And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
- WB Yeats, 'Sailing to Byzantium'
Roman Empire dominated Europe for centuries. At its greatest extent,
it covered all of Southern Europe, extended north as far as the
Rhine and Danube1,
east as far as Persia, and also included all of Africa north of the
Sahara Desert. The Romans brought stable civilisation to a
continent. But in 330AD, two things happened which were to change
the Empire for ever:
- The emperor Constantine moved
the capital of the Empire from Rome to the city of Byzantium,
which was also known as Constantinople and is now called
- The Empire adopted
Christianity as the official religion, throwing out the old
move to the east brought with it a gradual change of language from
Latin to Greek; this, along with the new religion, changed the whole
character of the Empire. When, a century later, Italy and the lands
to the west were invaded by 'barbarians' and Rome was taken, the
Empire suddenly shrank and became a smaller, more eastern empire.
The name 'Byzantine Empire' is used by modern historians to refer to
it from then on, until its final demise in 1453 when Byzantium was
eventually invaded by the Ottoman Turks.
people will have heard of The Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire by Gibbon, and will have a distinct impression that the
Roman Empire declined and fell. But the fact is that the Eastern
Roman Empire survived for a thousand years, in and around the city
of Byzantium. This series of entries looks at the rise of Byzantium
as capital of the Empire, and its subsequent fortunes over the next
thousand years, picking out nine particular periods in the history
of the Empire.
The Name of the City
call that massive city lying on the border between Europe and Asia
'Istanbul'. Originally it was a Greek city called Byzantion, which
in the Latin language had the form Byzantium, and it retained this
name until the end of the Empire.
Constantine, when he chose it as his capital, decided to call it
'New Rome' but that name was never popular and it soon became just
Constantinople, literally 'the city of Constantine'. It is better
known under that name. This series of Entries will use both
Byzantium and Constantinople interchangeably, as the Romans did.
The Name of the Empire
term 'Byzantine' is a modern invention, based on 'Byzantium'. The
people called themselves 'Romans', even though they spoke Greek, not
Latin. Western Europeans, on the other hand, called them the Greeks.
Nowadays to distinguish between 'real Romans' from Rome and the
Romans of Byzantium, we use the term Byzantines; their empire is the
Byzantine Empire and their culture is also Byzantine.
Short Summary of the Byzantine Empire
is a quick run through more than a thousand years of history. You
can look into certain sections in more detail by following the links
in this short summary, or at the top of the page.
Empire began as the Roman Empire. Emperor
founded the city of Byzantium on the site of a former Greek
city-state, and made it the capital of the Roman Empire. The
official founding date was 11 May, 330AD. He also decreed that
Christianity would become the official religion, although at the
start nobody was forced to be Christian. In later years, the worship
of the old pagan gods was outlawed.
the 5th Century, barbarian invaders took control of most of Western
Europe. The invasions were in general more peaceful affairs than the
name might suggest. They were more a people on the move looking for
somewhere new to live, than a group of warriors intent on plunder,
although they would take plunder if they could get it. The Romans
withdrew from Britain. Gaul (modern France) was occupied by the
Franks. The Vandals first took Spain, and then moved on to occupy
all of North Africa west of Egypt. Finally two groups of Goths took
Spain and Italy: the Visigoths (Western Goths) in Spain and the
Ostrogoths (Eastern Goths) in Italy.
Rebuilding the Empire
In the 6th Century,
showed his mettle by brutally suppressing the Nika Riots. He then
went on to build the Empire some of the way back to the glorious
position it had occupied in the time of the first Roman emperors.
His armies, under the command of some good generals, recovered
control of North Africa, Italy and some of Spain, but it was
short-lived: Spain and Italy soon left the Empire for good. The
Empire was now a more eastern one, and Greek became more the
language of the people than Latin.
The Persian Empire
had long been at war with the Byzantine Empire, constantly trying to
push the border between them back and collecting rich booty from the
Byzantine towns. In the 7th Century, emperor
attacked and effectively destroyed the Persian Empire. Persia was
soon afterwards conquered by a new power, the Arabs.
In the mid 8th
Century, the Arabs known as Saracens conquered all of North Africa,
including Egypt. They made a new capital for themselves at Fustat,
which later became Cairo. They then went on to push north and west
from there to take the whole of the east end of the Mediterranean
and moved into Anatolia (modern Turkey), eventually in 674 reaching
Constantinople itself. Here the
saved the day, successfully keeping the Saracens from crossing into
Europe for five years, during which time the Byzantines destroyed
the Saracen navy with 'Greek Fire', a secret weapon somewhat akin to
a flame thrower. In 679, the Saracens retreated and left Anatolia in
The Arrival of the Bulgars
about the same time, a nomadic tribe, the Bulgars, first appeared at
the Danube border and invaded the Byzantine lands on the west side
of the Black Sea. The Byzantines would fight these Bulgars many
times over the centuries.
The rule of empress
the end of the 8th Century, is instructive, as it shows the
importance to the people of Byzantium of religion and how simple
matters of doctrine could overthrow rulers. A great rift appeared in
Christianity between those who believed that pictures of God and his
saints were an important aid to worship and those who thought the
pictures were evil.
Scholarship and Education
The story of
tells how a love of scholarship and education could survive in an
Empire which was constantly at war on all sides. This is one feature
which sets the Byzantine Empire apart from other European kingdoms
of the time.
The Bulgars Again
the grandson of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, we see one man's
humiliation by the Bulgars and his successful crusade to wipe the
Bulgarian Empire off the map. During Basil's reign in the 50 years
around the year 1000, the Byzantine Empire reached its Golden Age,
with a strong army, well educated people and an enlightened
Descent into Chaos
Byzantine emperors could inherit from their fathers. If there were
no sons, a daughter could inherit, but she would need a strong man
to do the actual ruling. The life of
Empress Zoe in the 11th
Century saw plenty of this; Zoe was herself too old to have children
when she inherited the throne. The rest of her life saw her
marrying, murdering, adopting and rejecting a whole succession of
emperors in her attempt to stay at the top, with a consequent
disastrous effect on the Empire. This trend of a new emperor every
few years continued after Zoe's death, leaving the Empire at its
The Loss of Anatolia
nomadic Turkish people called the Seljuks arrived on the scene in
the late 11th Century. They came from somewhere around modern
Uzbekistan and were Muslim. They conquered Persia (modern day Iran)
and Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Spreading into Anatolia, they
came up against the Byzantine army of emperor Romanus Diogenes.
Romanus managed to push them back out of Anatolia. The two sides
eventually met at Manzikert near Lake Van; the result was a
disaster. Half of Romanus's army deserted him and the rest were
slaughtered. Romanus himself was taken prisoner by the Seljuks. He
made a deal with their leader and was released, but his own people
now turned against him for having failed them. They brutally
tortured him and chose a new emperor. The Seljuk leader had made no
deal with the new emperor and felt no remorse when he re-invaded
Anatolia. The Byzantine Empire was rapidly losing ground. Now it was
reduced to western Anatolia and the Balkan peninsula.
The Byzantines made
peace with their Muslim neighbours, but Western Europe felt hotly
the 'insult' of non-believers occupying the Holy City of Jerusalem.
Around this time there were many crusades to recover Jerusalem from
the Muslims. Some of these were more successful, some less so. The
fourth crusade was a shambles. The Frankish crusaders ended up
attacking Byzantium itself, in an attempt to pay back a debt to the
Venetians who had provided them with transport. This resulted in the
possibly the worst thing to ever happen to the city before the final
downfall. The crusaders methodically stripped the city of everything
of value, and set up their own 'Latin Empire of Constantinople'.
Many of the Byzantines fled.
Latin Empire didn't last long. About 60 years later it was so feeble
that the Byzantines literally walked back into the city, when the
crusaders were 'out hunting'. A restored Byzantine Empire was set up
under rulers from the family of Palaeologus. Again Byzantium became
a place of learning and enlightenment, with a thriving culture of
art. But it was a much reduced Empire, consisting of even less than
the modern boundaries of Greece.
could not last. Another Turkish people, the Ottomans, had their eye
on the city as a handy base. Byzantium suffered three sieges by the
Ottomans. The third was the last - in 1453, with the aid of a vast
army and some big cannons, Mehmet the Second finally took the city.
on 29 May, 1453 marked the end of the Byzantine Empire.
Byzantines were a very well educated society; they loved learning,
but do not appear to have produced any amazing poetry or works of
literature. Instead, they concentrated on two subjects: theology and
study of theology can seem very far removed from our daily
experience. The Byzantines would argue such esoteric points as the
exact nature of the divinity of Christ, and would even come to blows
over such a topic. Indeed, throughout the history of the Empire,
such theological matters were as much a cause of unrest in the
populace as the behaviour of their emperors or the availability of
food. This study of Byzantium will only touch on Byzantine theology
other great Byzantine passion, history, has helped us enormously in
understanding not only what happened but how the man in the street
felt about it. Being an historian was a very respectable profession,
one even occasionally practised by princesses and other nobility.
History was held in such regard that historians appear to have been
free to describe the misdemeanours of the emperors without fear of
reprisal. As a result, we have what appear to be unbiased accounts
of all of the events.
Byzantine Art - Flat Saints
Byzantine Art developed in a very different direction to our modern
idea of art. Pictures were flat, so they accentuated this by use of
solid colour backgrounds. The purpose of art was to glorify God, so
religious themes were very common. A whole set of standard religious
scenes were developed: for example, the picture of Christos
Pantokrator ('Christ the King') was always painted on the ceiling
above the altar of the church, showing Christ holding a book in his
left hand and with his right hand raised in blessing. Another
example is the 'Dormition of the Theotokos' showing the death of
Mary, the mother of Christ. Pictures of God the Father, Jesus
Christ, Mary the Mother of Christ and the saints were the most
common subjects. These attempted to show the spiritual nature of the
subject rather than the physical beauty. Painting of nudes and
tributes to the human form were no longer considered appropriate.
Byzantine art was generally drawn directly onto walls, or even using
mosaic. The more opulence the picture portrayed, the more God was
leaf was used where possible to provide flat golden backgrounds to
all the best pictures.
Byzantine priest is said to have exclaimed when he saw the work of
the Venetian painter, Titian: 'Your scandalous figures stand quite
out from the canvas: they are as bad as a group of statues!' The
Byzantines did make statues at the start of the Empire, but the
practice fell out of fashion and later was unknown.
You can still see a
fair bit of good Byzantine art in
Hagia Sophia itself
still has some good mosaics, but the best place is the Church of the
Holy Saviour in Chora. This has probably the best series of mosaics
and murals in the Byzantine style anywhere in the world. Outside of
Istanbul, the most important place is the Basilica of San Vitale, in
Ravenna, Italy, which has mosaics from the time of Justinian,
including very nice pictures of the Emperor and his Empress. Other
good places are St Mark's Basilica in
- 44,000 square feet of mosaics; the cathedral in Torcello near
Venice with its incredible depiction of the Final Judgement covering
the entire end wall of the cathedral; and the monastery of Dafni
with huge numbers of small pictures.
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
- Edward Gibbon: Written in the 18th Century, this famous book is
told very much from the point of view of a steady decline; the
Byzantines are seen as debased and immoral, a shameful echo of the
glory that had been Rome. There's more than 6,000 pages of this, but
you can get abbreviated versions.
Short History of Byzantium
- John Julius Norwich: This book takes the opposite extreme, going
overboard in its praise of the Empire, and citing Constantine as
possibly the most important man in history after Jesus, the
Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople
- Jonathan Philips: This is a fairly neutral discussion of the whole
sad affair of the destruction of Constantinople by the Christian
knights, giving the reasons for the actions of both sides.
The northernmost point in the Empire was actually in Scotland - the
Romans got as far as the Clyde River.