The Byzantine Empire
was the eastern section of the Roman Empire which remained
in existence after the fall of the western section. The life of the empire
is commonly considered to span AD 395 to 1453. During the thousand years
of its existence, it was known as the Eastern Roman Empire. It was not
referred to as the "Byzantine Empire" until the 17th century.
The Roman emperor Constantine the Great rebuilt Byzantium (today's Istanbul)
in AD 330. He renamed it Constantinople and made it the capital of the
The division of the Empire began with the Tetrarchy (quadrumvirate)
in the late 3rd century AD with Diocletian, as an institution intended
to efficiently control the vast Roman empire. The Roman empire was divided
by Theodosius I (also called "the great") for his two sons in AD 395. Arcadius
became ruler in the East, with his capital in Constantinople, and Flavius
Honorius became ruler in the west, with his capital in Milan.
The Byzantines considered themselves to be Romans and the legitimate
continuation of the the Roman Empire. Practically speaking, however, the
general prevailing national identity of the Eastern Roman State was Greek.
Greek was not only the official language, the language that would represent
the Eastern Roman State, but also the language of the church, of the literature
and of all commercial transactions. Even though the Byzantine Empire was
a multinational state, including Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Egyptians, Syrians,
Illyrians, and Slavs, it was considered to be a "Greek state" due to its
Orthodox Christian character and its common Greek culture radiated by large
centers of Hellenism such as Constantinople, Antioch, Ephesus, Thessalonika
The Eastern Empire was largely spared the difficulties of the west in
the 3rd and 4th centuries, in part because urban culture was better established
there and the initial invasions were attracted to the wealth of Rome. In
the 6th century the empire under Justinian I even regained some of the
lost Roman provinces, conquering much of Italy, north Africa, and Spain.
Under his reign, the Hagia Sophia was constructed in the 530s.
Justinian left his successors an empty treasury, however, and they were
unable to deal with the sudden appearance of new invaders on all fronts.
The Lombards took Italy, the Slavs overwhelmed much of the Balkans, and
the Persians gained domination of most of the eastern provinces. These
were recovered by the emperor Heraclius, who annihilated the Sassanid kingdom,
but the sudden appearance of the Arabs was too much for the empire, and
the southern provinces were all overrun in the 7th century.
What the empire lost in territory, though, it made up in uniformity.
The southern provinces differed significantly from the northern in culture
and practiced monophysite (rather than Orthodox) Christianity, and so felt
alienated; the north put up much more of a struggle. By the time of Heraclius
the empire had been divided into a system of military provinces called
to face permanent assault, with urban life declining outside the capital
while Constantinople grew to become the largest city in the world. Attempts
to conquer Constantinople failed in the face of the Byzantines' superior
navy and their monopoly of the still mysterious incendiary weapon Greek
fire. After that the empire began to recover.
The empire reached its height under the Macedonian emperors of the 10th
and early 11th centuries. Like Rome before it, though, it 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, who conquered
Italy, and the Seljuk Turks, who were mainly interested in defeating Egypt
but 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
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 (pronoia) and made significant advances against the Seljuk
Turks. His plea for western aid brought about the First Crusade, which
helped him reclaim Nicaea but soon distanced itself from imperial aid.
Later crusades grew increasingly antagonistic. Alexius had granted the
city of Venice access to many Byzantine ports for trade. The Venetians
became a major threat to the Empire. Under their influence the Fourth Crusade
captured Constantinople in 1204, founding a short-lived feudal kingdom
and permanently weakening Byzantine power.
Three Byzantine successor states were left - Nicaea, Epirus, and Trebizond.
The first managed to reclaim Constantinople in 1261 and defeat Epirus under
the Palaeologian dynasty, so reviving the empire but turning attention
to Europe when Asia was 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. Constantinople was initially
considered not worth the effort, but with the advent of cannons it fell
after a two-year siege to Mehmed II in May 1453. By the end of the century
the remaining cities - like Trebizond and Mistra - also fell.
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,
were originally the defined bounds of the Middle Ages.
See also Roman
Emperors and Byzantine