The term “Byzantine” derives from Byzantium, an ancient Greek colony founded by a man named Byzas. Located on the European side of the Bosphorus (the strait connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean), the site of Byzantium was ideally located to serve as a point of transit and trade between Europe and Asia.
In 330 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine I chose Byzantium as the site of a “New Rome” with an eponymous capital, Constantinople. Five years earlier, Council of NicaeaConstantine had established Christianity – formerly an obscure Jewish sect – as the official religion of Rome.
Citizens of Constantinople and the rest of the East Roman Empire strongly identified as Romans and Christians, although many of them spoke Greek and not Latin.
Although Constantine ruled a unified Roman Empire, this unity proved illusory after his death in 337. In 364, Emperor Valentinian I again divided the empire into western and eastern sections, putting himself in power at the west and his brother Valens to the east.
The fate of the two regions diverged greatly over the following centuries. In the west, constant attacks from German invaders such as the Visigoths broke the struggling empire piece by piece until Italy was the only remaining territory under Roman control. In 476, the barbarian Odoacer overthrew the last Roman emperor, Romulus. Augustand after several centuries, the once powerful empire of Rome had fallen.
The Byzantine Empire flourishes
The eastern half of the Roman Empire proved less vulnerable to external attack, in part due to its geographic location.
Constantinople being located on a strait, it was extremely difficult to break through the defenses of the capital; moreover, the Eastern Empire had a much smaller common border with Europe.
It also benefited greatly from a stronger administrative center and internal political stability, as well as great wealth compared to other early states. medieval period. Eastern emperors were able to exercise greater control over the empire’s economic resources and more effectively muster sufficient manpower to fight invasion.
Eastern Roman Empire
Because of these advantages, the Eastern Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire or Byzantium, was able to survive for centuries after the fall of Rome.
Although Byzantium was governed by Roman law and Roman political institutions and its official language was Latin, Greek was also widely spoken and students were taught Greek history, literature, and culture.
Council of Chalcedon
On the religious level, the Council of Chalcedon officially established in 451 the division of the Christian world into distinct patriarchates, including Rome (where the patriarch would later be called pope), Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.
Even after the Islamic If the empire absorbed Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem in the 7th century, the Byzantine emperor would remain the spiritual leader of most Eastern Christians.
Justinian I, who took power in 527 and ruled until his death in 565, was the first great ruler of the Byzantine Empire. During the years of his reign, the empire included most of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, as Justinian’s armies conquered parts of the ancient Western Roman Empire, including North Africa.
Many of the empire’s great monuments were built under Justinian, including the spectacular domed Church of Holy Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia. Justinian also reformed and codified Roman law, establishing a Justinian Code that would endure for centuries and help shape the modern concept of the state.
At the time of Justinian’s death, the Byzantine Empire reigned supreme and was the largest and most powerful state in Europe. However, debts incurred from the war had left the empire in a dire financial situation and his successors were forced to heavily tax Byzantine citizens in order to keep the empire afloat.
Furthermore, the imperial army was overstretched and would struggle in vain to maintain the territory conquered during Justinian’s reign. In the 7th and 8th centuries, attacks by The Persian Empire and Slavs, combined with internal political instability and economic regression, threatened the vast empire.
A new, even more serious threat emerged in the form of Islam, founded by the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca in 622. In 634, Muslim armies began their assault on the Byzantine Empire by storming Syria.
By the end of the century, Byzantium would lose Syria, the Holy Land, Egypt, and North Africa (among other territories) to Islamic forces.
During the 8th and early 9th centuries, Byzantine emperors (beginning with Leo III in 730) spearheaded a movement that denied the sanctity of icons or religious images and prohibited their worship or display. veneration.
Known as iconoclasm – literally “the breaking of images” – the movement had its ups and downs under different leaders, but did not end definitively until 843, when a Church council headed by Emperor Michael III spoke in favor of the exhibition of religious images.
At the end of the 10th and beginning of the 11th century, under the rule of the Macedonian dynasty founded by Michael III’s successor, Basil, the Byzantine Empire experienced a golden age.
Although it spanned less territory, Byzantium had more control over trade, more wealth, and more international prestige than under Justinian. The powerful imperial government patronized Byzantine art, including the now popular Byzantine mosaics.
Rulers also began restoring churches, palaces, and other cultural institutions and promoting the study of ancient Greek history and literature.
Greek became the official state language, and a thriving monastic culture was centered on Mount Athos in northeastern Greece. Monks administered many institutions (orphanages, schools, hospitals) in daily life, and Byzantine missionaries won many converts. Christianity among the Slavic peoples of the Central and Eastern Balkans (including Bulgaria and Serbia) and Russia.
The end of the 11th century marks the beginning of the Crusadesthe series of holy wars waged by European Christians against Muslims in the Middle East from 1095 to 1291.
As the Seijuk Turks of Central Asia marched towards Constantinople, Emperor Alexios I turned to the West for aid, resulting in Pope Urban declaring a “holy war” II in Clermont, France, which sparked the First Crusade.
As the armies of France, Germany, and Italy poured into Byzantium, Alexios attempted to force their leaders to swear an oath of loyalty to him in order to guarantee that the lands reconquered from the Turks would be returned to his empire. After Western and Byzantine forces recaptured Nicaea in Asia Minor from the Turks, Alexius and his army withdrew, drawing accusations of treason from the crusaders.
During the following Crusades, animosity continued to grow between Byzantium and the West, culminating in the conquest and sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
The Latin regime established in Constantinople existed on shaky ground due to the open hostility of the city’s population and the lack of money. Many refugees from Constantinople fled to Nicaea, site of a Byzantine government in exile that would retake the capital and overthrow Latin rule in 1261.
Fall of Constantinople
Under the rule of the Palaiologan emperors, beginning with Michael VIII in 1261, the economy of the once-powerful Byzantine state was crippled and never recovered its former stature.
In 1369, Emperor John V sought in vain for financial aid from the West to deal with the growing Turkish threat, but he was arrested as an insolvent debtor in Venice. Four years later, he was forced, like the Serbian princes and the ruler of Bulgaria, to become a vassal of the powerful Ottoman Empire.
As a vassal state, Byzantium paid homage to the sultan and provided him with military support. Under John’s successors, the empire gained sporadic relief from Ottoman oppression, but the accession of Murad II as sultan in 1421 marked the end of the final respite.
Murad revoked all privileges granted to the Byzantines and besieged Constantinople; his successor, Mehmed II, completed this process by launching the final attack on the city. On May 29, 1453, after an Ottoman army stormed Constantinople, Mehmed triumphantly entered the Hagia Sophia, which would soon become the city’s main mosque.
The fall of Constantinople marks the end of a glorious era for the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Constantine XI died in battle that day and the Byzantine Empire collapsed, paving the way for the long reign of the Ottoman Empire.
The legacy of the Byzantine Empire
In the centuries before the final Ottoman conquest in 1453, the culture of the Byzantine Empire – including literature, art, architecture, law and theology – flourished even as the empire itself even collapsed.
Byzantine culture would exert a great influence on the Western intellectual tradition, as specialists of the time have pointed out. Renaissance enlisted the help of Byzantine scholars to translate pagan and Christian Greek writings. (This process would continue after 1453, when many of these scholars fled fallen Constantinople to Italy.)
Long after its end, Byzantine culture and civilization continued to exert influence on countries that practiced its Eastern Orthodox religion, including Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece, among others.