significant host to, and much influenced by, monasticism in its various forms. Although of Egyptian origin, and not withstanding the importance of such monasteries as that of St Catherine at Mount Sinai, home to the famous seventh-century abbot John Climacus, monasticism shaped Constantinople to a considerable extent. Monasteries abounded in the city: there were over 300 by the time of Justinian in the sixth century. The metropolis was also well-endowed with secular comforts, boasting numerous imperial and princely palaces, along with many bath houses, a phenomenon which demonstrate the cohabitation of sacred and secular which was to provide a fertile if at times fraught mix. Just as Byzantine Christianity cannot be limited to sheer geographical boundaries, neither can its spiritual elements be entirely separated from the worldly. The influence of Greek philosophy, especially that of Aristotle and later Platonism, added a further complexity to the intellectual life of Byzantine Christians, and aspects of these thought-worlds stimulate much of the theology of the Byzantine world.

Friction existed between the predominantly Greek Byzantium and its Latin partners in Rome intermittently throughout the period, along with schisms based on theological and political differences within the eastern empire itself. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the procession of the Holy Spirit as articulated in the Creed became an issue: although weathered at the time, the filioque issue came to the fore when Rome alone added it to the Creed in 1014. Differences of opinion about the acceptability of married priests had likewise been a source of conflict before the key schism of 1054 (especially in the debate between the Patriarch Photius and Pope Nicholas 1 in the second half of the ninth century). This flared up when Franks attempted to impose celibacy in southern Italy and Greek clergy resisted. Different practices on fasting, and the use of unleavened bread (azymes) in the Eucharist had started at the end of the sixth century. Again, this became grounds for serious doctrinal division in 1054 when Cardinal Humbert anathematized Patriarch Michael 1 Keroularios for his support of the use of bread made with yeast. Both sides claimed biblical authority for their stance on this, as on the issue of the full authority of the pope (plena potestas).

Rooted in the city of Constantinople, Byzantine Christianity demonstrates a profound liturgical emphasis (which is nourished by its monastic tradition) and simultaneously a sense of catering for the spiritual needs of real people who inhabit a very physical world. It seeks to elevate God's people to heaven (witness the commonly cited story of the traveller who on entering the Great Church of Hagia Sophia said he thought he had gone to heaven), yet acknowledges the chthonic nature of humanity. The occasionally stormy relationship between Church and state expresses some of the tensions inherent in a dialogue between this world and the next. The 'eschatological meaning of the Christian message' was, according to Meyendorff, expressed by the adoption of monastic spirituality as the norm for Christian worship. The interplay of socio-political, spiritual, intellectual and doctrinal issues in Byzantine Christianity underlies its structure and organization.

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