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Byzantine Empire

Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων
Roman (Byzantine) Empire

(Emblem of the Palaeologus dynasty)

Motto: Βασιλεὺς Βασιλέων
Βασιλεύων Βασιλευόντων

(Greek: King of Kings Ruling Over Rulers)

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. Split between Church in Rome and 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 reconquered by Michael Palaeologus, Byzantine emperor of Nicaea,
1453 Ottoman Turks conquer Constantinople. Death of Constantine XI last Emperor of the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire. End of the Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantine Empire is the term conventionally used to describe the Greek-speaking Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, centered 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 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.


1 The term "Byzantine Empire"
2 Identity, continuity, and consciousness
3 Origin
4 Early history
5 The age of Justinian I
6 The fight for survival
7 Golden era
8 The Comneni and the Crusaders
9 Underlying reasons for decline
10 The Decline and Fall of the Byzantine Empire
11 Legacy and importance
12 See also
13 Bibliography
14 References

The term "Byzantine Empire"

The name Byzantine Empire is derived from the original Greek name for Constantinople; Byzantium. The name is a modern term and would have been alien to its contemporaries. The Empire's native Greek name was Pωμανία Romanía or Βασιλεία Pωμαίων 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 18th 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.

Identity, continuity, and consciousness

History of Greece series
Aegean Civilization before 1600 BC
Mycenaean Greece ca. 1600–1200 BC
Greek Dark Ages ca. 1200–800 BC
Ancient Greece 776–323 BC
Hellenistic Greece 323 BC–146 BC
Roman Greece 146 BC–330 AD
Byzantine Empire 330 AD–1453 AD
Ottoman Greece 1453–1832
Modern Greece after 1832

"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 large 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 Romans (Ρωμαίοι – Romans) which had already become a synonym for a Hellene (Έλλην – Greek). However, the term was used for mainly legal and administrative purposes. The Byzantines preferred to call themselves Romioi (Ρωμιοί – ethnic "Christian" Greeks with Roman citizenship). The Byzantines were also 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 Acritas.

The overwhelming majority of the Byzantines themselves were very conscious of their uninterrupted continuity with the ancient Greeks. Even though the ancient Greeks were not "Christian" s" , the Byzantines still regarded them as their ancestors. In fact, the Byzantines did not only refer to themselves as Romioi in order to retain both their Roman citizenship and their ancient Hellenic heritage. A common substitute for the term Hellene (which had pagan connotations) other than Romios was the term Graekos (Γραίκος). This term was used often by the Byzantines (along with Romios) for ethnic self-identification.

Evidence of the use of the term Graekos can be found in the works of Priskos, a historian of the 5th century AD. The historian stated in one of his accounts that while unofficially on an embassy to Attila the Hun, he had met at Attila's court someone who dressed like a Scythian yet spoke Greek. When Priskos asked the person where he had learned the language, the man smiled and said that he was a Graekos by birth.

Many authors spoke of the Eastern Roman Empire's natives as Greeks [Graekoi] or Hellenes such as Constantine Porphyrogennitos of the 10th century AD. His accounts discuss about the revolt of a Slavic tribe in the district of Patras in the Peloponnesos. On a sidenote, the Slavic revolt was not part of a larger Slavic invasion since most Slavs were placed in Sclavinai or segregated Slavic communities meant to provide Byzantine forces extra man-power for military campaigns. Constantine states that the Slavs who revolted first proceeded to sack the dwellings of their neighbors, the Greeks (ton Graikon), and next they moved against the inhabitants of the city of Patras.

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 Ρωμαιοί (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.


Map of the Roman Empire c. 379 A.D., showing the praetorian prefectures of Gaul, Italy, Illyricum and Oriens, roughly analogous to the four Tetrarchs' zones of influence after Diocletian's reforms.
Map of the Roman Empire c. 379 A.D., showing the praetorian prefectures of Gaul, Italy, Illyricum and Oriens, roughly analogous to the four Tetrarchs' zones of influence 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 (Augusti) ruling from Italy and Greece, each having as co-emperor a younger colleague of their own (Caesares). After Diocletian's voluntary abandonment of the throne, the Tetrarchic system began soon to crumble: the division continued in some form into the 4th century until 324 when Constantine the Great killed his last rival and became the sole emperor. Constantine decided to found a new capital for himself and chose Byzantium for that purpose. The rebuilding process was completed in 330.

