A History of the Byzantine Empire: Rome in the East



The Justinian Mosaic / Creative Commons


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.21.2018
Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief



1 – Byzantium: The New Rome

1.1 – Naming of the Byzantine Empire

While the Western Roman Empire fell, the Eastern Roman Empire, now known as the Byzantine Empire, thrived.

1.1.1 – Introduction

Map of Constantinople: A map of Constantinople, the capital and founding city of the Byzantine Empire, drawn in 1422 CE by Florentine cartographer Cristoforo Buondelmonti. This is the oldest surviving map of the city and the only one that predates the Turkish conquest of the city in 1453 CE.

The Byzantine Empire, sometimes referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, was the continuation of the Roman Empire in the east during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, originally founded as Byzantium ). It survived the fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, and continued to exist for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During most of its existence, the empire was the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe. Both “Byzantine Empire” and “Eastern Roman Empire” are historiographical terms created after the end of the realm; its citizens continued to refer to their empire as the Roman Empire, and thought of themselves as Romans. Although the people living in the Eastern Roman Empire referred to themselves as Romans, they were distinguished by their Greek heritage, Orthodox Christianity, and their regional connections. Over time, the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire transformed. Greek replaced Latin as the language of the empire. Christianity became more important in daily life, although the culture’s pagan Roman past still exerted an influence.

Several signal events from the 4th to 6th centuries mark the period of transition during which the Roman Empire’s Greek east and Latin west divided. Constantine I (r. 324-337) reorganized the empire, made Constantinople the new capital, and legalized Christianity. Under Theodosius I (r. 379-395), Christianity became the empire’s official state religion, and other religious practices were proscribed. Finally, under the reign of Heraclius (r. 610-641), the empire’s military and administration were restructured and adopted Greek for official use instead of Latin. Thus, although the Roman state continued and Roman state traditions were maintained, modern historians distinguish Byzantium from ancient Rome insofar as it was centered on Constantinople, oriented towards Greek rather than Latin culture, and characterized by Orthodox Christianity.

Just as the Byzantine Empire represented the political continuation of the Roman Empire, Byzantine art and culture developed directly out of the art of the Roman Empire, which was itself profoundly influenced by ancient Greek art. Byzantine art never lost sight of this classical heritage. For example, the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, was adorned with a large number of classical sculptures, although they eventually became an object of some puzzlement for its inhabitants. And indeed, the art produced during the Byzantine Empire, although marked by periodic revivals of a classical aesthetic, was above all marked by the development of a new aesthetic. Thus, although the Byzantine Empire had a multi-ethnic character during most of its history, and preserved Romano-Hellenistic traditions, it became identified by its western and northern contemporaries with its increasingly predominant Greek element and its own unique cultural developments.

1.1.2 – Nomenclature

The first use of the term “Byzantine” to label the later years of the Roman Empire was in 1557, when the German historian Hieronymus Wolf published his work, Corpus Historiæ Byzantinæ, a collection of historical sources. The term comes from “Byzantium,” the name of the city of Constantinople before it became Constantine’s capital. This older name of the city would rarely be used from this point onward except in historical or poetic contexts. However, it was not until the mid-19th century that the term came into general use in the western world; calling it the “Byzantine Empire” helped to emphasize its differences from the earlier Latin-speaking Roman Empire, centered on Rome.

The term “Byzantine” was also useful to the many western European states that also claimed to be the true successors of the Roman Empire, as it was used to delegitimize the claims of the Byzantines as true Romans. In modern times, the term “Byzantine” has also come to have a pejorative sense, used to describe things that are overly complex or arcane. “Byzantine diplomacy” has come to mean excess use of trickery and behind-the-scenes manipulation. These are all based on medieval stereotypes about the Byzantine Empire that developed as western Europeans came into contact with the Byzantines, and were perplexed by their more structured government.

No such distinction existed in the Islamic and Slavic worlds, where the empire was more straightforwardly seen as the continuation of the Roman Empire. In the Islamic world, the Roman Empire was known primarily as Rûm. The name millet-i Rûm, or “Roman nation,” was used by the Ottomans through the 20th century to refer to the former subjects of the Byzantine Empire, that is, the Orthodox Christian community within Ottoman realms.

1.2 – The Eastern Roman Empire, Constantine the Great, and Byzantium

The Christian, Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire had its capital at Constantinople, established by Emperor Constantine the Great.

1.2.1 – Constantine the Great and the Beginning of Byzantium

Constantine the Great: Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great presents a representation of the city of Constantinople as tribute to an enthroned Mary and Christ Child in this church mosaic. St Sophia, c. 1000 CE.

It is a matter of debate when the Roman Empire officially ended and transformed into the Byzantine Empire. Most scholars accept that it did not happen at one time, but that it was a slow process; thus, late Roman history overlaps with early Byzantine history. Constantine I (“the Great”) is usually held to be the founder of the Byzantine Empire. He was responsible for several major changes that would help create a Byzantine culture distinct from the Roman past.

As emperor, Constantine enacted many administrative, financial, social, and military reforms to strengthen the empire. The government was restructured and civil and military authority separated. A new gold coin, the solidus, was introduced to combat inflation. It would become the standard for Byzantine and European currencies for more than a thousand years. As the first Roman emperor to claim conversion to Christianity, Constantine played an influential role in the development of Christianity as the religion of the empire. In military matters, the Roman army was reorganized to consist of mobile field units and garrison soldiers capable of countering internal threats and barbarian invasions. Constantine pursued successful campaigns against the tribes on the Roman frontiers—the Franks, the Alamanni, the Goths, and the Sarmatians—, and even resettled territories abandoned by his predecessors during the turmoil of the previous century.

The age of Constantine marked a distinct epoch in the history of the Roman Empire. He built a new imperial residence at Byzantium and renamed the city Constantinople after himself (the laudatory epithet of “New Rome ” came later, and was never an official title). It would later become the capital of the empire for over one thousand years; for this reason the later Eastern Empire would come to be known as the Byzantine Empire. His more immediate political legacy was that, in leaving the empire to his sons, he replaced Diocletian ‘s tetrarchy (government where power is divided among four individuals) with the principle of dynastic succession. His reputation flourished during the lifetime of his children, and for centuries after his reign. The medieval church upheld him as a paragon of virtue, while secular rulers invoked him as a prototype, a point of reference, and the symbol of imperial legitimacy and identity.

1.2.2 – Constantinople and Civil Reform

Constantine moved the seat of the empire, and introduced important changes into its civil and religious constitution. In 330, he founded Constantinople as a second Rome on the site of Byzantium, which was well-positioned astride the trade routes between east and west; it was a superb base from which to guard the Danube river, and was reasonably close to the eastern frontiers. Constantine also began the building of the great fortified walls, which were expanded and rebuilt in subsequent ages. J. B. Bury asserts that “the foundation of Constantinople […] inaugurated a permanent division between the Eastern and Western, the Greek and the Latin, halves of the empire—a division to which events had already pointed—and affected decisively the whole subsequent history of Europe.”

Constantine built upon the administrative reforms introduced by Diocletian. He stabilized the coinage (the gold solidus that he introduced became a highly prized and stable currency), and made changes to the structure of the army. Under Constantine, the empire had recovered much of its military strength and enjoyed a period of stability and prosperity. He also reconquered southern parts of Dacia, after defeating the Visigoths in 332, and he was planning a campaign against Sassanid Persia as well. To divide administrative responsibilities, Constantine replaced the single praetorian prefect, who had traditionally exercised both military and civil functions, with regional prefects enjoying civil authority alone. In the course of the 4th century, four great sections emerged from these Constantinian beginnings, and the practice of separating civil from military authority persisted until the 7th century.

1.2.3 – Constantine and Christianity

Constantine was the first emperor to stop Christian persecutions and to legalize Christianity, as well as all other religions and cults in the Roman Empire.

In February 313, Constantine met with Licinius in Milan, where they developed the Edict of Milan. The edict stated that Christians should be allowed to follow the faith without oppression. This removed penalties for professing Christianity, under which many had been martyred previously, and returned confiscated Church property. The edict protected from religious persecution not only Christians but all religions, allowing anyone to worship whichever deity they chose.

Scholars debate whether Constantine adopted Christianity in his youth from his mother, St. Helena,, or whether he adopted it gradually over the course of his life. According to Christian writers, Constantine was over 40 when he finally declared himself a Christian, writing to Christians to make clear that he believed he owed his successes to the protection of the Christian High God alone. Throughout his rule, Constantine supported the Church financially, built basilicas, granted privileges to clergy (e.g. exemption from certain taxes), promoted Christians to high office, and returned property confiscated during the Diocletianic persecution. His most famous building projects include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Old Saint Peter’s Basilica.

The reign of Constantine established a precedent for the position of the emperor as having great influence and ultimate regulatory authority within the religious discussions involving the early Christian councils of that time (most notably, the dispute over Arianism, and the nature of God). Constantine himself disliked the risks to societal stability that religious disputes and controversies brought with them, preferring where possible to establish an orthodoxy. One way in which Constantine used his influence over the early Church councils was to seek to establish a consensus over the oft debated and argued issue over the nature of God. In 325, he summoned the Council of Nicaea, effectively the first Ecumenical Council. The Council of Nicaea is most known for its dealing with Arianism and for instituting the Nicene Creed, which is still used today by Christians.

1.2.4 – The Fall of the Western Roman Empire

After Constantine, few emperors ruled the entire Roman Empire. It was too big and was under attack from too many directions. Usually, there was an emperor of the Western Roman Empire ruling from Italy or Gaul, and an emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire ruling from Constantinople. While the Western Empire was overrun by Germanic barbarians (its lands in Italy were conquered by the Ostrogoths, Spain was conquered by the Visigoths, North Africa was conquered by the Vandals, and Gaul was conquered by the Franks), the Eastern Empire thrived. Constantinople became the largest city in the empire and a major commercial center. In 476 CE, the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed and the Western Roman Empire was no more. Thus the Eastern Roman Empire was the only Roman Empire left standing.

1.3 – Justinian and Theodora

Emperor Justinian was responsible for substantial expansion, a legal code, and the Hagia Sophia, but suffered defeats against the Persians.

1.3.1 – Byzantine Empire from Constantine to Justinian

One of Constantine’s successors, Theodosius I (379-395), was the last emperor to rule both the Eastern and Western halves of the empire. In 391 and 392, he issued a series of edicts essentially banning pagan religion. Pagan festivals and sacrifices were banned, as was access to all pagan temples and places of worship. The state of the empire in 395 may be described in terms of the outcome of Constantine’s work. The dynastic principle was established so firmly that the emperor who died in that year, Theodosius I, could bequeath the imperial office jointly to his sons, Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West.

The Eastern Empire was largely spared the difficulties faced by the west in the third and fourth centuries, due in part to a more firmly established urban culture and greater financial resources, which allowed it to placate invaders with tribute and pay foreign mercenaries. Throughout the fifth century, various invading armies overran the Western Empire but spared the east. Theodosius II further fortified the walls of Constantinople, leaving the city impervious to most attacks; the walls were not breached until 1204.

To fend off the Huns, Theodosius had to pay an enormous annual tribute to Attila. His successor, Marcian, refused to continue to pay the tribute, but Attila had already diverted his attention to the west. After his death in 453, the Hunnic Empire collapsed, and many of the remaining Huns were often hired as mercenaries by Constantinople.

Leo I succeeded Marcian as emperor, and after the fall of Attila, the true chief in Constantinople was the Alan general, Aspar. Leo I managed to free himself from the influence of the non-Orthodox chief by supporting the rise of the Isaurians, a semi-barbarian tribe living in southern Anatolia. Aspar and his son, Ardabur, were murdered in a riot in 471, and henceforth, Constantinople restored Orthodox leadership for centuries.

When Leo died in 474, Zeno and Ariadne’s younger son succeeded to the throne as Leo II, with Zeno as regent. When Leo II died later that year, Zeno became emperor. The end of the Western Empire is sometimes dated to 476, early in Zeno’s reign, when the Germanic Roman general, Odoacer, deposed the titular Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus, but declined to replace him with another puppet.

1.3.2 – Emperor Justinian I

Emperor Justinian: Byzantine Emperor Justinian I depicted on one of the famous mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.

In 527 CE, Justinian I came to the throne in Constantinople. He dreamed of reconquering the lands of the Western Roman Empire and ruling a single, united Roman Empire from his seat in Constantinople.

The Byzantine Empire under Justinian: The Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent, in 555 CE under Justinian the Great.

The western conquests began in 533, as Justinian sent his general, Belisarius, to reclaim the former province of Africa from the Vandals, who had been in control since 429 with their capital at Carthage. Belisarius successfully defeated the Vandals and claimed Africa for Constantinople. Next, Justinian sent him to take Italy from the Ostrogoths in 535 CE. Belisarius defeated the Ostrogoths in a series of battles and reclaimed Rome. By 540 CE, most of Italy was in Justinian’s hands. He sent another army to conquer Spain.

1.3.3 – Accomplishments in Byzantium

Justinian also undertook many important projects at home. Much of Constantinople was burned down early in Justinian’s reign after a series of riots called the Nika riots, in 532 CE, when angry racing fans became enraged at Justinian for arresting two popular charioteers (though this was really just the last straw for a populace increasingly angry over rising taxes) and tried to depose him. The riots were put down, and Justinian set about rebuilding the city on a grander scale. His greatest accomplishment was the Hagia Sophia, the most important church of the city. The Hagia Sophia was a staggering work of Byzantine architecture, intended to awe all who set foot in the church. It was the largest church in the world for nearly a thousand years, and for the rest of Byzantine history it was the center of Christian worship in Constantinople.

The Hagia Sophia: Byzantine Emperor Justinian built the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Wisdom of God, the Hagia Sophia, which was completed in only four and a half years (532 CE-537 CE). Even now, it is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest buildings in the world.

Emperor Justinian’s most important contribution, perhaps, was a unified Roman legal code. Prior to his reign, Roman laws had differed from region to region, and many contradicted one another. The Romans had attempted to systematize the legal code in the fifth century but had not completed the effort. Justinian set up a commission of lawyers to put together a single code, listing each law by subject so that it could be easily referenced. This not only served as the basis for law in the Byzantine Empire, but it was the main influence on the Catholic Church’s development of canon law, and went on to become the basis of law in many European countries. Justinian’s law code continues to have a major influence on public international law to this day.

The impact of a more unified legal code and military conflicts was the increased ability for the Byzantine Empire to establish trade and improve their economic standing. Byzantine merchants traded not only all over the Mediterranean region, but also throughout regions to the east. These included areas around the Black Sea, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean.

1.3.4 – Theodora

Theodora was empress of the Byzantine Empire and the wife of Emperor Justinian I. She was one of the most influential and powerful of the Byzantine empresses. Some sources mention her as empress regnant, with Justinian I as her co-regent. Along with her husband, she is a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, commemorated on November 14.

Theodora participated in Justinian’s legal and spiritual reforms, and her involvement in the increase of the rights of women was substantial. She had laws passed that prohibited forced prostitution and closed brothels. She created a convent on the Asian side of the Dardanelles called the Metanoia (Repentance), where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves. She also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, instituted the death penalty for rape, forbade exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery.

1.3.5 – Justinian’s Difficulties

A terrible plague swept through the empire, killing Theodora and almost killing him. The plague wiped out huge numbers of the empire’s population, leaving villages empty and crops unharvested. The army was also afflicted, and the Ostrogoths were able to effectively regain Italy in 546 CE, through guerrilla warfare against the Byzantine occupiers.

With Justinian’s army bogged down fighting in Italy, the empire’s defenses against the Persians on its eastern frontiers were weakened. In the Roman-Persian Wars, the Persians invaded and destroyed a number of important cities. Justinian was forced to establish a humiliating 50-year peace treaty with them in 561 CE.

Still, Justinian kept the empire from collapse. He sent a new general, Narses, to Italy with a small force. Narses finally defeated the Ostrogoths and drove them back out of Italy. By the time the war was over, Italy, once one of the most prosperous lands in the ancient world, was wrecked. The city of Rome changed hands multiple times, and most of the cities of Italy were abandoned or fell into a long period of decline. The impoverishment of Italy and the weakened Byzantine military made it impossible for the empire to hold the peninsula. Soon a new Germanic tribe, the Lombards, came in and conquered most of Italy, though Rome, Naples, and Ravenna remained isolated pockets of Byzantine control. At the same time, another new barbarian enemy, the Slavs, appeared from north of the Danube. They devastated Greece and the Balkans, and in the absence of strong Byzantine military might, they settled in small communities in these lands.

1.4 – The Justinian Code

1.4.1 – Introduction

Justinian Digesta: A later copy of Justinian’s Digesta: Digestorum, seu Pandectarum libri quinquaginta. Lugduni apud Gulielmum Rouillium, 1581. From Biblioteca Comunale “Renato Fucini” di Empoli.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I achieved lasting fame through his judicial reforms, particularly through the complete revision of all Roman law, something that had not previously been attempted. There existed three codices of imperial laws and other individual laws, many of which conflicted or were out of date. The total of Justinian’s legislature is known today as the Corpus juris civilis.

The work as planned had three parts:

  1. Codex: a compilation, by selection and extraction, of imperial enactments to date, going back to Hadrian in the 2nd century CE.
  2. Digesta: an encyclopedia composed of mostly brief extracts from the writings of Roman jurists. Fragments were taken out of various legal treatises and opinions and inserted in the Digesta.
  3. Institutiones: a student textbook, mainly introducing the Codex, although it has important conceptual elements that are less developed in the Codex or the Digesta.

All three parts, even the textbook, were given force of law. They were intended to be, together, the sole source of law; reference to any other source, including the original texts from which the Codex and the Digesta had been taken, was forbidden. Nonetheless, Justinian found himself having to enact further laws, and today these are counted as a fourth part of the Corpus, the Novellae Constitutiones. As opposed to the rest of the Corpus, the Novellae appeared in Greek, the common language of the Eastern Empire.

The work was directed by Tribonian, an official in Justinian’s court. His team was authorized to edit what they included. How far they made amendments is not recorded and, in the main, cannot be known because most of the originals have not survived. The text was composed and distributed almost entirely in Latin, which was still the official language of the government of the Byzantine Empire in 529-534, whereas the prevalent language of merchants, farmers, seamen, and other citizens was Greek.

Many of the laws contained in the Codex were aimed at regulating religious practice, included numerous provisions served to secure the status of Christianity as the state religion of the empire, uniting church and state, and making anyone who was not connected to the Christian church a non-citizen. It also contained laws forbidding particular pagan practices; for example, all persons present at a pagan sacrifice may be indicted as if for murder. Other laws, some influenced by his wife, Theodora, include those to protect prostitutes from exploitation, and women from being forced into prostitution. Rapists were treated severely. Further, by his policies, women charged with major crimes should be guarded by other women to prevent sexual abuse; if a woman was widowed, her dowry should be returned; and a husband could not take on a major debt without his wife giving her consent twice.

1.4.2 – Legacy

The Corpus forms the basis of Latin jurisprudence (including ecclesiastical Canon Law) and, for historians, provides a valuable insight into the concerns and activities of the later Roman Empire. As a collection, it gathers together the many sources in which the laws and the other rules were expressed or published (proper laws, senatorial consults, imperial decrees, case law, and jurists’ opinions and interpretations). It formed the basis of later Byzantine law, as expressed in the Basilika of Basil I and Leo VI the Wise. The only western province where the Justinian Code was introduced was Italy, from where it was to pass to western Europe in the 12th century, and become the basis of much European law code. It eventually passed to eastern Europe, where it appeared in Slavic editions, and it also passed on to Russia.

It was not in general use during the Early Middle Ages. After the Early Middle Ages, interest in it revived. It was “received” or imitated as private law, and its public law content was quarried for arguments by both secular and ecclesiastical authorities. The revived Roman law, in turn, became the foundation of law in all civil law jurisdictions. The provisions of the Corpus Juris Civilis also influenced the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church; it was said that ecclesia vivit lege romana—the church lives by Roman law. Its influence on common law legal systems has been much smaller, although some basic concepts from the Corpus have survived through Norman law—such as the contrast, especially in the Institutes, between “law” (statute) and custom. The Corpus continues to have a major influence on public international law. Its four parts thus constitute the foundation documents of the western legal tradition.

2 – The Heraclian and Isaurian Dynasties

2.1 – Emperor Heraclius

Emperor Heraclius defended the Byzantine Empire from the Persians, but lost the reconquered land to the Arabs shortly thereafter.

2.1.1 – Conflict with the Persians and Chaos in the Empire

Ever since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire had continued to see western Europe as rightfully Imperial territory. However, only Justinian I attempted to enforce this claim with military might. Temporary success in the west was achieved at the cost of Persian dominance in the east, where the Byzantines were forced to pay tribute to avert war.

However, after Justinian’s death, much of newly recovered Italy fell to the Lombards, and the Visigoths soon reduced the imperial holdings in Spain. At the same time, wars with the Persian Empire brought no conclusive victory. In 591 however, the long war was ended with a treaty favorable to Byzantium, which gained Armenia. Thus, after the death of Justinian’s successor, Tiberius II, Maurice sought to restore the prestige of the Empire.

Even though the empire had gained smaller successes over the Slavs and Avars in pitched battles across the Danube, both enthusiasm for the army and faith in the government had lessened considerably. Unrest had reared its head in Byzantine cities as social and religious differences manifested themselves into Blue and Green factions that fought each other in the streets. The final blow to the government was a decision to cut the pay of its army in response to financial strains. The combined effect of an army revolt led by a junior officer named Phocas and major uprisings by the Greens and Blues forced Maurice to abdicate. The Senate approved Phocas as the new emperor, and Maurice, the last emperor of the Justinian Dynasty, was murdered along with his four sons.

The Persian King Khosrau II responded by launching an assault on the empire, ostensibly to avenge Maurice, who had earlier helped him to regain his throne. Phocas was already alienating his supporters with his repressive rule (introducing torture on a large scale), and the Persians were able to capture Syria and Mesopotamia by 607.

While the Persians were making headway in their conquest of the eastern provinces, Phocas chose to divide his subjects, rather than unite them against the threat of the Persians. Perhaps seeing his defeats as divine retribution, Phocas initiated a savage and bloody campaign to forcibly convert the Jews to Christianity. Persecutions and alienation of the Jews, a frontline people in the war against the Persians helped drive them into aiding the Persian conquerors. As Jews and Christians began tearing each other apart, some fled the butchery into Persian territory. Meanwhile, it appears that the disasters befalling the empire led the emperor into a state of paranoia.

2.1.2 – The Heraclian Dynasty under Heraclius

Emperor Heraclius: A plaque depicting Byzantine Emperor Heraclius overcoming Persian King Khosrau II, c. 1160-1170 CE.

Due to the overwhelming crises that had pitched the empire into chaos, Heraclius the Younger now attempted to seize power from Phocas in an effort to better Byzantium’s fortunes. As the empire was led into anarchy, the Exarchate of Carthage remained relatively out of reach of Persian conquest. Far from the incompetent Imperial authority of the time, Heraclius, the Exarch of Carthage, with his brother Gregorius, began building up his forces to assault Constantinople. In 608, after cutting off the grain supply to the capital from his territory, Heraclius led a substantial army and a fleet to restore order in the Empire. The reign of Phocas officially ended in his execution, and the crowning of Heraclius by the Patriarch of Constantinople two days later on October 5, 610. After marrying his wife in an elaborate ceremony and being crowned by the Patriarch, the 36-year-old Heraclius set out to perform his work as emperor. The early portion of his reign yielded results reminiscent of Phocas’ reign, with respect to trouble in the Balkans.

To recover from a seemingly endless string of defeats, Heraclius drew up a reconstruction plan of the military, financing it by fining those accused of corruption, increasing taxes, and debasing the currency to pay more soldiers and forced loans.

Instead of facing the waves of invading Persians, he went around them, sailing over the Black Sea and regrouping in Armenia, where he found many Christian allies. From there, he invaded the Persian Empire. By fighting behind enemy lines, he caused the Persians to retreat from Byzantine lands. He defeated every Persian army sent against him and then threatened the Persian capital. In a panic, the Persians killed their king and replaced him with a new ruler who was willing to negotiate with the Byzantines. In 628 CE, the war ended with Heraclius’ defeat of the Persians.

2.1.3 – The Arab Invasion

By this time, it was generally expected by the Byzantine populace that the emperor would lead Byzantium into a new age of glory. However, all of Heraclius’ achievements would come to naught, when, in 633, the Byzantine-Arab Wars began.

On June 8, 632, the Islamic Prophet Muhammad died of a fever. However, the religion he left behind would transform the Middle East. In 633, the armies of Islam marched out of Arabia with a goal to spread the word of the prophet, with force if needed. In 634, the Arabs defeated a Byzantine force sent into Syria and captured Damascus. The arrival of another large Byzantine army outside Antioch (some 80,000 troops) forced the Arabs to retreat. The Byzantines advanced in May 636. However, a sandstorm blew in against the Byzantines on August 20, 636, and when the Arabs charged against them, they were utterly annihilated.

Jerusalem surrendered to the Arabs in 637, following a stout resistance; in 638, the Caliph Omar rode into the city. Heraclius stopped by Jerusalem to recover the True Cross whilst it was under siege. The Arab invasions are seen by some historians as the start of the decline of the Byzantine Empire. Only parts of Syria and Cilicia would be recovered.

2.1.4 – Religious Controversy

The recovery of the eastern areas of the Roman Empire from the Persians during the early phase of  Heraclius’ rule raised the problem of religious unity centering on the understanding of the true nature of Christ. Most of the inhabitants of these provinces were Monophysites who rejected the Council of Chalcedon of 451. The Chalcedonian Definition of Christ as being of two natures, divine and temporal, maintains that these two states remain distinct within the person of Christ and yet  come together within his one true substance. This position was opposed by the Monophysites, who held that Christ possessed one nature only; the human and divine natures of Christ were fused into one new single (mono) nature. This internal division was dangerous for the Byzantine Empire, which was under constant threat from external enemies, many of whom were in favor of Monophysitism, people on the periphery of the Empire who also considered the religious hierarchy at Constantinople to be heretical and only interested in crushing their faith.

Heraclius tried to unite all of the various factions within the empire with a new formula that was more inclusive and more elastic. With the successful conclusion to the Persian War, Heraclius would devote more time to promoting his compromise.

The patriarch Sergius came up with a formula, which Heraclius released as the Ecthesis in 638. It forbade all mention of Christ possessing one or two energies, that is, one or two wills; instead, it now proclaimed that Christ, while possessing two natures, had but a single will. This approach seemed to be an acceptable compromise, and it secured widespread support throughout the east. The two remaining patriarchs in the east also gave their approval to the doctrine, now referred to as Monothelitism, and so it looked as if Heraclius would finally heal the divisions in the imperial church.

Unfortunately, he had not counted on the popes at Rome. During that same year of 638, Pope Honorius I had died. His successor, Pope Severinus (640), condemned the Ecthesis outright, and so was forbidden his seat until 640. His successor, Pope John IV (640-42), also rejected the doctrine completely, leading to a major schism between the eastern and western halves of the Chalcedonian Church. When news reached Heraclius of the pope’s condemnation, he was already old and ill, and the news only hastened his death, declaring with his dying breath that the controversy was all due to Sergius, and that the patriarch had pressured him to give his unwilling approval to the Ecthesis.

2.2 – The Theme System

The Byzantine-Arab wars wrought havoc on the Byzantine Dynasty, but led to the creation of the highly efficient military theme system.

2.2.1 – Introduction

The themes (themata in Greek)  were the main administrative divisions of the middle Byzantine Empire. They were established in the mid-7th century in the aftermath of the Slavic invasion of the Balkans, and Muslim conquests of parts of Byzantine territory. The themes replaced the earlier provincial system established by Diocletian and Constantine the Great. In their origin, the first themes were created from the areas of encampment of the field armies of the East Roman army, and their names corresponded to the military units that had existed in those areas. The theme system reached its apogee in the 9th and 10th centuries, as older themes were split up and the conquest of territory resulted in the creation of new ones. The original theme system underwent significant changes in the 11th and 12th centuries, but the term remained in use as a provincial and financial circumscription, until the very end of the empire.

2.2.2 – Background

During the late 6th and early 7th centuries, the Eastern Roman Empire was under frequent attack from all sides. The successors of Heraclius had to fight a desperate war against the Arabs in order to keep them from conquering the entire Byzantine Empire; these conflicts were known as the Byzantine-Arab wars. The Arab invasions were unlike any other threat the Byzantines ever faced. Fighting a zealous holy war for Islam, the Arabs defeated army after army of the Byzantines, and nearly destroyed the empire. Egypt fell to the Arabs in 642 CE, and Carthage as well in 647 CE, and the Eastern Mediterranean slightly later. From 674-678 CE the Arabs laid siege to Constantinople itself.

In order to survive and fight back, the Byzantines created a new military system, known as the theme system. Abandoning the professional army inherited from the Roman past, the Byzantines granted land to farmers who, in return, would provide the empire with loyal soldiers. This was similar to the feudal system in medieval western Europe, but it differed in one important way—in the Byzantine theme system, the state continued to own the land, and simply leased it in exchange for service, whereas in the feudal system ownership of the lands was given over entirely to vassals. This efficiency of the theme system allowed the dynasty to keep hold of the imperial heartland of Asia Minor.

Thus, by the turning of the 8th century, the themes had become the dominant feature of imperial administration. Their large size and power, however, made their generals prone to revolt, as had been evidenced in the turbulent period 695-715, and would again during the great revolt of Artabasdos in 741-742.

The Theme System: Map depicting the locations of the themes established during the Heraclian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire.

Despite the prominence of the themes, it was some time before they became the basic unit of the imperial administrative system. Although they had become associated with specific regions by the early 8th century, it took until the end of the 8th century for the civil fiscal administration to begin being organized around them, instead of following the old provincial system. This process, resulting in unified control over both military and civil affairs of each theme by its strategos, was complete by the mid-9th century, and is the “classical” thematic model.

2.2.3 – Structure of the Themes

The term theme was ambiguous, referring both to a form of military tenure and to an administrative division. A theme was an arrangement of plots of land given for farming to the soldiers. The soldiers were still technically a military unit, under the command of a strategos, and they did not own the land they worked, as it was still controlled by the state. Therefore, for its use the soldiers’ pay was reduced. By accepting this proposition, the participants agreed that their descendants would also serve in the military and work in a theme, thus simultaneously reducing the need for unpopular conscription, as well as cheaply maintaining the military. It also allowed for the settling of conquered lands, as there was always a substantial addition made to public lands during a conquest.

The commander of a theme, however, did not only command his soldiers. He united the civil and military jurisdictions in the territorial area in question. Thus the division set up by Diocletian between civil governors (praesides) and military commanders (duces) was abolished, and the empire returned to a system much more similar to that of the Republic or the Principate, where provincial governors had also commanded the armies in their area.

2.2.4 – Consequences of the Theme System

Early on, Heraclius had proven himself to be an excellent Emperor—his reorganization of the empire into themes allowed the Byzantines to extract as much as they possibly could to increase their military potential. This became essential after 650, when the Islamic Caliphate was far more resourceful and powerful then the Byzantines were. As a result, a high level of efficiency was needed to combat the Arabs, achieved in part due to the theme system.

The Arabs were finally repulsed through the use of Greek fire, flaming projectiles that could burn while floating on water, and thus, could be used for naval warfare. Greek fire was a closely guarded state secret, a secret that has since been lost. The composition of Greek fire remains a matter of speculation and debate, with proposals including combinations of pine resin, naphtha, quicklime, sulfur, or niter. Byzantine use of incendiary mixtures was especially effective, thanks to the use of pressurized nozzles or siphōn to project the liquid onto the enemy. The Arab-Muslim navies eventually adapted to their use. Under constant threat of attack, Constantinople had dropped substantially in size, due to relocation, from 500,000 to 40,000-70,000.

Greek Fire: Image from an illuminated manuscript (the Skylitzes manuscript) showing the Byzantine Navy’s use of Greek fire against the fleet of the rebel Thomas the Slav, c. 12th century CE. The caption above the left ship reads “the fleet of the Romans setting ablaze the fleet of the enemies.”

By the end of the Heraclian Dynasty in 711 CE, the empire had transformed from the Eastern Roman Empire, with its urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization, to the medieval Byzantine Empire, an agrarian, military-dominated society in a lengthy struggle with the Muslims. The loss of the empire’s richest provinces, coupled with successive invasions, had reduced the imperial economy to a relatively impoverished state, compared to the resources available to the Caliphate. The monetary economy persisted, but the barter economy experienced a revival as well. However, this state was also far more homogeneous than the Eastern Roman Empire; the borders had shrunk, such that many of the Latin-speaking territories were lost and the dynasty was reduced to its mostly Greek-speaking territories. This enabled it to weather these storms and enter a period of stability under the next dynasty, the Isaurian Dynasty.

2.3 – The Isaurian Dynasty

The Isaurian Dynasty is characterized by relative political stability, after an important defeat of the Arabs by Leo III, and Iconoclasm, which resulted in considerable internal turmoil.

2.3.1 – Introduction

The Byzantine Empire was ruled by the Isaurian or Syrian Dynasty from 717-802. The Isaurian emperors were successful in defending and consolidating the empire against the Caliphate after the onslaught of the early Muslim conquests, but were less successful in Europe, where they suffered setbacks against the Bulgars, had to give up the Exarchate of Ravenna, and lost influence over Italy and the Papacy to the growing power of the Franks.

The Isaurian Dynasty is chiefly associated with Byzantine Iconoclasm, an attempt to restore divine favor by purifying the Christian faith from excessive adoration of icons, which resulted in considerable internal turmoil.

By the end of the Isaurian Dynasty in 802, the Byzantines were continuing to fight the Arabs and the Bulgars for their very existence, with matters made more complicated when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Imperator Romanorum (“Emperor of the Romans”), which was seen as making the Carolingian Empire the successor to the Roman Empire, or at least the western half.

Leo III, who would become the founder of the so-called Isaurian Dynasty, was actually born in Germanikeia in northern Syria c. 685; his alleged origin from Isauria derives from a reference in Theophanes the Confessor, which may be a later addition. After being raised to spatharios by Justinian II, he fought the Arabs in Abasgia, and was appointed as strategos of the Anatolics by Anastasios II. Following the latter’s fall in 716, Leo allied himself with Artabasdos, the general of the Armeniacs, and was proclaimed emperor while two Arab armies campaigned in Asia Minor. Leo averted an attack by Maslamah through clever negotiations, in which he promised to recognize the Caliph ‘s suzerainty. However, on March 25, 717, he entered Constantinople and deposed Theodosios.

2.3.2 – Leo III’s Rule

Byzantine Coin: A gold coin, or solidus, engraved with the emperors of the Byzantine Isaurian Dynasty, from c. 780 CE. Left: Leo IV with his son Constantine VI; Right: Leo III with his son Constantine V on the reverse.

Having preserved the empire from extinction by the Arabs, Leo proceeded to consolidate its administration, which in the previous years of anarchy had become completely disorganized. In 718, he suppressed a rebellion in Sicily and in 719 did the same on behalf of the deposed Emperor Anastasios II.

Leo secured the empire’s frontiers by inviting Slavic settlers into the depopulated districts, and by restoring the army to efficiency; when the Umayyad Caliphate renewed their invasions in 726 and 739, as part of the campaigns of Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik, the Arab forces were decisively beaten, particularly at Akroinon in 740. His military efforts were supplemented by his alliances with the Khazars and the Georgians.

Leo undertook a set of civil reforms, including the abolition of the system of prepaying taxes, which had weighed heavily upon the wealthier proprietors; the elevation of the serfs into a class of free tenants; and the remodeling of family, maritime law, and criminal law, notably substituting mutilation for the death penalty in many cases. The new measures, which were embodied in a new code called the Ecloga (Selection), published in 726, met with some opposition on the part of the nobles and higher clergy. The emperor also undertook some reorganization of the theme structure by creating new themata in the Aegean region.

2.3.3 – The Siege of Constantinople

The Second Arab siege of Constantinople in 717-718 was a combined land and sea offensive by the Muslim Arabs of the Umayyad Caliphate against the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople. The campaign marked the culmination of twenty years of attacks and progressive Arab occupation of the Byzantine borderlands, while Byzantine strength was sapped by prolonged internal turmoil. In 716, after years of preparations, the Arabs, led by Maslama ibn Abd al-Malik, invaded Byzantine Asia Minor. The Arabs initially hoped to exploit Byzantine civil strife, and made common cause with the general Leo III the Isaurian, who had risen up against Emperor Theodosius III. Leo, however, tricked them and secured the Byzantine throne for himself.

After wintering in the western coastlands of Asia Minor, the Arab army crossed into Thrace in early summer 717 and built siege lines to blockade the city, which was protected by the massive Theodosian Walls. The Arab fleet, which accompanied the land army and was meant to complete the city’s blockade by sea, was neutralized soon after its arrival by the Byzantine navy through the use of Greek fire. This allowed Constantinople to be resupplied by sea, while the Arab army was crippled by famine and disease during the unusually hard winter that followed. In spring 718, two Arab fleets sent as reinforcements were destroyed by the Byzantines after their Christian crews defected, and an additional army sent overland through Asia Minor was ambushed and defeated. Coupled with attacks by the Bulgars on their rear, the Arabs were forced to lift the siege on August 15, 718. On its return journey, the Arab fleet was almost completely destroyed by natural disasters and Byzantine attacks.

The Arab failure was chiefly logistical, as they were operating too far from their Syrian bases, but the superiority of the Byzantine navy through the use of Greek fire, the strength of Constantinople’s fortifications, and the skill of Leo III in deception and negotiations, also played important roles.

The siege’s failure had wide-ranging repercussions. The rescue of Constantinople ensured the continued survival of Byzantium, while the Caliphate’s strategic outlook was altered: although regular attacks on Byzantine territories continued, the goal of outright conquest was abandoned. Historians consider the siege to be one of history’s most important battles, as its failure postponed the Muslim advance into Southeastern Europe for centuries. The Byzantine capital’s survival preserved the empire as a bulwark against Islamic expansion into Europe until the 15th century, when it fell to the Ottoman Turks. Along with the Battle of Tours in 732, the successful defense of Constantinople has been seen as instrumental in stopping Muslim expansion into Europe.

2.4 – Iconoclasm in Byzantium

The Byzantine Iconoclasm was the banning of the worship of religious images, a movement that sparked internal turmoil.

2.4.1 – Introduction

Byzantine Iconoclasm: A depiction of the destruction of a religious image under the Byzantine Iconoclasm, by Chludov Psalter, 9th century CE.

Iconoclasm, Greek for “image-breaking,” is the deliberate destruction within a culture of the culture’s own religious icons and other symbols or monuments. Iconoclasm is generally motivated by an interpretation of the Ten Commandments that declares the making and worshipping of images, or icons, of holy figures (such as Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints) to be idolatry and therefore blasphemy.

Most surviving sources concerning the Byzantine Iconoclasm were written by the victors, or the iconodules (people who worship religious images), so it is difficult to obtain an accurate account of events. However, the Byzantine Iconoclasm refers to two periods in the history of the Byzantine Empire when the use of religious images or icons was opposed by religious and imperial authorities. The “First Iconoclasm,” as it is sometimes called, lasted between about 730 CE and 787 CE, during the Isaurian Dynasty. The “Second Iconoclasm” was between 814 CE and 842 CE. The movement was triggered by changes in Orthodox worship that were themselves generated by the major social and political upheavals of the seventh century for the Byzantine Empire.

2.4.2 – Causes

Traditional explanations for Byzantine Iconoclasm have sometimes focused on the importance of Islamic prohibitions against images influencing Byzantine thought. According to Arnold J. Toynbee, for example, it was the prestige of Islamic military successes in the 7th and 8th centuries that motivated Byzantine Christians to adopt the Islamic position of rejecting and destroying idolatrous images. The role of women and monks in supporting the veneration of images has also been asserted. Social and class-based arguments have been put forward, such as the assertion that iconoclasm created political and economic divisions in Byzantine society, and that it was generally supported by the eastern, poorer, non-Greek peoples of the empire who had to constantly deal with Arab raids. On the other hand, the wealthier Greeks of Constantinople, and also the peoples of the Balkan and Italian provinces, strongly opposed iconoclasm. In recent decades in Greece, iconoclasm has become a favorite topic of progressive and Marxist historians and social scientists, who consider it a form of medieval class struggle and have drawn inspiration from it. Re-evaluation of the written and material evidence relating to the period of Byzantine Iconoclasm by scholars, including John Haldon and Leslie Brubaker, has challenged many of the basic assumptions and factual assertions of the traditional account.

2.4.3 – The First Iconoclasm: Leo III

The seventh century had been a period of major crisis for the Byzantine Empire, and believers had begun to lean more heavily on divine support. The use of images of the holy increased in Orthodox worship, and these images increasingly came to be regarded as points of access to the divine. Leo III interpreted his many military failures as a judgment on the empire by God, and decided that they were being judged for their worship of religious images.

Emperor Leo III, the founder of the Isaurian Dynasty, and the iconoclasts of the eastern church, banned religious images in about 730 CE, claiming that worshiping them was heresy; this ban continued under his successors. He accompanied the ban with widespread destruction of religious images and persecution of the people who worshipped them.

The western church remained firmly in support of the use of images throughout the period, and the whole episode widened the growing divergence between the eastern and western traditions in what was still a unified church, as well as facilitating the reduction or removal of Byzantine political control over parts of Italy.

Leo died in 741 CE, and his son and heir, Constantine V, furthered his views until the end of his own rule in 775 CE. In 754 CE, Constantine summoned the first ecumenical council concerned with religious imagery, the Council of Hieria; 340 bishops attended. On behalf of the church, the council endorsed an iconoclast position and declared image worship to be blasphemy. John of Damascus, a Syrian monk living outside Byzantine territory, became a major opponent of iconoclasm through his theological writings.

2.4.4 – The Brief Return of Icon Worship

After the death of Constantine’s son, Leo IV (who ruled from 775 CE-780 CE), his wife, Irene, took power as regent for her son, Constantine VI (who ruled from 780 CE-97 CE). After Leo IV too died, Irene called another ecumenical council, the Second Council of Nicaea, in 787 CE, that reversed the decrees of the previous iconoclast council and restored image worship, marking the end of the First Iconoclasm. This may have been an attempt to soothe the strained relations between Constantinople and Rome.

2.4.5 – The Second Iconoclasm (814 CE – 842 CE)

Emperor Leo V the Armenian instituted a second period of Iconoclasm in 814 CE, again possibly motivated by military failures seen as indicators of divine displeasure. The Byzantines had suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Bulgarian Khan Krum. It was made official in 815 CE at a meeting of the clergy in the Hagia Sophia. But only a few decades later, in 842 CE, the regent Theodora again reinstated icon worship.

2.5 – The Empress Irene

2.5.1 – Overview

Irene of Athens, the first woman emperor of the Byzantine Empire, fought for recognition as imperial leader throughout her rule, and is best known for ending the First Iconoclasm in the Eastern Church.

Empress Irene: Image from “Pala d’Oro,” Venice, c. 10th century.

Irene of Athens (c. 752-803 CE) was Byzantine empress from 797 to 802. Before that, Irene was empress consort from 775 to 780, and empress dowager and regent from 780 to 797. She is best known for ending iconoclasm.

2.5.2 – Early Life

Irene was related to the noble Greek Sarantapechos family of Athens. Although she was an orphan, her uncle or cousin, Constantine Sarantapechos, was a patrician and was possibly the strategos of the theme of Hellas at the end of the 8th century. She was brought to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine V on November 1, 768, and was married to his son, Leo IV, on December 17.

On 14 January 771, Irene gave birth to a son, the future Constantine VI. When Constantine V died in September 775, Leo succeeded to the throne at the age of twenty-five years. Leo, though an iconoclast, pursued a policy of moderation towards iconodules, but his policies became much harsher in August 780, when a number of courtiers were punished for venerating icons. According to tradition, he discovered icons concealed among Irene’s possessions and refused to share the marriage bed with her thereafter. Nevertheless, when Leo died on September 8, 780, Irene became regent for their nine-year-old son, Constantine, thereby giving her administrative control over the empire.

2.5.3 – Regency

Irene was almost immediately confronted with a conspiracy that tried to raise Caesar Nikephoros, a half-brother of Leo IV, to the throne. To overcome this challenge, she had Nikephoros and his co-conspirators ordained as priests, a status which disqualified them from ruling.

As early as 781, Irene began to seek a closer relationship with the Carolingian Dynasty and the Papacy in Rome. She negotiated a marriage between her son, Constantine, and Rotrude, a daughter of Charlemagne by his third wife, Hildegard. During this time, Charlemagne was at war with the Saxons, and would later become the new king of the Franks. Irene went as far as to send an official to instruct the Frankish princess in Greek; however, Irene herself broke off the engagement in 787, against her son’s wishes.

Irene next had to subdue a rebellion led by Elpidius, the strategos of Sicily. Irene sent a fleet, which succeeded in defeating the Sicilians. Elpidius fled to Africa, where he defected to the Abbasid Caliphate. After the success of Constantine V’s general, Michael Lachanodrakon, who foiled an Abbasid attack on the eastern frontiers, a huge Abbasid army under Harun al-Rashid invaded Anatolia in summer 782. The strategos of the Bucellarian Theme, Tatzates, defected to the Abbasids, and Irene, in exchange for a three-year truce, had to agree to pay an annual tribute of 70,000 or 90,000 dinars to the Abbasids, give them 10,000 silk garments, and provide them with guides, provisions, and access to markets during their withdrawal.

2.5.4 – Ending Iconoclasm

Irene’s most notable act was the restoration of the veneration of icons, thereby ending the First Iconoclasm of the Eastern Church. Having chosen Tarasios, one of her partisans and her former secretary, as Patriarch of Constantinople in 784, she summoned two church councils. The first of these, held in 786 at Constantinople, was frustrated by the opposition of the iconoclast soldiers. The second, convened at Nicaea in 787, formally revived the veneration of icons and reunited the Eastern Church with that of Rome.

While this greatly improved relations with the Papacy, it did not prevent the outbreak of a war with the Franks, who took over Istria and Benevento in 788. In spite of these reverses, Irene’s military efforts met with some success: in 782 her favored courtier, Staurakios, subdued the Slavs of the Balkans and laid the foundations of Byzantine expansion and re-Hellenization in the area. Nevertheless, Irene was constantly harried by the Abbasids, and in 782 and 798, had to accept the terms of the respective Caliphs Al-Mahdi and Harun al-Rashid.

2.5.5 – Rule as Empress

As Constantine approached maturity, he began to grow restless under her autocratic sway. An attempt to free himself by force was met and crushed by the empress, who demanded that the oath of fidelity should thenceforward be taken in her name alone. The discontent that this occasioned swelled in 790 into open resistance, and the soldiers, headed by the army of the Armeniacs, formally proclaimed Constantine VI as the sole ruler.

A hollow semblance of friendship was maintained between Constantine and Irene, whose title of empress was confirmed in 792; however, the rival factions remained, and in 797, Irene, by cunning intrigues with the bishops and courtiers, organized a conspiracy on her own behalf. Constantine could only flee for aid to the provinces, but even there participants in the plot surrounded him. Seized by his attendants on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus, Constantine was carried back to the palace at Constantinople. His eyes were gouged out, and according to most contemporary accounts, he died from his wounds a few days later, leaving Irene to be crowned as first empress regnant of Constantinople.

As empress, Irene made determined efforts to stamp out iconoclasm everywhere in the empire, including within the ranks of the army. During Irene’s reign, the Arabs were continuing to raid into and despoil the small farms of the Anatolian section of the empire. These small farmers of Anatolia owed a military obligation to the Byzantine throne. Indeed, the Byzantine army and the defense of the empire was largely based on this obligation and the Anatolian farmers. The iconodule (icon worship) policy drove these farmers out of the army, and thus off their farms. Thus, the army was weakened and was unable to protect Anatolia from the Arab raids. Many of the remaining farmers of Anatolia were driven from the farm to settle in the city of Byzantium, further reducing the army’s ability to raise soldiers. Additionally, the abandoned farms fell from the tax rolls and reduced the amount of income that the government received. These farms were taken over by the largest land owner in the Byzantine Empire, the monasteries. To make the situation even worse, Irene had exempted all monasteries from all taxation.

Given the financial ruin into which the empire was headed, it was no wonder, then, that Irene was, eventually, deposed by her own minister of finance. The leader of this successful revolt against Irene replaced her on the Byzantine throne under the name Nicephorus I.

Although it is often asserted that, as monarch, Irene called herself “basileus” (emperor), rather than “basilissa” (empress), in fact there are only three instances where it is known that she used the title “basileus“: two legal documents in which she signed herself as “Emperor of the Romans,” and a gold coin of hers found in Sicily bearing the title of “basileus.” She used the title “basilissa” in all other documents, coins, and seals.

2.5.6 – Relationship with the Carolingian Empire

Irene’s unprecedented position as an empress ruling in her own right was emphasized by the coincidental rise of the Carolingian Empire in western Europe, which rivaled Irene’s Byzantium in size and power. In 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III, on Christmas Day. The clergy and nobles attending the ceremony proclaimed Charlemagne as “Emperor of the Roman Empire.” In support of Charlemagne’s coronation, some argued that the imperial position was actually vacant, deeming a woman unfit to be emperor. However, Charlemagne made no claim to the Byzantine Empire. Relations between the two empires remained difficult.

3 – The Late Byzantine Empire

3.1 – The Macedonian Dynasty

The Macedonian Dynasty saw expansion and the Byzantine Renaissance, but also instability, due to competition among nobles in the theme system.

3.1.1 – Emperor Basil I

Emperor Basil I: A depiction of Byzantine Emperor Basil I, of the Macedonian Dynasty, on horseback.

Shortly after the extended controversy over iconoclasm, which more or less ended (at least in the east) with the regent Theodora reinstating icon worship in 842 CE, Emperor Basil I founded a new dynasty, the Macedonian Dynasty, in 867 CE. Basil was born a simple peasant in the Byzantine theme of Macedonia; he rose in the Imperial Court, and usurped the imperial throne from Emperor Michael III (r. 842-867). Despite his humble origins, he showed great ability in running the affairs of state, leading to a revival of imperial power and a renaissance of Byzantine art. He was perceived by the Byzantines as one of their greatest emperors, and the Macedonian Dynasty ruled over what is regarded as the most glorious and prosperous era of the Byzantine Empire.

It was under this dynasty that the Byzantine Empire would recover from its previous turmoil, and become the most powerful state in the medieval world. This was also a period of cultural and artistic flowering in the Byzantine world. The cities of the empire expanded, and affluence spread across the provinces because of the new-found security. The population rose, and production increased, stimulating new demand, while also helping to encourage trade. The iconoclast movement experienced a steep decline; the decline was advantageous to the emperors who had softly suppressed iconoclasm, and to the reconciliation of the religious strife that had drained the imperial resources in the previous centuries.

3.1.2 – Macedonian Renaissance

The time of the Macedonian Dynasty’s rule over the Byzantine Empire is sometimes called the Byzantine Renaissance or the Macedonian Renaissance. A long period of military struggle for survival had recently dominated the life of the Byzantine Empire, but the Macedonians ushered in an age when art and literature once again flourished. The classical Greco-Roman heritage of Byzantium was central to the writers and artists of the period. Byzantine scholars, most notably Leo the Mathematician, read the scientific and philosophical works of the ancient Greeks and expanded upon them. Artists adopted their naturalistic style and complex techniques from ancient Greek and Roman art, and mixed them with Christian themes. Byzantine painting from this period would have a strong influence on the later painters of the Italian Renaissance.

3.1.3 – Political and Religious Expansion

The Macedonian Dynasty also oversaw the expansion of the Byzantine Empire, which went on the offensive against its enemies. For example, Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (who ruled from 912 CE-969 CE) pursued an aggressive policy of expansion. Before rising to the throne, he had conquered Crete from the Muslims, and as emperor he led the conquest of Cyprus and most of Syria.

The Macedonian period also included events of momentous religious significance. The conversion of the Bulgarians, Serbs, and Rus’ to Orthodox Christianity permanently changed the religious map of Europe, and still impacts demographics today. Cyril and Methodius, two Byzantine Greek brothers, contributed significantly to the Christianization of the Slavs, and in the process devised the Glagolitic alphabet, ancestor to the Cyrillic script.

Throughout this period there was great competition among nobles for land in the theme system. Since such governors could collect taxes and control the military forces of their themes, they became independent of the emperors and acted independently, weakening the authority of the emperors. They tended to increase taxes on small farmers in order to enrich themselves, thereby causing massive dissatisfaction.

3.2 – The Great Schism of 1054

The centuries-long gradual religious separation between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires culminated in the institutional separation known as the East-West Schism.

3.2.1 – Introduction

The East-West Schism, also called the Great Schism and the Schism of 1054, was the break of communion between what are now the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches, which has lasted since the 11th century.

The ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes between the Greek east and Latin west pre-existed the formal rupture that occurred in 1054. Prominent among these were the issues of the source of the Holy Spirit, whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used in the Eucharist, the Bishop of Rome’s claim to universal jurisdiction, and the place of the See of Constantinople in relation to the Pentarchy.

3.2.2 – Tensions between East and West

By the turn of the millennium, the Eastern and Western Roman Empires had been gradually separating along religious fault lines for centuries, beginning with Emperor Leo III’s pioneering of the Byzantine Iconoclasm in 730 CE, in which he declared the worship of religious images to be heretical. The Western Church remained firmly in support of the use of religious images. Leo tried to use military force to compel Pope Gregory III, but he failed, and the pope condemned Leo’s actions. In response, Leo confiscated papal estates and placed them under the governance of Constantinople.

Therefore, the Iconoclasm widened the growing divergence and tension between east and west, though the church was still unified at this time. It also decisively ended the so-called Byzantine Papacy, under which, since the reign of Justinian I a century before, the popes in Rome had been nominated or confirmed by the emperor in Constantinople. The deference of the Western Church to Constantinople dissolved, and Rome would maintain a consistently iconodule position (meaning it supports or is in favor of religious images or icons and their veneration).

3.2.3 – A New Emperor in the West

Regent Irene convened the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 CE, which temporarily restored image worship, in an attempt to soothe the strained relations between Constantinople and Rome—but it was too late. After Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, saved Rome from a Lombard attack, Pope Leo III (not to be confused with the Byzantine Leo III) declared him the new Roman emperor in 800 CE, since a woman (Irene) could not be emperor. It was also a message that the popes were now loyal to the Franks, who could protect them, instead of the Byzantines, who had only caused trouble. To the Byzantines, this was an outrage, attacking their claim to be the true successors of Rome.

From this point on, the Frankish Empire is usually known as the Holy Roman Empire. With two Roman empires, the Byzantines and the Franks, the authority of the Byzantine Empire was weakened. In the west they were no longer called “Romans,” but “Greeks” (and eventually “Byzantines”). The Byzantines, however, continued to consider themselves Romans, and looked to the patriarch of Constantinople, not the pope, as the most important religious figure of the church.

3.2.4 – Crisis and Permanent Schism

The differences in practice and worship between the Church of Rome in the west and the Church of Constantinople in the east only increased over time.

In 1053, the first step was taken in the process that led to formal schism; the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael I Cerularius, ordered the closure of all Latin churches in Constantinople, in response to the Greek churches in southern Italy having been forced to either close or conform to Latin practices. According to the historian J. B. Bury, Cerularius’ purpose in closing the Latin churches was “to cut short any attempt at conciliation.”

Finally, in 1054 CE, relations between the Eastern and Western traditions within the Christian Church reached a terminal crisis. The papal legate sent by Leo IX traveled to Constantinople for purposes that included refusing to Cerularius the title of “Ecumenical Patriarch,” and insisting that he recognize the Pope’s claim to be the head of all the churches. The main purpose of the papal legation was to seek help from the Byzantine emperor in view of the Norman conquest of southern Italy, and to deal with recent attacks by Leo of Ohrid against the use of unleavened bread and other Western customs, attacks that had the support of Cerularius. Historian Axel Bayer contends that the legation was sent in response to two letters, one from the emperor seeking assistance in arranging a common military campaign by the Eastern and Western Empires against the Normans, and the other from Cerularius. On the refusal of Cerularius to accept the demand, the leader of the legation, Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, excommunicated him, and in return Cerularius excommunicated Humbert and the other legates. This was only the first act in a centuries-long process that eventually became a complete schism.

The gradual separation of the last several centuries culminated in a formal declaration of institutional separation between east, into the Orthodox Church (now Eastern Orthodox Church), and west, into the Catholic Church (now Roman Catholic Church). This was known as the East-West Schism.

The East-West Schism: The religious distribution after the East-West Schism between the churches of the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Empire in 1054 CE.

The church split along doctrinal, theological, linguistic, political, and geographical lines, and the fundamental breach has never been healed, with each side sometimes accusing the other of having fallen into heresy and of having initiated the division. Conflicts over the next several centuries (such as the Crusades, the Massacre of the Latins in 1182 CE, the west’s retaliation in the Sacking of Thessalonica in 1185 CE, the capture and sack of Constantinople in 1204 CE, and the imposition of Latin patriarchs) would only make reconciliation more difficult.

3.3 – The Byzantine-Bulgarian Wars

The Byzantine Empire had a long and tumultuous relationship with the Bulgar Empire to its north.

3.3.1 – The Bulgarian Empire

The First Bulgarian Empire was a medieval Bulgarian state that existed in southeastern Europe between the 7th and 11th centuries CE. It was founded circa 681, when Bulgar tribes led by Asparukh moved to the northeastern Balkans. There they secured Byzantine recognition of their right to settle south of the Danube, by defeating—possibly with the help of local South Slavic tribes—the Byzantine army led by Constantine IV. At the height of its power, Bulgaria spread from the Danube Bend to the Black Sea, and from the Dnieper River to the Adriatic Sea.

As the state solidified its position in the Balkans, it entered into a centuries-long interaction, sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile, with the Byzantine Empire. Bulgaria emerged as Byzantium ‘s chief antagonist to its north, resulting in several wars. The two powers also enjoyed periods of peace and alliance, most notably during the Second Arab siege of Constantinople, where the Bulgarian army broke the siege and destroyed the Arab army, thus preventing an Arab invasion of southeastern Europe. Byzantium had a strong cultural influence on Bulgaria, which also led to the eventual adoption of Christianity in 864.

After the adoption of Christianity, Bulgaria became the cultural center of Slavic Europe. Its leading cultural position was further consolidated with the invention of the Glagolitic and Early Cyrillic alphabets shortly after in the capital of Preslav, and literature produced in Old Bulgarian soon began spreading north. Old Bulgarian became the lingua franca of much of eastern Europe and it came to be known as Old Church Slavonic. In 927, the fully independent Bulgarian Patriarchate was officially recognized.

3.3.2 – The Wars

Bulgarians Fighting the Byzantines: A Byzantine painting depicting Bulgarians slaughtering Byzantines, who can be seen with halos on their head.

The Byzantine-Bulgarian Wars were a series of conflicts fought between the Byzantines and Bulgarians, which began when the Bulgars first settled in the Balkan peninsula in the 5th century, and intensified with the expansion of the Bulgarian Empire to the southwest after 680 CE. The Byzantines and Bulgarians continued to clash over the next century with variable success, until the Bulgarians, led by Krum, inflicted a series of crushing defeats on the Byzantines. After Krum died in 814, his son, Omurtag, negotiated a thirty-year peace treaty. The traditional struggle with the See of Rome continued through the Macedonian period, spurred by the question of religious supremacy over the newly Christianized state of Bulgaria. Ending 80 years of peace between the two states, the powerful Bulgarian tsar, Simeon I, invaded in 894 but was pushed back by the Byzantines, who used their fleet to sail up the Black Sea to attack the Bulgarian rear, enlisting the support of the Hungarians. The Byzantines were defeated at the Battle of Boulgarophygon in 896, however, and agreed to pay annual subsidies to the Bulgarians.

In 971 John I Tzimiskes, the Byzantine emperor, subjugated much of the weakening Bulgarian Empire, as it faced wars with Russians, Pechenegs, Magyars and Croatians, and by defeating Boris II and capturing Preslav, the Bulgarian capital. Byzantine Emperor Basil II completely conquered Bulgaria in 1018, as a result of the 1014 Battle of Kleidion. There were rebellions against Byzantine rule from 1040 to 1041, and in the 1070s and the 1080s, but these failed. In 1185, however, Theodore Peter and Ivan Asen started a revolt, and the weakening Byzantine Empire, facing internal dynastic troubles of its own, was unable to prevent the revolt from being successful.

The rebellion failed to immediately capture Bulgaria’s historic capital, Preslav, but established a new capital city at Tărnovo, presumably the center of the revolt. In 1186, the rebels suffered a defeat, but Isaac II Angelos failed to exploit his victory and returned to Constantinople. With the help of the chiefly Cuman population north of the Danube, Peter and Asen recovered their positions and raided into Thrace. When Isaac II Angelos penetrated into Moesia again in 1187, he failed to capture either Tărnovo or Loveč, and he signed a treaty effectively recognizing the Second Bulgarian Empire, but neither side had any intention of keeping the peace.

Fighting continued until 1396, when Bulgaria fell to the Ottoman Turks, and 1453, when Constantinople was captured. Since both became part of the Ottoman Empire, this was the end of the long series of Bulgarian-Byzantine Wars.

3.4 – The Double Disasters

In 1071, the Byzantine Empire suffered two important defeats, against the Turks in the Battle of Manzikert, and against the Normans in Bari. These are sometimes called the Double Disasters.

3.4.1 – The Normans and the Defeat at Bari

A number of wars between the Normans and the Byzantine Empire were fought from 1040 until 1185, when the last Norman invasion of Byzantine territory was defeated. At the end of the conflict, neither the Normans nor the Byzantines could boast much power. A Byzantine defeat in 1071 proved decisive for the disintegration and collapse of the empire.

The Normans had come from the Duchy of Normandy in West Francia, which in 911 had been granted to the Viking Rollo in the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte by the French king Charles the Simple. The Normans and their new land took the name of these “Northmen.” During the time that the Normans had conquered southern Italy, and the Byzantine Empire was in a state of internal decay; the administration of the empire had been wrecked, and the efficient government institutions that provided Basil II with a quarter of a million troops and adequate resources by taxation had collapsed within a period of three decades. Attempts by Isaac I Komnenos and Romanos IV Diogenes to reverse the situation proved unfruitful. The premature death of the former, and the overthrow of the latter, led to further collapse as the Normans consolidated their conquest of Sicily and Italy.

Reggio Calabria, the capital of the tagma of Calabria, was captured by Robert Guiscard in 1060. At the time, the Byzantines held a few coastal towns in Apulia, including the capital of the catepanate of Italy, Bari. Otranto was besieged and fell in October 1068; in the same year, the Normans besieged Bari itself, and, after defeating the Byzantines in a series of battles in Apulia, and after any attempt of relief had failed, the city surrendered in April 1071, ending the Byzantine presence in southern Italy.

The Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard allied with the pope to drive the remaining Byzantines from southern Italy and replace them with a Roman Catholic Norman Kingdom. Guiscard was incredibly successful, and he turned his eye to conquering the entire Byzantine Empire. He crossed over into Greece, pillaged the countryside, and defeated the Byzantine army at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in 1081 CE. He died before he could complete his conquests, but southern Italy would never again be ruled by the Byzantine Empire.

3.4.2 – The Turks and the Defeat at Manzikert

Even more dangerous than the Normans was a new enemy from the steppe, the Turks. These former pastoral nomads converted to Islam and ushered in a new phase of Islamic conquests. While the Normans were pillaging Italy, the Turks invaded Asia Minor. Emperor Romanos Diogenes moved the Byzantine army to meet them. At the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 CE, the Byzantine army was totally wiped out by the Turks. It was perhaps the most severe military disaster in Byzantine history. With this defeat, Anatolia fell into the hands of the Turks. Anatolia had been the heartland of the Byzantine Empire, the home of most of its soldiers and farmers. This defeat at Manzikert meant that the theme system, which had effectively supplied Byzantium with its army, was destroyed. The Byzantine Empire was now vulnerable to conquest.

Battle of Manzikert: In this 15th-century French miniature depicting the Battle of Manzikert, the combatants are clad in contemporary western European armor.

The brunt of the battle was borne by the professional soldiers from the eastern and western tagmata, as large numbers of mercenaries and Anatolian levies fled early and survived the battle. The fallout from Manzikert was disastrous for the Byzantines, resulting in civil conflicts and an economic crisis that severely weakened the Byzantine Empire’s ability to adequately defend its borders. This led to the mass movement of Turks into central Anatolia—by 1080, an area of 78,000 square kilometers (30,000 sq. miles) had been gained by the Seljuk Turks. It took three decades of internal strife before Alexius I (1081 to 1118) restored stability to Byzantium. Historian Thomas Asbridge says, “In 1071, the Seljuqs crushed an imperial army at the Battle of Manzikert (in eastern Asia Minor), and though historians no longer consider this to have been an utterly cataclysmic reversal for the Greeks, it still was a stinging setback.” It was the first time in history a Byzantine emperor had become the prisoner of a Muslim commander.

Years and decades later, Manzikert came to be seen as a disaster for the empire; later sources, therefore, greatly exaggerate the numbers of troops and the number of casualties. Byzantine historians would often look back and lament the “disaster” of that day, pinpointing it as the moment the decline of the empire began. It was not an immediate disaster, but the defeat showed the Seljuks that the Byzantines were not invincible—they were not the unconquerable, millennium-old Roman Empire (as both the Byzantines and Seljuks still called it). The usurpation of Andronikos Doukas also politically destabilized the empire, and it was difficult to organize resistance to the Turkish migrations that followed the battle.

3.5 – Crisis and Fragmentation

Tensions between eastern and western European powers boiled over during the Komnenian Dynasty; the west destroyed Constantinople and, with it, the Byzantine Empire.

3.5.1 – The Komnenian Dynasty: Cooperation with the Holy Roman Empire

In 1081 CE, with the attacks from the Normans and Turks reaching their height, a new emperor, Alexios I, came to the throne. His dynasty, the Komnenian Dynasty, would oversee a restoration of the empire after these disasters. But for the first time, the Byzantines would have to look west for help, to their estranged fellow Christians in western Europe. Although western Europe had a history of religious disagreements with the Byzantines, they now realized that the Byzantine Empire was all that was holding back the Muslims from invading Europe.

Having achieved stability in the west, Alexios could turn his attention to the severe economic difficulties and the disintegration of the empire’s traditional defenses. However, he still did not have enough manpower to recover the lost territories in Asia Minor, and to advance against the Seljuks. At the Council of Piacenza in 1095, envoys from Alexios spoke to Pope Urban II about the suffering of the Christians of the east, and underscored that without help from the west, they would continue to suffer under Muslim rule.

Urban saw Alexios’ request as a dual opportunity to cement western Europe and reunite the Eastern Orthodox Churches with the Roman Catholic Church under his rule. On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II called together the Council of Clermont, and urged all those present to take up arms under the sign of the cross, and launch an armed pilgrimage to recover Jerusalem and the east from the Muslims. The response in western Europe was overwhelming.

3.5.2 – Tensions Mount during the First Crusade

Alexios had anticipated help in the form of mercenary forces from the west, but he was totally unprepared for the immense and undisciplined force which soon arrived in Byzantine territory. It was no comfort to Alexios to learn that four of the eight leaders of the main body of the Crusade were Normans, among them Bohemund.

Relations were rocky from the start. To the Byzantines, the crusaders were dirty, uneducated brutes. To the crusaders, the Byzantines were untrustworthy, over-pampered schemers. Still, they tried to work together. The Byzantines and crusaders agreed that whatever formerly Byzantine lands the crusaders recaptured from the Turks would be returned to Byzantine control. The crusaders went back on this agreement, however, and took the lands for themselves. The crusaders succeeded in conquering Jerusalem in 1099 CE, but the Byzantines had come to regard them as just as big a threat as the Muslims.

The First Crusade: The capture of Jerusalem in 1099 CE marked the success of western Europe’s First Crusade against the Muslims.

Still, thanks to the Crusades, the Byzantines were able to reassert control of Anatolia. Emperor Alexios created a new system of leasing land in exchange for military service, called the Pronoia System, which was similar to the old theme system. Under his successors, the Byzantines did not win any major victories, but they were able to keep the Turks out of Byzantium ‘s Anatolian heartland.

At the same time, in order to secure military aid from the western powers, the Byzantine emperors had granted financial and trade concessions to Italy. Large numbers of Italian merchants settled in Constantinople and put the local merchants out of business. Tensions between them and the Byzantines of the city worsened. In 1182 CE, these tensions spilled over into riots and a massacre of Latins (the people from western Europe) by an angry mob. Tens of thousands were killed.

The recent anti-Latin resentment in the empire led to the Crusader states losing their protection from Byzantium. However, while the Crusader states did not rely on Byzantium for protection, the Byzantines certainly did in that it kept the aggressive expansionism of Islam in check.

3.5.3 – Western Europe Sacks Constantinople

The Fourth Crusade: An oil painting by Eugène Delacroix depicting the arrival of the Fourth Crusade in Constantinople in 1204 CE.

In 1198 CE, the pope called a new crusade to permanently secure western Europe’s hold on Jerusalem. When the western Europeans arrived at Constantinople in 1204 CE, they found civil war among the Byzantines. In part sparked by the massacre of the Latins of 1182 CE, and in part motivated by the tempting wealth of Constantinople, the western European knights sacked Constantinople, in what is known as the Fourth Crusade. They pillaged the city, carrying away the vast wealth amassed over nine centuries in the Byzantine capital. For this reason, many great examples of Byzantine art can be found today in Venice, especially at St. Mark’s Cathedral. The sack was a disaster for the Byzantine Empire, which for all purposes ceased to exist. The crusaders parceled out Byzantine lands among themselves. Constantinople became the capital of a new empire, called the Latin Empire, ruled by western knights.

Constantinople was considered as a bastion of Christianity that defended Europe from the advancing forces of Islam, and the Fourth Crusade’s sack of the city dealt an irreparable blow to this eastern bulwark. Although the Greeks retook Constantinople after 57 years of Latin rule, the Byzantine Empire had been crippled by the Fourth Crusade.

3.5.4 – Fragmentation of the Byzantine Empire

The Siege of Constantinople in 1204 CE was a turning point in Byzantine history, but it was not the end. Several members of the Komnenian royal family had been away from the capital at the time of the sack, and they declared their own successor states. Each emperor of these states declared himself to be the rightful Byzantine emperor. They fought each other and the Latins for control of the former lands of the Byzantine Empire. It was the Empire of Nicaea, closest to Constantinople, that would be most successful.

3.6 – The Last Byzantine Dynasty

Michael VIII recaptured Constantinople and restored the Byzantine Empire, giving rise to the last dynasty of the empire and a brief time of cultural flourishing.

3.6.1 – Background

Following the Fourth Crusade, the Byzantine Empire had fractured into the Greek successor-states of Nicaea, Epirus and Trebizond, with a multitude of Frankish and Latin possessions occupying the remainder, nominally subject to the Latin emperors at Constantinople. In addition, the disintegration of the Byzantine Empire allowed the Bulgarians, the Serbs, and the various Turcoman emirates of Anatolia to make gains. Although Epirus was initially the strongest of the three Greek states, the Nicaeans were the ones who succeeded in taking back the city of Constantinople from the Latin Empire

The Nicaean Empire was successful in holding its own against its Latin and Seljuk opponents. At the Battle of Meander Valley, a Turkic force was repelled and an earlier assault on Nicaea led to the death of the Seljuk Sultan. In the west, the Latins were unable to expand into Anatolia; consolidating Thrace against Bulgaria was a challenge that kept the Latins occupied for the duration of the Latin Empire.

In 1261, the Empire of Nicaea was ruled by John IV Laskaris, a boy of ten years. However, John IV was overshadowed by his co-emperor, Michael VIII Palaiologos. Palaiologos was a leading noble of military standing and the main figure of the regency of John IV, who had used this role to propel himself to the throne, and set the stage for his becoming sole emperor of the restored Byzantine Empire.

3.6.2 – Restoration of the Byzantine Empire

In 1259 CE, Michael VIII came to the throne of the Empire of Nicaea. He founded the Palaiologos Dynasty, the longest and last dynasty of Byzantine rulers. In 1261 CE, Michael’s forces succeeded in capturing Constantinople while the Latin knights were off fighting elsewhere. They found the city a shell of its former self, sparsely populated and largely ruined. Still, Michael VIII returned to the city and was proclaimed emperor there, marking the restoration of the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantine Coin: A gold Byzantine coin, called the hyperpyron (which replaced the earlier solidus), depicting the first emperor of the Byzantine Palaiologan Dynasty, Michael VIII.

In order to protect his empire from further attacks by western knights, he attempted to end the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. This outraged many of his citizens, who blamed the Catholics for the sack of Constantinople. A decisive change had taken place: among the citizens of the restored Byzantine Empire, the “Latins” of western Europe were more hated than even the Muslims.

The war-ravaged empire was ill-equipped to deal with the enemies that now surrounded it. In order to maintain his campaigns against the Latins, Michael pulled troops from Asia Minor, and levied crippling taxes on the peasantry, causing much resentment. Massive construction projects were completed in Constantinople to repair the damages of the Fourth Crusade, but none of these initiatives was of any comfort to the farmers in Asia Minor, suffering raids from fanatical ghazis.

As a result, Anatolia, which had formed the very heart of the shrinking empire, was systematically lost to numerous Turkic ghazis, whose raids evolved into conquering expeditions inspired by Islamic zeal. With a decreasing source of food and manpower, the Palaiologoi were forced to fight on several fronts, most of them being Christian states: the Second Bulgarian Empire, the Serbian Empire, the remnants of the Latin Empire, and even the Knights Hospitaller.

The loss of land in the east to the Turks, and in the west to the Bulgarians, was complemented by two disastrous civil wars, the Black Death and the 1354 earthquake at Gallipoli, whose destruction and evacuation allowed the Turks to occupy it. By 1380, the Byzantine Empire consisted of the capital Constantinople and a few other isolated exclaves, which only nominally recognized the emperor as their lord. Nonetheless, Byzantine diplomacy coupled with the adroit exploitation of internal divisions and external threats among their enemies, and above all the invasion of Anatolia by Timur, allowed Byzantium to survive until 1453.

3.6.3 – The Palaiogan Renaissance

During the Palaiologan Dynasty, the empire experienced a short but vibrant renaissance, known as the Palaiologan Renaissance. As the Palaiologan emperors attempted to restore the glory of Constantinople, they sponsored art and encouraged philosophy. Artists and philosophers looked to the classical past and rediscovered much ancient learning. Although the Palaiologan Renaissance came too late to save the struggling Byzantine civilization, it would be a major catalyst for the Italian Renaissance, especially as Byzantine artists and scholars traveled to Italy to seek shelter from the new threats that besieged the empire.

Towards the 14th century, as the empire entered into a phase of terminal crisis, such achievements became less valued. All was not lost for these seemingly rejected scholars—many in Italy who had been opened up to Byzantium by the maritime expansions of Genoa and Venice came to appreciate their achievements, facilitating the Renaissance. As such, these scholars found themselves in Italian institutions, expressing their Greco-Roman culture for pay. Immigration to Italy was made less attractive by the idea of abandoning the Orthodox faith to practice Catholicism. Nonetheless, a significant and increasing number of Greeks began traveling to Italy, first temporarily, to Italian colonies such as Crete or Cyprus before returning to Byzantium, then, as the Empire began to fail horribly, in a more permanent manner. The Fall of Constantinople was marked by large amounts of Greek refugees escaping Turkic rule into Europe via Italy, and thus accelerating the Renaissance.

3.7 – The Fall of Constantinople

The restored Byzantine Empire converted to Catholicism to get aid from the west against the Ottoman Turks, but the Turks defeated them by conquering Constantinople, thereby causing the final collapse of the Byzantines.

3.7.1 – The Rise of the Turks and the Ottoman Empire

The restored Byzantine Empire was surrounded by enemies. The Bulgarian Empire, which had rebelled against the Byzantines centuries earlier, now matched it in strength. A new empire arose in the western Balkans, the Serbian Empire, who conquered many Byzantine lands. Even more dangerous to the Byzantines, the Turks were once again raiding Byzantine lands, and Asia Minor was overrun. With the theme system a thing of the past, the emperors had to rely on foreign mercenaries to supply troops, but these soldiers-for-hire were not always reliable. Anatolia gradually transformed from a Byzantine Christian land into an Islamic land dominated by the Turks.

For a long time the Turks in Anatolia were divided up into a patchwork of small Islamic states. However, one ruler, Osman I, built up a powerful kingdom that soon absorbed all the others and formed the Ottoman Empire.

In the century after the death of Osman I, Ottoman rule began to extend over the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. Osman’s son, Orhan, captured the city of Bursa in 1324 and made it the new capital of the Ottoman state. The fall of Bursa meant the loss of Byzantine control over northwestern Anatolia. The important city of Thessaloniki was captured from the Venetians in 1387. The Ottoman victory at Kosovo in 1389 effectively marked the end of Serbian power in the region, paving the way for Ottoman expansion into Europe. The Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, widely regarded as the last large-scale crusade of the Middle Ages, failed to stop the advance of the victorious Ottoman Turks. With the extension of Turkish dominion into the Balkans, the strategic conquest of Constantinople became a crucial objective.

The empire controlled nearly all former Byzantine lands surrounding the city, but the Byzantines were temporarily relieved when Timur invaded Anatolia in the Battle of Ankara in 1402. He took Sultan Bayezid I as a prisoner. The capture of Bayezid I threw the Turks into disorder. The state fell into a civil war that lasted from 1402 to 1413, as Bayezid’s sons fought over succession. It ended when Mehmed I emerged as the sultan and restored Ottoman power.

When Mehmed I’s grandson, Mehmed II (also known as Mehmed the Conquerer) ascended to the throne in 1451, he devoted himself to strengthening the Ottoman navy and made preparations for the taking of Constantinople.

3.7.2 – Byzantium Looks West for Aid

The Rise of the Ottoman Empire: The borders of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires in the eastern Mediterranean just before the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE.

Against all these enemies, the Byzantines could only look west in search of help. The pope, however, continued to stress that aid would only come if the Byzantines adopted the Catholicism of the Latin church. While the Byzantine emperors were willing to do so in order to save their empire, the populace hated the Catholics for the sack of Constantinople, and so attempts to reconcile with the Catholic Church only led to riots. Further theological disagreements inflamed the bitterness between the Orthodox and the Catholics.

While civil war and religious disputes occupied the Byzantines, the Ottomans slowly closed in on the empire. They crossed into Europe and annexed most of the lands around Constantinople. By 1400 CE, the Byzantine Empire was little more than the city-state of Constantinople. It was clear that the only way they would receive Europe-wide help in pushing back the Ottomans was if they reconciled with the Catholic Church.

This was not acceptable for most Byzantines. A popular saying at the time was “Better the Turkish turban than the Papal tiara.” In other words, the Orthodox Byzantines considered it better to be ruled by the Muslim Turks than to go against their religious beliefs and give in to the Catholic Church. Still, the emperors realized that Byzantium would soon fall without help from the west.

In 1439 CE, Emperor John VIII Palaiologos and the most important Byzantine bishops reached an agreement with the Catholic Church at the Council of Florence, in which they accepted Catholic Christianity. When the bishops returned to the Byzantine Empire, however, they found themselves under attack by their congregations. Their agreement to join the Catholic Church was exceedingly unpopular.

3.7.3 – Constantinople’s Fall

The Walls of Constantinople: Sometimes known as “The Great Wall of Europe,” the walls of Constantinople stood strong for centuries. Yet in 1453, they fell to the Ottoman Turks.

By this stage, Constantinople was underpopulated and dilapidated. The population of the city had collapsed so severely that it was now little more than a cluster of villages separated by fields. On April 2, 1453, the Ottoman army, led by the 21-year-old Sultan Mehmed II, laid siege to the city with 80,000 men. Despite a desperate last-ditch defense of the city by the massively outnumbered Christian forces (7,000 men, 2,000 of whom were sent by Rome), Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans after a two-month siege on May 29, 1453. The last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was last seen casting off his imperial regalia and throwing himself into hand-to-hand combat after the walls of the city were taken.

On the third day of the conquest, Mehmed II ordered all looting to stop and sent his troops back outside the city walls. Byzantine historian George Sphrantzes, an eyewitness to the fall of Constantinople, described the Sultan’s actions:

On the third day after the fall of our city, the Sultan celebrated his victory with a great, joyful triumph. He issued a proclamation: the citizens of all ages who had managed to escape detection were to leave their hiding places throughout the city and come out into the open, as they to were to remain free and no question would be asked. He further declared the restoration of houses and property to those who had abandoned our city before the siege, if they returned home, they would be treated according to their rank and religion, as if nothing had changed.

The capture of Constantinople (and two other Byzantine splinter territories soon thereafter) marked the end of the Roman Empire, an imperial state that had lasted for nearly 1,500 years. The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople also dealt a massive blow to Christendom, as the Islamic Ottoman armies thereafter were left unchecked to advance into Europe without an adversary to their rear. After the conquest, Sultan Mehmed II transferred the capital of the Ottoman Empire from Edirne to Constantinople. Constantinople was transformed into an Islamic city: the Hagia Sophia became a mosque, and the city eventually became known as Istanbul.

The conquest of the city of Constantinople, and the end of the Byzantine Empire, was a key event in the Late Middle Ages, which also marks, for some historians, the end of the Middle Ages.

3.8 – Byzantium’s Legacy

The Byzantine Empire had a lasting legacy in religion, architecture, art, literature, and law.

3.8.1 – Introduction

Byzantium has been often identified with absolutism, orthodox spirituality, orientalism and exoticism, while the terms “Byzantine” and “Byzantinism” have been used as metaphors for decadence, complex bureaucracy, and repression. Both eastern and western European authors have often perceived Byzantium as a body of religious, political, and philosophical ideas contrary to those of the west. Even in 19th-century Greece, the focus was mainly on the classical past, while Byzantine tradition had been associated with negative connotations.

This traditional approach towards Byzantium has been partially or wholly disputed and revised by modern studies, which focus on the positive aspects of Byzantine culture and legacy. Historian Averil Cameron, for example, regards the Byzantine contribution to the formation of medieval Europe undeniable, and both Cameron and Obolensky recognize the major role of Byzantium in shaping Orthodoxy. The Byzantines also preserved and copied classical manuscripts, and they are thus regarded as transmitters of the classical knowledge, as important contributors to the modern European civilization, and as precursors of both the Renaissance humanism and the Slav Orthodox culture.

Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II took the title “Kaysar-i Rûm” (the Ottoman Turkish equivalent of Caesar of Rome ), since he was determined to make the Ottoman Empire the heir of the Eastern Roman Empire.

3.8.2 – Protection of Europe

Constantinople in the Byzantine era: An artist-restructured photo of what the city of Constantinople looked like during the Byzantine era.

The Byzantine Empire had kept Greek and Roman culture alive for nearly a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. It had preserved this cultural heritage until it was taken up in the west during the Renaissance. The Byzantine Empire had also acted as a buffer between western Europe and the conquering armies of Islam. Thus, in many ways the Byzantine Empire had insulated Europe and given it the time it needed to recover from its chaotic medieval period.

3.8.3 – Religion

Modern-Day Eastern Orthodoxy: Distribution of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the world by country, as of 2012. Darker blues indicate main religion (over 50%).

Orthodoxy now occupies a central position in the history and societies of Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, Serbia, and other countries. Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE, the Ottomans regarded themselves as the “heirs” of Byzantium and preserved important aspects of its tradition, which in turn facilitated an “Orthodox revival” during the post-communist period of the eastern European states. The modern-day Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian church in the world.

3.8.4 – Diplomacy and Law

After the fall of Rome, the key challenge to the empire was to maintain a set of relations between itself and its neighbors. When these nations set about forging formal political institutions, they often modeled themselves on Constantinople. Byzantine diplomacy soon managed to draw its neighbors into a network of international and inter-state relations. This network revolved around treaty-making, and included the welcoming of the new ruler into the family of kings, as well as the assimilation of Byzantine social attitudes, values and institutions. The preservation of the ancient civilization in Europe was due to the skill and resourcefulness of Byzantine diplomacy, which remains one of Byzantium’s lasting contributions to the history of Europe.

In the field of law, Justinian I ‘s reforms to the legal code would come to serve as the basis of not only Byzantine law, but law in many European countries, and continues to have a major influence on public international law to this day. Leo III’s Ecloga influenced the formation of legal institutions in the Slavic world. In the 10th century, Leo VI the Wise achieved the complete codification of the whole of Byzantine law in Greek, which became the foundation of all subsequent Byzantine law, which generates interest to the present day.

3.8.5 – Art and Literature

Byzantine Encyclopedia: A page from a 16th-century edition of the vast Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda.

Influences from Byzantine architecture, particularly in religious buildings, can be found in diverse regions, from Egypt and Arabia to Russia and Romania.

During the Byzantine Renaissance of the Macedonian Dynasty, art and literature flourished, and artists adopted a naturalistic style and complex techniques from ancient Greek and Roman art, mixing them with Christian themes. Byzantine painting from this period would have a strong influence on the later painters of the Italian Renaissance.

The migration waves of Byzantine scholars and émigrés in the period following the sacking of Constantinople and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 is considered by many scholars to be key to the revival of Greek and Roman studies that led to the development of the Renaissance in humanism and science. These émigrés were grammarians, humanists, poets, writers, printers, lecturers, musicians, astronomers, architects, academics, artists, scribes, philosophers, scientists, politicians and theologians. They brought to western Europe the far greater preserved and accumulated knowledge of their own (Greek) civilization.


Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless World History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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