Byzantine Empire

Home » History » Byzantine Empire
History No Comments

* Origin

* Early History

* The age of Justinian

* The iconoclastic

* Foreign policy

* The religious policy

* The Decline of the Empire (1056-1261)

* The fall of Constantinople


The Byzantine Empire (also called, especially in reference to the initial stage, the Eastern Roman Empire) was a medieval Christian empire whose capital was Greek culture in Byzantium or Constantinople (now Istanbul). The origins of the Byzantine Empire back to the final stage of the Roman Empire. Initially covered the entire eastern Mediterranean, but eventually was undergoing major territorial reductions.

There is no general consensus as to the starting date of the Byzantine Empire. For some authors, the key date is the foundation of Constantinople in 330, while other scholars regarded as the birth certificate of the Byzantine Empire death of Theodosius I in 395, when the Roman Empire was permanently divided into two halves, East and West. Others think it may speak with propriety of the Byzantine Empire from the time he was deposed the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus (476).

The demise of the Byzantine Empire occurred with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. However, the demise of the Byzantine state did not end with the nationalist sentiments of the people, and that the present inhabitants of Greece are considered heirs of the Byzantine tradition.

Foundations of Byzantine civilization are:

a) The Hellenistic, ie partially Orientalized Hellenism, which had spread over much of the Mediterranean world after the conquests of Alexander the Great. So important is this past that the chronicler Michael the Syrian (XII) will say that the Empire of Constantinople, which he begins with the reign of Tiberius at the end of the sixth century, is the second Greek Empire, then the first, identified with ancient Hellenistic kingdoms.

b) The Roman, as the Byzantine Empire is the continuation of the Roman Empire, and it owes much of its political, administrative, military and financial. The Byzantines always called themselves “Romans”-the term “Greek” to the tenth century, is synonymous with “pagan” -, and the Emperor is the “Basileus ton Romeion” ie, “Emperor of the Romans “. These designations will continue to use even in those times when the command of Greek is total.

c) Christianity, without which it is impossible to understand the Byzantine spirit. Religion then lived with an intensity and an almost incomprehensible mysticism today, which explains many features of the Byzantine civilization which today seem shocking to a humanity that has confined to a corner marginal existence of the sacred experience. Byzantium, and this is his genius, as Zakythins Dionysus, learned to conduct a synthesis between the Hellenistic, the Roman and Christian; Thus, for example, forms moderated own despotic and absolutist East. This Christianized Hellenism will become increasingly “Byzantine”. The Christian will always be present, and as for the other two factors predominate either as the period under study.


To ensure control of the Roman Empire and streamline its administration, Diocletian in the late third century, instituted the system of government known as the Tetrarchy, dividing the empire into two halves, ruled by two emperors (august), each which had associated a “vice-emperor” and future heir (Caesar). After the abdication of Diocletian the system lost its force, and began a period of civil war that did not end until 324, when Constantine unified the two parts of the Empire.

Constantine rebuilt the city of Byzantium as the new capital in 330. He called it “New Rome” but is widely known as Constantinople (in Greek , Constantinopolis). The new administration was centered in the city, which enjoyed an enviable strategic position and was located at the junction of the most important trade routes in the eastern Mediterranean.

Constantine was also the first emperor to adopt Christianity, religion was increasing its influence throughout the fourth century and ended up being proclaimed by Emperor Theodosius I, at the end of that century, the official religion of the Empire.

On the death of the Emperor Theodosius, in 395, the empire was divided definitively: Honorio, his son, inherited the western half, with its capital in Rome, while his other son Arcadio accounted for the East, with its capital in Constantinople. For most authors, it is from this point that the story properly begins the Byzantine Empire. While the history of the Western Roman Empire ended in 476, when Romulus Augustus was deposed, the history of the Byzantine Empire will last for almost a millennium.

Early History

While the Western Empire sank permanently, the successors of Theodosius were able to conjure successive barbarian invasions that threatened the Eastern Empire. The Visigoths were diverted westward by Emperor Arcadius (395-408). His successor, Theodosius II (408-450) strengthened the walls of Constantinople, making it an impregnable city (in fact, it would not be conquered by foreign troops until 1204), and managed to avoid the invasion of the Huns by paying taxes until after Attila’s death in 453, were disrupted and stopped danger. Meanwhile, Zeno (474-491) prevented the invasion of Ostrogothic Theodoric, aiming for Italy.

Religious unity was threatened by heresies that proliferated in the eastern half of the Empire, and highlighted the division in doctrine between the four main venues East: Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. Already in 325, the Council of Nicaea had condemned Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ. In 431, the Council of Ephesus declared heretical Nestorianism. More lasting crisis, however, was caused by the Monophysite heresy, which claimed that Christ had only one nature, the divine. Although it was also condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, had won many adherents, especially in Egypt and Syria, and emperors all failed in their attempts to restore religious unity. In this period also began the close partnership between the Church and the Empire: Leo I (457-474) was the first emperor crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Late V century, during the reign of Emperor Anastasius I, the danger posed barbarian invasions definitely seems conjured. The Germanic peoples already settled in the late Western Empire, are too busy consolidating their respective monarchies like to inquire about Byzantium.

The age of Justinian

During the reign of Justinian (527-565), the Empire reached the peak of his power. The emperor is proposed to restore the borders of the former Roman Empire, for he undertook a series of wars of conquest in the West:

* Between 533 and 534 an army under General Belisarius conquered the kingdom of the Vandals in the former Roman province of Africa. The territory, once pacified, was ruled by a magister militum.

* Between 535 and 536, the Ostrogoths Belisario wrested Sicily and Southern Italy, reaching Rome. After a brief recovery of the Ostrogoths (541-551), a new Byzantine army, led this time by Narses, Italy annexed the Empire again.

* In 552 the Byzantines intervened in internal disputes of the Visigothic and annexed to the empire vast territories south of the Iberian Peninsula. The Byzantine presence in Hispania lasted until the year 620.

On the eastern border, stopped Belisario expansionist Persian Chosroes I (531-579), whom he defeated at the Battle of Daras.

The campaigns of Justinian in the West left exhausted the imperial treasury and rushed to the rule in a crisis situation, which would climax in the early seventh century.

With virtually Justinian closes the “cycle Latino” and succeed Hellenistic trends. For one thing, faithful to the Roman tradition, is launched to recapture the adventure of the Mediterranean for the Empire, a company that had no lasting results and Byzantium after which concentrate their energies on the East. Moreover, under its mandate makes a Herculean task of gathering of Roman law, the Corpus Juris Civilis, Latin, however, is at the time when it begins to legislate in Greek, easier to understand since it was the language current in the Empire.

The Roman patriotism thus yields to Greek patriotism, as is Greek, now, the “patriotic phonetic” homeland language. The predominance of the Greek language in the eastern Byzantine allow fluid communication with the past and with the classic Greek patristic Christian, as seen in the writings of St. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, had nurtured the Greek philosophical thought. Indeed, Aristotelian logic was put to the service of theological thought, becoming the most studied by Byzantine theologians. This contact with the classical past will always remain in the Empire, and can say that the Byzantine Hellenism is to medieval Hellenism which is classic antiquity.

Between the seventh and ninth centuries occurs the “Great Rift of Hellenism” gap between two well-defined historical landscapes. It’s the end of an era, for the Greeks, dates, without interruption, to classical antiquity. In Greece, for two centuries, between 650 and 850, life is impoverished and intellectual activity seems to stop. A low value graffiti written on the Parthenon in Athens is the only written source for the period. It is a true “dark age”, whose origins are related to invasions and Avar-Slavic Bulgarian convulsing life in the Balkans. But you also have to look for the explanation in a more global phenomenon: the crisis Mediterranean scale “global”, caused by the rise of Muslim power.

Seem that in Greece itself, Hellenism has declined to agony. Byzantium, meanwhile, does not present a much more encouraging: between the seventh and eighth centuries, even though we know that by the 680, Theodore of Tarsus comes to England carrying Greek manuscripts of various authors, including Homer, Josephus and John Chrysostom, the foundation of a future English-decay intellectual awakening notoriously public education and intellectual activity. The Empire is facing, in the West, the Slavs, Avars and Bulgars, who have taken over the Balkans thus interrupting communications with the Latin West.

In the east, Syria and Palestine, and North Africa, have fallen into Muslim hands. The Empire is reduced practically to the area traditionally Greek Eastern Mediterranean, thus enhancing its Greek character.

