The Byzantine Empire is also known as the Eastern Roman Empire. By the 3rd century ad, the mighty empire of Rome was crumbling. Under siege from attacks on its borders, the emperor Diocletian divided it into two separately ruled parts, hoping that these would be easier to defend against invaders. The Eastern and Western Roman Empires were created.
The invasion of Rome in 476 marked the end of the Western Empire. The richer, more powerful Eastern Roman Empire was able to defend itself better, and continued to flourish. Its capital was the city of Constantinople (now İstanbul in Turkey). Because Constantinople was built on the ancient city of Byzantium, modern historians have named this civilization the “Byzantine Empire”. Its people, however, continued to think of themselves as Romans.
CONTINUING ROMAN TRADITIONS
The Byzantine Empire continued to be ruled by one emperor, as the Roman Empire had been. Since the emperor Constantine the Great had become a Christian in 312, Christianity had gradually become the accepted religion of the empire. One of the emperor’s roles, therefore, was to act as a religious figurehead who upheld Christian ideas. He also appointed officials, controlled military forces and made laws. The emperor Justinian, who ruled in the 6th century, was responsible for drawing up the Justinian Code, a collection of all Roman laws. This code was studied and used throughout the Byzantine Empire, and influenced the laws of many European countries.
BYZANTINE ART AND ARCHITECTURE
Because it was the capital, Constantinople became very rich during the Byzantine Empire. Emperors wanted to show off their wealth and power, and so they paid many artists and craftsmen to work on impressive buildings and art. As well as being a lawmaker, Justinian was also responsible for commissioning many artworks and buildings.
Perhaps the greatest artistic achievement of the Byzantine Empire was the beautiful cathedral called Hagia Sophia, which means “Church of the Holy Wisdom”. Hagia Sophia became the religious centre of the Byzantine Empire, and many Christians made pilgrimages to see it. Inside, the huge domed building was decorated with mosaics and marble. It was converted into an Islamic mosque when the empire fell, and is still standing today, but is now a museum.
During the Byzantine Empire, many lives were lost in capturing or defending territory. Early emperors tried to reclaim the whole Roman Empire by recapturing some of the lost land to the west. Justinian gained Italy, North Africa, Sicily and some of Spain. Italy and most of the Balkan region were then lost to the Lombards (a Germanic people) and other tribes after his death.
In the 7th century, a new civilization was growing, inspired by the new religion of Islam. Arabic tribes spread through the Middle East, conquering Palestine, Syria and Egypt and moving on to take North Africa. They also attacked Constantinople and Asia Minor (a region in modern-day Turkey).
Defending Byzantine territory was an exhausting and expensive process. Internal problems like food shortages and civil wars weakened the empire even more. Even so, by the 9th century the empire was beginning to recover. Under the Macedonian dynasty of emperors (a series of emperors beginning with Basil I, who came from Macedonia), some lost lands in the Balkans and Asia Minor were regained. Now that the empire was stronger, trade and education began to become important again.
LITERATURE IN THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
One of the reasons that we know anything about the Byzantine Empire is that many people wrote histories. In addition to recording the events of the time, scholars copied older manuscripts, examined scientific ideas and wrote reference works. Poetry and novels were also written, often inspired by Ancient Greek literature. The main language was Greek, though Latin was sometimes used for official documents.
SCHISM IN THE CHURCH
One topic that many writers examined was the position and role of the Christian Church. Rome had always been the centre of the Christian Church, and the Bishop of Rome (later known as the Pope) was traditionally its head. As Constantinople grew in importance, Byzantine Christians began to resent Rome’s power and disagree with the Pope’s decisions. In 1054, the Church split into two: the Roman Catholic, and the Eastern Orthodox. This was called the Great Schism. The churches are still separate to this day.
END OF THE EMPIRE
In the 11th century, Muslim forces (Seljuks from Turkey) began once again to threaten the empire’s borders. The emperor Alexius Comnenus was worried about Muslim invasion, and asked the Roman Catholic pope for aid. The pope sent forces to Constantinople to fight the Turks: this became known as the First Crusade. This campaign was successful, but hostility from the Crusaders and internal fighting left the empire weak. When Turks attacked in 1453 they completely conquered Constantinople.