Eastern Roman Empire
The Byzantine Empire was the continuation of the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD.
Foundation and Capital
The division of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western halves occured in 285 AD under Emperor Diocletian, as a means to manage the vast territory more effectively. The Byzantine Empire was founded by Emperor Constantine the Great in 330 AD when he established a new capital, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), on the site of the ancient city of Byzantium strategically situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. The choice of Constantinople reflected the empire’s shift toward the eastern part of the Roman domain.
The Byzantine Empire considered itself the rightful heir to the Roman legacy, preserving many aspects of Roman governance, administration, and culture.
Christianity and Iconoclasm Controversy
One of the most significant transformations during the Byzantine period was the empire’s conversion to Christianity. Emperor Constantine the Great played a crucial role in the acceptance of Christianity, and it became a state religion. In 380 AD, Emperor Theodosius I issued the “Edict of Thessalonica,” which declared Nicene Christianity the official state religion. The Byzantine Empire remained a stronghold of Christianity throughout its existence, and its emperors were considered leaders of the Christian Church.
While the Western Roman Empire was more Latin in culture, the Eastern Roman Empire was heavily influenced by Greek culture, language and traditions. The majority of its population spoke Greek, and the Greek Orthodox Church played a vital role in shaping its identity.
The Byzantine Empire experienced periods of iconoclasm, during which the use of religious icons was debated and, at times, prohibited. This controversy had religious and political dimensions.
Justinian I and Theodora | Reign 527-565 AD
One of the most prominent Byzantine emperors was Justinian I. Together with his wife Theodora, he undertook significant efforts to restore the Roman Empire’s territorial integrity through military campaigns. He reconquered the western territories, resulting in the Byzantine Empire reaching its greatest territorial extent. Justinian is known for codifying Roman laws into the Justinian Code, a comprehensive legal system that influenced later European legal traditions. It was Justinian who constructed the Hagia Sophia.
The Byzantine Empire faced numerous external threats throughout its history. It successfully defended its borders against various invading forces, including Germanic tribes, Persians, and Arab Muslims. The Byzantine military employed advanced defensive strategies and siege tactics. The eighth and ninth centuries saw conflicts with the rising Islamic Caliphates, including the Arab Abbasid and later the Seljuk Turks. These conflicts resulted in territorial losses and economic challenges.
Macedonian Dynasty | 867-1056
The period under the Macedonian Dynasty is often considered a golden age. Emperors like Basil II achieved stability, economic prosperity, and cultural achievements.
The Great Schism | 1054
Tensions between the Eastern and Western Christian churches culminated in the Great Schism of 1054 AD, resulting in the formal separation of the Eastern Orthodox Church (based in the Byzantine Empire) from the Roman Catholic Church (based in Rome). This division created a lasting cultural and religious rift between the Eastern and Western Christian worlds.
Seljuk Threats | 1071
The defeat of the Byzantine forces by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 marked a turning point, leading to increased threats from Turkish powers.
The Sack of Constantinople | 1204
Over the centuries, the Byzantine Empire faced internal struggles, territorial losses, and economic challenges. One of the most significant events in Byzantine history was the Fourth Crusade’s capture and sack of Constantinople in 1204. This event led to the establishment of the Latin Empire in Constantinople and the division of the Byzantine territories among various Latin and Greek states.
Reconquest | 1261
The Byzantine Empire continued to exist in diminished form, with the Empire of Nicaea and the Despotate of Epirus as successor states. The reconquest of Constantinople by Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1261 marked a brief resurgence of Byzantine power, but the empire remained in a state of decline.
The End of the Byzantine Empire | 1453
The Byzantine Empire ultimately fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II (Mehmed the Conqueror) captured Constantinople. This marked the end of the Byzantine Empire – one of the longest-lasting empires in history – and the beginning of the Ottoman Empire’s dominance in the region.
The Byzantine Empire is considered a bridge between the ancient world and the medieval era and holds a crucial place in the history of Europe and the Middle East. The Byzantine Empire had a profound impact on the development of art, culture, politics, and religion in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. It played a pivotal role in preserving and transmitting classical Greek and Roman knowledge to later generations, and its legacy continues to influence modern Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the history of the region.