|330||Constantine makes Constantinople his capital.|
|395||Empire permanently split into Eastern and Western halves, following the death of Theodosius I.|
|527||Justinian I crowned emperor.|
||Justinian builds the church of Hagia Sophia (Ιερός Ναός Αγίας Σοφίας)|
|533-554||Justinian's generals reconquer North Africa and Italy from the Vandals and Ostrogoths.|
|568||The Lombard invasion results in the loss of most of Italy.|
|634-641||Arab armies conquer the Levant and Egypt. In the following decades, they take most of North Africa, and later conquer Sicily as well.|
|730-787; 813-843||Iconoclasm controversies. This results in the loss of most of the Empire's remaining Italian territories, aside from some territories in the south.|
|1054||Schism. Church in Rome breaks with the Church in Constantinople.|
|1071||Emperor Romanus IV is defeated by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert. Most of Asia Minor is lost. In the same year, the last Byzantine outposts in Italy are conquered by the Normans.|
|1204||Constantinople conquered by Crusaders; Latin empire formed.|
|1261||Constantinople liberated by Byzantine emperor of Nicaea, Michael Palaeologus.|
|1453||Ottoman Turks conquer Constantinople. End of Byzantine Empire.|
The Byzantine Empire is the term conventionally used to describe the Greek-speaking Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, centred at its capital in Constantinople. In certain specific contexts, usually referring to the time before the fall of the Western Roman Empire, it is also often referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire. There is no consensus on the starting date of the Byzantine period. Some place it during the reign of Diocletian (284-305) due to the administrative reforms he introduced, dividing the empire into a pars Orientis and a pars Occidentis. Others place it at 330 when Constantinople - formerly Byzantium - became the capital of the East. Others place it during the reign of Theodosius I (379-395) and Christendom's victory over paganism, or, following his death in 395, with the division of the empire into Western and Eastern halves. Others place it yet further in 476, when the last western emperor, Romulus Augustus, was forced to abdicate, thus leaving to the emperor in the Greek East sole imperial authority. In any case, the changeover was gradual and by 330, when Constantine I inaugurated his new capital, the process of Hellenization and Christianization was well underway.
The term "Byzantine Empire"
Main article: Names of the Greeks
The name Byzantine Empire is a modern term and would have been alien to its contemporaries. The Empire's native Greek name was Βασιλεία Ρωμαίων Basileía Romaíon, a direct translation of the Latin name of the Roman Empire, Imperium Romanorum. The term Byzantine Empire was invented in 1557, about a century after the fall of Constantinople by German historian Hieronymus Wolf, who introduced a system of Byzantine historiography in his work Corpus Historiae Byzantinae in order to distinguish ancient Roman from medieval Greek history without drawing attention to their ancient predecessors. Standardization of the term did not occur until the 17th century, when French authors such as Montesquieu began to popularize it. Hieronymus himself was influenced by the rift caused by the 9th century dispute between Romans (Byzantines as we render them today) and Franks, who, under Charlemagne's newly formed empire, and in concert with the Pope, attempted to legitimize their conquests by claiming inheritance of Roman rights in Italy thereby renouncing their eastern neighbours as true Romans. The Donation of Constantine, one of the most famous forged documents in history, played a crucial role in this. Henceforth, it was fixed policy in the West to refer to the emperor in Constantinople not by the usual "Imperator Romanorum" (Emperor of the Romans) which was now reserved for the Frankish monarch, but as "Imperator Graecorum" (Emperor of the Greeks) and the land as "Imperium Graecorum", "Graecia", "Terra Graecorum" or even "Imperium Constantinopolitanus".
This served as a precedent for Wolf who was motivated, at least partly, to re-interpret Roman history in different terms. Nevertheless, this was not intended in a demeaning manner since he ascribed his changes to historiography and not history itself.
Later a derogatory use of 'Byzantine' was developed.
"Byzantium may be defined as a multi-ethnic empire that emerged as a Christian empire, soon comprised the Hellenized empire of the East and ended its thousand year history, in 1453, as a Greek Orthodox state: An empire that became a nation, almost by the modern meaning of the word".1
In the centuries following the Arab and Lombard conquests in the 7th century, its multi-ethnic (albeit not multi-national) nature remained even though its constituent parts in the Balkans and Asia Minor contained an overwhelmingly Greek population. Ethnic minorities and sizeable communities of religious heretics often lived on or near the borderlands, the Armenians being the only sizeable one.
Byzantines identified themselves as Romaioi (Ρωμαίοι - Romans) which had already become a synonym for a Hellene (Έλλην - Greek), and more than ever before were developing a national consciousness, as residents of Ρωμανία (Romania, as the Byzantine state and its world were called). This nationalist awareness is reflected in literature, particularly in the acritic songs, where frontiersmen (ακρίτες) are praised for defending their country against invaders, of which most famous is the heroic or epic poem Digenis Akritas.
The official dissolution of the Byzantine state in the 15th century did not immediately undo Byzantine society. During the Ottoman occupation Greeks continued to identify themselves as both Ρωμαίοι (Romans) and Έλληνες (Hellenes), a trait that survived into the early 20th century and still persists today in modern Greece, albeit the former has now retreated to a secondary folkish name rather than a national synonym as in the past.
Caracalla's decree in 212, the Constitutio Antoniniana, extended citizenship outside of Italy to all free adult males in the entire Roman Empire, effectively raising provincial populations to equal status with the city of Rome itself. The importance of this decree is historical rather than political. It set the basis for integration where the economic and judicial mechanisms of the state could be applied around the entire Mediterranean as was once done from Latium into all of Italy. Of course, integration did not take place uniformly. Societies already integrated with Rome such as Greece were favored by this decree, compared with those far away, too poor or just too alien such as Britain, Palestine or Egypt.
The division of the Empire began with the Tetrarchy (quadrumvirate) in the late 3rd century with Emperor Diocletian, as an institution intended to more efficiently control the vast Roman Empire. He split the Empire in half, with two emperors ruling from Italy and Greece, each having a co-emperor of their own. This division continued into the 4th century until 324 when Constantine the Great managed to become the sole Emperor of the Empire. Constantine decided to found a new capital for himself and chose Byzantium for that purpose. The rebuilding process was completed in 330.
Constantine renamed the city New Rome but in popular use it was called Constantinople (in Greek, Κωνσταντινούπολις, Constantinoúpolis, meaning Constantine's City). This new capital became the centre of his administration. Constantine was also the first Christian emperor. Although the empire was not yet "Byzantine" under Constantine, Christianity would become one of the defining characteristics of the Byzantine Empire, as opposed to the pagan Roman Empire.
Another defining moment in the history of the Roman/Byzantine Empire was the Battle of Adrianople in 378. This defeat, along with the death of Emperor Valens, is one possible date for dividing the ancient and medieval worlds. The Roman empire was divided further by Valens' successor Theodosius I (also called "the great"), who had ruled both beginning in 392. In 395 he gave the two halves to his two sons Arcadius and Honorius; Arcadius became ruler in the East, with his capital in Constantinople, and Honorius became ruler in the west, with his capital in Ravenna. At this point it is common to refer to the empire as "Eastern Roman" rather than "Byzantine."
The Eastern Empire was largely spared the difficulties of the west in the 3rd and 4th centuries, in part because urban culture was better established there and the initial invasions were attracted to the wealth of Rome. Throughout the 5th century various invasions conquered the western half of the empire, but at best could only demand tribute from the eastern half. Theodosius II expanded the walls of Constantinople, leaving the city impenetrable to attacks. Zeno I ruled the east as the empire in the west finally collapsed in 476. Zeno negotiated with the Goths, ending their threats to the east but leaving them in control of the west.
The 6th century saw the beginning of the conflicts with the Byzantine Empire's traditional early enemies, the Persians, Slavs and Bulgars. Theological crises, such as the question of Monophysitism, also dominated the empire. However, the Eastern Empire had not forgotten its western roots. Under Justinian I, and the brilliant general Belisarius, the empire temporarily regained some of the lost Roman provinces in the west, conquering much of Italy, north Africa, and Spain.
Justinian updated the ancient Roman legal code in the new Corpus Juris Civilis, although it is notable that these laws were still written in Latin, a language which was becoming archaic and poorly understood even by those who wrote the new code. Under Justinian's reign, the Church of Hagia Sofia (Holy Wisdom) was constructed in the 530s. This church would become the centre of Byzantine religious life and the centre of the Eastern Orthodox form of Christianity. The sixth century was also a time of flourishing culture (although Justinian closed the university at Athens), producing the epic poet Nonnus, the lyric poet Paul the Silentiary, the historian Procopius and the natural philosopher John Philoponos, among other notable talents.
