This may seem like an odd combination but in the Byzantine Empire, they went hand in hand. Emperor Constantine quickly learned about the power of Christianity and in 325, a standardized Christian religion was created at the first council of Nicaea. The emperor was seen as God’s representative on Earth and was often active in church affairs. Yet the clergy had its own autonomy and the Emperor did not impinge on the authority of the church. Instead, they worked together in harmony.
Since the emperor and church worked so closely together, the imperial leader could call upon the support of the clergy whenever his reign or the empire itself came under threat. This ensured stability at times when the empire needed it most.
As the emperor was practically deified, the people of the empire had complete faith in his abilities and in turn, Byzantine emperors proved their worth. Famous emperors included Justinian I who presided over a Golden Age and Leo III who skillfully led the defense of Constantinople and prevented it from falling during an Arab invasion in 717-718. Even when the city finally fell in 1453, Constantine XI refused to flee and fought to his death surrounded by his people.
The soldiers and citizens of the empire typically stood behind their emperor and would also use religion for motivation and comfort. The Byzantines truly believed that their capital was protected by the Virgin Mary and the myriad of religious relics stored in Constantinople. Whenever the city was under siege, they would display the icon of Mary and this could give the defenders a tremendous boost. Finally, they believed that God would decide who won or lost. This faith in God and their emperor ensured citizens generally remained loyal.
Throughout history, empires have fallen apart due to internal strife. The Byzantines were able to manage the affairs of a large empire extremely effectively due to a number of tactics. A clever innovation was the use of eunuchs as key players in religious and administrative positions. Eunuchs were in many ways, the ideal powerbrokers as they couldn’t produce heirs so there was no chance of them trying to create a family dynasty. While they were not allowed to become emperors, they did hold important roles such as generals and chief administrators.
In terms of how the empire was ruled, it was well ahead of its time. No other Medieval state had a centralized form of government until the 1200s. The emperor was obviously the leader and he had total control of everything; he had the first and last word on the army, finance, the justice system and the church (though as I mentioned earlier, he did not abuse this power when it came to the clergy). He appointed every bishop, minister and patriarch and titles were not allowed to be passed down to the next generation.
In fact, even the title of emperor wasn’t necessarily inherited as it was in other empires. In theory, a man from the street could become the supreme ruler. Justinian I is regarded as one of the greatest Byzantine emperors yet he began life as a Macedonian peasant. Basil I was another respected emperor and he too came from an underprivileged background.
There were also a number of ministers, known as Logothetes who managed a variety of different affairs within the empire. The Byzantines also used a host of advisors, public servants and Themes; these were groups responsible for administrative issues in a given province; they were also charged with protecting the region and hired new soldiers. Byzantine bureaucracy took up a lot of resources but for the most part, it was worth it and the empire was pretty well organized given its size and the constant strain it was under.
Historians generally agree that the Byzantine Empire reached its largest extent in 555 under the rule of Justinian I. From the 7th century onwards, it faced a constant battle to stay together and survived a remarkably long time when you consider the issues it faced. Indeed, Constantinople was considered to be the wealthiest city in Europe until the 13th century. The Byzantines were arguably world leaders in the fields of science, architecture, art and trade.
Even during its Golden Age, the empire was hit with a major crisis in the form of the Plague of Justinian which began in 541 and is believed to have killed almost 25 million people in total. The war with the Sassanid Empire, which began in 602 and lasted for over a quarter of a century, weakened the Byzantines tremendously and made it an easier target for Arab invaders. Large parts of the empire were lost in the 7th century but the Arabs were never able to take Constantinople.
The empire expanded once again during the Macedonian dynasty beginning in the 10th century but was dealt a hammer blow at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. By now, the Byzantines had lost most of Asia Minor and it appeared as if it would collapse at any time. the Komenian Restoration of the 12th century saw further expansion which came to a grinding halt as Constantinople was successfully sacked for the first time during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
The Empire of Nicaea managed to reclaim the city in 1261 but it was clear that the empire was in terminal decline. In the middle of the 14th century, a civil war followed by an earthquake at the important fort of Gallipoli devastated the empire. The slow lingering decay and collapse thereafter meant it was at the mercy of the Ottomans who finally took Constantinople in 1453 and ended the Byzantine Empire.
A combination of the other factors mentioned in this article is why the Byzantine Empire was able to continually rebound after disasters. Ultimately, it couldn’t cope over the course of time and like all empires, it was always destined to end. That it lasted over 1,100 years is utterly remarkable and a testament to the ingenuity and determination of the Byzantines.