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Historians debate whether the Eastern Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire in the fourth or the sixth century CE, but the Christian civilization based at Constantinople (now Istanbul) became a major power of Europe and an important connection between the West and East. Even after its conquest by the Ottoman Turks, Byzantium’s cultural influence endured.
The Byzantine Empire was a Christian, Greek-speaking, multiethnic continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, and, as an entity that developed organically out of the Roman Empire and its ancient Mediterranean civilization, it has no clear starting point. Many date its origins to the year 330 CE, when Emperor Constantine I (the Great) established his new imperial capital, Constantinople (modern Istanbul), on the site of an ancient Greek city known as Byzantion (Byzantium in Latin). Others favor the mid-sixth century during the reign of Justinian I the Great (reigned 527–565 CE), the last emperor of Constantinople to speak Latin as his native tongue, who presided over Byzantium’s First Golden Age and whose policies dominated much of Byzantium’s subsequent history, for good and ill. Still others argue that the Byzantine Empire only emerged as a distinctive civilization and empire after the Arab conquests of the seventh century ended classical Greco-Roman civilization in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa.
Whatever its point of origin, the Byzantine Empire ended on 29 May 1453, when Ottoman Turkish forces captured Constantinople, the last, small remnant of a once-vast empire. Even this event, however, did not snuff out Byzantine culture, which continued to inspire various Eastern Orthodox Christian peoples, most notably Greeks, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians (Rumanians), Bulgarians, and Serbs. In addition, Byzantine influences on Ottoman culture, especially that of the court of the sultan, were significant.
The term Byzantine is modern, coined by historians to underscore the distinctive qualities of the civilization centered in Constantinople that emerged sometime between the fourth and seventh centuries of the Common Era. The Byzantines always referred to themselves as Romaioi, Romans, and viewed their capital city as New Rome.
Located on the Bosporus, a short, narrow strait that separates Anatolia from Thrace (the far southeastern corner of Europe) and connects the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea, Constantinople was ideally situated. The city was the natural meeting place of East and West, which was a major factor in Constantinople’s early growth in population and wealth. The city possibly housed as many as 500,000 people at its demographic high point in the early sixth century before a series of plagues beginning in 542 caused a downward spiral in population, from which it never fully recovered.
Its location and riches also made it one of the most besieged cities in the history of the world. Its massive triple land walls and superior harbor allowed it to resist the attacks of Goths, Huns, Persians, Avars, Slavs, Arabs, Magyars, Bulgars, Pechnegs, Vikings, Rus’, Seljuk Turks, European crusaders, and a wide variety of other peoples. Only on two occasions, in 1204 and 1453, did Constantinople fall to the assault of a foreign army.
The Empire’s Boundaries
Due to the vicissitudes of history, the boundaries of the empire were in constant flux. At their greatest extent under Justinian the Great in the mid-sixth century, Byzantine lands included Italy, Sicily, North Africa, and southeastern Spain, as well as Syria-Palestine, Egypt, the Balkans as far north as the Danube, and Anatolia (modern Asiatic Turkey) as far east as Armenia. The rise and expansion of Islam in the seventh century resulted in Byzantium’s losing Syria-Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. Earlier it had lost its foothold in Spain and most of Italy to Germanic forces, and in the ninth century Byzantium lost Sicily to Arab invaders from North Africa. In 1071 its last Italian outpost, Bari, fell to Norman French invaders, but only after Byzantine civilization had left a permanent imprint on the culture of southern Italy. Because of Byzantium’s long presence in southern Italy, knowledge of Greek and study of Greek texts never totally vanished in the West during the so-called Middle Ages.
