The word “Byzantine” comes from the name of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium; it was this that the Roman emperor Constantine (reigned 324-37) expanded and remodeled as his new capital. Constantinople.
The great city of Constantinople stood at the heart of the Byzantine Empire. Its official name was New Rome (Constantinople was its informal name and means “City of Constantine”). Like Rome, its poorer inhabitants received free grain, shipped in from Egypt, and this helped its population grow to about half a million. It was one of the biggest cities in the world at that time.
The city became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. This roughly covered the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean – Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece and the Balkans. Here, Greek had been the international language of commerce and culture since Hellenistic times; and it had increasingly become the language of government in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire. Because Constantine was the first Christian emperor, his city, Constantinople, was from the start a major center of Christianity.
The Eastern Roman Empire continued intact after the Western Roman Empire (comprising Italy, Gaul, Britain, Spain and Portugal, and North Africa) fell to German invaders in the fifth century. It was only marginally affected by the invasions of the time, and indeed flourished during the 5th and 6th centuries. For the population as a whole, life in the Eastern Roman Empire continued much as before. There were many great cities which housed an intact civilization – albeit one that was increasingly moving away from its Classical roots. It was increasingly Christian rather than pagan, and Greek rather than Latin in language and culture.
Such was the stability and strength of the imperial government in Constantinople during these centuries that it completed two great projects in codifying Roman law. The results were the Theodosian Code (429-38) and the Justinian Code (529-34). These were written in both Latin and Greek, and were to become foundational to the development of medieval, and then modern, European law.
Not all was well with the government of the empire, however. The involvement of the state with religious matters meant that quarrels between the churches of Constantinople, on the one hand, and of Egypt and Syria, on the other, weakened the cohesion of the state. With the emperor firmly taking the Constantinople side, the peoples of these eastern regions grew increasingly hostile to the imperial government. These feelings were to grow until, when Muslim armies invaded the empire from Arabia, in the 640s and 50s, the local populations of Syria and Egypt welcomed them as liberators rather than enemies.
Under the emperor Justinian (reigned 527 to 565 CE) the empire was able to recover considerable amounts of territory which had been lost to the western Roman empire in the 5th century. North Africa was recovered from the Vandals, Italy from the Ostrogoths, and much of southern Spain from the Visigoths. The same reign also saw the issuing of the Justinian Law Code (see above), and the building of the magnificent Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, as well as major public buildings in other cities; however, it also saw some set-backs for the empire: the campaigns in the west strand the imperial treasury, and a deadly plague struck in 541-2, killing perhaps a quarter to a third of the population of the empire. In 551 a huge earthquake hit the eastern Mediterranean, inflicting tens of thousands of casualties and damaging cities which, in some cases, they never fully recovered from.
In the 7th century, the Late Roman Empire suffered huge losses of territory. A massive war with the Persian (Sasanid) Empire for a time lost it its most valuable provinces, Egypt and Syria. Under the emperor Heraclius the empire was able to defeat the Persians, but almost immediately a new threat emerged from the east. This was the Arab armies which came sweeping out of Arabia in the name of their new religion, Islam. The Romans now permanently lost Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
Meanwhile, dealing with the threats from the east had drained their military resources in the west, and the Romans lost many of their recent conquests there: much of Italy fell to the Lombards, leaving the Romans with enclaves of territory in northern, central and southern Italy; the Visigoths regained all of southern Spain; and Avar and Slav invaders moved down from central Europe into the Balkans. Of their European territories, the Romans were left with their capital, Constantinople, and its surrounding territory, plus some pockets around in Greece.
It is from this time that we should start referring to the Later Roman Empire as the Byzantine Empire. This is a term coined by modern scholars, and refers to the old name for Constantinople, Byzantium. It denotes the fact that profound changes had occurred, or were now taking place, within the empire.
An empire transformed
Most of the provinces which had not been completely overrun by Arabs and Slavs had become war zones, with enemy forces penetrating deep into Byzantine territory, on several occasions to the walls of Constantinople itself. In these circumstances Byzantine society was transformed out of all recognition from the society which had gone before. The thriving urban life of Greek and Roman times, which had been the basis of classical culture, vanished. Towns became villages; only a handful of cities survived, by far the biggest being Constantinople itself – though even its population, now deprived of grain from Egypt, had shrunk to but a fraction of what it had been in the 6th century.
The changes in society and culture, plus the need for defense in depth, led to a revolution in government. Beginning under the emperor Heraclius, the empire was divided into military-administrative districts called “themes”, built around the need for self-defense. Within these themes, the Byzantine government fostered the creation and growth of an class of independent farmer-soldiers, cultivating land belonging to the state and protected against encroachments by local landowners. In return for an hereditary right to plots of such land, members of this class bore the burden of the empire’s defense.
