Some illuminations depicted biblical scenes. Others, such as prayer books called Books of Hours, showed scenes of daily life in towns and castles with peasants in the field along with nobles on horseback.

The Byzantine Heritage

The Byzantine empire contributed to the civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean and of Western Europe. Byzantine civilization rose out of many traditions, blending Christian beliefs with Greek philosophy, science, and the arts. It also extended Roman achievements in engineering and law.

As the medieval world expanded, so did its contacts with Byzantine civilization, and Byzantine influence radiated across Europe. Even though the Byzantine empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the conquerors adapted features of Byzantine government, arts, and culture.

Contributions in the Arts

Byzantine artists made unique contributions, especially in religious art and architecture, that influenced Western styles. Icons, images designed to evoke the presence of God, gave viewers a sense of personal contact with the sacred.

Mosaics brought scenes from the Bible to life. In architecture, Byzantine palaces and churches blended Greek, Roman, Persian, and other Middle Eastern styles.

Preserving and Spreading Knowledge

Byzantine scholars preserved the classic works of ancient Greece and Rome. In addition, they produced their own great books, especially in the field of history.

Like the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides, Byzantine historians were mostly concerned with writing about their own times. Procopius, an advisor to the general Belisarius, chronicled the Byzantine campaign against Persia. In his Secret History, Procopius savagely criticized the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora. He called the emperor “both an evil-doer and easily led into evil … never of his own accord speaking the truth.”

Anna Comnena is considered by many scholars to be the Western world's first important female historian. In the Alexiad, she analyzed the reign of her father, Emperor Alexius I. Comnena's book portrayed Latin Crusaders as greedy barbarians.

As the Byzantine empire tottered in the 1400s, many Greek scholars left Constantinople to teach at Italian universities. They took valuable Greek manuscripts to the West, along with their knowledge of Greek and Byzantine culture. The work of these scholars contributed to the cultural flowering in Europe that became known as the Renaissance.

Gilded painting of a woman holding a baby, with halos around both heads and Greek letters in the background.

This religious icon showing Mary and the baby Jesus showcases the Byzantine style.


  1. Analyze Information How did new knowledge, based on Aristotle and other Greek thinkers, pose a challenge to Christian scholars?
  2. Synthesize Information Why were heroic epics in the vernacular popular with medieval Europeans?
  3. Identify Central Issues How was religion central to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages?
  4. Predict Consequences How might universities that drew students from many places affect European life in the future?
  5. Demonstrate Reasoned Judgment Why was the Byzantine empire so important to Western Europe?

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments