The Byzantine Empire
By the 300s, the Roman Empire could no longer control its long borders and far-flung outposts. After Constantine I took over, he divided the Roman Empire into east and west. The eastern half became the Byzantine Empire, which endured for 1000 years. It was the only “organized state” west of China to survive without interruption from ancient times until the beginning of the modern era.
Looking for a place to build a “new Rome” in the East, Constantine I decided in 330 on an ancient Greek site known as Byzantium. A small Greek town had long been thriving there. This “new Rome” became Constantinople (now Istanbul), the center of the Byzantine Empire.
Citizens of the Byzantine Empire saw themselves as both Romans and Christians. The official language was Latin, but many spoke Greek.
As the Western Roman Empire fell apart through internal conflict and constant invasions, the Byzantine Empire expanded and flourished. Byzantine had many geographic advantages, including a shorter frontier with Europe. Constantinople also had a strategic location on the Strait of Bosphorus. The narrow passage connected the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea and separated the continents of Europe and Asia. This location made Constantinople easy to defend and an excellent center for trade between east and west.
The Byzantine Empire built on its geographic advantages to create strong leadership, internal stability and great wealth. Ruled by Roman law, it became a rich center of art, literature and learning.
One of the best known rulers of the Byzantine Empire was Justinian I. He came to power in 527 and ruled until his death in 565. He expanded the empire to include most of the area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. He oversaw construction of a beautiful domed cathedral, the Hagia Sophia (“Church of the Divine Wisdom”). Justinian also reformed Roman Law in ways that would later influence modern European and international law.
Justinian had to borrow great sums of money to carry out his wars. He left behind a lot of debt after his death. Rulers who followed him had to tax citizens heavily to maintain the empire. And the imperial army found it hard to hold on to territory Justinian conquered.
Persians and Slavs threatened Byzantine borders on the East and the North. To the South, armies expanding in the name of the new religion of Islam took over Syria and further eroded Byzantine borders.
Religion, Art and Architecture in the Byzantine Empire
Christianity took a particular form in the Byzantine Empire: the Eastern Orthodox Church. Missionaries won converts among Slavic peoples. The church inspired a large body of art, such as illuminated manuscripts and icons, that would go on to influence art in Western Europe.
The Golden Age
In the 900s and 1000s, the Byzantine entered a period of relative calm and prosperity, considered its “golden age.” The empire had lost some territory. That meant rulers could focus more on expanding trade and wealth. The government became a patron of arts, restored churches and palaces and promoted the study of Greek history and language.
Rulers of the Byzantine Empire became especially skilled at diplomacy and made many treaties with neighbors to protect peace and trade. The Byzantine economy was the most advanced for its time in Europe. As the western endpoint of the Silk Road, Constantinople welcomed merchants who brought silks, spices and jewels from Persia, India and China.
The Fall of the Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire acted as a buffer between Europe and Asia. But as European crusaders passed through Constantinople on their way to battle Muslims in the Holy Land, tensions grew between eastern and western Christians. Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204. After that, a number of Byzantine territories fell under Crusader control or became independent states. The weakened Byzantine Empire finally fell to Ottoman rule in 1453.
- As parts of Western Europe fell into chaos, the Byzantine Empire helped to preserve elements of Greek and Roman culture, including many classical manuscripts. These passed back into Europe during the Renaissance.
- Byzantine architecture, such as the Hagia Sophia, influenced later building in Egypt, Arabia, Russia, and Romania.
- Byzantine painting influenced Italian Renaissance artists.
- The modern-day Eastern orthodox church, established in the Byzantine Empire, has become the second largest Christian church in world.