The Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire was the eastern section of the Roman Empire, with its capital at Constantinople (modern Istanbul), which remained in existence after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. The Byzantine period is usually considered to extend from 395 to 1453.
The name "Byzantine Empire"
The state now commonly referred to as the Byzantine Empire was never known by that name in its own time. It was called the Roman Empire or, in later centuries, Romania. Its people, who were mostly Greek-speaking, called themselves Romans (in Greek, Romaíoi). The term Byzantine Empire was invented and popularised by the 18th century French historian Montesquieu. Like many classicists of his time, Montesquieu regarded the Empire after the 5th century as corrupt and decadent, and not worthy of the name Roman. So he coined a new name, taken from Byzantium, the Latinized form of the original Greek name (Byzántion) of the capital, Constantinople.
Even before Constantinople became the imperial capital, the connection between the Roman Empire and the city of Rome had been greatly reduced. In 212, the Emperor Caracalla declared all free persons in the Empire to be Roman citizens, entitled to call themselves Romans. The Empire began to be referred to as Romania ("Roman country"), rather than as Imperium Romanorum (Latin, "Empire of the Romans"). In the Greek-speaking East, the Empire became known as either Romania or Basileía Romaíon (Greek, "Empire [lit., Kingdom] of the Romans"). This was the official name of the Empire until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. Greeks commonly referred to themselves as Romaíoi until the 20th century and were called Rum (Romans) by the Turks.
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, Konstantinoúpolis, 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 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."
Byzantine imperial eagle
The general prevailing identity of the Eastern Roman Empire was a combination of Roman statehood, Hellenistic culture and Christian religion. Greek was not only the everyday language, but also the language of the church, of literature and of commerce. The empire was a multinational state, including Greeks, Vlachs, Armenians, Jews, Egyptians, Syrians, Illyrians, and Slavs, but its Greek culture radiated from large centers of Hellenism such as Constantinople, Antioch, Ephesus, Thessaloniki, Athens, and Alexandria.
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.
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 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 Agía Sofía (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.
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 Avars and later the Bulgars overwhelmed much of the Balkans, and 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. However, the unexpected appearance of the newly converted and united Muslim Arabs took Heraclius by surprise, 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 seized northern Italy, taking Ligura in 640 and conquering most of the Exarchate of Ravenna in 751.
What the empire lost in territory, though, it made up in uniformity. Heraclius fully Hellenized the empire by making Greek the official language. The empire was 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 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 world. Attempts by the Arabs to conquer Constantinople failed in the face of the Byzantines' superior navy and their monopoly of the still mysterious incendiary weapon Greek fire. After repelling the initial Arab assault, the empire began to recover.
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.
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 Kyiv, 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
Sections of the Theodosian walls of Constantinople as they appear today in suburban Istanbul
The last few centuries of Byzantine life were brought by a usurper, Alexius Comnenus, who began to reestablish an 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.
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.
The Byzantine Empire in 1265 (William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, 1911
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 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. 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.
The Byzantine empire played an important role in the transmission of classical knowledge to the Islamic world. Its most lasting influence, though, lies in its church. Early Byzantine missionary work spread Orthodox Christianity to various Slavic peoples, and it is still predominant among them and the Greeks. The start and end dates of the capital's independence, 395 to 1453, originally defined the bounds of the Middle Ages.
The Byzantine Empire was noted for the complexity of the organization of its ministries and the number that had to be visited for an outsider to accomplish any administrative task; 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.)
- 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.
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