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The Byzantine and Ottoman Empires

Professor Matthew Herbst add intro P

May 10: The Making of Byzantium

When did the “Roman” Empire become “Byzantine”? For that matter, what is “Byzantine” and why does it have, in common parlance, a negative connotation? This session offers a broad introduction to Byzantine civilization and highlights its foundational period, from late antiquity through the fifth century. It examines how Constantinople, a city founded in 330, came to replace Rome as an imperial center, reflecting a decisively eastern shift in the priorities of the empire. At the same time, another cultural transition was fully at work, the rise of Christianity to a position of dominance. We examine how the intersections of Roman political institutions, Greek cultural traditions, and Christianity facilitated the emergence of Byzantium.

May 17: The Age of Justinian

The sixth century was a period of remarkable cultural and political efflorescence, and it was the age of Justinian. Through his re-conquests, the emperor reasserted Byzantine power in much of the western Mediterranean, without ever leaving Constantinople. He built Hagia Sophia, the most celebrated monument in Byzantine history and Christianity’s largest cathedral for a millennium. He codified the entire body of Roman law, creating the Corpus Juris Civilis, which was later to play a formative role in the development of law in the West and was a stimulant to centralizing governments. He made and unmade patriarchs and popes; he dominated. Yet he struggled desperately to find a solution to the most persistent of imperial problems, disunity in the Christian Church, while his grand exploits may have weakened the empire for the future. Justinian is a fascinating figure whose origins were in poverty, as were those of his remarkable wife, Theodora, both of whom survived riots, plague, natural disasters, and wars to become the epitome of supreme power in the pre-modern world.

May 24: The Imperial Centuries

This session moves from the age of iconoclasm in the eighth century, when the empire struggled anxiously against eastern and western political threats, to the apogee of Byzantine cultural influence and military power under the Macedonian Dynasty (ninth to eleventh century). Byzantine missionary activity and diplomacy converted Russians and Balkan peoples to Orthodox Christianity, while its armies expanded in every direction. Byzantine technology, silks, and brides were desperately sought after by neighboring peoples from Western Europe to the Steppe, and the empire’s arms and diplomacy appeared utterly invincible during the reign of Basil II (976-1025).

May 31: Byzantium in the Age of the Crusades

This session explains the surprising collapse of the Byzantine state in the eleventh century in the decades following the reign of Basil II. What happened? New challenges confronted the empire: an increasingly hostile West, nomadic incursions in the Balkans, and triumphant Turkish power in the East, accompanied by political decisions with disastrous consequences. With the end of the empire seemingly imminent, Alexios Komnenos seized the reins of power, completely reconceived how the state was managed, and firmly established a new dynasty. It was his Komnenos dynasty (1081-1182) that encountered the Crusades, launched by Western (Catholic) Christians to reclaim the Holy Land. The first three Crusades moved through the Byzantine Empire, highlighting the differences between East and West, Orthodox and Catholic, “Barbarian” and “Byzantine.” The Komnenos dynasty successfully managed these interactions, but when the dynasty came to an end, so did this success. The Fourth Crusade in 1204 seized Constantinople itself and carved up the Byzantine Empire, imposing Catholic rule on an Orthodox empire.

add June 7 entry

Instructor: Matthew Herbst is a teaching professor at UC San Diego and directs the Making of the Modern World general education world-history program. Herbst leads world-history programs abroad each summer, offers quarterly wilderness seminars in California deserts and mountains, and is launching a free, online world-history course for non-college students, funded by edX.

Coordinators: Eileen Coblens

Course Number: OSHR-70056   Credit: 0 units

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Upcoming Sections

Dates Class Type Section ID Fee Status
05/10/2017 - 06/07/2017 In-class 123303 $10.00 Closed

Day and Time: Wednesday, 10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.
Location: Room 129, UCSD Extension Complex, 9600 N. Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla