What Was the Byzantine Empire?

Curated by TheCollector
what was the Byzantine Empire


For many, the Byzantine Empire evokes convoluted and often treacherous politics and diplomacy, decadent emperors, court eunuchs, wealthy cities, the religious state, and deteriorating military power. In short, a shadow of the “mighty” Roman Empire. While this is a tempting image, the reality is more complex. To start with, there was no Byzantine Empire. But there was the Roman Empire, or if you want to call it, the Medieval Roman Empire.


Already in the early fourth century, the center of the Empire was transferred to the East, to Constantinople. Under the rule of the pious (and often warlike) Christian emperors (and empresses!), the Byzantine Empire continued to prosper and flourish long after the fall of Rome. It even managed to reconquer portions of lost territories. Furthermore, the Empire played a crucial role in shaping medieval Europe. And when the fall finally came, the Byzantine exiles helped to spark the Renaissance, which took Europe out of the Middle Ages, setting the nations of the old continent on the path of global domination. 


There Was No Byzantine Empire

hagia sophia mosaic
The mosaic from the Hagia Sophia, showing the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, flanked by the emperors Constantine and Justinian, holding the model of the city of Constantinople, and the church of Hagia Sophia, 9th century, Istanbul


Although this will come as a surprise to most people, there was no Byzantine Empire. At least not under such a name. The inhabitants of the “Byzantine Empire” called themselves “Rhomaoi” – the Romans. And their Empire was known as “Basilea ton Rhomaion” or “The Empire of the Romans.” For the Rhomaoi, the infamous “Fall of Rome” was a mere whisper. The emperor, the government, and the military, the main pillars of the state, continued their existence in the East, in Constantinople – the imperial capital since its foundation by emperor Constantine the Great in the fourth century AD.


In fact, the term “Byzantine” came a century after the Empire’s demise. Its “inventor”, a German scholar Hieronymus Wolf used it to make a distinction between the “glorious” Roman Empire and the decadent “Empire of the Greeks.” Then in the 18th century, a British historian, Edward Gibbon, solidified the negative portrayal of the medieval Romans in his “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”


Constantinople – the City of the World’s Desire

ideal reconstruction of constantinople
Reconstruction of Constantinople in the year 1200, via Vivid Maps

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The negative portrayal of the “Byzantines” could not be further from the truth – quite the opposite. For centuries, the imperial capital of Constantinople was the center of medieval culture and learning. Constantinople was probably the most important place in the world. Its strategic location on the Bosphorus – the crossroads of Europe and Asia – meant that all trade between East and West had to pass through the city. Besides enormous wealth, the city of Constantine was the most cosmopolitan place on Earth.


The imperial capital also boasted some of the most majestic structures, including the magnificent cathedral of Hagia Sophia, the Great Palace, and the Hippodrome. No wonder Constantinople was called “The Queen of Cities.” However, due to its vast wealth and splendor, scores of hostile armies tried to take Constantinople, the “City of the World’s Desire.”


The Magnificent Walls That Ensured the Survival of the Empire

theodosian walls byzantine empire
Theodosian walls of Constantinople, 4th – 5th century CE, author’s private collection


The Byzantine Empire was protected by its army, led by capable emperors, such as Justinian, Heraclius, Basil II or Alexios Komnenos. However, on more than one occasion, the Empire and its capital were saved by the Theodosian Walls. This complex defensive system had no equals in the medieval world. Built around the mid-fifth century, under the rule of emperor Theodosius II (thus the name), the Walls posed an unsurmountable obstacle to the hostile armies.


The triple line of Theodosian walls, upgraded through history, defended the city from the land. At the same time, the Sea Walls and the imperial navy kept Constantinople safe from the attack of the hostile fleet. Only the invention of the cannon finally brought the Walls down in 1453. Even then, a few thousand defenders managed to keep the massive Ottoman army at bay for almost two months. 


The Rise and Decline of the Byzantine Empire

byzantine empire map
The map of the Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent in the 6th century, at its apex as a medieval state in 1020, and as a rump state before its fall in 1360


After the brief reconquest of the Roman West under emperor Justinian, spearheaded by Belisarius, the Empire found itself struggling for survival. The emperor Heraclius managed to defeat the Roman arch-nemesis – Sassanid Persia. But he was powerless to stop the Arab onslaught, which led to the permanent loss of the Empire’s wealthiest regions in East and North Africa. Yet, despite all the odds, the imperial armies, led by capable soldier-emperors of the Macedonian dynasty, pushed the enemy back and even went to the offensive.


The apex came during the rule of Basil II, who dealt a deathly blow to Bulgaria, thus securing the imperial hinterland. But the sequence of incapable emperors and the collapse of the defences in Anatolia led to the loss of this vital area to the Seljuks. With the help of the Crusaders, the Komnenian dynasty managed to stabilize the control. However, the civil wars and the Fourth Crusade led to the Fall of Constantinople in 1204. While the Palaeologian dynasty recaptured Constantinople, the Empire never recovered its former glories and remained the shadow of its former self until the fall of 1453.


The Fall of the Byzantine Empire Kickstarted the Renaissance

siege of constantinople
The Siege of Constantinople, depicted on the external wall of Moldoviţa monastery, painted in 1537, Romania


The Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and the death of the last emperor – Constantine XI, marked the end of the medieval Roman Empire, extinguishing the line of the rulers which went back all to the first Roman emperor Augustus. Yet, while the Empire vanished from the stage of history, it left Europe and the world a lasting legacy. In the final decades of the Empire, as the imperial power weakened and the territory shrunk to the area around Constantinople and Peloponnesus, a stream of diplomats and scholars arrived in Italy in search of military and financial assistance. The help never arrived.


But some of those men decided to stay, bringing their friends and colleagues to teach at Italian universities. Those emigres brought valuable classical texts and, most importantly, knowledge. Whereas secular education had ceased during the early Middle Ages in the West, it continued in Byzantium. The renewed knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman history and culture sparked the light of the Renaissance and charted Europe’s path to world domination in the Age of Discovery.

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