Despite these territorial losses, the empire remained a major power in the Eastern Mediterranean down to around the year 1200 because it held on to much of its heartland—the Balkans, Greece and the Aegean Islands, and Anatolia—despite invasions by hostile neighbors, including the Bulgars and Normans in the Balkans and Seljuk Turks in Anatolia. This territorial core made it an empire that continued to straddle portions of Europe and Asia. Byzantine merchant vessels and war ships were equally at home on the Mediterranean and the Black seas, and the trading emporiums of North Africa, Western Europe, Inner Asia, and Southwest Asia, were all within easy reach.
After 1204, however, the empire’s heartland began to shrink appreciably due to conquests by western Europeans and Ottoman Turks. By the year 1400 the empire was a shadow of its former self.
As successors of Constantine the Great (reigned 306– 337 CE), the first Christian Roman emperor, Byzantine emperors claimed the title “equal of the apostles” and saw themselves as responsible for the well-being of all Christians, not just those who inhabited lands controlled directly by the empire. Consequently, Byzantine foreign policy, both in respect to Christian and non-Christian powers alike, was aimed at securing acknowledgment of the emperor’s position as head of the Christian world and protector of all Christians, no matter where they might reside.
As defenders of the orthodox (i.e., correctly believed) faith and Roman legitimacy, Byzantium’s emperors normally pursued defensive military and territorial policies. Much like China’s emperors, territorial expansion was usually far less important to those who sat on the Byzantine throne than acknowledgment by their neighbors of the emperor’s unique place in the world. Although the empire had a few notable military emperors, such as Basil II, who aggressively expanded Byzantium’s borders, its leaders, also like their Chinese counterparts, mainly employed military action as a last resort, preferring the tactics of bribery, diplomatic marriages, and awe-inspiring court ceremony to neutralize potential and real enemies.
Byzantium and Its Neighbors
As an empire that sat astride a web of land routes and sea routes connecting much of the Afro-Eurasian world, the Byzantine Empire employed in its service large numbers of foreigners, both Christian and non- Christian. Mercenaries from a wide variety of Turkic and western European cultures played key roles in Byzantium’s armies.
Although generally conservative in exercising military power, Byzantium’s emperors had a sense of mission when it came to spreading the faith peacefully among their pagan neighbors. Indeed, exporting missionaries to the Slavic peoples of the Balkans and Russia was an integral part of Byzantine foreign policy in the ninth and tenth centuries. At the same time these same emperors showed no particular desire to convert Zoroastrians in the Sassanian Empire of Persia or Muslims, who in the mid-seventh century replaced the Sassanians as Byzantium’s greatest rival.
Holy war, either in defense of the faith or to spread it, was also a concept largely absent from the Byzantine mind. There were two notable exceptions to this Byzantine distaste for holy war. During the reign of Heraclius (reigned 610–641 CE), a life-or-death struggle with the Sassanian Empire, whose armies had sacked Jerusalem and carried off the relic of the True Cross, assumed the proportions of a holy war. Following the capture of Constantinople in 1204 by the army of the Fourth Crusade, a Byzantine Empire-in-exile at Nicaea in Anatolia fostered the notion of holy war to recapture the sacred city of Constantinople, until finally the city was retaken in 1261.
Byzantine Cultural Exports
Constantinople was a city of numerous churches, including the massive Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom. Built between 532 and 537 CE, it and its slightly earlier prototype, the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (the present-day Kucuk Ayasofya Mosque), signaled the genesis of a new form of ecclesiastical architecture—the Byzantine domed church—that proliferated throughout the empire and beyond. During Byzantium’s First Golden Age of the sixth century, the five-domed Church of the Holy Apostles was raised on Constantinople’s highest hill. The burial place of emperors, it served as the model for the five-domed basilica of San Marco in Venice and numerous Slavic Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe.
In addition to architecture on a grand scale, Constantinople (as well as other major Byzantine cities, such as Thessaloniki) was also a center of ancient Hellenic and Christian studies. Secular Hellenic literature, philosophy, and science—including the study of the works of Homer, Plato, and Euclid—provided the core of an upper class Byzantine’s education. But the Byzantines did not keep this learning to themselves.