Justinian left his successors a severely depleted treasury, however, and they were largely unable to deal with the sudden appearance of new invaders on all fronts. The Lombards invaded and conquered much of Italy, the Avars and later the Bulgars overwhelmed much of the Balkans, and in the early 7th century the Persians invaded and conquered Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Armenia. The Persians were defeated and the territories were recovered by the emperor Heraclius in 627, but the unexpected appearance of the newly converted and united Muslim Arabs took by surprise an empire exhausted by the titanic effort against Persia, and the southern provinces were all overrun. The Empire's most catastrophic defeat was the Battle of Yarmuk, fought in Syria. Heraclius and the military governors of Syria were slow to respond to the new threat, and Byzantine Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, and the Exarchate of Africa were permanently incorporated into the Muslim Empire in the 7th century, a process which was completed with the fall of Carthage to the Caliphate in 698. The Lombards continued to expand in northern Italy, taking Liguria in 640 and conquering most of the Exarchate of Ravenna in 751, leaving the Byzantines with control only of small areas around the toe and heel of Italy.
What the empire lost in territory, though, it made up in uniformity. Heraclius fully Hellenized the empire by making Greek the official language, thus ending the last remnants of Latin and ancient Roman tradition within the Empire. For example the Latin language in government, Latin titles like Augustus and the idea of the empire being one with Rome were rapidly dissolved, allowing the empire to pursue its own identity. Many historians mark sweeping reforms during the reign Heraclius as the breaking point with Byzantium's ancient Roman past, and it is common to refer to the empire as "Byzantine" instead of "East Roman" after this point. The empire was also by now noticeably different in religion from the former imperial lands in western Europe, although the southern Byzantine provinces differed significantly from the north in culture and practiced Monophysite Christianity rather than Chalcedonian Orthodox. The loss of the southern provinces to the Arabs made Orthodoxy stronger in the remaining provinces.
Constans II (reigned 641 - 668) divided the empire into a system of military provinces called thémata (themes) to face permanent assault, with urban life declining outside the capital while Constantinople grew to become the largest city in the Christian world. Attempts by the Arabs to conquer Constantinople failed in the face of the Byzantines' superior navy, their monopoly of the still mysterious incendiary weapon Greek fire, the city's strong walls, and the skill of warrior emperors such as Leo III the Isaurian (reign 717 - 741). After repelling the Arab assaults, the empire began to recover.
Although falsely depicted as effete by the historian Edward Gibbon in the 18th century, the Byzantine Empire was the closest thing to a military superpower in the early Middle Ages, thanks to its heavy cavalry (the cataphracts), its subsidization (albeit inconsistently) of a well-to-do free peasant class as the basis for cavalry recruitment, its extraordinary defense in depth (the thematic system), its use of subsidies to play its enemies against one another, its intelligence gathering prowess, its development of a system of logistics based on mule trains, its navy (often tragically underfunded), and its rational military doctrines (not dissimilar to those of Sun Tzu) that emphasized stealth, surprise, swift maneuver and the marshalling of overwhelming force at the time and place of the Byzantine commander's choosing.
After the siege of 717 in which the Arabs suffered horrific casualties, the Caliphate was never a serious threat to the Byzantine heartland. It would take a different civilization, that of the Seljuk Turks, to finally drive the imperial forces out of eastern and central Anatolia.
The 8th century was dominated by the controversy over iconoclasm. Icons were banned by Emperor Leo III, leading to revolts by iconophiles within the empire. Thanks to the efforts of Empress Irene, the Second Council of Nicaea met in 787 and affirmed that icons could be venerated but not worshipped. Irene also attempted a marriage alliance with Charlemagne, which would have united the two empires, but these plans came to nothing. The iconoclast controversy returned in the early 9th century, but was resolved once more in 843. These controversies did not help the disintegrating relations with the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, which were both beginning to gain more power of their own.
The empire reached its height under the Macedonian emperors of the late 9th, 10th and early 11th centuries. During these years the Empire held out against pressure from the Roman church to remove Patriarch Photios, and gained control over the Adriatic Sea, parts of Italy, and much of the land held by the Bulgarians. The Bulgarians were completely defeated by Basil II in 1014. The Empire also gained a new ally (yet sometimes also an enemy) in the new Varangian state in Kiev, from which the empire received an important mercenary force, the Varangian Guard.