The seventh century begins with the crisis caused by the spectacular offensive Sassanid king Khosrow II, which threatened the very existence of the Empire. This situation was exploited by other enemies of Byzantium, as the Avars and Slavs, who laid siege to Constantinople in 626. Emperor Heraclius was able, after a long and exhausting war, to avert this danger, repelling the assault of Avars and Slavs, and finally defeating the Persians in 628.

However, only a few years later, between 633 and 645, the lightning spread of Islam forever snatches the Empire, exhausted by war against Persia, the provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt. A mid-seventh century, the borders stabilized. The Arabs continued to press, even to threaten the capital, but the Byzantine naval superiority, reinforced by its magnificent naval fortifications and their monopoly of Greek fire a chemical capable of burning under water saved Byzantium.

On the western border, the Empire was forced to accept since the time of Constantine IV (668-685) the creation within its borders, in the province of Moesia, the independent kingdom of the Bulgarians. During all this time, moreover, were Slavs settled in the Balkans, even to the Peloponnese. In the West, the invasion of the Lombards became much more precarious Byzantine rule over Italy.

The iconoclastic

Between 726 and 843, the Byzantine Empire was torn by infighting among the iconoclasts, supporters of the ban on religious images, and icondulos, contrary to this prohibition. Iconoclasm is presented as the onslaught of trends orientalizantes against not only the classical Hellenism and appreciation for the artistic beauty, but also a deep conviction of Christians who see in the images (icons) a means to approach the Transcendent. Indeed, Byzantine art is not intended to mere aesthetic pleasure, sensual, but must produce a shock that raises the soul to God: “per visibilia ad invisibilia” the visible and corporeal, to the invisible and incorporeal, said Pseudo-Dionysius. In defense of the veneration of icons played the Byzantines, then the salvation of their souls, and it is this which explains the strong willingness they showed in defending their beliefs. The triumph of iconodules, imageworshippers in 843-the Feast of Orthodoxy, Byzantine-true national event, also marks the triumph of Hellenism Christianized.

The first iconoclastic period lasted from 726, the year in which Leo III (717-741) abolished the worship of images, until 783, when it was revived by the Second Council of Nicea. The second took place between 813 and 843. This year was definitely restored orthodoxy.

According to some authors, the iconoclastic conflict also reflects the division between state power (the emperors, most supporters of iconoclasm), and the church (the Patriarchate of Constantinople, in general iconodule) also noted that while in Asia Low Most were iconoclasts, the European part of the Empire was rather favor of image worship.

At the beginning of the ninth century, the Empire had undergone several major changes:

* Standardization cultural and religious: Islam versus the loss of the provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt resulted in greater uniformity. The Empire territories retained to mid-seventh century were mainly Greek culture. Latin was finally abandoned in favor of the Greek. Already in 629, during the reign of Heraclius, documented the use of the Greek term basileus instead of Latin augustus. In the religious aspect, the incorporation of these provinces to Islam adjourned Monophysite crisis, and in 843 the triumph of finally assumed icondulos religious unity.

* Reorganization territorial: in the seventh century, probably in time of Constans II (641-668) the empire adopted a new territorial organization to streamline its defense. The Byzantine territory was organized in themata, military districts that were both administrative districts, and whose governor and military leader, strategists, enjoyed broad autonomy.

* Ruralization: the loss of the southern provinces, where more development had reached the craft and trade, meant that the Byzantine economy should become essentially agrarian. The arrival of Islam in the Mediterranean from the eighth century hindered trade routes. Decreased the population and the importance of cities throughout the Empire, while beginning to develop a new social class, the landed aristocracy, especially in Asia Minor.

Between 850 and 1050 the Empire lived in a real intellectual flowering is called “Macedonian Renaissance” – around classical studies. An important milestone in this process is the reorganization of the University of Constantinople, the work of Caesar Bardas, the middle of the ninth century. At this time it is spoken and written in a Greek Empire excellent, and in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in a very close to classic.

The end of the iconoclastic struggle is an important recovery of the Empire, visible from the reign of Michael III (842-867), the last emperor of the dynasty Amorian, and, especially, during the nearly two centuries (867-1056) that Byzantium was ruled by the Macedonian dynasty. This period is known by historians as “Macedonian Renaissance”.