Byzantium’s preservation of many of the classic literary and philosophical texts of ancient Greece, especially the Dialogues of Plato, made possible their direct transmission to the West in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, where they were avidly studied by Italian humanist scholars. Earlier, during the ninth century, Caliph al-Muman established the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where Byzantines and Muslims cooperated in translating into Arabic a vast body of ancient Greek scientific knowledge, especially treatises on medicine and other “practical” sciences, such as mathematics, geography, and astronomy. These texts, which traveled from the schools of Byzantium to Baghdad, had a profound impact throughout the Islamic world. And it was largely from Muslim Spain, al-Andalus, that the works of Aristotle and Galen entered Christian western Europe during the twelfth century. These texts, preserved by Byzantium, translated into Arabic, and then translated into Latin, were key factors in an intellectual and educational revolution that some label “Europe’s Twelfth-Century Renaissance.”
During the ninth and tenth centuries, as Byzantine secular learning was permeating the intellectual world of Dar al-Islam, Byzantine Christian studies were transforming the cultures of many Slavic peoples.
During the 860s CE the brothers Constantine (also called Cyril) and Methodius worked as missionaries in Moravia and translated the gospels and a wide variety of other church literature from Greek into Slavic. Whereas the Western Church, with its center in Rome, imposed the Latin liturgy and Latin ecclesiastical scholarship on all of its converts, the Byzantine Church allowed converts from other cultures to retain their own languages in the liturgy and to read religious texts in their own tongues. With that in mind, Constantine-Cyril created a Slavic alphabet, which he based on the Greek alphabet but modified to accommodate particular Slavic sounds. As reworked later by disciples of the two brothers, it became the Cyrillic alphabet.
Beyond creating an alphabet, Constantine-Cyril was also instrumental in crafting a Slavic sacred language- Old Church Slavonic- that he based on a southern Macedonian dialect. Because the brothers and their associates translated the Bible and a huge volume of other religious literature into Old Church Slavonic, it rapidly became an ecumenical language, which all Orthodox Slavic churchmen, regardless of their regional dialects, learned and used. Beyond that, it rapidly became a flexible literary tool. Original works, such as the life of Saint Constantine-Cyril and monastic chronicles, soon appeared alongside imported religious texts.
Laying Byzantium’s Foundations (324-476 CE)
In 324 Constantine I, Roman emperor of the West and a champion of Christianity, defeated and killed his pagan imperial colleague, Licinius, Roman emperor of the East. Now, for the first time since 293, the Roman Empire was united under a single ruler. In honor of his victory, Constantine ordered that Byzantion be expanded and rededicated as Constantinople (Constantine’s City). Dedicated on 11 May 330, the city served as Constantine’s residence until his death in 337.
During these latter years of his life, Constantine established the principle that the Church enjoyed the legitimacy of imperial authority and its doctrines carried the force of imperial law. All of Constantine’s successors were baptized Christians, even Julian (reigned 361-363), named “the Apostate,” ·who renounced the faith and unsuccessfully tried to restore the ancient pagan civic cults. By the reign of Theodosius I (reigned 378-395), the last Roman emperor to rule over both halves of the empire, the marriage between church and state was complete. In 391 Theodosius promulgated a series of edicts against paganism that transformed Christianity into the sole state religion.
Meanwhile, during the last quarter of the fourth century, Goths and other Germans were crossing the Roman Empire’s frontiers in increasing numbers. Although they had no intention of destroying it, their cumulative impact led to the breakdown of the imperial system in the western half of the empire, which had had its own Roman emperors since 395. When the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476, the theory was that the empire was again reunited under a single emperor, Zeno, who resided at Constantinople. In fact the West was fast becoming a mosaic of independent Germanic kingdoms, and its culture was already beginning to undergo a process of radical transformation.
