Political Structures & Forms of Governance

The Byzantine Empire’s political system was similar to that of the earlier China. The emperor was held to be ordained by God, head of church as well as state. He appointed church bishops and passed religious and secular laws. However, women in the Byzantine Empire had more power than those in the Chinese civilization; women held the imperial throne at key points while maintaining the ceremonial power of the office.

Supplementing the centralized imperial authority was one of history’s most elaborate bureaucracies. Byzantine bureaucrats were trained in Greek classics, philosophy, and science in a secular school system, and could be recruited from all social classes. As in China, aristocrats predominated, but talent also counted among the elite of highly educated scholars. Bureaucrats were specialized into various offices, and officials close to the emperor were mainly eunuchs. Provincial governors were appointed from the center and were charged with keeping tabs on military authorities.

Byzantine rulers also created military organization, adapting the later Roman system by recruiting troops locally and rewarding them with grants of land in return for their military service. Hereditary military leaders assumed regional power, displacing more traditional and better-educated aristocrats.

 Key Terms


  • Byzantine emperor who tried to reconquer western territory in a last futile effort to restore an empire like that of Rome in 533 C.E.
  • Somber, autocratic and prone to grandiose ideas
  • His positive contributions include rebuilding Constantinople that was ravaged by earlier riots against high taxes, and systemizing the Roman legal code

Hagia Sophia

  • The huge church that Justinian’s builders created
  • One of the wonders of the Christian world
  • Achievement in engineering as well as architecture

Body of Civil Law

  • Justinian’s codification of Roman law reached a goal earlier emperors had sought but not achieved, summing up and reconciling many prior edicts and decisions. Unified law not only reduced confusion but also united and organized the new empire, paralleling the state’s bureaucracy. Updated by later emperors, the code ultimately helped spread Roman legal principles in various parts of Europe.


  • Periodically pressed Byzantine territory in the Balkans
  • Defeated by the Byzantine emperor Basil II in 1014 and became part of the empire, its aristocracy settling in Constantinople and merging with the leading Greek families


  • Paintings of saints and other religious figures, often richly ornamented
  • Its blue and gold backgrounds set with richly dressed religious figures were meant to represent the unchanging brilliance of heaven


  • The deliberate destruction of religious icons and other symbols or monuments, usually for religious or political motives.

Battle of Manzikert

  • In the late 11th century, Turkish troops, the Seljuks, seized almost all the Asiatic provinces of the empire, thus cutting off the most prosperous sources of tax revenue and the territories that had supplied most of the empire’s food. The Byzantine emperor lost the battle of Manzikert in 1702, his larger army was annihilated, and the empire never recovered it.

Cyril and Methodius

  • The missionaries that the Byzantine government sent to the territory that is now the Czech and Slovak republics in 864
  • Devised a written script for the Salvic language, derived from Greek letters


  • Trade city in southern Russia established by Scandinavian traders in 9th century
  • Became focal point for kingdom of Russia that flourished to 12th century

Vladimir I

  • A Rurik descendant who ruled from 980 to 1015
  • Prince who converted to Christianity, not only in his own name but on behalf of all his people
  • Organized mass baptisms for his subjects, forcing conversions by military pressure

Russian Orthodoxy

  • Russian form of Christianity imported from Byzantine Empire and combined with local religion
  • King characteristically controlled major appointments


  • Russian aristocrats that had less political power than their counterparts in western Europe


  • Mongol invaders that captured Russian cities and largely destroyed Kievan state in 1236
  • Left Russian Orthodoxy and aristocracy intact

Byzantine Empire

  • It was shaped by the decline of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Arabs. The empire weathered many attacks and flourished for several centuries.
  • The Byzantine Empire maintained high levels of political, economic, and cultural activity during much of the period from 500 to 1450 C.E. It controlled an important but fluctuating swath of territory in the Balkans, the northern Middle East, and the eastern Mediterranean. Its leaders saw themselves as Roman emperors, and their government was in many ways a direct continuation of the eastern portion of the late Roman Empire.
  • The real significance goes beyond its ability to keep Rome’s memory alive. The empire lasted for almost a thousand years, between Rome’s collapse in the West and the final overthrow of the regime by Turkish invaders.
  • The Byzantines created a new civilization in the Balkans and western Russia (present-day Ukraine and Belarus as well as western Russia proper).


  • Capital of the Byzantine Empire that was one of the truly great cities of the world, certainly the most opulent and important city in Europe in that period.

Orthodox Christian Church

  • Church that became dominant throughout most of eastern Europe


  • Roman emperor from 312 to 337 C.E. who constructed a host of elegant buildings in his city Constantinople.


  • Invaders that were warded off by eastern emperors

Sasanian Empire

  • Eastern emperors, relying on their local military base plus able generalship by upper-class Greeks, beat off attacks by the Sassanian Empire in Persia and by Germanic invaders.


  • A contemporary historian who described Justinian as “at once villainous and amenable; as people say colloquially, a moron. He was never truthful with anyone, but always guileful in what he said and did, yet easily hoodwinked by any who wanted to deceive him.”

Hellenistic culture

  • The empire was sufficient to amplify a rich Hellenistic culture and blend it more fully with Christianity while advancing Roman achievements in engineering and military tactics as well as law.

Greek fire

  • A new weapon, a kind of napalm
  • A major siege of the capital in 717 to 718 C.E. was beaten back by this


  • A Salvic version of the word “Caesar”
  • The title that a Bulgarian king in the 10th century took
  • Defeated by the Byzantium army in 1014 and the sight of this tragedy brought him death

Cyrillic alphabet

  • The Salvic alphabet that the two missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, devised
  • The possibility of literature and some literacy developed in eastern Europe along with Christianity, well beyond the political borders of Byzantium


  • A native of Denmark who became the first prince of what came to be called Kievan Rus’ about 855 C.E.
  • Borrowed much from Byzantium, but it was in no position to replicate major institutions such as the bureaucracy or an elaborate educational system.
  • As he became Christian, Kiev was the largest single state in Europe.

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