The Greek Church’s Empire: Roman and Byzantine

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156726361Much of the established traditions, guidelines and life style of the Church became “standardized” and widely practiced with the help of what is most commonly known as the Byzantine Empire. The word Byzantine is merely a name given to this empire by later historians whereas the Empire knew itself as Roman. St. Constantine, during his rise to Emperor of the Roman Empire, became fond of Christians (though they were persecuted at the time) for reasons, which aren’t necessarily known. One reason may have been a result of what happened in 312 AD at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, in which Constantine looked up, saw a cross of light in the sky which said “in this sign you shall conquer.” Constantine ordered that his men put the Chi-Rho (χ-ρ), the first two letters of the name of Christ in Greek, on their shields.

Whether this was the reason for Constantine’s focus on Christianity, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, which allowed Christians to practice their faith without fear of persecution. Between 324 AD and 330 AD, Constantine transferred the main capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium, which was also known as New Rome and Constantinople (city of Constantine). During his reign he helped establish the Church as the prominent religion of the Empire, even calling the 1st Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, which was the first gathering of its kind with over 300 bishops attending and deciding correct Orthodox teachings. His mother, St. Helen, was instrumental in finding the actual Cross of Christ in roughly 327 AD. In 380 AD, the Church became the official religion of the Empire.

Though the Empire was not always the most Christian or most Orthodox in their understanding, this Empire is touted with a special significance in the life of the Church. Prior to the legalization of Christianity there were no churches. It was through the legalization and support of the faith that thousands of churches were built, and ultimately the Construction of Hagia Sophia, the great Church of Christ, in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Countless saints and brilliant minds of the world were citizens of the Empire. (Fun fact: St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, is the first person to establish what we would consider a hospital, not merely somewhere for sick people to go, but somewhere to seek medical treatment and healing.)

Sadly, history is written by those who come out on top, and unfortunately, the empire was unable to last past 1453 AD, just before the invention of the printing press, and prior to the west becoming “enlightened.” Did your history book in high school cover one of the longest lasting empires in history? Probably not, and if it did it might just be one paragraph. Western Europe gained strength and power and established what we know as the Holy Roman Empire, their strength promoted the Bishop of Rome, and the nations that emerged from their sphere of influence became the nations of immense influence in “Western Culture,” creating a history focused on the West, while forgetting the brilliance, faith and longevity of the Byzantine Empire.

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This post was written by Andrew Athanasiou

About Andrew Athanasiou

Andrew is a student of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, located in Brookline, Massachusetts. Andrew is a Masters of Divinity Student who is also a Seminarian. Andrew is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his knowledge comes from five major sources: Greek Orthodox Seminary; Greek Orthodox Summer Camp; both being taught and teaching in Greek Orthodox Sunday School; and finally further readings and interests in other theological areas.