Byzantine Empire

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The Byzantine Empire at its largest territorial extent in 555 A.D., during the reign of Justinian I. Vassals are shaded pink.

The Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, was the direct continuation of the Roman Empire and a Greek-language Christian empire that emerged after the permanent split of the Roman Empire into two east-west parts after the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395 AD. Due to efficient government and clever diplomacy that divided its many enemies, the empire survived the fall of its Western half. Much diminished after 1204 AD when it was sacked by Christian Crusaders from the west en route to liberate Jerusalem, it finally fell to the Turks in 1453—indeed its fall is often used to date the end of the Middle Ages. Its capital was Constantinople, built on the site of the Greek colony of Byzantium, which is now known as Istanbul. The center of Orthodox Christianity, it is famous as well for its art and culture.

The inhabitants of the empire referred to themselves as "Romans" and considered themselves as such, the term "Byzantine" not being used to describe the empire and its peoples until the seventeenth century, but after the seventh century, the language of empire changed from Latin to Greek.


Relation to the Roman Empire of Antiquity

Despite the fact that the Byzantine Empire shifted away from Roman culture as the Middle Ages progressed, it was the direct continuation of the Roman Empire, and was continued to be known and called by its inhabitants as the Roman Empire, who also called themselves Romans.[1][2] In fact, the terms "Eastern Roman Empire" and "Byzantine Empire" are modern historiographical terms that were created after the fall of the empire in 1453.[2]


By the mid-third century, the Roman Empire was beginning to become unmanageable because of its size and the slow speed of communication from one end to another. In an attempt to overcome these difficulties, the Emperor Diocletian split the Roman Empire into two in 293 AD; each half having an 'Augustus' and a 'Caesar', his second in command and intended successor. This experiment didn't last long and Constantine reunited the empire, moving its capital from Rome to the city of Byzantium which, in due course, he renamed Constantinople.


The empire was multi-ethnic and officially Orthodox Christian; after c 750 AD, predominantly Greek-speaking. The empire's heritage consisted of the Eastern Orthodox Church, ancient Greek culture, Byzantine art and architecture and Roman law. Of the 55,000 ancient Greek texts in existence today, some 40,000 were transmitted by Byzantine scribes. And it was the Byzantine Empire that shielded Western Europe from invasion until it was ready to take its own place at the center of the world stage.



It survived the fall of the Western Empire in 476 because of much greater financial resources. That is, it bribed away attacking armies whereas the west could not. The Empire actually reached its height in the 500s under Justinian as it reincorporated many elements of the Western Roman Empire, but shrunk back down to its Eastern roots as it lost these. After surviving the initial rush of Islamic expansion, the Empire settled into boundaries that were relatively stable for several hundred years. While western Europe struggled through the Dark Ages, the Byzantine Empire kept up an aura of refinement and defensive strength that sheltered Europe from the attacks of first the Persian Empire, then Islam.


Byzantine mosaic depiction of Christ at the Church of Chora in Istanbul, Turkey.

The Empire had difficulties with the "Iconoclast" controversy - a dispute lasting nearly 100 years and centering around arguments over whether or not to allow "holow images" or icons to be displayed in the churches. The position of the Emperors was often at odds with many of the subjects but since the Emperors considered that they were appointed by God, this didn't matter since their opponents were automatically heretics.


The Empire was often at war with at least one foreign power, but their strong defensive strategy was usually able to weather attacks. Other than the period 1204 to 1261, the Empire was always centered in Constantinople.

While taking on offensive position to "reunite" with the west under Justinian in the 500's, for the most part the position of the Empire was defensive in nature, having little desire to increase its borders. For years the cultured Byzantine Empire was the protector of Dark Age Europe, repelling Islamic armies that would stretch to control lands from Morocco to India via Hungary. The secure and lasting nature of the Empire was changed forever when treachery led their defeat to Islamic armies at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. They lost all of Anatolia to the invaders. Even when they retook the land, much of the population had perished with many of the survivors having fled. Areas that once allowed armies of 120,000 men to be raised for the defense of the Empire had now become barren. The Empire was forced to rely on mercenaries for the bulk of their army from that point forward.[3]


See also: Crusades

The Empire was dealt another blow in 1204 when forces from Western Europe in the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204, the first time that had ever happened, instead of going to the Holy Land. They set up their own "Latin" Empire, so called because of their attempts to make Latin the official language of the Empire rather than Greek, which lasted until the Byzantine reinstatement in 1261. On their arrival in Constantinople, the Latins, mostly Franks and Venetians, were astonished at the power and positions held by Eunuchs - men who, as children, had been castigated so that they would have no children and hence be no threat to the ruling Imperial dynasty.



The Byzantine Empire never truly recovered from the blow dealt to it by the Crusaders. Following the fall of the city to the Latins in 1204, the Empire was reduced to a mere shell of its former self. On May 29, 1453, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, fell to the Ottoman Turks after a long cannon bombardment. The last relatives of the Byzantine Emperor continued to rule Morea for a few years before being absorbed by the Ottoman Empire in 1460, finally ending the Palaiologos dynasty.

The Ottoman conquerors, whose original capital had been located in Sofa, now in Bulgaria, renamed the city Istanbul and turned Agia Sophia, the great church of that city into a mosque and later into a museum.

See also

Further reading

  • Browning, Robert. The Byzantine Empire (1992) excerpt and text search
  • Brownworth, Lars. Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization (2009) 352 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Hussey, J. M. The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire (1990) excerpt and text search
  • Luttwak, Edward N. The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire (2009), military and diplomacy
  • Shepard, Jonathan, ed. The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire c.500-1492 (2009), advanced scholarship excerpt and text search
  • Theophanes. The Chronicle of Theophanes. Anni Mundi 6095-6305 (A.D.602-813) Ed. and trans. Turtledove H.(1982) University of Pennsylvania Press.excerpt and text search


  1. Teall, John L. & Nicol, Donald MacGillivray. Byzantine Empire. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Naming of the Byzantine Empire. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  3. Encyclopedia of Military History, Dupuy & Dupuy, 1979

External links

  • Livius (April 28, 2011). Byzantine Empire. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 9, 2016.