Emperor Constantine I the Great.
Emperor Constantine I the Great.

Constantine renamed the city Nova Roma, but the populace would commonly call it Constantinople (in Greek, Κωνσταντινούπολις, Constantinoúpolis, meaning Constantine's City). This new capital became the centre of his administration. Constantine deprived the single preatorian prefect of his civil functions, introducing regional prefects with civil authority. During the 4th century, four great "regional prefectures" were also created.

Constantine was also probably the first "Christian" emperor. The religion which had been persecuted under Diocletian became a "permitted religion", and steadily increased his power as years passed, apart from a short-lived return to pagan predominance with emperor Julian. 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.

Constantine also introduced a new stable gold coin, the solidus, which was to become the standard coin for centuries, not only in Byzantine Empire.

Another defining moment in the history of the Roman/Byzantine Empire was the Battle of Adrianople in 378 in which the Emperor Valens and the best of the remaining Roman legions were killed by the Visigoths. This defeat has been proposed by some authorities as 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 parts since 392: following the dynastic principle well established by Constantine, in 395 Theodosius gave the two halves to his two sons Arcadius and Honorius; Arcadius became ruler of the eastern half, with his capital in Constantinople, and Honorius became ruler of the western half, with his capital in Ravenna. Theodosius was the last Roman emperor whose authority covered the entire traditional extent of the Roman Empire. At this point, it is common to refer to the empire as "Eastern Roman" rather than "Byzantine."

Early history

The Eastern Roman 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 Roman Empire and at best only demanded tribute from the eastern half. Theodosius II fortified the walls of Constantinople, leaving the city impenetrable to attacks: it was to be preserved from foreign conquest until 1204. To spare the Eastern Roman Empire from the invasion of the Huns of Attila, Theodosius gave them subsidies of gold. Moreover, he favored merchants living in Constantinople who traded with the barbarians. His successor, Marcian, refused to continue to pay the great sum. However, Attila had already diverted his attention from the Western Roman Empire and died in 453 after the Battle of Chalons. The Hunnic Empire collapsed and Constantinople was free from the menace of Attila. This started a profitable relationship between the Eastern Roman Empire and the remaining Huns. The Huns would eventually fight as mercenaries in Byzantine armies during the following centuries. At the time since the fall of Attila, the true chief in Constantinople was the Alan general Aspar. Leo I managed to free himself from the influence of the barbarian chief favouring the rise of the Isauri, a crude semi-barbarian tribe living in Roman territory, in southern Anatolia. Aspar and his son Ardabur were murdered in a riot in 471, and henceforth, Constantinople became free from foreign influences for centuries. Leo was also the first emperor to receive the crown not from a general or an officer, as evident in the Roman tradition, but from the hands of the patriarch of Constantinople. This habit became mandatory as time passed, and in the Middle Ages, the religious characteristic of the coronation had totally substituted the old form.
The first Isaurian emperor was Tarasicodissa, who was married to Leo's daughter Ariadne in 466, and ruled as Zeno I after the death of Leo I's son, Leo II (autumn of 474). Zeno was the emperor when the Western Roman Empire finally collapsed in 476 and the barbarian general Odoacer deposed Emperor Romulus Augustus without replacing him with another puppet. In 468, an attempt was made by Leo I to conquer North Africa again from the Vandals had failed. This showed that the Eastern Roman Empire had feeble military capabilities. At that time, the Western Roman Empire was already restricted to Italy (Britain had fallen to Angles and Saxons, Spain fell to the Visigoths, Africa fell to the Vandals and Gaul fell to the Franks). To recover Italy, Zeno could only negotiate with the Ostrogoths of Theodoric who had been settled in Moesia. He sent the barbarian king in Italy as magister militum per Italiam ("chief of staff for Italy"). Since the fall of Odoacer in 493, Theodoric, who had lived in Constantinople during his youth, ruled over Italy on his own while maintaining a mere formal obedience to Zeno. He revealed himself as the most powerful Germanic king of that age, but his successors were greatly inferior to him and their kingdom of Italy started to decline in the 530s.
In 475, Zeno was deposed by a plot to elevate Basiliscus (the general defeated in 468) to the throne. However, Zeno was again emperor twenty months later. Yet, Zeno had to face the threat coming from his Isaurian former official Illo and the other Isaurian, Leontius, who was also elected rival emperor. Isaurian prominence ended when an aged civil officer of Roman origin, Anastasius I, became emperor in 491 and after a long war defeated them in 498. Anastasius revealed himself to be an energetic reformer and an able administrator. He perfected Constantine I's coin system by definitively setting the weight of the copper follis, the coin used in most everyday transactions. He also reformed the tax system in which the State Treasury contained the enormous sum of 320,000 pounds of gold when he died.

The age of Justinian I

Justinian I depicted on one of the famous mosaics of the St. Vitale church in Ravenna.
Justinian I depicted on one of the famous mosaics of the St. Vitale church in Ravenna.

The reign of Justinian I, which began in 527, saw a period of extensive imperial conquests of former Roman territories (indicated in green on the map below). The 6th century also saw the beginning of a long series of conflicts with the Byzantine Empire's traditional early enemies, such as the Persians, Slavs and Bulgars. Theological crises, such as the question of Monophysitism, also dominated the empire.

Justinian I had perhaps already exerted effective control during the reign of his predecessor, Justin I (518–527). Justin I was a former officer in the imperial army who had been chief of the guards to Anastasius I, and had been proclaimed emperor (when almost 70) after Anastasius' death. Justinian was the son of a peasant from Illyricum, but was also a nephew of Justin. Justinian was later adopted as Justin's son. Justinian would become one of the most refined people of his century, inspired by the dream to re-establish Roman rule over all the Mediterranean world. He reformed the administration and the law, and with the help of brilliant generals such as Belisarius and Narses, he temporarily regained some of the lost Roman provinces in the west, conquering much of Italy, North Africa, and a small area in southern Spain.

In 532, Justinian secured for the Eastern Roman Empire peace on the eastern frontier by signing an "eternal peace" treaty with the Sassanid Persian king Khosrau I. However, this required in exchange a payment of a huge annual tribute of gold.
Justinian's conquests in the west began in 533 when Belisarius was sent to reclaim the former province of North Africa with a small army of 18,000 men who were mainly mercenaries. Whereas an earlier expedition in 468 had been a failure, this new venture was successful. The kingdom of the Vandals at Carthage lacked the strength of former times under King Gaiseric and the Vandals surrendered after a couple of battles against Belisarius' forces. General Belisarius returned to a Roman triumph in Constantinople with the last Vandal king, Gelimer, as his prisoner. However, the reconquest of North Africa would take a few more years to stabilize. It was not until 548 that the main local independent tribes were entirely subdued.

Map of the Byzantine Empire around 550 A.D.
Map of the Byzantine Empire around 550 A.D.

In 535, Justinian I launched his most ambitious campaign, the reconquest of Italy. At the time, Italy was still ruled by the Ostrogoths. He dispatched an army to march overland from Dalmatia while the main contingent, transported on ships and again under the command of General Belisarius, disembarked in Sicily and conquered the island without much difficulty. The marches on the Italian mainland were initially victorious and the major cities, including Naples, Rome and the capital Ravenna, fell one after the other. The Goths were seemingly defeated and Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople in 541 by Justinian. Belisarius brought with him to Constantinople the Ostrogoth king Witiges as a prisoner in chains. However, the Ostrogoths and their supporters were soon reunited under the energetic command of Totila. The ensuing Gothic Wars were an exhausting series of sieges, battles and retreats which consumed almost all the Byzantine and Italian fiscal resources, impoverishing much of the countryside. Belisarius was recalled by Justinian, who had lost trust in his preferred commander. At a certain point, the Byzantines seemed to be on the verge of losing all the positions they had gained. After having neglected to provide sufficient financial and logistical support to the desperate troops under Belisarius' former command, in the summer of 552 Justinian gathered a massive army of 35,000 men (mostly Asian and Germanic mercenaries) to contribute to the war effort. The astute and diplomatic eunuch Narses was chosen for the command. Totila was crushed and killed at the Busta Gallorum. Totila's successor, Teias, was likewise defeated at the Battle of Mons Lactarius (central Italy, October 552). Despite continuing resistance from a few Goth garrisons, and two subsequent invasions by the Franks and Alamanni, the war for the reconquest of the Italian peninsula came to an end.

