The Byzantine Empire was a dominant force in much of Europe and Asia for centuries, with an influence that is still felt to this day. But what religion was the empire?
The Byzantine Empire was predominantly Christian and later specifically Eastern Orthodox, with Christianity adopted as the state religion in the 4th century. However, there were many other religions including pagan religions, other branches of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
To find out more about religion in the Byzantine Empire, read on.
Christianity in the Byzantine Empire
Christianity was the state religion of the Byzantine Empire, with the empire being a theocracy ruled by an emperor believed to have been the representative of God on earth. Officially, the emperor was believed to have the duty to rule the earth as God would rule heaven, making Christianity extremely important to the Byzantine Empire.
Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the entire Roman Empire in 380, with the empire splitting into two administrative divisions in 395: the Western Roman Empire that would fall around 100 years later and the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire.
Although the Byzantine Empire was officially Christian, there were a great many different branches of Christianity following the Roman Empire’s adoption of the religion. These branches argued over issues like the nature of Jesus Christ and whether he was part-man and part-God, or the Father and Son were two different figures or whether they were one and the same.
While this may sound petty to modern readers, it was an incredibly serious matter and debate over this issue was one of the main sources of division and conflict throughout the history of the Byzantine Empire.
The Council of Ephesus in 431 established the Byzantine Empire’s official line on Christianity and condemned Nestorius who argued that Jesus Christ was the son of God and not actually God, leading to a schism in the church with Nestorians establishing their own church.
In 451, the Council of Chalcedon asserted that Jesus Christ was simultaneously both God and a man, with it being heresy to say that he was a fusion of the divine and of man. This resulted in another schism, and the eventual establishment of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which were followed throughout places like Armenia, Georgia, Egypt, and Ethiopia.
Divisions in Christianity were a major source of conflict and unrest throughout much of the history of the Byzantine Empire. In the 8th century, perhaps due to the spread of Islam, Leo III banned the veneration of icons, which led to the iconoclasms that lasted until the middle of the 9th century.
Another major schism occurred in 1054 when Christianity separated into the Latin Western Catholic Church, based in Rome, and the Greek Eastern Orthodox Church based in Constantinople. Reasons for the schism include cultural divides, differences in opinion on the nature of Jesus Christ, the idea of the Pope’s supremacy in Rome, and even the use of leavened and unleavened bread in the Eucharist.
The Byzantine Empire was now regarded as an Orthodox Christian Empire, which led to conflict with Catholics, such as the Massacre of the Latins, and in the 13th century, the Venetian Sacking of Constantinople.
Constantinople was regarded by many as an incredibly important seat in Christianity, especially considering the decline of Rome following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. The Byzantine emperor was a representative of God in the Orthodox world, with the religion later becoming popular in much of the Slavic world, adopted by Russia as its state religion.
Throughout much of the Byzantine Empire, especially in the early period of Christianity, people belonged to various sects and would have likely been considered heretics.
The Byzantine Empire was a vast empire that lasted for around 1,000 years. While it was officially Christian and later Orthodox Christian, considering this long history, there were many non-Christians in the empire.
For example, up until the 6th century, many in the Byzantine Empire continued to worship the old Roman pantheon. In around the 9th century, as the Slavs expanded throughout the east of Europe, there were many who worshipped the Slavic pantheon, although these groups later converted.
Despite the state religion being Christianity, Judaism was tolerated and had been a recognized religious minority group since Roman rule. They were, however, targeted as a religious group shortly after the early Byzantine Empire, before the Arab conquests resulted in most Jews living outside of the empire.
Being a major city, Constantinople attracted people of different faiths, with the city continuing to have Jewish and later Muslim minorities, before being conquered by the Muslim Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.