Byzantine Empire

ΡΩΜΑΝΙΑ Romania Βυζαντινή Αυτοκρατορία Byzantine Empire

Emblem of the Palaeologus dynasty, as preserved today at the entrance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul (Constantinople).
330 Constantine makes Constantinople his capital.
395 The Empire is permanently split into Eastern and Western halves, following the death of Theodosius I.
527 Justinian I becomes emperor.
Justinian builds the church of Hagia Sophia (Αγία Σοφία/Holy Wisdom)
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 The Church in Rome breaks with the Church in Constantinople.
1071 The Emperor Romanus IV is defeated by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert. Most of Asia Minor is lost. The same year, the last Byzantine outposts in Italy are conquered by the Normans.
1204 Constantinople is occupied by crusaders; Latin empire formed.
1261 Constantinople is liberated by the Byzantine emperor of Nicaea, Michael Palaeologus.
1453 Ottoman Turks take Constantinople. End of Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantine Empire (Native Greek names: ΡΩΜΑΝΙΑ Romania or ΒΑΣΙΛΕΙΑ ΡΩΜΑΙΩΝ Basileia Romaion or Βυζάντιο Byzantium) 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 centuries that marked 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 during the reign of Theodosius I (379-395) and Christendom's triumph 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 the Great inaugaurated 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 appeared alien to its contemporaries. The term 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 presecessors. 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 Hieronymus 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.


"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 Ρωμαίοι (Rhomaioi - Romans) which had already become a synonym for a Έλλην (Hellenes - Greeks), 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, particularily 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 Acritas.

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 21st 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.


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Map of Roman empire after Diocletian's reforms

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 Nova Roma but in popular use it was called Constantinople (in Greek, Κωνσταντινούπολις, 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."

Early history

The Eastern Empire was largely spared the difficulties of the west in the 3rd and 4th centuries (see Crisis of the Third Century), 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.

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Map of the Byzantine Empire around 550. Green indicates the conquests during the reign of Justinian I.

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 Sophia|Hag�Sof�] (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 an empty treasury, however, and they were 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. 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 Ligura 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.

Hellenizing era

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 (rather than Chalcedonian Orthodox) Christianity. 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 th魡ta (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.

Golden era

Painting of Basil II, from an  manuscript.
Painting of Basil II, from an 11th century manuscript.

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 Ruthenian 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, 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 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

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Sections of the Theodosian walls of Constantinople as they appear today in suburban Istanbul

A partial recovery was made possible after Manzikert by the rise to power of the Comnenian dynasty. The first emperor of this line, Alexius Comnenus, whose life and policies would be described by his daughter Anna in The Alexeid, began to reestablish the army on the basis of feudal grants (pr󮩡i) 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.

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Map of the Byzantine Empire around year 1180.

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 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.

The Byzantine Empire in  (William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, )
The Byzantine Empire in 1265 (William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, 1911)
Missing image
The Latin Empire, Empire of Nicaea, Empire of Trebizond and the Despotate of Epirus. The borders are very uncertain.

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.

The Byzantine Empire around year 1400.
The Byzantine Empire around year 1400.

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. Mehmed II also conquered Mistra 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 - also spelled czar - 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 only served to impoverish the canon.

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. The start and end dates of the Empire's independence, 395 to 1453, are one of the traditional dates for the period of the Middle Ages. It was 1177 years from the original split of the Roman Empire under Diocletian in 284 until the fall of Trebizond in 1461; whatever the measurement, the Empire certainly lasted for over a millennium.


The Byzantine Empire acquired a negative reputation among historians of the 18th and 19th century not only for the complexity of the organization of its ministries and the elaborateness of its court ceremonies (from this came the term still in modern use, "Byzantine", often used pejoratively to describe any work, law, or organization that is excessively complex and/or difficult to understand; see also Baroque), but also for their alleged lack of courage and military ability. This prejudice originated, according to the medievalist Steven Runciman, from the impressions of medieval Europe with this mighty power. "Ever since our rough crusading forefathers first saw Constantinople and met, to their contemptuous disgust, a society where everyone read and wrote, ate food with forks and preferred diplomacy to war, it has been fashionable to pass the Byzantines by with scorn and to use their name as synonymous with decadence."2 However, many of the emperors of the Middle and Late Empire were full-time military commanders, and several were men of letters as well. They may have had little patience with elaborate court ceremonies.

By the 18th century refinement and polite manners were no longer considered effeminate, so writers like Gibbon and Montesquieu searched after a new justification for their prejudice against this civilization. Gibbon found it in the scholarly works of the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos, and seized upon the bookish style of this invalid and bookish ruler, who was forced to pass most of his reign as a figurehead. Exploiting this source to confirm his own preconceptions 3, Gibbon thus gave new life to an oversimplified view of a "decadent" Byzantium, which lives in the public mind by the poetry of William Butler Yeats.

Likewise, the term "Byzantine" also suggests a penchant for intrigue, plots and assassinations. In fact, the Empire was among the more stable political entities of its own or any other time. Its famous intrigue and turmoil was far less than that of Western Europe's unruly feudal states, and occurred most often during relatively brief interregnums between strong (and sometimes brilliantly led) dynasties. The very stability of the imperial state, however, probably undermined the creative impulses and innovativeness that characterized the early centuries of the remarkable Byzantine civilization, thus contributing to its eventual downfall.

See also

External links



  • 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


  1. Helene Ahrweiler, "Les Europeens", pp.150, Herman (Paris), 2000.
  2. Steven Runciman, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and his Reign, p.9. University Press (Cambridge), 1990.
  3. Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 53.

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