Justinian's program of conquest was further extended in 554 when a Byzantine army managed to seize a small part of Spain from the Visigoths. All the main Mediterranean islands were also now under Byzantine control. Aside from these conquests, Justinian updated the ancient Roman legal code in the new Corpus Juris Civilis. Even though the laws were still written in Latin, the language itself 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 center of Byzantine religious life and the center of the Eastern Orthodox form of "Christianity". The 6th century was also a time of flourishing culture and even though Justinian closed the university at Athens, the Eastern Roman Empire produced notable people such as the epic poet Nonnus, the lyric poet Paul the Silentiary, the historian Procopius, the natural philosopher John Philoponos and others.

The conquests in the west meant that the other parts of the Eastern Roman Empire were left almost unguarded even though Justinian was a great builder of fortifications in Byzantine territories throughout his reign. Khosrau I of Persia had, as early as 540, broken the pact previously signed with Justinian and destroyed Antiochia and Armenia. The only way Justinian could forestall him was to increase the sum he paid to Khosrau I every year. The Balkans were subjected to repeated incursions where Slavs had first crossed the imperial frontiers during the reign of Justin I. The Slavs took advantage of the sparsely-deployed Byzantine troops and pressed on as far as the Gulf of Corinth. The Kutrigur Bulgars had also attacked in 540. The Slavs invaded Thrace in 545 and in 548 assaulted Dyrrachium, an important port on the Adriatic Sea. In 550, the Sclaveni pushed on as far to reach within 65 kilometers of Constantinople itself. In 559, the Eastern Roman Empire found itself unable to repel a great invasion of Kutrigurs and Sclaveni. Divided in three columns, the invaders reached Thermopylae, the Gallipoli peninsula and the suburbs of Constantinople. The Slavs feared the intact power of the Danube Roman fleet and of the Utigurs (paid by the Romans themselves) more than the resistance of the ill-prepared Byzantine imperial army. This time the Eastern Roman Empire was safe, but in the following years the Roman suzerainty in the Balkans was to be almost totally overwhelmed.

Soon after the death of Justinian in 565, the Germanic Lombards, a former imperial foederati tribe, invaded and conquered much of Italy. The Visigoths conquered Cordoba, the main Byzantine city in Spain, first in 572 and then definitively in 584. The last Byzantine strongholds in Spain were swept away twenty years later. The Turks emerged in the Crimea, and in 577, a horde of some 100,000 Slavs had invaded Thrace and Illyricum. Sirmium, the most important Roman city on the Danube, was lost in 582, but the Eastern Roman Empire managed to mantain control of the river for several more years even though it increasingly lost control of the inner provinces.
Justinian's successor, Justin II, refused to pay the tribute to the Persians. This resulted in a long and harsh war which lasted until the reign of his successors Tiberius II and Maurice, and focused on the control over Armenia. Fortunately for the Byzantines, a civil war broke out in the Persian Empire. Maurice was able to take advantage of his friendship with the new king Khosrau II (whose disputed accession to the Persian throne had been assisted by Maurice) in order to sign a favorable peace treaty in 591. This treaty gave the Eastern Roman Empire control over much of Persian Armenia. Maurice reorganized the remaining Byzantine possessions in the west into two Exarchates, the Ravenna and the Carthage. Maurice increased the Exarchates' self-defense capabilities and delegated them to civil authorities.
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 eventually defeated and the territories were recovered by Emperor Heraclius in 627. However, the unexpected appearance of the newly-converted and united Muslim Arabs took the territories by surprise from an empire exhausted from fighting against Persia, and the southern provinces were overrun. The Eastern Roman Empire's most catastrophic defeat of this period 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 of only small areas around the toe and heel of Italy, plus some semi-independent coastal cities like Venice, Naples, Amalfi and Gaeta.
The fight for survival
The Eastern Roman Empire's loss of territory was offset to a degree by consolidation and an increased uniformity of rule. Emperor Heraclius fully Hellenized the Eastern Roman Empire by making Greek the official language, thus ending the last remnants of Latin and ancient Roman tradition within the empire. The use of Latin in government records, (Latin titles such as Augustus and the concept of the Eastern Roman Empire being one with Rome) fell into abeyance, which allowed the empire to pursue its own identity. Many historians mark the sweeping reforms made during the reign of Heraclius as the breaking-point with Byzantium's ancient Roman past. It is common to refer to the Eastern Roman Empire as "Byzantine" instead of as "East Roman" from this point onwards. Religious rites and religious expression within the empire were now also noticeably different from the practices upheld in the former imperial lands of western Europe. Within the empire, the southern Byzantine provinces differed significantly in culture and practice from those in the north, observing Monophysite "Christianity" rather than Chalcedonian Orthodox. The loss of the southern territories to the Arabs further strengthened Orthodox practices in the remaining provinces.
Constans II (reigned 641–668) subdivided the empire into a system of military provinces called thémata (themes) in an attempt to improve local responses to the threat of constant assaults. Outside of the capital, urban life declined while Constantinople grew to become the largest city in the "Christian" world. Several attempts to conquer Constantinople by the Arabs failed in the face of the Byzantines' superior navy, the Byzantines' monopoly over the still-mysterious incendiary weapon (Greek fire), their strong city walls, and the skill of Byzantine generals and warrior-emperors such as Leo III the Isaurian (reign 717–741). Once the assaults were repelled, the empire's recovery resumed.

In his landmark work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon depicted the Byzantine Empire of this time as effete and decadent. However, an alternate examination of the Byzantine Empire shows instead that the empire was a military superpower during the early Middle Ages. Factors contributing to this view entail the empire's heavy cavalry (the cataphracts), its subsidization (albeit inconsistent) of a free and well-to-do peasant class forming the basis for cavalry recruitment, its extraordinarily in-depth defense systems (the themes), and its use of subsidies in order to make Byzantium's enemies fight against one another. Other factores include the empire's prowess at intelligence-gathering, a communications and logistics system based on mule trains, a superior navy (although often under-funded), and rational military strategies and doctrines (not dissimilar to those of Sun Tzu) that emphasized stealth, surprise, swift maneuvering 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 no longer 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 controversy and religious division over iconoclasm. Icons were banned by Emperor Leo III, leading to revolts by iconophiles throughout the empire. After the efforts of Empress Irene, theSecond Council of Nicaea met in 787 and affirmed that icons could be venerated but not worshipped. Irene also attempted a marriage alliance with Charlemagne. This alliance would have united the two empires and thus would have recreated the Roman Empire (the two European empires both claimed the title). Moreover the alliance would have created a European superpower comparable to the strength of ancient Rome. However, these plans were destroyed when Irene was deposed. The iconoclast controversy returned in the early 9th century, only to be resolved once more in 843 during the regency of Empress Theodora (9th century). These controversies further contributed to the disintegrating relations with the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, both of which continued to increase their independence and power.

Golden era

Emperor Basil II the BulgarSlayer who reigned from 976 A.D. to 1025 A.D.
Emperor Basil II the BulgarSlayer who reigned from 976 A.D. to 1025 A.D.

The Eastern Roman 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, Byzantium soon fell into a period of difficulties caused to a large extent by the growth of aristocracy, which undermined the theme system. Facing its old enemies (the Holy Roman Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate), the Eastern Roman Empire 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 expulsion of the Byzantines from Italy in 1071 due to an ostensible lack of Byzantine interest in sending any support to Italy. Also, the Seljuk Turks, who were mainly interested in defeating Egypt under the Fatimids, continued their military campaigns into Asia Minor, which was the main recruiting ground for Byzantine armies. With the surprise defeat of Emperor Romanus IV by Alp Arslan (sultan of the Seljuk Turks) at Manzikert in 1071, most of that province was lost.

The Comneni and the Crusaders

Emperor Manuel I Comnenus in knight's armor who reigned from 1143 A.D. to 1180 A.D.
Emperor Manuel I Comnenus in knight's armor who reigned from 1143 A.D. to 1180 A.D.

After Manzikert, a partial recovery was made possible due to the efforts of the Comnenian dynasty. The first emperor of this royal line, Alexius 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. However, the emperor soon distanced himself from western imperial aid. Later crusades grew increasingly antagonistic. Alexius' son John I succeeded him in 1118, and was to rule until 1143. John was unusual for his lack of cruelty — despite his long reign, in an age where violence was the norm, he never had anyone killed or blinded. He was loved by his subjects, who gave him the name 'John the Good'. He was also an energetic campaigner, spending much of his life in army camps and personally supervising sieges.

