Byzantine Empire

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Justinian I ruled the Byzantine Empire at its peak in 527 to 565. He rebuilt Constantinople, including Hagia Sophia cathedral, reconquered Italy, and compiled the Code of Justinian. He was the last Latin-speaking emperor.
The Byzantine Empire was a Greek-speaking, Christian state that existed from about 500 to 1453.[1] Its capital was Constantinople, now Istanbul. At its peak under Justinian I in the sixth century, it ruled the lands that surround the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Hagia Sophia cathedral, Greek fire (a flame throwing weapon), and the Cyrillic alphabet were outstanding Byzantine achievements. Its monks copied and preserved ancient learning through the Dark Ages, including Aristotle, Plato, Archimedes, Roman law in the form of the Code of Justinian, and the Greek New Testament. Many manuscripts were taken to the West as a result of the Fourth Crusade and translated to Latin by William of Moerbeke and others.

The Byzantine Empire was a continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire. By the time of Heraclius (r. 610-641), the empire had lost its classical character and had emerged as a feudal state. Egypt and Syria were lost to the Arabs by 641, leaving a Greek-speaking rump. Heraclius changed the official language from Latin to Greek. He dealt with the disappearance of revenue by establishing "themes" that allowed lords to recruit peasant soldiers based on reciprocal obligations rather than money. Under the Macedonian dynasty (867-1025), Byzantium experienced a revival while western Europe battled the Vikings. This second golden age ended in 1071 with a Seljuk victory at Manzikert. In 1204, Constantinople was sacked by crusaders. It finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Constantinople was built on the site of the Greek colony of Byzantium. The term "Byzantine" was not used when the empire was in existence. It was coined by historians of the 16th century.


The inhabitants of the Byzantine empire referred to themselves as "Romans" and to their religion as "Roman Orthodox." In the Latin West, they were called "Greeks" and their leader was the "emperor of Constantinople." To medieval historian William of Tyre, the emperors in Constantinople were Roman until 800 and Greek after that. That is to say, Constantinople had lost its imperial legitimacy when Charlemagne was crowned by the pope.[2]

Renaissance historians were less interested in which emperor was legitimate. They developed the idea of dividing history into three parts: ancient (before 500), medieval (500-1500), and modern (since 1500).[3] German historian Hieronymus Wolf applied the term "Byzantine" to the medieval Greek state in his book Corpus Historiæ Byzantinæ (1557).[4] This word is derived from "Byzantium," an alternative name for Constantinople. It emphasizes the change in culture that occurred as the Latin-speaking classical Eastern Roman Empire evolved into a Greek-speaking medieval Orthodox Christian state.


Events during the Crisis of the Third Century suggested that the legions on the Danube and those on the Rhine required separate emperors to prevent the outbreak of revolts. In 285, Diocletian divided his realm into four administrative units. A series of unifications and redivisions followed. An eastern empire with its capital at Constantinople and a western empire with its capital at Rome (later Ravenna) emerged as the norm. This division became final upon the death of Theodosius I in 395. The West fell to barbarian invasion in 476, but the eastern empire continued until 1453.

The East survived the fall of the Western Empire largely because of its greater financial resources. Despite a shortage of manpower, Byzantium could generally pay off the armies that threatened its security. In 500, the empire retained a city-based classical civilization. By the end of the sixth century, the public urban spaces central to classical culture were in decay. Public culture survived only in the churches, and icons became a focus of great reverence.[5]

Justinian (r. 527-565)

Even as Justinian expanded the boundaries of the empire, plague, war, and natural disasters combined to bring about the collapse of classical civilization.
The early part of reign of Justinian was a time of outstanding achievement, including the compilation of the Code of Justinian, the rebuilding of Constantinople, and the reconquest of Italy. The empire's resources, depleted by grandiose schemes, were unequal to the onslaughts of the 540s from Persians, natural disasters, and the plague.

Constantinople's unruly sports fans, called demes, normally fought each other. The greens and blues supported rival chariot teams at the city's hippodrome. They could be paid to act in concert by unscrupulous politicians. Justinian deployed the army against the demes during the Nika riots in 532. Some 30,000 were killed and the palace area was burned down.[6] With his capital in ruins, Justinian energetically rebuilt, erecting the magnificent Hagia Sofia.