In 1054 relations between Greek-speaking Eastern and Latin-speaking Western traditions within the Christian Church reached a terminal crisis. There was never a formal declaration of institutional separation, and the so-called Great Schism actually was the culmination of centuries of gradual separation. From this split, the modern (Roman) Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches arose.
Like Rome before it, though, Byzantium soon fell into a period of difficulties, caused to a large extent by the growth of the landed aristocracy, which undermined the theme system. Facing its old enemies, the Holy Roman Empire and the Abbasid caliphate, it might have recovered, but around the same time new invaders appeared on the scene who had little reason to respect its reputation. The Normans finally completed the Byzantine expulsion from Italy in 1071 due to an ostensible lack of Byzantine interest in sending any support to Italy, and the Seljuk Turks, who were mainly interested in defeating Egypt under the Fatimids, still made moves into Asia Minor, the main recruiting ground for the Byzantine armies. With the surprise defeat at Manzikert of emperor Romanus IV in 1071 by Alp Arslan, sultan of the Seljuk Turks, most of that province was lost. The final split between the Roman and Orthodox churches occurred at this time as well, with their mutual excommunication in 1054.
End of empire
A partial recovery was made possible after Manzikert by the rise to power of the Comnenian dynasty. The first emperor of this line, Alexius I Comnenus, whose life and policies would be described by his daughter Anna Comnena in the Alexiad, began to reestablish the army on the basis of feudal grants (próniai) and made significant advances against the Seljuk Turks. His plea for western aid against the Seljuk advance brought about the First Crusade, which helped him reclaim Nicaea but soon distanced itself from imperial aid. Later crusades grew increasingly antagonistic. Although Alexius' grandson Manuel I Comnenus was a friend of the Crusaders, neither side could forget that the other had excommunicated them, and the Byzantines were very suspicious of the intentions of the Roman Catholic Crusaders who continually passed through their territory. Although the triumvirate of superb Comnenan Emperors could have expelled the severely outnumbered Seljuks, it was never in their interest to do so, as the expansion back into Anatolia would mean sharing more power with the feudal lords, thus weaking Comnenan power. On the long run however, it would have saved the Empire; but re-conquering all of Anatolia was not in the Comneni family's interest.
The Germans of the Holy Roman Empire and the Normans of Sicily and Italy continued to attack the empire in the 11th and 12th centuries. The Italian city states, who had been granted trading rights in Constantinople by Alexius, became the targets of anti-Western sentiments as the most visible example of Western "Franks" or "Latins." The Venetians were especially disliked, even though their ships were the basis of the Byzantine navy. To add to the empire's concerns, the Seljuks remained a threat, defeating Manuel at Myriokephalon in 1176.
Frederick Barbarossa attempted to conquer the empire during the Third Crusade, but it was the Fourth Crusade that had the most devastating effect on the empire. Although the stated intent of the crusade was to conquer Egypt, the Venetians took control of the expedition, and under their influence the crusade captured Constantinople in 1204. As a result a short-lived feudal kingdom was founded (the Latin Empire), and Byzantine power was permanently weakened. At this time the Serbian Kingdom under the Nemanjic dynasty grew stronger with the collapse of Byzantium, forming a Serbian Empire in 1346.
Three Byzantine successor states were left - the Empire of Nicaea, the Empire of Trebizond, and the Despotate of Epirus. The first, controlled by the Palaeologan dynasty, managed to reclaim Constantinople in 1261 and defeat Epirus, reviving the empire but giving too much attention to Europe when the Asian provinces were the primary concern. For a while the empire survived simply because the Muslims were too divided to attack, but eventually the Ottomans overran all but a handful of port cities.
The empire appealed to the west for help, but they would only consider sending aid in return for reuniting the churches. Church unity was considered, and occasionally accomplished by law, but the Orthodox citizens would not accept Roman Catholicism. Some western mercenaries arrived to help, but many preferred to let the empire die, and did nothing as the Ottomans picked apart the remaining territories.