A brief look at John's life gives an indication of the difficulties Byzantium faced in this period: Enemies confronted the empire on all sides. An invasion of nomadic horsemen from the north threatened to overrun the Balkans. The Turks were harrassing Byzantine territory in Asia Minor. However, this was an age where the empire depended on strong personal action by the emperor, and the way in which these problems were dealt with follows a pattern that was to recur throughout the reigns of the three Comneni emperors. Thanks to John's intelligent defence, the nomadic horsemen were soundly defeated, and the Danube frontier was secured. Likewise, Turkish expansion in Asia Minor was halted, and John took the fight to the enemy, leading a series of campaigns against the Danishmends in the north-east. However, despite extensive campaigning disappointingly little territory was gained and held in this region. Towards the end of his reign, John made a concerted effort to secure Antioch. On the way, he captured the southern coast of Asia Minor and Cilicia (these conquests proved more lasting). He advanced into Syria at the head of his veteran army, which had been seasoned by a lifetime of campaigning. Although John fought hard for the "Christian" cause in the campaign in Syria, there was a famous incident where the Prince of Antioch and the Count of Edessa sat around playing dice while John pressed the siege of an enemy town. These Crusader Princes were suspicious of each other and of John, and neither wanted the other to gain from participating in the campaign, while the Prince of Antioch also wanted to hold on to his City, which he had agreed to hand over to John if the campaign was successful. Ultimately, the Prince of Antioch conspired to keep John out of Antioch, and while he was preparing to lead a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and a further campaign, he accidentally grazed his hand on a poison arrow while out hunting. The poison set in, and shortly afterwards he died.

Map of the Byzantine Empire under Manuel Comnenus, c.1180
Map of the Byzantine Empire under Manuel Comnenus, c.1180

John seems to have been almost universally respected in his lifetime, and even the Crusaders admired his courage and vigour. His early death meant his work went unfinished — his last campaign might well have resulted in real gains for Byzantium and the "Christian" cause. Alexius' grandson, Manuel I Comnenus, had an optimistic outlook and saw possibilites everywhere. He led the empire on a number of dramatic adventures in Italy and Egypt, and was a friend of the Crusaders, often working with them in an ambitious attempt to secure a new order in the eastern Mediterranean. However, the Second Crusade and recriminations after its failure caused tensions. The Byzantines were suspicious of the intentions of the Roman Catholic Crusaders who continually passed through their territory, and the Crusaders found it difficult at times to understand the culture of their Byzantine co-religionists. Disputes between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches only harmed efforts at co-operation, and these divisions strengthened the position of the Muslims, who would ultimately triumph over both the Crusaders and the Byzantines.

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, and a grand expedition to their capital at Konya led by the emperor Manuel, was ambushed at the Myriokephalon in 1176 and forced to withdraw due to the destruction of its siege equipment.

Underlying reasons for decline

Although the three competent Comnenan emperors, especially Manuel, had the power to expel the outnumbered Seljuks, there were a number of reasons they never did so. Whereas the Byzantines had ultimately prevailed over the Arabs in the eighth century, driving them out of Asia Minor and holding a frontier against them, in the twelfth century the Turks were more successful in establishing themselves in these same lands. This was partially due to their nomadic lifestyle, which made them much better suited to life in Anatolia than the Arabs had been. But the main difference was one of demography. Whereas Arab armies conquered new lands and then installed a new governing class over them, the Turks settled as an entire people in their new lands. Unlike their Arab predecesors, the Turkish armies did not 'go home'. This made them much harder to dislodge, and indeed there are parallels with the entry of the Goths into the Western Roman Empire, many centuries earlier. Another reason was that it was difficult for the emperor to remain in one theatre of war for a long time, as events elsewhere often intervened that required his attention. It has even been argued that it was never in the interests of the Comneni to expel the Turks, as the expansion back into Anatolia would have meant sharing more power with the feudal lords, thus weakening their power. If this is so, it is deeply ironic, as re-conquering Anatolia may have saved the Eastern Roman Empire in the long run.
The decline of the 'theme' system, which had supplied large numbers of troops for the empire in earlier centuries, was also a major factor in the failure of Byzantine efforts to drive out the Turks. It is thought that the Byzantine army under Manuel numbered some 40,000 men. Comparison with the thematic army that had existed in the ninth century shows that considerably more men had been available for duty under the theme system. And like the late Roman army, the late Byzantine army was more costly than its earlier counterpart . Although the role of mercenaries in the Byzantine army has been the subject of much debate, it is a common misconception that they formed the entire Byzantine army in this period. In fact, the Comneni emperors made significant efforts to recruit native units as well as mercenaries. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that mercenaries did make up a substantial part of the army, and they were often expensive. One of the main advantages of the theme system was that it provided a means of mobilising large numbers of men cheaply. Now that this system no longer operated, one of the main strengths of the Byzantine state had been lost, and it is perhaps unsuprising that the empire disintegrated soon after the death of Manuel Comnenus: it was only the resolute leadership of three very capable rulers that had been holding the empire together. Byzantium had come to rely too much on individual emperors. Without strong underlying institutions that would always be there, whether the emperor was good or bad, the state was extremely vulnerable in times of crisis.