A series of volcanic eruptions made 536 to 545 the coldest decade in the last two thousand years. An eruption in Iceland in 536 eruption created a ‘dust-veil event.’ The historian Procopius described this event: "During this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness ... and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear."[7]

In 540, Byzantine revenue was 11.3 million solidi, or 51 tons of gold. This would prove to be the empire's all time peak. In 541, the Goths, Bulgars, and Persians began simultaneous offensives against the empire. The plague arrived in Constantinople in 542. It killed 250,000 in this city alone, over half the population. Victims were typically dead within two or three days. By 555, imperial revenue had fallen to 6 million solidi.[8]

Although Procopius accused Justinian of debasing the coinage, testing has determined that gold coins of his reign are 98.5 percent fine. To deal with the crisis of the 540s, Peter Barysmes, Justinian's chief of finances, minted "light-weight solidi" of 3.8 to 4.37 grams rather than the full weight of 4.56 grams. The light-weight solidi were marked as such. It is unknown what inflationary effect they might have had.[9]

Dark Ages (550 to 843)

The military setbacks under Justin II (r. 565-574), Justinian's nephew and successor, suggest that Justinian had overstretched empire's resources. Italy, conquered at great cost from the Ostrogoths, was overrun in 568-572 by the Lombards. This invasion was largely unopposed. The Avars raided across the Danube in 573 or 574 and the fortress of Dara, gateway to Anatolia, fell to the Persians in 573. Slav migration into the Balkans began in 581 and continued for the next century.

A Byzantine double eagle guards the entrance of the ecumenical patriarchate in Istanbul, once Constantinople.

An army rebellion in 602 put Phocas, a centurion, on the throne. His strictly orthodox religious policies provoked a rebellion in monophysite Egypt in 608. Troops were pulled away from the east and the Persians overran the frontier fortifications of Merdin, Dara, Amida, and Edessa. A general collapse followed. Egypt had been the empire's principal source of revenue and grain. The loss of Egypt and Syria sent state revenues plummeting from 8.5 million solidi in 565 to 3.7 million solidi in 641.[8] Traditional history remembers Phocas as a villain and a usurper. "The hippodrome, the sacred asylum of the pleasures and the liberty of the Romans, was polluted with heads and limbs, and mangled bodies," according to Edward Gibbon. Phocas was, "the worthy rival of the Caligulas and Domitians of the first age of the empire."[10]

Heraclius (r. 610 to 641) executed Phocas, defeated the Persians, and is credited with saving the empire. But the money-based economy proved impossible to revive. Instead, Heraclius established feudal lordships called themes to recruit soldiers. The Arabs defeated Heraclius in a decisive battle at Yarmouk in 636. Antioch and Jerusalem fell the following year, Egypt in 641.

Images of Jesus were approved by the Quinisext Council in 692. In 695, Justinian II (r. 685-711) put such an image on his coins. In reaction to these moves, a movement called iconoclasm, or image breaking, emerged. Greek-speakers trended to be respectful of the icons. The poorer non-Greeks of the East were more likely to be iconoclastic, perhaps influenced by Muslim views. The pro-icon faction was discredited as the Arabs advanced. The low point for the empire came in 718 with the second Arab siege of Constantinople. The Arabs were beaten back with Greek fire, the medieval version of napalm. The success of the Greek army in restoring the empire after the Arab siege led to the rise of iconoclastic commanders. Leo III issued a decree against icons in 730. The victories of Constantine V (r. 741-775) convinced many that image-breaking was sanctioned by God. Empress Irene restored the status of the icons in 787. Military reversals led Leo V to ban them again in 815. The controversy was finally resolved in 843 when the icons were restored to imperial favor.

Macedonian dynasty (867-1025)

The Macedonian dynasty, founded by Basil I in 867, was Byzantium's golden age. Basil replaced the Code of Justinian with a Greek legal code called the Basilica. The military revival of this period did not prevent Sicily from falling to the Arabs in 902 or the sack of Thessalonica in 904. After 150 years of Arab terror on the seas, the Byzantines regained naval supremacy after a victory in 961. There was also was a revival of literature, including the Suda, an early encyclopedia, as well as the Lexicon and Bibliotheca of Photius. After the devastation of the Dark Ages, Byzantine scholars devoted themselves to the project of carefully classifying, copying, preserving, and summarizing the learning that survived. This revival occurred while the West was suffering the ravages of the Viking age.