Foreign policy

During these years, the crisis that is engulfing the Abbasid caliphate, the main enemy of the Empire in the East, significantly weakens the Islamic threat. However, the new Muslim states that emerged as a result of the dissolution of the Caliphate (mainly North African Aghlabids and the Fatimids of Egypt), fought hard against the Byzantines for supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. During the ninth century, the Muslims finally wrested Sicily to the Empire. Crete had been conquered by the Arabs in 824. The tenth century was a time of major offensives against Islam, which allowed regain territories lost many centuries before: Nicephorus Phocas (963-969) reconquered northern Syria, including the city of Antioch (969), and the islands of Crete (961) and Cyprus (965).

The great enemy of the Western Empire during this stage was the Bulgarian state. Converted to Christianity in the mid-ninth century, Bulgaria peaked in times of Tsar Simeon (893-927), educated in Constantinople. From 896 the Empire was forced to pay a tribute to Bulgaria, and in 913, Simeon was about to attack the capital. On the death of this monarch, in 927, his kingdom included much of Macedonia and Thrace, together with Serbia and Albania. Bulgaria’s power was declining but during the tenth century and at the beginning of the following century, Basil II (976-1025), named Bulgarctonos (“slayer of Bulgarians”) invaded Bulgaria and annexed it to the Empire, dividing it into four themes .

One of the most crucial, and most lasting effects of this period was the incorporation of the Slavic peoples to the cultural and religious orbit of Byzantium. In the second half of the ninth century, the monks Cyril and Methodius of Thessaloniki were sent to evangelize Moravia at the request of its monarch, Ratislao. To carry out its task created, based on the Slavic dialect spoken in Thessaloniki, a literary language, the Old Church Slavonic or liturgical, and put a new alphabet for writing the Glagolitic alphabet (later replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet). Although the mission failed in Moravia, in the middle of the tenth century saw the conversion of the principality of Kiev, thus being under the influence of Byzantium a state of much greater extent than the Empire itself.

Relations with the West were strained from the coronation of Charlemagne (800) and the claims of his successors to the title of Roman emperors and rule over Italy. Throughout this stage, despite the loss of Sicily, the Empire continued to have an enormous influence in the south of the Italian peninsula. Tensions with Otto I, who sought to expel the Byzantines from Italy, were resolved by marriage to the Byzantine princess Theophano, niece of the Byzantine emperor John Tzimisces, with Otto II.

The religious policy

After iconoclastic conflict resolution, religious unity was restored Empire. However, it had to be done against the heresy of the Paulicians, who in the ninth century came to be widely distributed in Asia Minor, and its resurgence in Bulgaria, bogomilita doctrine.

During this time the Bulgarians were evangelized. This expansion of Eastern Christianity provoked the suspicions of Rome, and in the middle of the ninth century a major crisis erupted between the Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius and Pope Nicholas I, who excommunicated each other, producing a first separation of the Eastern and Western churches that called Schism of Photius. Besides the rivalry for supremacy between the sees of Rome and Constantinople, there were some doctrinal disagreements. The Schism of Photius was, however, brief, and to 877 the relations between East and West returned to normal.

The break with Rome was consummated in 1054, due to a dispute over the wording of the Creed, which had included the Latin theologians filioque clause, meaning well, contrary to the tradition of the Eastern Churches, the Holy Spirit came not only from the Father, but the Son. There was also disagreement in many other minor issues, and underlying, especially the showdown for supremacy between the two ancient capitals of the empire.

The Decline of the Empire (1056-1261)

After the period of splendor that marked the Macedonian Renaissance in the second half of the eleventh century was a period of crisis, marked by increasing feudalisation Empire and its weakness before the appearance of two new powerful enemies: the Seljuk Turks and the Christian kingdoms Western Europe.

On the eastern border, the Seljuk Turks, who so far had focused his interest in defeating the Fatimid Egypt, began to make inroads into Asia Minor, whence came most of the soldiers of the Empire. With the unexpected defeat at the Battle of Manzikert (1071) of Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes at the hands of Alp Arslan, sultan of the Seljuk Turks, ended Byzantine hegemony in Asia Minor. Subsequent attempts by the emperors Commenos reconquer the lost territories fruitless always be revealed. Moreover, a century later, Manuel I Comnenus suffer another humiliating defeat by the Seljuks in Myriokephalon in 1176.