The Decline and Fall of the Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire in 1204 A.D. was divided into the Empire of Nicaea, the Empire of Trebizond and the Despotate of Epirus.
The Byzantine Empire in 1204 A.D. was divided into the Empire of Nicaea, the Empire of Trebizond and the Despotate of Epirus.

Of all the turbulent events that occurred during its long life, The Fourth Crusade had the most devastating effect on the empire. Although the stated intent of the crusade was to conquer Egypt, the leaders of the Crusade ran in to trouble when they found that considerably fewer men had responded to the call than had been expected. As a result, they could not afford to pay the Venetians for all the ships they had hired. After some time spent arguing over what to do next, the Venetians came up with a new proposal, and under their influence the Crusaders sailed to Constantinople, sacking the town of Zara (which was an enemy of Venice) on the way. In 1204, through treachery the Crusaders were able to gain entry to the city, and soon their troops poured into the city of Constantine, a city that had withstood every siege for nearly a thousand years. The Crusaders ransacked the wealth of a millenium, stretching back to the days of the Roman Empire. Buildings were burned down, and the four bronze horses which famously stand in Saint Mark's square in Venice today, were looted from the Hippodrome at Constantinople. 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.

After the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, three successor states were established. These states included the Empire of Nicaea, the Empire of Trebizond, and the Despotate of Epirus. The first state, controlled by the Palaeologan dynasty, managed to reclaim Constantinople in 1261 and defeated Epirus. This led to the reviving of the Eastern Roman Empire, but the empire's attention was more focused on Europe than on the Asian provinces that were the primary concern. For a while, the empire survived simply because the Muslims were too divided to attack. However, the Ottomans eventually overran many Byzantine territories except for a handful of port cities.

The Byzantine Empire in 1265 (William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, 1911).
The Byzantine Empire in 1265 (William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, 1911).
The Byzantine Empire around year 1400.
The Byzantine Empire around year 1400.

The Eastern Roman 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 for over 1000 years except by the Fourth Crusade) no longer offered adequate protection against 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, was last seen entering deep into the fighting of an overwhelmingly outnumbered civilian army, against the invading Ottomans on the ramparts of Constantinople. Mehmed II also conquered Mistra in 1460 and Trebizond in 1461.
Mehmed and his successors continued to consider themselves proper heirs to the Byzantine Empire until the demise of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. By the end of the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire had established its firm rule over Asia Minor and parts of the Balkan peninsula.

Meanwhile, the role of the emperor as a patron of Eastern Orthodoxy was now 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, is a term derived from the Latin word caesar). Their successors supported the idea that Moscow was the proper heir to Rome and Constantinople and the idea of a Third Rome was carried throughout the Russian Empire until its demise in the early 20th century.

It is said history is written by the winners, and no better example of this statement is shown in the treatment of the Byzantine Empire in history. It is an empire resented by Western Europe, as shown by the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade. A popular American university textbook on medieval history that circulated in the 1960s and 1970s, has this to say in the only paragraph in the book devoted to "Byzantium":

Emperor Constantine XI, the last emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, who reigned from 1449 AD to 1453 AD.
Emperor Constantine XI, the last emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, who reigned from 1449 AD to 1453 AD.
The history of Byzantium is a study in disappointment. The empire centering on Constantinople had begun with all the advantages obtained from the inheritance of the political, economic, and intellectual life of the 4th century Roman Empire ... Byzantium added scarcely anything to this superb foundation. The Eastern Roman Empire of the Middle Ages made no important contributions to philosophy, theology, science or literature. Its political institutions remained fundamentally unchanged from those which existed ... at the end of the 4th century; while the Byzantines continued to enjoy an active urban and commercial life they made no substantial advance in the technology of industry and trade as developed by the cities of the ancient world. Modern historians of the medieval Eastern Roman empire have strongly criticized the tendency of 19th-century scholars to write off Byzantium as the example of an atrophied civilization. Yet it is hard to find .. any contribution by way of either original ideas or institutions which the medieval Greek-speaking peoples made to civilization (pp. 248–9).