While the West was undergoing invasion and metamorphosis, the Eastern Roman Empire, which largely managed to deflect the Germans westward, was unable to help it in any substantive way due to its own instability and internal divisions, many of which were religious in nature.
Rebuilding and Defending Byzantium (518–641 CE)
At this juncture the vigorous Justinian the Great (reigned 527–565 CE) emerged, first as chief counselor to his uncle, Justin I, then as emperor in his own right. Justinian’s administrative reforms reinvigorated the empire, but costly wars, a Mediterranean-wide plague that killed off up to one-half of the empire’s population, and new invasions by Germanic Lombards in Italy and Slavs and Turkic Avars in the Balkans unraveled many of his gains. Despite setbacks, Justinian presided over an era of artistic creativity and political retrenchment. During his reign a massive rebuilding program changed the face of Constantinople.
In 603 CE the Sassanian Persian Empire struck hard in the East and by 622–623 seemed on the verge of conquering the whole Eastern Roman Empire. A counterattack led by Emperor Heraclius, however, carried the fight to the enemy, and in 628 Heraclius forced a favorable peace treaty on the defeated and disorganized Persians. In a sense, however, both sides lost, exhausted as they were by the protracted and bitter war.
Eastern Roman weakness made it possible for pagan Slavs to penetrate ever more deeply and fully into the Balkans. Equally menacing were attacks from out of Arabia by a new force, the armies of Islam, which invaded Syria-Palestine in 633–634. Jerusalem fell in 638, and by 641, the year of Heraclius’s death, most of Egypt had also been lost.
Byzantium under Siege (641–718 CE)
The seventh century arguably witnessed the birth of a full-fledged Byzantine civilization, but also it was a period in which Byzantium struggled to survive. By 651 the Arabs had overrun Sasanian Persia; it is a wonder that they failed to conquer all of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 673 Arab forces initiated a siege of Constantinople that the Byzantines only broke in 677, thanks to a new weapon known as “Greek fire,” an incendiary mixture of naptha and pitch that was projected onto enemy vessels and troops. In 717 the Arabs returned with an immense army and navy but were driven back the following year. Between these two sieges a new hostile force appeared in the Balkans. The Bulgars, a warlike pagan people out of Central Asia, moved into northern Thrace, from which they could not be dislodged. The Bulgarian kingdom would continue to be a threat to Byzantium for centuries thereafter, even after the Bulgars were converted to Orthodox Christianity in the ninth century.
The Iconoclastic Controversy (726–843 CE)
Like many other Byzantine emperors, Leo III (reigned 717–741), who led Constantinople’s successful defense against the Arabs, fashioned himself a theologian. In 726 or 730 he instituted a policy of Iconoclasm, or image breaking, which prohibited the production, display, and veneration of icons, namely sacred images of God or the saints. Although unpopular among the masses, it was official church teaching and practice until the empress-regent Irene reversed it in 787. Leo V reinstituted the ban on icons in 815, but Empress-Regent Theodora suppressed Iconoclasm for good in 843.
Although eventually rejected as doctrine, Iconoclasm underscored the widening gap between Byzantium and the Church of Rome, most of whose popes were avid defenders of icon veneration. Moreover, in the middle of the eighth century, amidst the “Iconoclastic Controversy,” the papacy turned to a family of Frankish warriors in its search for new defenders. From this family, the Carolingians, came Charlemagne (Charles the Great), whom Pope Leo III crowned Roman emperor on Christmas Day, 800. With its rival Roman emperor, the Latin West was rapidly moving away from its Greek coreligionists in the East.
The Macedonian Dynasty (867–1025 CE)
With the accession of Basil I (reigned 867–886), Byzantium acquired one of its longest surviving and most successful dynasties, a family of Armenian descent known as the Macedonians, under whom the empire enjoyed a Second Golden Age of territorial expansion, prosperity, and artistic innovation.