Constantinople was initially not considered worth the effort of conquest, but with the advent of cannons, the walls, which had been impenetrable except by the Crusaders for over 1000 years, no longer offered adequate protection from the Ottomans. The Fall of Constantinople finally came after a two-month siege by Mehmed II on May 29, 1453. The last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Paleologus died fighting the Turks on the ramparts of Constantinople. Mehmed II also conquered Mystras in 1460 and Trebizond in 1461. Mehmed styled himself the proper successor to the Eastern Roman Emperors and by the end of the century the Ottoman Empire had established its firm rule over Asia Minor and most of the Balkan peninsula.
Meanwhile, the role of the Emperor as patron of Eastern Orthodoxy had started being claimed by the Grand Dukes of Muscovy starting with Ivan III. His grandson Ivan IV would become the first Tsar of Russia (tsar being derived from the Latin caesar) . Their successors supported the idea that Moscow was the proper heir to Rome and Constantinople, a Third Rome. Both the Ottoman and the Russian Empires would continue to consider themselves proper heirs to the Byzantines until their own demises early in the 20th century.
In addition Byzantium played an important role in the transmission of classical knowledge to the Islamic world and to Renaissance Italy. The influence of its theologians on medieval Western thought (and especially on Thomas Aquinas) was profound, and their removal from the "canon" of Western thought in subsequent centuries has, in the minds of many, only served to impoverish the canon.
The Byzantine Empire was arguably the only stable state in Europe during the Middle Ages. In fact, the Middle Ages are often traditionally defined by the same years as the Byzantine Empire is: 395-1453. Byzantium's expert military and diplomatic power ensured inadvertently that Western Europe remained safe from many of the more devastating invasions from eastern peoples, such as Turks and Arabs. This ensured that Europe was eventually able to recover from the so-called Dark Ages revitalized and powerful, eventually destroying their Byzantine protectors in the form of the fourth crusade.
Byzantium's influence on Western art and architecture is so well-known as to scarcely need mentioning. Its most lasting effect, though, lies in its spreading of Orthodoxy to surrounding peoples (the so-called "Byzantine commonwealth," a term coined by 20th century historians). Early Byzantine missionary work spread Orthodox Christianity to various Slavic peoples and it is still predominant among the Russians and many other Slavic peoples as well as among the Greeks. Less well known is the influence of the Byzantine style of religion on the millions of Christians in Ethiopia, the Egyptian Coptic Christians, and the Christians of Georgia and Armenia.
Robert Byron, one of the first great 20th century Philhellenes, maintained that the greatness of Byzantium lay in what he described as "the Triple Fusion": that of a Roman body, a Greek mind and an oriental, mystical soul. The Roman Empire of the East was founded on Monday, May 11, 330; it came to an end on Tuesday, May 29, 1453 - although it had already come into being when Diocletian split the Roman Empire in 286, and it was still alive when Trebizond finally fell in 1461. It was an empire that dominated the world in all spheres of life, for most of its 1,123 years and 18 days. Yet although it has been shunned and almost forgotten in the history of the world up until now, the spirit of Byzantium still resonates in the world. By preserving the ancient world, and forging the medieval, it is the Byzantine Empire that lies as the foundation of Western civilisation as we know it, for better or for worse.
- List of Byzantine Empire-related topics
- Byzantine Emperors
- History of Greece
- Latin Empire
- Empire of Nicaea
- Empire of Trebizond
- Despotate of Epirus
- Byzantine currency
- Byzantine art
- Byzantine architecture
- Byzantine music
- Byzantine aristocracy and bureaucracy
- Byzantine army
- Byzantine navy
- Eastern Orthodox Church Calendar
- Byzantium: Byzantine studies on the Internet
- What, If Anything, Is A Byzantine? by Prof. Clifton R. Fox
- Neobyzantine Official Website
- G. Ostrogorsky. "History of the Byzantine State", 2nd edition, New Brunswick (NJ) 1969.
- Warren Treadgold. "A History of the Byzantine State and Society", Stanford, 1997.
- Helene Ahrweiler, "Studies on the Internal Diaspora of the Byzantine Empire", Harvard University Press, 1998.
- John Julius Norwich, "Byzantium", 3 Volumes, Viking, 1991
- Helene Ahrweiler, "Les Europeens", pp.150, Herman (Paris), 2000.
- Steven Runciman, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and his Reign, p.9. University Press (Cambridge), 1990.
- Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 53.