Treachery led to a catastrophic defeat by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Byzantines lost all of Anatolia to the invaders. Even when the Greeks 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.[11]

Fourth Crusade

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 restore Latin as the official language of the empire rather than Greek. The Crusader kingdom 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 castrated 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 relatives of the last Byzantine Emperor continued to rule Morea for a few years before being absorbed by the Ottoman Empire in 1460, ending the Palaiologos dynasty. The Ottoman conquerors, whose original capital had been located in Sofa, now in Bulgaria, renamed the city Istanbul and turned Hagia Sophia, the great church of that city into a mosque and later into a museum.


Mosaic of Christ at Chora Church in Istanbul, Turkey.
In the fifth and sixth centuries, Constantinople developed a distinctive architecture. Large domes such as Hagia Sophia were built on pendentives over a square. Marble veneering was applied as well as colored mosaics and gold backgrounds. The 550 to 843 period was a dark age. Very little art from this period survived. The numerous icons produced were later destroyed by the Iconoclasts.[12]

The Middle Byzantine period, or Macedonian Renaissance, began in 843 and continued until 1204. The defeat of the Iconoclasts allowed for a flowering of Orthodox art. Notable artwork of this period includes the richly illustrated Paris Psalter and the Limburg staurotheke (relic container). Many artists were employed illustrating church walls, although little of this type of art survived the Muslim conquest. The best known example is the illustrations of various imperial families in the South Gallery of Hagia Sophia. These portraits have given Byzantine art a reputation for stern remoteness. But Byzantine artists could also evoke strong emotion, for example with a painting of the lamentation in the Church of St. Panteleimon in Nerezi, Macedonia (1164).[12]

The Late Byzantine period dates from 1261 to 1453. This period focused on reconstruction, including the redecoration of Chora Church (1321).[12]


In 451, the Council of Chalcedon designated the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem as patriarchs. The council also ruled that Christ had a dual human-divine nature. There was a bitter struggle between the orthodox, who accepted this conclusion, and the monophysites, who rejected it. This struggle inspired Justinian to take full control of the eastern church. He decreed that the five patriarchs were a decision making body for the church, called the pentarchy. Justinian's policy of imperial control was resisted by Rome, but continued by subsequent emperors.

In 638–640, the Arabs overran Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, leaving only the sees of Constantinople and Rome in Christian hands. Greek speakers looked to Constantinople for leadership while Latin speakers looked to Rome. The Quinisext Council of 692 allowed for married clergy and established the foundation for a separate Orthodox cannon law. Although Greek-speaking clerics dominated the "Byzantine papacy" of 537 to 752, the emperor could not get the pope to agree to the cannons of this council. The split into Orthodox and Catholic churches is usually dated to 1054.

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. Shepard, Jonathan, The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire c.500-1492 (2019), p. 26. The replacement of the Western Empire by barbarian states posed, "new problems yet also diplomatic and strategic openings for the rulers of Constantinople...and this goes some way towards justifying the starting-point of this book around AD 500."
  2. Spoljarić, Luka, "William of Tyre and the Byzantine Empire: The Construction and Deconstruction of an Image," Central European University, Budapest, May 2008.
  3. "Middle Ages," Merriam-Webster
  4. Webb, Eugene, In Search of the Triune God: The Christian Paths of East and West, p. 354.
  5. Shepard, pp. 128-129.
  6. Shepard, p. 120.
  7. Gibbons, Ann, "Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’, Science, Nov. 15, 2018.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Treadgold, W., A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 277.
  9. Harl, Dr. Kenneth W., "Early Medieval and Byzantine Civilization: Constantine to Crusades."
  10. Gibbon, Edward, The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, "Chapter XLVI: Troubles In Persia.—Part III."
  11. Encyclopedia of Military History, Dupuy & Dupuy, 1979.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Jones, L.A., "Byzantine art", New Catholic Encyclopedia.

External links

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