The 20th century has seen an increased interest by historians to understand the empire, and its impact on European civilization is only recently being recognised. Why should the West be able to perceive its continuity from Antiquity and thus its intrinsic meaning in the modern world — in so lurid a manner, only to deny this to the "Byzantines"?5 Called with justification "The City," the rich and turbulent metropolis of Constantinople was to the early Middle Ages what Athens and Rome had been to classical times. Byzantine civilization itself constitutes a major world culture. Because of its unique position as the medieval continuation of the Roman State, it has tended to be dismissed by classicists and ignored by Western medievalists. And yet, the development and late history of Western European, Slavic and Islamic cultures are not comprehensible without taking it into consideration. A study of medieval history requires a thorough understanding of the Byzantine world. In fact, the Middle Ages are often traditionally defined as beginning with the fall of Rome in 476 (and hence the Ancient Period), and ending with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The city of Constantinople in 1453.
The city of Constantinople in 1453.

Byzantium was arguably the only stable state in Europe during the Middle Ages. Its expert military and diplomatic power ensured inadvertently that Western Europe remained safe from many of the more devastating invasions from eastern peoples, at a time when the Western "Christian" kingdoms might have had difficulty containing it. Constantly under attack during its entire existence, the Byzantines shielded Western Europe from the Persians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, and for a time, the Ottomans.

In commerce, Byzantium was one of the most important western terminals of the Silk Road. It was also the single most important commercial center of Europe for much, if not all, of the Medieval era. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 closed the land route from Europe to Asia and marked the downfall of the Silk Road. This prompted a change in the commercial dynamic, and the expansion of the Islamic Ottoman Empire not only motivated European powers to seek new trade routes, but created the sense that "Christ" endom was under siege and fostered an eschatological mood that influenced how Columbus and others interpreted the discovery of the New World.6

Byzantium played an important role in the transmission of classical knowledge to the Islamic world and to Renaissance Italy. Its rich historiographical tradition preserved ancient knowledge upon which splendid art, architecture, literature and technological achievements were built. It is not an altogether unfounded assumption that the Renaissance could not have flourished were it not for the groundwork laid in Byzantium, and the flock of Greek scholars to the West after the fall of the Empire. The influence of its theologians on medieval Western thought (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 the empire that brought widespread adoption of "Christianity" to Europe — arguably one of the central aspects of a modern Europe’s identity. This is embodied in the Byzantine version of "Christianity", which spread Orthodoxy that eventually led to the creation of the so-called "Byzantine commonwealth" (a term coined by 20th century historians) throughtout Eastern Europe. Early Byzantine missionary work spread Orthodox "Christianity" to various Slavic peoples, and it is still predominant among the Russians, Ukrainians, Serbians, Bulgarians, people of the Republic of Macedonia, as well as among the Greeks. Less well known is the influence of the Byzantine religious sensibility on the millions of "Christian" s" in Ethiopia, the Coptic "Christian" s" of Egypt, and the "Christian" s" of Georgia and Armenia,though they all belong to the Orthodox Faith.

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 11 May 330; it came to an end on Tuesday 29 May 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, the Byzantine Empire's influence is hard to truly grasp. However, to deny history the chance to acknowledge its existence, is to deny the origins of Western civilization as we know it.

See also

Western Roman Empire
List of Byzantine Empire-related topics
Roman Empire
Roman Emperors
Byzantine Emperors
History of Greece
History of the Ottoman Empire
History of the Balkans
History of Europe
History of the Middle East
History of Rome
Latin Empire
Empire of Nicaea
Empire of Trebizond
Despotate of Epirus
Despotate of Morea
Byzantine currency
Byzantine art
Byzantine architecture
Byzantine music
Byzantine aristocracy and bureaucracy
Byzantine army
Byzantine battle tactics
Byzantine navy
Eastern Orthodox Church Calendar
Derogatory use of Byzantine


  • Georg Ostrogorsky. "History of the Byzantine State", 2nd edition, New Brunswick (NJ) 1969. (George Ostrogorsky, Георгије Острогорски)
  • 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.
  4. Norman Cantor, Medieval History, the Life and Death of a Civilization, 1963
  5. J.M. Hussey, The Cambridge Medieval History, Volume IV — The Byzantine Empire Part I, Byzantium and its Neighbors, Cambridge University Press 1966