Under Basil II (reigned 976–1025), known as “the Bulgar-Slayer” because of his conquest of Bulgaria, the empire reached its apogee of prestige and power. The Black Sea was a virtual Byzantine lake, and no other empire in western Eurasia—the Abbasids of Baghdad, the Fatimids of Egypt, or the Ottonians of Germany—could rival it.
Seljuks and Crusaders (1071–1204)
On 26 August 1071, a new power in Islam, the Seljuk Turks, destroyed a Byzantine army at Manzikert in eastern Anatolia and captured Emperor Romanus IV. Although Sultan Alp Arslan released Romanus under generous terms, the defeat at Manzikert signaled a crisis. In early 1095 the threat of losing Anatolia to the Seljuks induced Emperor Alexius I (reigned 1081– 1118) to request that Pope Urban II induce Western warriors to enlist in Byzantium’s armies. The pope responded by transforming this request for mercenaries into a holy war fought by armies independent of Byzantine control and aimed at simultaneously aiding Eastern Christians and liberating Jerusalem. The result was the First Crusade (1096–1102).
Armies of the First Crusade managed to capture Jerusalem in 1099 and established four crusader states in the lands of Syria-Palestine. However, the transit of crusader armies across Byzantine territory, with the conflicts that resulted, as well as the establishment of the crusader states, fomented distrust among Byzantines, especially their emperors, regarding Western motives. Throughout the twelfth century, but especially during the Second (1147– 1149) and Third (1188–1192) Crusades, Byzantium’s emperors pursued a policy of working to weaken crusader forces that crossed their lands, lest they threaten the integrity of Constantinople. This policy of self-preservation was perceived in the West as evidence of Byzantine perfidy and pro-Muslim sentiments.
Growing distrust of Byzantines, however, did not precipitate the capture of Constantinople on 13 April 1204 by the army of the Fourth Crusade. The factors that led to that capture were complex and largely unforeseen. Mutual animosity engendered by over a century of crusading, however, contributed to the armed clashes that ended in the crusaders’ assault on and sack of the city.
The Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204–1261)
The crusader conquerors of Constantinople established a fragile empire that lasted from 1204 to 1261 and encompassed the capital city and much of Greece and the Aegean Islands. Meanwhile, several Byzantine empires-in-exile claimed the mantle of imperial legitimacy, with the most important being located at Nicaea in Anatolia.
In July 1261 Byzantine forces from Nicaea reoccupied Constantinople, which had been left undefended, and a month later Emperor Michael VIII entered the city in triumph. The victory was less meaningful than it appeared. Portions of Greece and the Aegean Islands remained in Western hands. Worse, the events of 1204 had destroyed the myth of Constantinople’s invincibility and shattered a civilization.
Borrowed Time (1261–1453)
A severely weakened Byzantine Empire barely managed to escape the machinations of Charles of Anjou, king of Sicily, prince of Achaea (southern Greece), and nominal king of Jerusalem. Charles had his eyes on Constantinople as the capital of a grand Mediterranean Empire. Circumstances, including his death in 1285, combined to defeat him and save Byzantium.
The Byzantines, however, could not avoid the relentless pressure of a new Turkish foe: the Ottomans. Around 1300 the Ottomans began to expand out from northwestern Anatolia. By 1400 they had conquered all of Anatolia and most of the Balkans, effectively isolating Constantinople. Byzantium, however, received a half-century-long reprieve when the Muslim army of Timur i Leng (Tamerlane) crushed Ottoman forces at Ankara in 1402, forcing the Ottomans to abandon their blockade of Constantinople. It took the Ottomans two decades to recover from the disaster.
In 1451 the nineteen-year-old Mehmed II succeeded to the sultanate with plans to take Constantinople. After choking off the city from access to the Black Sea, his forces initiated their attack on 6 April 1453 and breached the city’s walls on 29 May. Eleven centuries after Constantine the Great, the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI, died in the fighting, and his body was never identified.
An empire had fallen, but the culture of Byzantium lived on.
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