Language and religion
Greek, for long the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean (see above), definitively replaced Latin as the language of government.
The displacement of Latin had an important effect on religion and culture. From this period onwards, Byzantine clergymen usually did not know Latin, and most western Clergy no longer understood Greek. This meant that the two groups talked less and less to each other, and this encouraged the divergence of the Christian Church into distinct branches. Whereas their essential beliefs would remain the same, a host of different practices (for example, the date of the most important Christian festival, Easter) accumulated to drive the two apart. While Western Christianity was evolving into the Catholic Church of Medieval western Europe, Byzantine Christianity was evolving into the Greek Orthodox Church.
One of the main differences between the two Christian churches was that, whereas in the West the Church stood apart from secular power, and to an important extent in tension with it, in the Byzantine world the Church was very much subordinate to the emperor. Byzantine emperors continued to control the church in a way that was no longer true for kings and princes in western Europe. One consequence of this was that disagreements in religion became political issues; for example, in the 8th and 9th centuries, both the Byzantine church and state was torn apart from time to time by the issue of whether or not to revere religious icons – the “Iconoclast Controversy” (it flared up in two main periods, 726-787 and 814-842). This controversy ended with the victory of the Iconophiles – the “Icon-lovers”. Icon-painting was to become one of the major art-forms practiced by the Byzantine (Greek Orthodox) Church, and by its daughter churches, such as the Russian Orthodox Church.
The fact that a defining feature of Byzantine civilization was that it was shot through with Christian belief did not prevent the Byzantine intelligentsia, made up mostly of monks, clergy and officials, of making a concerted effort to preserve the Classical civilization of the Romans and Greeks. We have them to thank for much of our knowledge of Ancient Greek literature, science and thought.
In the 9th and 10th centuries, a succession of vigorous Byzantine emperors consolidated their control over their existing provinces and expanded their borders on all sides. The Greek and Balkan lands were reconquered from the Slavs, and a new threat, from a group of steppe nomads called the Bulgars, to occupy much of the Balkans, was defeated. On the eastern borders of the empire Byzantine armies pushed out the empire’s territories in eastern Asia Minor, even occupying some of Syria.
This was the period, also, when Byzantine “soft power” reached its zenith. This was largely the work of Byzantine missionaries. Two brothers stand out, Cyril and Methodius, who, in the mid- to late-9th century carried out a wide-ranging mission to the Slavs of central and Eastern Europe. They translated parts of the Bible into Slavic, in the process developing the first Slavic alphabet (later known as the Cyrillic alphabet; it is largely based on Greek-style letters).
As a result of Cyril and Methodius’s work, and of many other Byzantine missionaries, the Bulgarians, Romanians, Serbs, and most notably Russia, were converted to Byzantine (Orthodox) Christianity. When therefore the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks in the 15th century the Orthodox Church continued to flourish amongst these nations.
In the 11th century, the tide turned again. In Italy, Byzantine control of central Italy had gradually been lost to the bishops of Rome, the popes; and in northern Italy a similar development had led to the rise of the great trading city of Venice, under its doges (originally Byzantine dukes). Now, the Byzantines lost their last toe-hold in southern Italy when their forces were expelled by Norman adventurers in 1071.
Of much more consequence was a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Seljuq Turks at the battle of Manzikert (1071). As a result of this, they lost a large part of Asia Minor, which had been the main recruiting ground for the Byzantine army. This was a blow from which the empire never really recovered.
From the 11th century, also, internal changes began to undermine the traditional strengths of the byzantine state. The power of the landowning nobility grew, and eventually captured the imperial court. From this position of strength the nobles were able to expand their estates at the expense of the hitherto independent peasantry, and reduce them to serfdom. This weakened the ability of the Byzantine government to man the armies.
The Byzantines called on the Western co-religionists for military aid, and this launched the famous Crusades by western Christendom to capture Jerusalem from the Muslims. This was by no means an unqualified boon for the Byzantines, and friction with the Westerners led eventually to the capture of Constantinople itself by the 4th Crusade (1204).
Western princes divided the Byzantine Empire amongst themselves within what they called the “Latin Empire“. Byzantine regimes-in-exile were soon set up in Greece and Asia Minor, however, and one of these was finally able to retake Constantinople on 1261, and re-found the Byzantine Empire.
This was now a mere shadow of its former self, and from the late 13th century the rising power of the Ottoman Turks began to engulf it. Finally, in 1453, the Ottomans captured Constantinople, and over the coming years the Ottomans mopped up the last small left-overs of the Byzantine Empire.