In the West, the Normans drove the Byzantines from Italy in a few years (between 1060 and 1076), and conquered Dyrrachium, in Illyria, where sought his way to Constantinople. Robert Guiscard’s death in 1085 prevented these plans are to be carried effect. However, a few years after the First Crusade would become a headache for the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. We discuss whether it was the Emperor himself who sought help from the West to fight the Turks. Although theoretically had pledged to put under the authority of Byzantium territories under the Crusaders eventually establish several independent states in Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli and Jerusalem.

The Holy Roman Germans and the Normans of Sicily and southern Italy continued to attack the Empire during the twelfth century. The city states and Italian republics like Venice and Genoa, to whom Alejo had granted trading rights in Constantinople, became targets because of the anti-Western resentment exists against the Franks or Latins. The Venetians especially those demonstrations were greatly importuned Byzantine town, considering that its fleet of ships was the basis of the Byzantine navy.

Frederick Barbarossa (Holy Roman Emperor) unsuccessfully tried to conquer the empire during the Third Crusade, but it was the fourth that had the most devastating effect on the Byzantine Empire for centuries. The express intent of the crusade was to conquer Egypt and the Byzantines, believing there was no chance of defeating Saladin (sultan of Egypt and Syria and main enemy of the Crusaders in the Holy Land installed), decided to remain neutral.

The Byzantine reluctance to get involved in the Crusade, taking control of the issue by the Venetians as their leaders could not afford the transport of troops and greed on the part of the leaders crossed the treasures of Constantinople made the Crusaders take Constantinople by assault in 1204, giving rise to ephemeral Latin Empire (1204-1261). For the first time since its foundation by Constantine, over 800 years ago, the city had been taken by a foreign army. The Byzantine power happened to be permanently weakened.

At this time, the Serbian kingdom, under the dynasty Nemanjic, was strengthened exploiting the collapse of Byzantium, beginning a process that would culminate in 1346 when the constitution of the Serbian Empire.

Three Greek states heirs of the Byzantine Empire remained outside the orbit of the newly established Latin Empire-the Empire of Nicaea, Empire of Trebizond, and the Despotate of Epirus. The first dynasty controlled Palaeologus reconquered Constantinople Latinos in 1261 and defeated Epirus, reviving the empire but paying too much attention to Europe when the increasing penetration of the Turks in Asia Minor was the main problem.

The fall of Constantinople

The history of Byzantium after the recapture of the city by Michael VIII Palaeologus is a prolonged decline. On the eastern side the Turkish advance reduced almost to nothing domains Asian Empire, some stages become a vassal of the Ottomans in the Balkans had to compete with Latin and Greek states that had emerged following the conquest of Constantinople in 1204, and in the Mediterranean Venetian naval superiority left very few options to Constantinople. In addition, during the fourteenth century the Empire, become one more of many Balkan states, was faced with the terrible revolt of the Catalans almogvares and two devastating civil wars.

For a while the empire survived simply because Seljuks, Mongols and Persian Safavids were too divided to attack, but finally the Ottoman Turks invaded all that remained of the Byzantine possessions except for a number of port cities. (The Ottomans came from one of the sultanates original nucleus of the future-Ottoman Seljuk state-cleaved under the command of a leader named Osman Gazi-I would give the name of the Osmanli or Ottoman dynasty).

The Empire appealed to the West for help, but the different states as a condition put the reunification of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox. The church unity was considered, and occasionally accomplished by legal decree, but the Orthodox citizens would not accept Roman Catholicism. Some Western fighters came to the aid of Byzantium, but many chose to leave the Empire succumb, and did nothing when the Ottomans conquered the remaining territories.

Constantinople was initially dismissed after his conquest because of its powerful defenses, but with the advent of cannons, the walls, which had been impenetrable except for the Fourth Crusade for over 1000 years and did not offer adequate protection against the Ottoman Turks. The Fall of Constantinople finally came after a siege of two months conducted by Mehmet II on May 29, 1453. The last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, was last seen when he went into battle with the troops of the besieging Ottoman Janissaries, who overwhelmingly outnumbered by the Byzantines. Mehmet II also conquered Mistra in 1460 and Trebizond in 1461.


Karl Roth, “History of the Byzantine Empire,” Labor, 1928

Franz Georg Maier, “Universal History XXI Century: Volume 13”, Century XXI, 1991

Isaac Asimov, “Asimov World History: Volume 7, Constantinople, the forgotten empire” Alliance, 1996



Mariana Alviza