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Byzantium: Overview

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Byzantium: Overview | Constantine and the Founding of Constantinople | Justinian and the Nika Riots | Heraclius and the Persians | Irene and Iconoclasm | Constantine Porphyrogenitus | Basil the Bulgar-Slayer | Empress Zoe | Romanos Diogenes and the Loss of Anatolia | The Sack of Constantinople | Constantine XI and the Fall of Constantinople | The Walls of Constantinople | Hagia Sophia
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

- WB Yeats, 'Sailing to Byzantium'
Without Byzantium there would have been no Europe.
- Judith Herrin, Professor of Byzantine History at King's College, London

The Roman Empire dominated Europe for centuries. At its greatest extent, it covered all of Southern Europe, extended north as far as the Rhine and Danube1, east as far as Persia, and also included all of Africa north of the Sahara Desert. The Romans brought stable civilisation to a continent. But in 330 AD, two things happened which were to change the Empire for ever:

  • The emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to the city of Byzantium, which was also known as Constantinople and is now called Istanbul.

  • The Empire adopted Christianity as the official religion, throwing out the old pagan gods.

The move to the east brought with it a gradual change of language from Latin to Greek; this, along with the new religion, changed the whole character of the Empire. When, a century later, Italy and the lands to the west were invaded by 'barbarians' and Rome was taken, the Empire suddenly shrank and became a smaller, more eastern empire. The name 'Byzantine Empire' is used by modern historians to refer to it from then on, until its final demise in 1453 when Byzantium was eventually invaded by the Ottoman Turks.

Many people will have heard of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon, and will have a distinct impression that the Roman Empire declined and fell. But the fact is that the Eastern Roman Empire survived for a thousand years, in and around the city of Byzantium. This series of entries looks at the rise of Byzantium as capital of the Empire, and its subsequent fortunes over the next thousand years, picking out ten particular periods in the history of the Empire.

The Name of the City

We call that massive city lying on the border between Europe and Asia 'Istanbul'. Originally it was a Greek city called Byzantion, which in the Latin language had the form Byzantium, and it retained this name until the end of the Empire.

Constantine, when he chose it as his capital, decided to call it 'New Rome' but that name was never popular and it soon became just Constantinople, literally 'the city of Constantine'. It is better known under that name. This series of Entries will use both Byzantium and Constantinople interchangeably, as the Romans did.

The Name of the Empire

The term 'Byzantine' is a modern invention, based on 'Byzantium'. The people called themselves 'Romans', even though they spoke Greek, not Latin. Western Europeans, on the other hand, called them the Greeks. Nowadays to distinguish between 'real Romans' from Rome and the Romans of Byzantium, we use the term Byzantines; their empire is the Byzantine Empire and their culture is also Byzantine.

A Short Summary of the Byzantine Empire

This is a quick run through more than a thousand years of history. You can look into the sections in more detail by following the links in this short summary, or at the top of the page.

Founding

The Byzantine Empire began as the Roman Empire. Emperor Constantine founded the city of Byzantium on the site of a former Greek city-state, and made it the capital of the Roman Empire. The official founding date was 11 May, 330 AD. He also decreed that Christianity would become the official religion, although at the start nobody was forced to be Christian. In later years, the worship of the old pagan gods was outlawed.

Barbarian Invasions

In the 5th Century, barbarian invaders took control of most of Western Europe. The invasions were in general more peaceful affairs than the name might suggest. They were more a people on the move looking for somewhere new to live, than a group of warriors intent on plunder, although they would take plunder if they could get it. The Romans withdrew from Britain. Gaul (modern France) was occupied by the Franks. The Vandals first took Spain, and then moved on to occupy all of North Africa west of Egypt. Finally two groups of Goths took Spain and Italy: the Visigoths (Western Goths) in Spain and the Ostrogoths (Eastern Goths) in Italy.

Rebuilding the Empire

In the 6th Century, Emperor Justinian showed his mettle by brutally suppressing the Nika Riots. He then went on to build the Empire some of the way back to the glorious position it had occupied in the time of the first Roman emperors. His armies, under the command of some good generals, recovered control of North Africa, Italy and some of Spain, but it was short-lived: Spain and Italy soon left the Empire for good. The Empire was now a more eastern one, and Greek became more the language of the people than Latin.

The Persians

The Persian Empire had long been at war with the Byzantine Empire, constantly trying to push the border between them back and collecting rich booty from the Byzantine towns. In the 7th Century, emperor Heraclius attacked and effectively destroyed the Persian Empire. Persia was soon afterwards conquered by a new power, the Arabs.

The Saracens

In the mid 8th Century, the Arabs known as Saracens conquered all of North Africa, including Egypt. They made a new capital for themselves at Fustat, which later became Cairo. They then went on to push north and west from there to take the whole of the east end of the Mediterranean and moved into Anatolia (modern Turkey), eventually in 674 reaching Constantinople itself. Here the Walls of Constantinople saved the day, successfully keeping the Saracens from crossing into Europe for five years, during which time the Byzantines destroyed the Saracen navy with 'Greek Fire', a secret weapon somewhat akin to a flame thrower. In 679, the Saracens retreated and left Anatolia in Byzantine hands.

The Arrival of the Bulgars

At about the same time, a nomadic tribe, the Bulgars, first appeared at the Danube border and invaded the Byzantine lands on the west side of the Black Sea. The Byzantines would fight these Bulgars many times over the centuries.

Religion Rules

The rule of empress Irene, at the end of the 8th Century, is instructive, as it shows the importance to the people of Byzantium of religion and how simple matters of doctrine could overthrow rulers. A great rift appeared in Christianity between those who believed that pictures of God and his saints were an important aid to worship and those who thought the pictures were evil.

Scholarship and Education

The story of Constantine Porphyrogenitus tells how a love of scholarship and education could survive in an Empire which was constantly at war on all sides. This is one feature which sets the Byzantine Empire apart from other European kingdoms of the time.

The Bulgars Again

Moving quickly on to Basil the Bulgar Slayer, the grandson of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, we see one man's humiliation by the Bulgars and his successful crusade to wipe the Bulgarian Empire off the map. During Basil's reign in the 50 years around the year 1000, the Byzantine Empire reached its Golden Age, with a strong army, well educated people and an enlightened attitude.

Descent into Chaos

Byzantine emperors could inherit from their fathers. If there were no sons, a daughter could inherit, but she would need a strong man to do the actual ruling. The life of Empress Zoe in the 11th Century saw plenty of this; Zoe was herself too old to have children when she inherited the throne. The rest of her life saw her marrying, murdering, adopting and rejecting a whole succession of emperors in her attempt to stay at the top, with a consequent disastrous effect on the Empire. This trend of a new emperor every few years continued after Zoe's death, leaving the Empire at its weakest.

The Loss of Anatolia

A nomadic Turkish people called the Seljuks arrived on the scene in the late 11th Century. They came from somewhere around modern Uzbekistan and were Muslim. They conquered Persia (modern day Iran) and Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Spreading into Anatolia, they came up against the Byzantine army of emperor Romanos Diogenes. Romanos managed to push them back out of Anatolia. The two sides eventually met at Manzikert near Lake Van; the result was a disaster. Half of Romanos's army deserted him and the rest were slaughtered. Romanos himself was taken prisoner by the Seljuks. He made a deal with their leader and was released, but his own people now turned against him for having failed them. They brutally tortured him and chose a new emperor. The Seljuk leader had made no deal with the new emperor and felt no remorse when he re-invaded Anatolia. The Byzantine Empire was rapidly losing ground. Now it was reduced to western Anatolia and the Balkan peninsula.

Crusades

The Byzantines made peace with their Muslim neighbours, but Western Europe felt hotly the 'insult' of non-believers occupying the Holy City of Jerusalem. Around this time there were many crusades to recover Jerusalem from the Muslims. Some of these were more successful, some less so. The fourth crusade was a shambles. The Frankish crusaders ended up attacking Byzantium itself, in an attempt to pay back a debt to the Venetians who had provided them with transport. This resulted in the infamous Sack of Constantinople, possibly the worst thing to ever happen to the city before the final downfall. The crusaders methodically stripped the city of everything of value, and set up their own 'Latin Empire of Constantinople'. Many of the Byzantines fled.

The Restoration

The Latin Empire didn't last long. About 60 years later it was so feeble that the Byzantines literally walked back into the city, when the crusaders were 'out hunting'. A restored Byzantine Empire was set up under rulers from the family of Palaeologus. Again Byzantium became a place of learning and enlightenment, with a thriving culture of art. But it was a much reduced Empire, consisting of even less than the modern boundaries of Greece.

The Fall

This situation could not last. Another Turkish people, the Ottomans, had their eye on the city as a handy base. Byzantium suffered three sieges by the Ottomans. The third was the last - in 1453, with the aid of a vast army and some big cannons, Mehmet the Second finally took the city. The Fall of Constantinople on 29 May, 1453 marked the end of the Byzantine Empire.

The Historians

The Byzantines were a very well educated society; they loved learning, but do not appear to have produced any amazing poetry or works of literature. Instead, they concentrated on two subjects: theology and history.

The study of theology can seem very far removed from our daily experience. The Byzantines would argue such esoteric points as the exact nature of the divinity of Christ, and would even come to blows over such a topic. Indeed, throughout the history of the Empire, such theological matters were as much a cause of unrest in the populace as the behaviour of their emperors or the availability of food. This study of Byzantium will only touch on Byzantine theology briefly.

The other great Byzantine passion, history, has helped us enormously in understanding not only what happened but how the man in the street felt about it. Being an historian was a very respectable profession, one even occasionally practised by princesses and other nobility. History was held in such regard that historians appear to have been free to describe the misdemeanours of the emperors without fear of reprisal. As a result, we have what appear to be unbiased accounts of all of the events.

Byzantine Art - Flat Saints

Byzantine Art developed in a very different direction to our modern idea of art. Pictures were flat, so they accentuated this by use of solid colour backgrounds. The purpose of art was to glorify God, so religious themes were very common. A whole set of standard religious scenes were developed: for example, the picture of Christos Pantokrator ('Christ the King') was always painted on the ceiling above the altar of the church, showing Christ holding a book in his left hand and with his right hand raised in blessing. Another example is the 'Dormition of the Theotokos' showing the death of Mary, the mother of Christ. Pictures of God the Father, Jesus Christ, Mary the Mother of Christ and the saints were the most common subjects. These attempted to show the spiritual nature of the subject rather than the physical beauty. Painting of nudes and tributes to the human form were no longer considered appropriate.

Byzantine art was generally drawn directly onto walls, or even using mosaic. The more opulence the picture portrayed, the more God was glorified, so gold leaf was used where possible to provide flat golden backgrounds to all the best pictures.

One Byzantine priest is said to have exclaimed when he saw the work of the Venetian painter, Titian: 'Your scandalous figures stand quite out from the canvas: they are as bad as a group of statues!' The Byzantines did make statues at the start of the Empire, but the practice fell out of fashion and later was unknown.

You can still see a fair bit of good Byzantine art in Istanbul today. Hagia Sophia itself still has some good mosaics, but the best place is the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora. This has probably the best series of mosaics and murals in the Byzantine style anywhere in the world. Outside of Istanbul, the most important place is the Basilica of San Vitale, in Ravenna, Italy, which has mosaics from the time of Justinian, including very nice pictures of the Emperor and his Empress. Other good places are St Mark's Basilica in Venice - 44,000 square feet of mosaics; the cathedral in Torcello near Venice with its incredible depiction of the Final Judgement covering the entire end wall of the cathedral; and the monastery of Dafni near Athens, with huge numbers of small pictures.

Further Reading

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - Edward Gibbon: Written in the 18th Century, this famous book is told very much from the point of view of a steady decline; the Byzantines are seen as debased and immoral, a shameful echo of the glory that had been Rome. There's more than 6,000 pages of this, but you can get abbreviated versions.

A Short History of Byzantium - John Julius Norwich: This book takes the opposite extreme, going overboard in its praise of the Empire, and citing Constantine as possibly the most important man in history after Jesus, the Buddha and the Prophet Mohammed.

The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople - Jonathan Philips: This is a fairly neutral discussion of the whole sad affair of the destruction of Constantinople by the Christian knights, giving the reasons for the actions of both sides.

Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453 - Roger Crowley: a fascinating account of the Fall of Constantinople, as seen from both the Byzantine and the Turkish points of view.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire - Judith Herrin: concentrating less on battles and emperors, this work presents what the Empire was like for the people living in it.

1The northernmost point in the Empire was actually in Scotland - the Romans got as far as the Clyde River.

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